[CROSSPOSTED FROM TIMES OF ISRAEL] This week marks the ten year anniversary since the first time I read Torah in public. Simchat Torah 2002, my family and I had just moved to Melbourne, Australia, for three years, and I quickly found a warm home with the Orthodox Women’s Network. Dr. Jordy Hyman, Naomi Dessauer and Janet Belleli ran the group with skill and aplomb, and generously asked me if I would like to read the third aliyah on the holiday. It was thrilling and enthralling. To this day, whenever I get stuck on a cantillation, I think back to the passage I read then – “U’l’Yosef amar” – knowing that it’s all ingrained in my consciousness and my spirit from that very first Simchat Torah.
That Simchat Torah was a watershed moment for me. Even if it took me three decades to go from passive listener to active leader, I love layning, and I always have. I can still recall sitting in the women’s section of The Young Israel of Flatbush when I was a teenager, listening to the Torah reading and trying to match the marks on the letters to the sounds I was hearing. (When I eventually learned to read Torah, I did it via tape recorder, and that’s why to this day, I have no idea what people mean when they refer to a “pashta” or “zakef katan,” but I can tell you how a little chupchik over the letter is meant to sound.)
The cantillations have always been a vital part of understanding the text. I have given numerous divrei torah over the years using textual insights based on cantillations. When, in Megillat Esther, for example, Esther is called to the king during the beauty pageant – “Ub’hagiya tor Esther bat Avihail dod Mordechai,” the music brilliant reflects her hesitation with a pausing, haunting, aching melody. I love that. I love reading the Torah with its transmitted music. It brings the whole heritage to life for me, and makes the narratives real.
Still, until I actually learned to layn myself, I didn’t fully own the text as my own. It created a whole new set of connections for me. It was a crucial step for me in feeling like I was truly part of the community. For this, I would always be eternally indebted to the women of OWN Australia. I wouldn’t be who I am without the opportunities they gave me. I have layned many times since then and listened proudly to my children – both genders – layn. The layning has inspired in me hope that there is an active place for women in Orthodox life. It has inspired me to keep fighting for a better Orthodoxy, for one that fully appreciates the value of the women in the community.