I wore a white eyelet dress for my 1971 bat mitzvah. My mom bought it at a discount shop on Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side while visiting my grandparents there. First, it was my mom’s dress, purchased for my brother’s bar mitzvah two years earlier. I made it mine by changing the color of the bow.
I was not embarrassed to wear a hand-me-down; I didn’t expect more.
When my kids became bar/bat mitzvah, expectations were different. For some girls there would be a new dress for the service and another for the celebration, and more dresses for each celebration they attended, many of which were similar to lavish weddings.
Our family consciously chose a different path. We worked to honor bar/bat mitzvah’s celebration of Jewish learning and values. It was not easy, but it was right for us, and we were not at all embarrassed.
But recently I did feel a tinge of embarrassment when my husband told me about a conversation with a colleague who asked his advice for her middle school-aged daughter. Her immigrant family was encountering bar/bat mitzvah for the first time. She didn’t know what it was about or what she should do. What kind of gift was customary? Did she really need to buy a new dress for her daughter each time, as she’d heard?
My husband advised her to give modest gifts unless they were close friends, and not feel pressured into buying multiple dresses. It pained me that this sacred event, celebrating a universal life passage, boiled down to this: money, clothes and fancy parties.
What does this mean to us as Jews? With so much of Jewish religious life focused on bar/bat mitzvah, what happens to the transformative power of Jewish living for all ages?
I wish that my husband’s colleague had been exposed to different questions: How does being Jewish enhance our humanity? How does Jewish belonging root our lives in compassionate community? How do Jewish values give purpose to our lives and meaning to our existence?
Think of what we could accomplish if bar/bat mitzvah were celebrated, not with gifts, but with tzedakah funds to feed the hungry. What if our resources helped send kids to Jewish camps where fun Jewish experiences create lifetime memories for meaningful Jewish living? What if we invested in innovative Jewish learning for all ages, so that Jewish knowledge can continue to transform lives? What if we structured the “event” on learning and meaning?
This critique is not new or unique. But with the growing number of Jews disconnecting from synagogues, alarm bells should be sounding. It is time for change. If we celebrate and laud families that make values-based choices, we can support each other in shaping Jewish life passages that would make our ancestors proud – along with us. That’s a real hand-me-down!
One of the conversations that I had early in rabbinic school about how we connect to the wisdom of Torah has always stayed with me. While still in London, at Leo Baeck College, Professor Lisa Grant, Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College, New York, visited for a week and opened the doorway to a deeper kind of engagement with Torah for me. Perhaps it was because, at that early stage of rabbinic studies, we were deeply engrossed in trying to understand what the text actually said, or perhaps it was because we were immersed in the early history of our people at that time. But that kind of intellectual and academic immersion, while important, had distanced me from what, for me, were the more significant questions – how does the Torah of our texts connect to our lives today?
Dr. Grant asked us to be mindful of two different ways to make those connections. Both were legitimate, but our choice of which strategy to employ in different learning settings could make a huge difference in how we helped others connect to the wisdom of our tradition. “Do we start with life, and then seek to connect those life experiences to Torah, or do we start with the text of the Torah, and then seek to connect that text to something in life?” she asked. Over and over again, when seeking to make Judaism come alive for those to whom the text of Torah is too foreign and, perhaps, too frightening a place to start, I’ve found the way in through the Torah of our lives.
When I sit down with a bar or bat mitzvah student to begin to study their Torah portion with them, I always emphasize the importance of teaching both kinds of Torah to the congregation. That’s what we’ve always done – even when we read hard-to-penetrate ancient midrashim, we find Rabbis of old who were seeking to share observations about human nature, or the kind of world they lived in, and connect these observations back to Torah. Revelation continues to unfold, over and over again, when we are able to make those connections come alive today. And so, with those students, I usually begin by trying to get to know them a little better – to find out what they are passionate about, what activities they do, what issues they care about or organizations they have volunteered with so that, when we open the Torah commentary and start to read, we can do so with an eye out for those connections to the life of the student.
