What I learned about myself and my family by leading High Holiday services at UCLA
By Mayim Bialik
Click here to listen to Mayim Bialik explain how she learned to blow the shofar.
Bialik with her grandfather, Frank
When I first attended High Holiday services at UCLA, as a 19-year-old
college freshman in 1995, two sisters shared cantorial duties. I had
never before been so moved by chanting; their singing wasn’t flowery or
operatic, as it had been at my Reform synagogue growing up. It was
simple, soulful, and understated. After several years, these sisters
moved on, and the UCLA rabbi, aware that I was the director of the
school’s Jewish a cappella group and that my career in show business had
included singing, asked me to take over. Having seen me in services, he
knew I was already familiar with the way our community davened. On a
dozen cassettes, the sisters recorded the trope for the hundreds of High
Holiday machzor pages so that I could practice nightly in the year
leading up to my first yontif as cantor, or chazzanit.
Bialik with her grandfather, Frank
I felt I was living out a personal destiny: my mother’s father was a lay chazzan
for his community of Holocaust survivors in the Bronx and San Diego. As
a nine-year-old child in Poland, he left yeshiva to earn money for his
family, but I had been told that he could have been one of the greats.
My grandfather Ephraim (he went by “Frank”) was a feisty, primarily
Yiddish-speaking Orthodox man who barely grasped the concept of a girl
having a bat mitzvah. How would I explain to him, then almost 90, that I
was going to lead services? That I’d wear a lacey kippah and the white kittel, or robe, typically worn by pious men on the High Holidays?
He was incredulous that a 26-year-old woman would perform a
role traditionally reserved for men. He smiled gently, opened his mouth
to debate the halachic implications, then thought better of it and
sighed deeply. The world was changing faster than he could grasp.
My debut as a chazzanit marked many firsts: the first time I attended all services of all of the holidays, the first time I ever attended a Musaf or Yizkor
service, and the first time I fasted a full 25 hours, even though I was
nursing my firstborn son every two hours. All of this was so different
from my experience growing up—in my family on Yom Kippur, we fasted
until we got hungry, usually around lunch.
As my grandfather got older and more frail (and less confrontational about the unconventionality of a female chazzan),
the months before the High Holidays became a special time for us. Our
interactions were becoming more difficult as his mind faded, but I would
rehearse the traditional melodies and ancient words with him at his
retirement home, helping him recall his youth. He was not very
communicative or psychologically aware, so I’m uncertain exactly which
parts of this time together touched him most. I know that he was
thrilled that I could “kvetch it out” like he did, nursing the mournful
notes and having them catch in my throat, and he would grow teary-eyed
as I practiced. He would listen with his head turned once his eyesight
had failed him, to eliminate even the possibility that his attempts to
look at me might take away from the spiritual and melodic experience. My
voice was therapy for us both; it gave us something to connect with and
brought us close together. He wished he could come to shul both to hear
me and to take the lead in chanting the Maftir service (his
favorite duty from his youth), but, being Orthodox, he would not drive
on a holiday and was, by then, too frail to walk the far distance to our
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