Ask Helen: Writing a b’nai mitzvah speech at any age

Dear Helen

I help writing a speech. I am an adult woman (45 in November) who decided to fulfill her lifelong dream of being b’nai mitzvah. Long family drama short: my father died before my 13th birthday and my grandparents and mother were in such shock that the whole celebration was cancelled as inappropriate. In college and after I drifted from Judaism, though I did stand under a chuppah as I married a nice Jewish man. Our twins were bar mitzvah four years ago and now it is my turn. But I am not a scholar. How can I interpret Torah? Can you help me with what to say if I send you my Torah portion info?

My Turn At Last

Dear My Turn:

Here’s the best news: a 45-year-old woman has lots of well-earned wisdom to share. I’m only an occasional speechwriter, so if you were hoping for a finished product you will be disappointed. But here’s how to succeed:

For this and many other aspects of life I suggest a journal process. Sit some place you are not likely to be interrupted. Look up the Torah portion (easy online) and print it out. Then take a couple deep breaths and read the passage aloud slowly. Take note of anything that jogs your mind or heart: words, phrases, images, metaphors, whatever fodder your inner voice lobs to you. Write down any and all ideas right then before they flee. I strongly suggest doing this even before you finish reading this email.

Then do some research.  Go to your synagogue library and look up commentaries or put your parshah into a search engine and see what comes up. Browse at least a dozen sites. Make sure you look at Jewish ones. (Phrases like “the blood of the chosen one” are a good clue, LOL). Thousands of years of scholars will offer you zillions of insights.

Think about how the passage relates to you and to your community, both local and global. For example, your parshah may talk about an idea like “sacrifice.”  You don’t have to talk about Biblical actions literally. Instead make it relevant and personal. Think about sacrifices you’ve made and make. Your reasons may range from generosity to codependence, but look deeply at family, friends, health, money, community service, etc. Consider when and how you have sacrificed for yourself or others. Ditto when others have sacrificed for you. What did it feel like, on both sides? What did you gain and learn, materially and emotionally? Would you or they sacrifice that way again again? Why or why not? Think about related words like gratitude and sharing, and loss, less, none. Then go bigger: how do these ideas play out everywhere from politics to socio-economic-environmental justice, or in everything from union strikes to Middle East peace. You don’t have to solve these problems, but look at what comes up and how it makes you feel, from guilty to empowered. See your talk as illuminating the relationship between Torah’s words and your very real life.

A speech only needs a couple good stories, well told, to inspire listeners to examine their own lives. Even at 45, your Torah talk is part of a public ceremony of transition and initiation. Exploring the links between your smaller world and the bigger one we share is not about becoming a Torah scholar. It’s about bringing the ancient words to life, and making them relevant for those who will come to honor you. I promise you will inspire others to think about Torah more deeply even if you don’t cite a single rabbi. If you speak from your heart you’ll never go wrong, Congratulations and good luck. What does she do? What do you need?  Motivation, Inspiration, Support, Problem-solving. A resident of Eugene since 1981, Helen Rosenau is a member of Temple Beth Israel. She’s a student of Torah and an artist (, a writer ( and the author of The Messy Joys of Being Human: A Guide to Risking Change and Becoming Happier.

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