An excerpt from This Jewish Life by Debra Darvick
The Story of Miriam Chaya
For 60 years I walked around with a name I never liked. The name my parents had given me at birth didn’t fit me. From my earliest memories as a child, whenever I heard my given name spoken aloud, I assumed that people were speaking to someone other than me. I would look around to see to whom they were talking. I didn’t know what my true name was; I only knew that the name Harriet did not fit the person I wanted to be. It was too formal and inhibited me. Because of that name, I went through life with more caution than I needed, carefully weighing decisions before acting; and lacking spontaneity. As my 60th birthday approached, I decided to embark upon a spiritual journey that would eventually culminate in my taking a new name.
I enrolled in a Jewish spiritual leadership training program where I studied Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. As I delved into my studies, I found myself drawn to ritual and began to understand the important role it plays in Judaism. Ritual touches the very heart of our Jewish experience, bringing deeper meaning to the rites of passage that structure our lives. There are rituals for circumcision; coming-of-age rituals for 13-year-olds; rituals for marriage and dying. All of these come with their own scripts and pageantry. As I was nearing 60, recently divorced after 32 years of marriage and taking stock of my future, I realized that Jewish tradition had nothing to ritualize my stage of life. There was neither script nor ceremony for reaching an age of wisdom.
In making the transition from my midlife to my elder years, I knew it would be necessary for me to shed some of the trappings from my earlier life. Ritual played an important part in this transition. When I sold the house my former husband and I had lived in for 28 years, I created a ritual for saying goodbye to that house and that life. When I moved into my new house, I invited friends to join me as we marked this rite of passage by creating a Chanukat HaBayit, a dedication for a new home. We put up a mezuzah on my front door and everyone gave me a blessing.
The Chanukat HaBayit ritualized the change in my physical life—I had a new place to live—but I was still looking for a ritual that would celebrate my new spiritual awakening. Judaism was becoming more and more important to me, and I wanted to have a ceremony to acknowledge my new commitment. Because I did not know of any other ceremony, I decided to have an adult bat mitzvah for my 60th birthday. I studied Hebrew so that I could chant from the Torah in honor of the occasion.
Immersed in my studies, I began to realize that the bat mitzvah ceremony did not fit my circumstances. It is a rite of passage for a young person making the transition from childhood to adulthood. I was leaving middle age and entering into my elder years. I wanted a ceremony that acknowledged my six decades of my life experience. I wanted a ritual to celebrate my aging and my wisdom.
When the rabbi showed me Va’etchanan, the Torah portion that was read when I was born, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tears ran down my face as I read the Shema aloud: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad—Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” As I looked at the Hebrew text, I saw that “Ayin,” the final letter of the word shema, and “Dalet,” the final letter of the word echad, were larger than the other letters. The rabbi told me that the two letters spelled eyd, which means “witness.” As I looked at the Shema I knew that I needed witnesses to my rite of passage and my name-changing ceremony.
About this time, I discovered a celebration-of-wisdom ceremony created by biblical scholar Savina Teubal when she turned 60. With the help of her rabbis, friends and leaders in her community, she had created a ritual which included community participation, a naming ceremony, Jewish study, a healing ceremony, blessings, acknowledging mortality, creating a legacy and a covenant or commitment. I was thrilled. This was exactly what I had been looking for. In the Simchat Hochmah ceremony, I could celebrate my aging and formally take a new name.
When I was born, I was given the Hebrew name Chaya Mira. Chaya means “life,” and Mira is the diminutive of Miriam. As a child, I loved hearing stories of Miriam, the biblical leader of women—a prophetess, a seer and the sister of Moses. I imagined myself taking up a timbrel and leading the women in song on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds. I wanted to be Miriam. That is why I decided to formally take the name Miriam. I wanted to celebrate life, so I kept the name Chaya.
The night before my Simchat Hochmah ceremony, I decided to go to the mikvah to purify myself for my transformation. The months of study, planning and preparation had also been a time of letting go, releasing things from my past that I no longer needed. I wanted to immerse myself in the mikvah’s waters to say goodbye to Harriet and to welcome Miriam Chaya.
As I entered the mikvah, I could feel something holding me back from fully immersing myself. Each time I tried to dip my body in the water, I felt like another being was present. When I heard a voice whispering in my ear, I could not deny the fact that Harriet was speaking to me. “Do not abandon me,” she said. “We have known each other for 60 years. I am your history. I need you and you need me. Together we can be stronger. Let me come with you.” As I listened to her voice, I knew what I needed to do. I held out my arms to embrace my past. Together, Harriet and I dipped beneath the surface of the water three times as we moved into the future.
The next day was my Simchat Hochmah ceremony. As I stood on the bimah, I looked out at the 200 people who had come to witness my life transition. I could feel Harriet’s presence beside me. When the rabbi called me by my new name, I took a deep breath and felt a profound shift in my heart as I relaxed into my new name. When it was time to read the Shema and chant from the Torah, I felt Harriet’s strength enter my body. Together we chanted in a loud, clear voice. When we finished, there was a hush in the sanctuary and I could feel God’s presence. I waited a long moment, and then, standing tall and looking out at all of my witnesses, I declared, “From this day forward, I will be known as Miriam, the leader of women.”
When the service was over, all of my friends and family ran up to the bimah to congratulate me. With tears in their eyes, they clutched my hand and begged me to teach them how they could create a celebration-of-wisdom ceremony.
The days following my Simchat Hochmah, I was ecstatic. The phone was ringing off the hook with more people requesting me to teach them how to create this kind of ceremony. I hadn’t realized before how important this experience could be to other women. Their enthusiastic response showed me that I had to write a book or make a film about my experience in order to reach a wider audience.
My good friend, Judith Montell, an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, had filmed part of my Simchat Hochmah ceremony. I asked her if she was interested in making a film with me. When she said, “Yes,” I thought I would jump through the ceiling with joy. Since I was a little girl I had wanted to be a filmmaker, and because I had had created a Simchat Hochmah ceremony, I now had my chance to see my dream come true.
Little did I dream that three years later on my 63rd birthday our film, Timbrels and Torahs, Celebrating Women’s Wisdom, would be having its world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival or that a thousand people would come to see it. Little did I imagine that the film would be shown at Jewish film festivals in Detroit, Buffalo, Boston, Washington, D.C., Miami, San Diego and Hartford, Connecticut; also in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Vancouver, British Columbia; or that the Berlin Women’s Film Festival in Germany would invite Judy and me to show our film and talk to women in Berlin about celebrating aging.
The promise I made on the bimah when I took the name of Miriam is coming true each and every day. Timbrels and Torahs is the fulfillment of the covenant I made at my Simchat Hochmah ceremony. I have become a leader of women. I have created something of value to give to the Jewish community as my legacy. This documentary is my timbrel. Like Miriam before me, I take it up and I dance. Hinei. Take note of this: Our elder years can be a time of great creativity and promise. Hineini. I am here.
This story is a section from my book, This Jewish Life. The book contains more personal stories like this one. Fifty-four voices enable readers to experience a calendar’s worth of Judaism’s strengths — community, healing, transformation of the human spirit, and the influence of the Divine. This Jewish Life is a year in the life of a contemporary Jew told by a variety of individuals.