Around the time of my Bat Mitzvah I cared A LOT what people thought of me. My hair was frizzy, I had the biggest boobs in my class, and my teeth were crooked. I was so worried about my smile that I would imagine myself on a date with a boy, sitting in his car and hoping he would only see the right side of my mouth and not the left (hand to mouth), which was crooked. My parents and I moved to Vegas when I was 10 from Westchester County, New York. When I lived in New York I went into NYC many weekends with my parents. We saw a ton of plays, Broadway shows and my Dad's favorite: Opera. My parents are New Yorker's, and my Dad grew up with a lot of live theatre. I completely fell in love with singing in an even more definite way as I was exposed to so many amazing musicals and voices.
At that time, I would announce to my parents regularly that I wanted to be a singer, actress, or veterinarian. I loved animals almost as much as performing. So when we moved to Las Vegas we found local live theatre. I saw Man of La Mancha and met a Romanian opera singer there who became my voice teacher and mentor for the next 8 years. Dorothea told me I had the talent to sing classical music. Specifically Opera.
Opera was never anything I thought about, I just wanted to be the next Mariah Carey. But, at the age of 11 no one had ever been so forthright with me, and I liked it. From that day on I sang every aria I heard and competed in many competitions. My Dad was obsessively happy that I was singing the music he loved, and I was happy to be really good at something.
In New York we had lived in an area that barely had any Jewish people, and now, in Vegas, almost everyone I knew was Jewish. Go figure. Growing up in Las Vegas, I went to a private Hebrew school, so when I was 12 and 13, it was just one big Bar and Bat Mitzvah after the other. And when I say big, I mean Vegas-style big. My Bat Mitzvah was at The Mirage, the casino resort famous for its daily volcanic eruptions. I wasn't the only one who celebrated this life milestone on the Strip; almost everyone in my class had their party at a casino resort.
As a pre-teen, I sang lots of classical music but I also listened to a lot of pop, RnB and grunge. I loved Nirvana — my world ended when Kurt Cobain took his life, sending me into a brief goth phase that came with black clothes and black lipstick. I had a few embarrassing moments that really stayed with me. Specifically--a horrific field trip to the roller skating rink Crystal Palace, where I got a surprise visit from my menstrual cycle while wearing white cut off shorts. I also remember singing Whitney Houston's "I will always love you" at my ex-boyfriend's Bar mitzvah party, because I knew I broke his heart after our 2 weeks of dating. That experience may not have been embarrassing at the time, but I am definitely mortified now for my 13 year old self. I valued loyal friends and my parents, and wished I was closer with relatives on the East Coast that we left behind. I also loved my Sheltie puppy named Sir Lucky of the West, even though he had eaten all my favorite shoes and underwear.
We lived with my grandparents, and after school, my grandfather would hound me about my homework and practicing my music. I'd have a snack, then go upstairs, turn on the radio, and work. I didn't think so at the time, but living with my mom's parents in Vegas was really special. I hated having four parents telling me what to do all the time — and since I'm an only child, they gave me A LOT of attention and scrutiny. But, looking back, it was a wonderful thing to live with and learn from them, and to hear their stories.
I was born in LA and moved to New York at age 6, so by time we left for Vegas, I had friends on both coasts, and I missed them all. Besides my friends, my parents and my grandparents, as a pre-teen, my synagogue was also an important part of my life. We had joined a synagogue a year before my Bat-Mitzvah because my grandmother Mema who lived with us died of lung cancer. Through that, my parents became very close through their loss with fellow congregants, and especially the Rabbi. My dad was the Gabbai, and we went to services most Friday Nights and every Saturday morning. On Saturdays, I would even lead the davening. I was very involved at my school, The Hebrew Academy, learning about Jewish holidays, rituals and prayers, as well as Israeli culture, the Hebrew language, and the Holocaust. Most of my friends were Jewish. My parents even told me that I knew more about Jewish culture and the language than they did. My friend Les, who is now a chef in Santa Rosa, and I started a BBYO chapter through our synagogue. The congregants would kid that he was the rabbi and I was the cantor.
When someone had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at my synagogue, my Dad made them take a shot of Shlivovitz at the Oneg. What is Shlivovitz? It's a disgusting 100-proof alcohol from Eastern Europe. I was terrified of the day that I would have to do that because he always said it puts hair on your chest. I did not want that to happen. I ultimately did take a shot, and though it felt like I was drinking fire, no hairs sprouted on my chest.
