Last month, Michael Sorkin, a long-time Teaneck resident, had a unique bar mitzvah experience. As a ba’al teshuva, having grown up non-religious, rather than celebrating the simcha at the usual age of 13, his was celebrated at age 43 surrounded by friends and family at his shul, Sharei Tefillah. For years he had been interested in layning his parsha, Parshat Bamidbar, but struggled following through with the layning. Now, after considerable effort, he has finally been able to achieve his goal.
Using books and even YouTube tutorials, Sorkin had made an attempt in the past to learn his parsha. As he explained in a speech, it was something he had a lot of passion for and really wanted to do, but couldn’t quite fully grasp. Life also got in the way, and so he had to push off his goal until the following year when it was time to read Bamidbar again.
“About two years ago, I had the idea to learn Bamidbar, my bar mitzvah parsha,” Sorkin explained. “At the time, I thought it would take about two months learning on my own. I would get a tikkun, watch a few YouTube videos, practice a bit and I’d be fine. When Bamidbar rolled around that year, I hadn’t made much progress. I had purchased a tikkun, and I had watched YouTube, but it didn’t work and I wasn’t ready. I thought ‘I didn’t do it this time but at least I have time to prepare for next year—because surely a year would be enough.’”
After a year of effort though, Sorkin was still struggling to accomplish his goal. He turned to his wife, Karen, who suggested he get a teacher to help him with the layning.
“I had gotten discouraged early on and gave up,” Sorkin continued. “On Shabbat Bamidbar last year I sat in the shul dejected and feeling like I had failed. I came up with a new resolve that the next year I would read at least one aliyah of Bamidbar. On my way out of shul that morning I ran into my wife, Karen, in the lobby. She was on her way into shul for the 9 a.m. minyan. I told her ‘this is the last year I will sit and do nothing.’ She remembered what I said and for the next month suggested I call our friend Steven Gellerstein and ask him to teach me. In June of last year I followed her advice and emailed him. A few days later, we began our lessons.”
Under Gellerstein’s tutelage, slowly but surely Sorkin began to make progress. They would meet almost every Sunday and started small, eventually moving on to bigger sections.
“We learned at a measured pace, first the trope, then learning three to four sentences a week,” Sorkin shared. “After a few lessons, I began making progress and Karen and Steven could both tell. As I read the first sentences along with a recording Steven had sent me, Karen jokingly asked ‘are you trying to sound like the recording?’ I was. When I finished learning the first aliyah, Steven had me read it from the tikkun without the symbols for pronunciation—and I was able to do it. He and his wife, Judy, were both beaming at me and I felt a great sense of accomplishment. At that moment I knew that I had done enough to fulfill the pledge I made to myself.”
With much effort, Sorkin managed to complete the layning. There were now only a little more than two months remaining for him to get comfortable with the reading and continue his practice. Determined, he pushed forward with resolve, set on seeing this goal of his all the way through.
“At the end of March this year, we finished the last of the one hundred and fifty nine pesukim that make up Parshat Bamidbar,” Sorkin went on to say. “I was left with a little over two months to practice—the amount of time that I originally thought I would need to learn the whole parsha on my own. I feel like the hard work paid off, and I’m very happy to share this milestone with the congregation.”
On the day of his bar mitzvah, Sorkin delivered the reading with poise and grace, and after finishing he was pelted with candy by the congregation. Later he gave a speech to the crowd, culminating in him showing the siddur his grandparents had given him when he was thirteen. Inscribed in it was a message from their rabbi that read, “To my friends Mr. and Mrs. S Nachtigal upon the bar mitzvah of their grandson Michael. 05/20/89.”
By Adam Samuel
Adam Samuel is a journalist from Teaneck. He blogs at adamssoapbox.com.