TAMPA — The Chair is one of those ugly gray Office Depot things. It faces the long messy desk of Cantor Moshe Friedler at Rodeph Sholom. All the kids in religious school have heard about it, even the little ones. They know that one day they'll take a turn in the Chair, squirming, twisting their tongues into granny knots of pitiful excuses and horrible Hebrew. And their tears will come, certain as God's justice.
Shelbi Dominguez was 10 when she started worrying about the Chair. Her older sister Sasha had spent 2006 in it, learning Hebrew for her bat mitzvah. Just try to picture Cantor Friedler — 12 feet tall, perched behind a desk 20 feet long, blazing black eyes barely peering over his massive golden Torah.
A year ago, Shelbi's bat mitzvah was scheduled for today. To reach the congregation podium, she had to get past the Cantor. She knew one thing about him:
"He made kids cry."
• • •
Shelbi had long struggled in school with reading. Rote memorization was very hard for her. She learned visually, kinetically, learned best on her feet, as in cooking. To sit and read took painful effort. It caused her to switch from school to school, to spend two years in home-schooling.
Those moves left her untethered. "There's never been a place I've stayed. I've never had one group of friends." As she neared 13, she wondered where she fit in.
So far, her religion hadn't given an answer. Hebrew may as well have been Inuit. It presented to her a mysterious 22-symbol alphabet, and thick texts that traveled in the opposite direction and seemed to lack vowels and punctuation.
On top of that was the Cantor. Kids had to sit in his Chair for half an hour every week for a year. He told them they could make it either a throne or a witness chair. If they goofed off, if they messed up, he'd be on them like a prosecutor. Why did you bother to come? Why are you wasting my time?
That was usually when they cried.
• • •
Cantor Moshe Friedler is a 67-year-old Argentine. He has taught Hebrew to children for a half-century. His eyes are expressive, and he has a dramatic, arresting look about him. Around his eyes are distinct lines of humor, even kindness. When he greets people, he kisses them, even men. But he can drop his mouth into a long hard frown. He's blunt. He generally doesn't think it's a good idea to put children with serious learning challenges through the ordeal of the Chair.
He suggests something other than a bar or bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning in front of the entire congregation. The Cantor suggested to Shelbi's parents that a reading of blessings during the week might be better.
That would not do. Shelbi had begun learning Friday night Hebrew prayers three years ago at Rodeph Sholom just to be ready for this. For her bat mitzvah, she would do no less than lead the full congregation in prayer on a Saturday morning. She'd get up there in front of everyone and do the best she could.
She wanted this for herself, Shelbi told Cantor Friedler. He had to help her.
The Cantor was impressed. In 50 years, he'd never had a child speak up like that.
Okay, he said. But you'll have to sit in the Chair three times a week, not once a week like the other kids.
We'll start with the first word. Then the next word. Then the first line.
One word, one line, they would go, he said, like one mile, one day, on a sea voyage to Israel. "We'll have days with no winds, and days we run fast. The secret is to have a port of call — a destination."
The first word was God.
The first line was God is my strength.
• • •
The text Shelbi chose from the haftarah, the books of prophets in the Hebrew Bible, was one that resonated in her life. The passage explains seven-year and 49-year cycles of Jewish life, periods when debts are forgiven, land is rested, new beginnings made. After a childhood of constant school change, a new beginning was what Shelbi wanted.
But first she had to cross the sea with the Cantor. They hit stormy weather right from the start.
Each lesson, she couldn't remember what they had practiced the last time. He gave her his scary speech about how it's better to not come at all than to sit in the Chair and waste his time.
She looked at him, dry-eyed. "I don't have a good memory," she said frankly. "That's why I need your help."
No child had ever said that to the Cantor.
They went on, line by line, until they reached two lines of Hebrew as hospitable as jagged rocks. Shelbi's a girl who either gets really happy or really sad. She pronounced their voyage a failure, she'd never get past those two lines.
Then let's sail around them, the Cantor told her. If she couldn't learn those lines, he would read them for her.
They began again. She developed a bad habit. Each time she made a mistake, she demanded they start over. She'd go all the way back to the very first line of the haftarah.
The Cantor said it was like sailing in circles. He called her father.
"Listen, Jose," he said, "she keeps wanting to start all over again. I want you to go buy 200 sleeping bags for your bat mitzvah guests. Because at the rate she's going, we'll be there all day Saturday and Sunday."
Shelbi stopped starting over.
She had yet to cry.
• • •
The Cantor found a solution to Shelbi's reading problems — a method he'd developed over the years for other kids. He made audio cassettes tailored for her. As in their lessons, he went word by word, line by line, section by section.
If she had trouble with a word, he repeated it 50 times. After a few weeks, Shelbi was bringing home bags of tapes.
Hebrew is a language of music. Listening to it makes that clear. Instead of punctuation, Hebrew relies on a set of symbols called tropes that are akin to musical notes. A single word may contain several.
The tapes helped her understand the sounds of the words and the melodies of the tropes. Their voyage had become a musical one.
But their boat hit more rough water when her friend Emily said she'd mastered her haftarah reading in four weeks.
Four weeks for Emily. And Shelbi was studying three times a week for a year. "I'm so stupid," she told her Cantor.
"Shelbi," he said, "it's not the goal that matters, it's how you reach it. It's the effort you make. That's what life is about. That is what counts."
It drew her deeper into the voyage. She began to explore the meaning of her haftarah text. Between visits to the Cantor, she met with Rabbi Marc Sack. She had some questions. Actually, she'd written down a page of questions. Why is the Jewish cycle of change every seven years? Why not change a little every year? Her family joked she was rewriting the Torah.
The music in Hebrew helped carry her along. Cantor Friedler kept a keyboard beside his desk. They turned to Hebrew prayers; he played while she prayed.
Eventually, he returned to the section where she had run aground on the shoals. She didn't want to go back.
He told her that mastering the missing section would bring them both "peace of mind," complete the sea journey they had traveled together. "We can see the coast," he urged her, "we can see Israel."
They tried the section again, word by word, line by line. That was how she finally conquered it, word by word.
As they neared the end of her haftarah text, she began to get out of the Chair and dance. She came around to him, dancing behind his shoulder as they read together. She swayed and raised her arms over her head. It felt instinctive to her, to dance as she prayed.
The Cantor had rarely seen a child do that. She joked she was dancing a salsa. But in Orthodox synagogues, praying Jews are in constant motion — a totality of devotion — mind, voice and body. "You're praying with everything," he told her.
• • •
By spring, their sessions were ending. They reached the last lines of her haftarah reading. Shelbi didn't understand the Hebrew words, but something about those final lines sounded so melodic, so spiritual to her that she again got up to dance. She asked the Cantor what they meant.
It was a conversation with God.
Cure me, God.
I will cure you.
Help me, God.
I will help you. I am your prayer and you are with me.
Finally, Shelbi Dominguez burst into tears.
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2258.