What does life to Torah look like? Looking back on your life so far, can you think of a conversation that you had with someone, or someone who opened the door to a new experience for you that sent you in a whole new direction? Or, looking back, you recognize that there was a time in your life when you were heading one way and, just because of a particular interaction – maybe a ‘chance’ encounter – you now recognize that there was a moment when you changed track to be on the path you find yourself now? I can think of many such moments in my life: the friend who encouraged me to go to my first Reform Jewish student event; the woman who introduced me to the music of Debbie Friedman; the room mate who asked me the right questions in the right way that, eventually, enabled me to come out as a lesbian, first to myself and then to others…
In the Torah, these kinds of experiences are moments of angelic encounter: the man that Hagar meets in the desert who, when she tells what she is running from but does not know where she is running to, tells her what direction she must go in next; the man that Joseph encounters in the field when he’s seeking his brothers, who points him to where he can now find his brothers, without whom the rest of his story with all its ups and downs might never have unfolded; the man who wrestles all night with Jacob, helping him to come to terms with his past and accept a new sense of identity… these are all understood to be “angels” in rabbinic tradition.
Why does it make a difference to teach and share about these connections between life and text? There are many answers to that question. For me, connecting to an ancient wisdom text that is part of my faith heritage has the power to enrich the meaning of the everyday events of my life. It also gives me a language with which to acknowledge the innate holiness of what otherwise might be dismissed as ordinary. We can simply speak of important influences in our lives, life-altering moments, and changes that we made. Or we can speak of “angelic encounters” – labeling the energy that was present in a particular encounter or experience as powerfully connected to the path of our life experience. I know that, for me, I’m more likely to feel and notice the spiritual power of those experiences if I have language to label them as something special and noteworthy. I am more likely to recognize that there is Torah in the ordinary, everyday of my life.
This is but one example of how, beginning by noticing the Torah of our lives we can find ourselves in the human drama played out in the Torah of our texts. There are so many more. When we can bring these two Torahs together, we see the power of Jewish wisdom to help us navigate and make meaning of our lives.
I’ve done everything “right”: given my children Jewish education, sent them to Jewish camps, spent time with them in Israel and modeled engaged Jewish living. But with the celebration of my second child becoming a bat mitzvah and officially beginning her journey as a Jewish adult, I can now say with certainty that my children will not be Jews like me.
That this was ever a consideration is on many levels absurd. Happily, from the moment a child first rolls over on its own, children work mightily to dispel the arrogance of parents who misguidedly assume their offspring exist to replicate their values and approach to life. They refuse to eat reasonably, they sleep on their own schedule, they make their own friends, choose their own clothes, challenging us at each step until we understand that while they absorb much from us, children will make their own way in the world.
And yet, when it comes to Judaism (and sports or alma matter affiliation which are like religions to many- but that is another article) people somehow expect continuity and are surprised and frightened by change. In no small part, I believe that this comes from a vision of what religious tradition is or is meant to be. As Jewish tradition teaches, God gave Moses the Torah as Sinai and Moses passed it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, the same words the same Torah passed down generation to generation. We change and religion remains eternal.
As a historian, I know this was never true. Judaism has survived in no small part because of its ability to adapt and change. I will cede that in the past change was less possible, because of external limitations, and slower to occur because of the limitations of technology. But with the emancipation of the Jews and the industrial revolution, change has become the reality. If we presume that our children should replicate our vision for the Jewish future, we will be disappointed.
Absurd then. It should not even be a consideration. And yet. And yet, what is the point of investing in Jewish education if they will not guarantee continuity? And yet, how can we not feel like we have failed? I hear these questions frequently from parents who have done all that they thought “right’ “are now launching children who are “walking off the path” and making different Jewish choices than their parents would envision for them. Some are becoming less religious, others more so. Some are more left wing, others lean more to the right.
As a rabbi, I understand where they are coming from. On the day I was ordained, a rabbi I respect greatly, placed his hands on my shoulders and entrusted me to pass on the tradition to the next generation. But even as I gladly took on this challenge, I was keenly aware that my children’s Judaism could not be my own –for in an era of change each generation will have to find its own.
There is loss and uncertainty that comes with letting go. Some of the institutions and customs, which I have long benefited from and loved, are loosing relevance and others will undoubtedly disappear. And it can be painful and scary. The fluidity of religious life in America means that experimenting is inevitable. Some of the experiments will be ones that will disappoint me and others in my generation personally and collectively.
Over thirty years ago, my parents pushed the envelope of what was Jewishly possible by finding a synagogue that would allow me (albeit under my father’s blessing) to read from the Torah. It was a move that must have both puzzled and bothered their parents and one that ultimately opened the door for me to become much more religious than they ever imagined.