I don't remember my Torah portion — I think it had something to do with a desecrated Temple and burnt offerings — though I did enjoy training with the rabbi and studying with him. But as a pre-teen, what do you really care about? For me, and I'm sure I wasn't alone in this, the most meaningful part of my Bat Mitzvah weekend was what I wore. I had three outfits — one for the Friday night service, one for the Saturday morning service, and one for the Party Saturday night. I remember my mom and I arguing about my outfit for the Saturday morning service. She was upset about the length of my skirt for the Saturday Morning service being too short and my cleavage being too exposed.
I had always enjoyed singing and performing practically since I could speak, so I couldn't wait to show off my skills at my Bat Mitzvah. My voice teacher suggested I sing operatic arias at my Bat-Mitzvah party. I thought it was a good idea. Looking back, I should have said no. We shouldn't have turned this event into a concert. It was a Bat Mitzvah.
Nevertheless, here's what I sang:
(Sung) " Voi che sapete che cosa'e amor.....donne vedete, s'io lo Nel cor...."
This aria was not so bad. I played a young "boy" always played by a Young woman, in this opera called the Marriage of Figaro. The character I played is basically going through puberty and doesn’t know what to do with all of his hormones.
The other song was a little worse:
I will re-enact my awkwardness during this aria and being (pause)...what I thought was seductive.
(Sung) "Quando m'en vo….. “E la beleza mia tutto richerch’eon bene…”
The basic meaning of the aria is "watch me as I walk alone...look me up and down.” The whole aria goes on with an enormously flirtatious vibe as the character Musetta walks through the streets of Paris. She stops at a cafe to seduce every man she can to make her boyfriend jealous. Obviously the aria was perfectly suited for a girl my age.
This next aria was probably the most embarrassing of the bunch.
(Sung) " Les Oiseaux dans la charmille" Dans les cieux l'astre du jour.”
In this aria from the Tales of Hoffman the character I played was an actual doll. So, obviously I had to act like a doll. I remember my voice teacher had directed every move I made that day so that I really moved like a doll. The most embarrassing part came in the performance of the aria when the doll (who had a wind-up key coming out of her back) ran out of fumes. So, my father came out on the dance floor in front of everyone I knew, to crank the pretend key so I could continue the aria.
(Sung) “Voilà la chanson gentille, La chanson d'Olympia! Ah…ah….ah… “
My dad is very animated, so turning this key was quite fun for him and he definitely took his time. Each krank of the key felt like an eternity to me as my friends watched.
These were three of the arias I performed at the party. There were a couple more, and there was even an encore that my teacher and parents and I planned for. At the time this all seemed OK, but today, I look back and wish I could have done things differently. I wish I could have focused on family, on tikkun olam, on the responsibilities of becoming a Bat Mitzvah. At that time, though, as a pre-teen, I was more interested in performing.
Maybe some of you remember the candelabra that is brought out towards the end of the party. You light each candle with a different group of people, usually relatives, cousins and parents.
Well, I've known my whole life that one of my mom's biggest pet peeve is when people shorten her name from Barbara to "Barb." But since I was feeling quite confident that day, I thought it would be funny to call her up to the candelabra as "Barb." So I did. I knew it was disrespectful and wrong, but I did it anyway. She didn't show it in the moment, but I knew she was angry with me. To this day, she still brings it up.
It's been a long time since I had my Bat Mitzvah, but some things haven't changed. I still have days when my hair is frizzy, and I continue having embarrassing moments.
Today, as a 33-year-old professional, I'm a classically trained soprano who specializes in Yiddish art song. When I'm not performing, I'm working at Bay Area synagogues as a cantorial soloist and B'nei Mitzvah tutor. But I've found that my intentions have changed. Instead of being the focus, I want to give more. Give to the needy, volunteer more, to give more to the community as I see my students doing. I want to voice my opinions more frequently. I want to go to synagogue on nights when I'm not working there, so I can have my own time to pray and be part of the community.
And so the next transition in my life is embracing synagogue life. This is a rite of passage for me in a way. Despite my career and my desire to be more involved at synagogue, I still have a general mistrust sometimes of religious institutions. After my Bat Mitzvah and confirmation in Las Vegas, the board and congregants of my synagogue voted out the Rabbi, who I adored. After that, I felt scarred by synagogue life. I didn't like the politics and couldn't understand how this could be part of a spiritual institution to take away a leader who meant so much to me and my parents. Now that I am an adult and have been working at synagogues for the past 10 years, I recognize that there are politics and madness everywhere you go. So I'm not letting that weaken my Jewish identity and my connection to the community and I am committed to doing more.
Heather Klein is a classically trained soprano and performs Opera, Yiddish classical song, theater and folk music, as well as other styles. For the past decade, she has performed across the US, Canada, and Europe as a soloist and as part of various musical groups and opera companies.