While we loved seeing Idina Menzel in a bat mitzvah dress in “Uncut Gems” and as a bat mitzvah mom in “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” the Jewish singer and actress is, it turns out, a Hebrew school drop-out.
That’s right, Menzel never got to have her bat mitzvah or read the Torah from the bimah at age 13, much to the disappointment of her parents, who just wanted to hear their daughter sing Torah trope because, well, have you heard Idina Menzel sing?
Yet Menzel did sing a haftorah from the stage — in fact, from multiple stages — as an adult in 2008 during her sold-out “I Stand” tour. On YouTube, there are a few recordings of her singing a Torah portion from the Book of Judges during concerts, to a rapturous audience. They’re truly amazing:
“I chose a passage in the bible about one of the only female prophets; her name was Deborah,” Menzel tells the crowd in one show. “She was a triple threat; she was a poet, a judge and a general.” She tells them about her “cool husband, Barack” (the crowd cheers, perhaps thinking of another fierce Barack, Obama, who was elected as president that year), and recounts that he “refused to go to battle without Deborah by his side.”
Menzel then translated the passage from the Book of Judges: “The rulers ceased in Israel until you, you Deborah arose a mother of Israel, awake awake, Deborah, awake awake and sing a song, blessed be God.”
She also confessed that the prayer makes her think of her sister, Cara, who was told as a child that she shouldn’t sing because that was her sister’s thing. Menzel recalled hearing Cara sing a soft lullaby to her firstborn child, thinking to herself that her sister was “a true warrior, a mother of Israel,” and that the 3000-year-old prayer about Deborah was “so much more about her than it ever was about me.”
I’m not crying, you’re crying! What a beautiful d’var Torah from the star of screen and stage about the warriors and the mothers who do small wondrous acts for their families and children every day. I know Idina says Adam Sandler makes her proud to be a Jew, but watching these videos, I can’t help but feel immense Jewish pride in knowing that Idina Menzel embraces her Judaism so movingly.
Cara, who spells her last name Mentzel, has written a book about her relationship with Idina called “Voice Lessons,” with a foreword by Idina herself (who, Cara writes in the book, she calls Dee). The two have even collaborated on the (semi-autobiographical?) “Loud Mouse” — a children’s’ book about Dee, a mouse who loves to sing, and Cara Lee, her little sister, as well as its sequel, “Proud Mouse.”
If listening to Menzel chant a passage from the Hebrew Bible has you jonesing for more Jewish music from her, may I suggest listening to her rousing rendition of the Ladino Hanukkah classic “Ocho Kandelikas?” It’s probably the sexiest and one of the most exciting recordings of the song out there.