I am not alone. It is hard to imagine a more committed and creative group of rabbis than the ones who populated my community of Rabbis Without Borders. Going around the table with the first cohort, it turned out to our surprise that only a small fraction of the rabbis represented same denomination of Judaism as in which they grew up. Commitment yes, continuity yes, but also real and meaningful change.
Today, there is a Jewish creative cultural renaissance that is showcasing Jewish themes and values in every aspect of artistic endeavor. There is a renewal of Jewish learning that is taking new forms. A sense of global Jewish life is being renewed with the help of technology and travel. As a community, we are more inclusive and diverse than we have been in decades. Some of this I could and did imagine, other aspects were beyond my own envisioning. Without a willingness to change and challenge the received Jewish wisdom, none of this would have been possible.
Launching children onto the path of adulthood is bittersweet. As they make their own path, children will make their own choices many of which will not be your own. But there is also tremendous hope and possibility that comes from allowing the next generation to imagine and then create their own truth and reality. Both as a parent and as a rabbi, I look forward to seeing how the next generation takes the tradition they receive to create Judaism that will in time be passed down and transformed.
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In the fortunate cases it is the grandparents, often it is the parents, and sometimes even a sibling who stands before the congregation and presents a tallit. Early in the service, the child celebrating becoming bar or bat mitzvah the tradition is literally handed down generation to generation. As the child takes the sacred object from their elders and wraps about their shoulders, the message of the day is clear. Just as I have done, you too shall do too.
Continuity has a power of its own. It is wondrous to see grandsons and sons stand side by side with fathers and grandfathers that are similarly wrapped. But even today rare is the grandmother or even the mother who covers the top of the beautiful outfit with a tallit. Yet, the girls in my community, with only the exception of those who affiliate Orthodox, not only wear a tallit on the day they celebrate becoming bat mitzvah but make it part of their regular religious garb. They are breaking new ground.
The tallit has become a symbol of not only of continuity but also of change.
On the rare occasions when I attended synagogue as a child, my father’s tallit was both a refuge and a source of entertainment. But when it came time to celebrate my coming of age, the mere fact that I would chant Torah (with my father saying the blessing with me—lest the agency be mine entirely) was so radical that we had to travel far from home to find a rabbi willing to allow it. A girl wearing a tallit was literally unthinkable.
At the start of the Jewish feminist movement, women and girls battled and largely won the right to take their place at the Torah. But when it came to adopting the ritual wear that historically goes with the privileges and opportunities of Torah reading, the issues were significantly more complex. In part, I suspect that there was a desire to push forward but not too much. Even as Jewish women asserted their power they did not want to ‘be men,’ as they were often accused of being. In addition to the historic prohibitions on women reading Torah, there are prohibitions against women taking on ‘the dress of men.’ Furthermore, 30 years ago the Reform movement, which played a significant role pioneering change, did not encourage ritual garb regardless of gender.
Today in most communities—even Orthodox ones—the place of women next to the Torah is no longer a question. But change is happening when it comes to tallit.
I bought my first tallit in my early 20s. It was large, woolen and woven like my fathers but had colored stripes instead of the traditional blues and blacks. It was as wildly different as the very fact that I dared wear such a thing. Today, as I shop with my daughter ahead of her being called to the Torah, I am struck by the array of feminine materials, cuts, colors and designs that she has to choose from in addition to the more historic types. No one would confuse a lace pink flowery tallit with the ‘dress of men.’ The modern bat mitzvah can choose a tallit that both expresses who she is as a person as well as her pride in her tradition.
Each time I attend bat mitzvah service in different synagogues of my community, I am struck by the passing on of the tallit. More than with the boys, this moment with the girl and her family encapsulates my hope for the next generation of Jews—regardless of gender. Wrap yourself in our tradition but make it your own and don’t be afraid of making change.
I’m a big fan of Julie Weiner’s blog at The Jewish Week. It’s one of those blogs that I read fairly regularly, not because I find myself agreeing with everything she writes (and I’ll admit that I, like many, tend to read people with whom I agree). Rather, I read her blog because I find that she challenges many of my borders as a rabbi in ways that are intelligently and often compellingly stated.
