The school was on a residential street in North West London. From the outside it was unremarkable, but the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold for the first time for an interview to become an English teacher, was astonishing. The Catholic convent school I’d just left was a seething cauldron of energy and chaos. The noise of ringing school bells and yelling teenagers formed the backdrop to a relentless melodrama of flunked exams and teenage pregnancies. After twelve years teaching in the comprehensive system, I was burnt out.
The advert in the TLS described the school as a girls’ grammar, but I guessed from the Jewish name that it would be quite religious, so I was dressed appropriately – long skirt, long sleeves and a neckline high enough to cover my collarbone. I’m a secular Jew, but I had no inkling what I was letting myself in for. The school wasn’t just a bit religious; it was a Charedi school, the most theologically conservative stream of Orthodox Judaism. In the UK, they are known for their black sable ‘shtreimel’ hats and curled side-locks, and little else, since they are notoriously insular. According to Jewish Policy Research, there are currently 53,400 Charedi Jews in Britain, a group that is growing fast. Membership of Charedi synagogues has doubled since 1990, and they now account for three out of every four British Jewish births. Continue reading
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.