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Coming of Age

Writing a song for my synagogue, hearing it sung at Lincoln Center, and finally finding the right words to tell my kids why Judaism is important

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Pogrebin’s son, Ben, at his bar mitzvah, with Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein. (Michael Nagle)

My son’s bar mitzvah was two years ago. My daughter’s bat mitzvah will take place this spring. What, I’ve often thought to myself, will happen to their Jewish identity once they leave home? How do I make the case to stay in this–to discover the charge for themselves that I’ve found in studying Jewish text, going to synagogue, defining very personally what it means to live Jewishly?

It didn’t happen for me until adulthood. I became a bat mitzvah when I was 40, when my growing interest in Judaism made me decide to make up for lost time. I grew up in the Jewish waters of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but I never felt I truly belonged until five years ago, when I joined Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. I began to attend services more regularly at the historic Reform congregation, founded in 1872, and became involved in its community-organizing efforts.

I never used to worry about that lifeless, amorphous concept of “continuity”; it seemed to me Jews were overly worried about other Jews’ Judaism. Then my own children came into the picture. I watched their peers drop out of Hebrew school as soon as they’d crossed the seventh-grade finish line. Even my own son, Ben, despite a bar mitzvah he described as “perfect,” is on the fence as to whether to continue his Jewish studies. Many of Central’s members, when asked about their chief concerns during a recent campaign run by lay leadership, said they’d lost the battle to keep their kids connected—especially in the years between bar mitzvah and wedding.

So, these questions were on my mind when Central’s cantor, Angela Warnick Buchdahl, told me that she and the senior rabbi, Peter J. Rubinstein, were looking for ways to deepen and underscore that moment on Saturday mornings when the b’nei mitzvah have finished their Torah readings. They decided, among other changes, to add a new song that might infuse more resonance and clarity. And they wanted an original composition.

I’m a journalist, not a songwriter. (I wrote my share of overwrought guitar ballads in high school, and I take pride in my spoof lyrics for friends’ birthday parties.) But cantor Buchdahl, whose voice soars through the sanctuary each week, knew I’d begun a double life as a lyricist. My first book, Stars of David, is currently being adapted for the off-Broadway stage, produced by Daryl Roth, who last June won a Tony for The Normal Heart, and by Aaron Harnick, who nudged me three years ago to start writing lyrics for the show (and happens to be Sheldon’s nephew). Harnick paired me with the gifted composer Tom Kitt, a fellow semi-observant Jew who, soon after we met, won a Tony and Pulitzer for Next to Normal.

Buchdahl encouraged me to submit a song, making it clear it might never get sung. I was nervous about attempting any kind of text for the congregation I’ve come to cherish. But I’ve always admired Central’s mission to keep ritual as fluid as it is inviolable. And when I sat down to write, it became a personal opportunity to find the words I wished to tell my children on their b’nei mitzvah: Pause here, I’d wanted to say. Consider what this moment means. You’re joining a line of descendants who have survived against all reason. You are chanting from a book that Jews have kept vital for centuries. Investigate this tradition before you decide it doesn’t fit into your schedule anymore.

Most kids are obviously nervous on the bimah, anxious to just get through their Torah portion, focused on the party. Families get caught up in making sure they’ve ordered the personalized yarmulkes or haven’t left out an uncle from the guest list; they haven’t prefaced “the big day” with a sit-down talk about why they wanted their child to do this in the first place, what it means not just to become a man or woman, but to join a people.

I called the song “Taking Your Place” and tried to keep the lyrics simple, hoping to stave off pretension or schmaltz. Per cantor Buchdahl’s suggestion, I added a line of Hebrew from the Misheberach prayer that’s recited Saturday mornings (not the same as the prayer for healing). Late this past summer, I sent them off to Kitt, who wrote a beautiful melody.

Last week, cantor Buchdahl told me that she would be singing “Taking Your Place” in front of thousands on Yom Kippur morning, because the lyrics dovetailed with Rabbi Rubinstein’s sermon. And she would sing the song at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, no less, because that’s where Central synagogue’s services were held this year.

The fact that I was fasting only compounded the queasiness as I entered Lincoln Center last Saturday. But then as I listened to Rubinstein speak, his words focused me. He asked us to think about how we explain to our children not just why they should care about being (and remaining) Jewish, but why we care. He talked about the fragility of endurance: that the generation before us, who chose to pass on the Torah to their children, could not have been sure it would make it any further.

When he finished, the cantor approached the pulpit as Kitt’s chords began softly. Her voice poured over the packed rows, my daughter squeezed my hand, and my son, who chose to sit up high in the third tier, gave me a visible thumbs-up. After the last note, the rabbi descended the stage to embrace me in the aisle. I hugged him back awkwardly, probably a little too tight.

