Perhaps the most common phobia shared by people of all ages is the fear of speaking in public. Clearly, the thought of standing before a large group, a solitary figure addressing the masses, can make the bravest of us quake, whimper and plead for our Mommy. Add the heightened anxiety of having to deliver that oratory in a foreign language and you now face the daily double of distress.
Months ago, my sister Sally informed me that I would be performing a speaking role in my niece Irene’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah. Knowing that I could not refuse an invitation to be part of Irene’s big day, Sally dispensed of the asking and assigned me a job. Sally has successfully carried on our mom’s tradition of making me do the right thing despite the trunk full of angst I schlep around. Someone had to do it. Sally also assured me that she would write the Hebrew out phonetically, if needed. Still a bit stunned by this sudden appointment, I agreed to participate and continued our conversation. It was only after I hung up, that the terror set in.
From age ten to age thirteen I attended Hebrew school twice a week and I have little to no recollection of the experience. There is a dark blot in my memory when I think about Hebrew school – kind of like the missing time phenomenon experienced in alien abduction scenarios. One thing is for certain, I don’t know one word of Hebrew.
My own Bar Mitzvah was accomplished by paying an older Hebrew school classmate ten dollars to recite the portion of the service for which I would be responsible into a cassette machine, recreating the same reading that he had done the year before. I heard that this method had a fairly high percentage of success and the boat had long ago sailed on actually learning the material. I listened to that recording hundreds of times prior to my impending temple performance and when the big day arrived I was able to sing out that information like a rabbinical scholar. Afterwards, I made a little gift money and got out of the Jewish business while I was ahead. I certainly never thought that I would need to remember some of those prayers forty years later!
Driving up to New York, I practiced my lines with my wife Janet. Unfortunately, Janet did not understand a word I was chanting, and I had no perspective whether I was doing it right or wrong. She did mention that I was saying it really fast and that I needed to slow down a little. Frankly, I felt speed could be an ally, reasoning that if I went fast enough no one would catch my errors or even understand what I was saying. That night in the hotel, I repeated my lines over and over again. I needed to get this right for Irene.
The following morning we arrived at the temple and I was drowning in my own suit. I had foolishly told Sally that I didn’t need a phonetic cheat-sheet and I was beginning to regret my arrogance. At one point in the ceremony Sally handed me a small index card with another prayer on it. “Oh now are we going off script,” I thought, “are these last minute changes?”
Thankfully, the card was meant for Matt, my brother-in-law. Minutes later I was handed a laminated card by a member of the temple who instructed me that I was on in five minutes and I was to give the card to the man up at the pulpit. I would have prayed at this point, but I was afraid that I might confuse myself further. Instead I swallowed hard and looked at Irene, who was the picture of tranquility, which helped calm my nerves.
When the time came, I rose from my seat, approached the platform and launched into prayer. At one point I failed to repeat a line in the text and the congregation members who were standing with me stopped me and pointed to the Hebrew passage that I had missed. My sweat glands went into overdrive. They could have been pointing at a picture of Washington crossing the Delaware and it would have been just as helpful. I didn’t know the words on the page and never did.
Quickly, I somehow regained my composure, righted myself, delivered the right phrase and nailed the dismount. Nervously smiling at Janet and my nephew Andy, I completed my duty and returned to my seat. Irene did a fantastic job during the longest Bat Mitzvah in history and somewhere in the heavens our mother was smiling.
Forty years between performances, and I still did fairly well. It’s funny how I can remember something from so long ago, yet still manage to forget where I put my glasses daily. Perhaps there was a larger force at work last Saturday?
You’ve just gotta believe.