We grew up with my mother’s special brand of religion: Eccentric Judaism. My two older brothers and I were allowed to eat shrimp and lobster, but we wouldn’t dream of tasting pork. On Saturdays we weren’t allowed to write or spend money, yet that was negotiable, depending on our circumstances. We spent six years without a home, moving from hotel to hotel in Manhattan, always short of money. So there were times when, given that we often didn’t have a kitchen, we’d spend money on Shabbas to get food. Even Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, was malleable. We drank water and fasted until about 2 pm because that’s as long as my mother could take it before succumbing to her appetite. “Life before Torah,” my mother would say, and she invoked it whenever it suited her agenda.
In my recently published memoir, Scattered, I write of losing faith in Judaism in 4th grade, when my class at PS 111 on West 52nd put on a play about King Arthur. I auditioned for the role of Merlin the magician, after my brothers coached me for the part, teaching me to speak in a low voice for maximum gravitas. I landed it, beating out two boys.
My mother nixed it for me though, when she saw me kneeling as I rehearsed in front of the mirror in our hotel room. At the end of the play, everyone had to kneel to King Arthur.
The other day I had a discussion with a group of girls about their ideal bat mitzvah (the celebration that marks female coming of age at 12 or 13 among Jews and sometimes of adults who missed the opportunity as adolescents).
Several of the girls said that that their ideal was to celebrate away from home. A few wanted to go to Israel, specifically the Western Wall or Masada. Other ideas were more surprising: “Germany, because it has great technology,” “Japan, because I love anime,” and “France, so I can see a real fashion runway.” One Massachusetts girl actually had her wish for an overseas bat mitzvah come true. She and her family celebrated in Amsterdam “because it is the midpoint between my relatives in the U.S. and Israel, and because of Anne Frank.”
We’ve all heard of destination weddings and birthday parties. But what about destination bat mitzvahs? Our book, Today I am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World, includes the amazing example of two American sisters whose joint bat mitzvah took place in a Tunisian desert town, complete with camel rides, drummers, and a religious service under the stars in honor of the father’s Tunisian heritage.
Imagine taking your daughter to Split, Croatia where there is a small Jewish community led by a woman I’ve met who surely would welcome the idea. Or, if it still exists, imagine a bat mitzvah in the town where a grandparent was born. A few North American boys actually have celebrated a bar mitzvah in Uganda, where a Jewish community has existed for five generations. As far as I know, there have been no bat mitzvah ceremonies for non-Ugandan girls in the modest synagogue. Such a ceremony would be eye-opening for guests and bridge-building with the community there.
Bringing the bat mitzvah girl to a place where the Jewish community is small and out of the mainstream would enhance the part of bat mitzvah that is mitzvah – the religious good deed/obligation, the core element of the event. How wonderful it would be to be able to share the joy with a newfound community someplace else in the world! Now if the stock market would only rise so we could afford it!
– Shulamit Reinharz
In the few months since our book was published, women of different ages have come up to us with stories of their own experiences of bat mitzvah – the ceremony that marks a Jewish girl’s coming of age at 12 or 13. These stories have brought home to us in a personal way the trajectory of Jewish women’s experience in the last half-century in the United States.
Grandmothers of today’s bat mitzvah girls tell us that bat mitzvah was not available to them when they were girls. Some resented the discrimination against them, as their brothers and male classmates celebrated bar mitzvah as a highlight of the Jewish lifecycle; others didn’t particularly care. Although the first bat mitzvah took place in 1923 in New York City, it took the women’s movement that re-emerged in the 1960s and ’70s to enable women to look at their status anew, to try to create change, and to popularize the concept of a women’s coming of age ceremony.
But bat mitzvah still wasn’t analogous to boys’ ceremonies. Middle-aged mothers tell us that they had their bat mitzvah ceremonies at the synagogue on Friday night, a time when a boy’s bar mitzvah would rarely be held. In this way, the girl could chant the “Haftorah,” a reading from the Prophets, and not from the Torah, the holy scroll that contains the five books of Moses, a lesser kind of honor. In fact, sometimes the reading was known mistakenly as the “half” Torah.
Nowadays, girls and their mothers in Progressive branches of Judaism take it for granted that the bat mitzvah will be virtually the same as a boy’s bar mitzvah. Girls learn how to read from the Torah – not an easy task – and some wear a prayer shawl (tallit) during the ceremony, until recently a male-only prerogative. Religious transition is rarely so tangibly or so swiftly demonstrated as the generational change in bat mitzvah observance from grandmothers to mothers to today’s bat mitzvah girls.