After the service, as I exited behind the hordes, I spotted Tom Kitt standing amidst emptying seats. He had come to hear it, too, and we looked at each other with a kind of bewilderment.

You can hear the song below, recorded in the synagogue before Yom Kippur. Whatever anyone else thinks of it, my gratitude is acute and the experience imprinted: a snapshot of how Jewish amateurs, when invited, can participate in an ancient conversation.

“Taking Your Place” for Central Synagogue
Lyrics by Abigail Pogrebin, music by Tom Kitt

Taking your place
In an enduring line.
This is the day
that you stood up to say,
“Our tradition is mine.”

You have now read the Torah.
It’s been passed onto you.
It’s our law and our story–But each telling is new.

It is said we stood at Sinai
And today, you know you’re there.
You’re the promise of a people,
a blessing and a prayer.

Taking your place
In a resilient line
This is the day
that you stood up to say,
“Our tradition is mine.”

You have now held the Torah,
forged a link to the past.
You’re the face of our future,
and the reason we last.

Lalechet bidrachav v’lishmor mitzvotav kol hayamim.
May you walk in God’s ways and may all of your days be blessings.

It is said we stood at Sinai
And today, you know you’re there.
You’re the promise of a people,
a blessing and a prayer.

You’re the promise of a people,
a blessing and a prayer.

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Ellen Celli says:

Amazing Abby, when do you get the time to do everything you do. Thanks for sharing.

Nicely done. Very warm and purposeful.

You two should concentrate on a musical. Share the wisdom, share the commitment. B’shalom

A.J. Jacobs says:

What a lovely and moving story. Thanks for writing it. You are so multi-talented it’s frightening.

A. Solomon says:

This is a truly beautiful story that has brought a smile to my heart. I to have had one daughter have a Bat Mitzvah and another daughter will have one in the spring. It is so true how important it is to carry on our traditions. I work hard each day of my life to live jewishly and to pass to values on to my children.

I just love this song. I recently saw the Cantor on an Shalom TV and was impressed by her. Hearing her angelic voice singing this lovely song is a blessing and a prayer. I couldn’t find out how to share it on my facebook page or I would have added it instantly. Thanks for this article.

Lyrics by Abigail Pogrebin, music by Tom Kitt – a song delivered by the rich voice of cantor warnick buchdahl
is beautiful, it is sweet, new and also familiar – a welcome addition
to the jewish liturgical library.
miriam chaikin

Julia Wolf Mazow says:

How very beautiful.
Mazel tov on all your work; I am a fan of STARS OF DAVID and frequently refer to it.

I just wanted to say a personal thank you for the generous words in the comments. I am genuinely grateful for those who took the time to write something.

Suzy Lenkowsky says:

What a perfect song ! I couldn’t get through it without tears. I only wish it had been around for my son bar mitzvah a few years ago it says everything I had in my heart that I couldn’t voice.

Shirley Grossman says:

I think it is absolutely beautiful. How can we get a copy of the music?

Shirley Grossman

Jim Siegel says:

Abby — The song touched us all who were there at “Central Synagogue West,” as Peter appropriately called Avery Fisher Hall. Thanks to you and Tom for the lovely song and story behind it. I bet this was more fun than delivering the Annual Appeal remarks!

Roslyn Roth - Toronto Canada says:

An amazing uplifting story in today’s mixed up world. Absolutely loved your song and I have played it many times this week on my computer. Hope its message resonates with parents and young Jewish people the world over. We need all the help we can get to encourage Jewish thoughts today and always. Roz Roth

Roberta Gerlach says:

This is the most touching and beautiful piece I have heard for B’nei Mitzvah. It brought tears to my eyes.
I hope that the actual piece is available in print for purchase. Please update in the Tablet so that it can be found and purchased.

Kag1989 says:

My son became Bar Mitzvah on Oct. 29 this year. I didn’t know your song existed. I chose another inspirational song by Julie Silver called “Lead the Way,” and a dear friend of ours sang it (I was afraid I would be too emotional to sing it myself).

Both are songs to uplift and encourage our children to carry their heritage and religion with them as they walk on towards adulthood.

Thank you for such an amazing song! It is beautiful!

I wanted to check up and allow you to know how , a great deal I liked discovering your site today. We would consider it a great honor to do things at my company and be able to utilize tips discussed on your website and also engage in visitors’ responses like this. Should a position regarding guest article author become offered at your end, i highly recommend you let me know.

A powerful message from a parent to her child. Thank you so much for sharing your gift with us.

phyllis nahman says:

The song is very beautiful — a wonderful gift to a bar/mat mitzvah.


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Coming of Age

Writing a song for my synagogue, hearing it sung at Lincoln Center, and finally finding the right words to tell my kids why Judaism is important

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