This week she brings our attention to a new feature at another site that provides an incredible resource to interfaith families – interfaithfamily.com. They are now hosting a parenting blog where non-Jewish parents raising Jewish kids, and Jewish parents in interfaith households, are writing and reflecting on their experiences in Jewish life, family, and community.
The presence of these multi-varied families in our communities is raising new questions and challenges that rabbis must respond to. And different rabbis will respond in very different ways, based on a range of factors that include halachic frameworks, pragmatic considerations, pastoral support, educational opportunity, and sociological reality.
In this area of my professional life, I find that I am still learning. My borders, so to speak, are shifting. Some of the kinds of questions and situations I find myself challenged to consider:
- A convert to Judaism wishes to name their baby daughter after her deceased, Christian mother in a Jewish baby-naming ceremony.
- A non-Jewish parent who has lived in the Jewish community and participated actively for over 10 years wishes to recite the blessings for an aliyah at their son’s bar mitzvah.
- A parent of a bar mitzvah student who, themselves, was raised with “both.” As an adult, they have been living a Jewish life, learning Hebrew, and studying Judaism. Can they participate in the bar mitzvah as a Jewish parent?
- A young adult was raised with “both.” They have decided to affirm Judaism as their sole religious identity, and go through the process of conversion. Now they are marrying a Christian and would like a rabbi and a minister to be part of the wedding ceremony.
- A Jewish and non-Jewish parent have a newborn son. What role can the non-Jewish side of the family play in the brit milah?
- A child is being raised with “both.” The Jewish mother brings him to a rabbi, asking for a program of Jewish study and a bar mitzvah. It is currently unknown whether a subsequent ritual (baptism, first communion, etc.) may be a further part of the child’s introduction into his parents’ faith communities.
These are just a handful of the real-life scenarios that I have encountered over the years. The issues they raise from a purely halachic perspective are different. Some are, actually, relatively straightforward. Others, however, will receive very different responses from different rabbis, determined by the factors above that may be more or less dominant in the approach of the particular rabbi, perhaps also informed by a Jewish denomination’s official position on the matter.
They are the reality of living in a world where we are blessed, in the USA, to live at a time when so many non-Jews choose to support Jewish choices for their children and choose to fully participate in Jewish family and Jewish community. I am reminded of a conversation I once had with high school students in our religious school program. We were beginning a course on comparative religion and I asked them to share an experience that reflected an interfaith exchange. Several students remarked that they had friends in public school who would describe themselves as “half Jewish” or even “a quarter Jewish” (with one Jewish grandparent). My students were skeptical. Having spent years in formal, Jewish education, studied for a bar or bat mitzvah, and more, they questioned the rights of these friends to lay claim to any part of their religious identity.
While I did not deny the complexities of how individuals, let alone the organized Jewish communal world, should respond to these statements of identity, I offered my students the following food for thought. We forget easily, but it was only a few decades ago that almost no-one who wasn’t bound into the Jewish community by birth would choose to identity with us. To do so would have excluded you from full participation in many strata of American society, denied access to certain clubs, and discouraged from living in certain neighborhoods. How amazing that a teenager with a relatively tenuous connection to Judaism chooses to identify with that part of their family heritage as a badge of pride!
I recently met a young woman who has had no formal Jewish education but the matrilineal Jewish line has been preserved. But she had to go back to the burial records of her great-grandparents to prove her Jewish ancestry. Both her Jewish grandmother and her Jewish mother had married non-Jews. Having attended a Birthright Israel program, and subsequently returned to Israel for a longer visit, she is now preparing to make aliyah. What an incredibly journey!
I have no easy answers to the complexities that rabbis and Jewish institutions face in navigating the new landscapes of identity and belonging that are emerging. But what I can say is this. My perspectives have shifted as a result of the conversations I have had with those who are traveling through those landscapes. I have gained a profound respect for those whose path is not straightforward. And, increasingly, I have understood my role to facilitate entry into richer Jewish life and ask myself, in each instance, how my role as gatekeeper might alter the path of the person I encounter. The answer may not always change, but the conversation most certainly is transformed.
Before I could read and write in English, I spoke Yiddish. At age 3 I learned the Hebrew alef-bet alongside the English alphabet. Together they remain by my side, right to left and left to right. This summer while in Israel I will continue my love affair with Hebrew and study yet again all the cool new phrases and lingo that I have missed since my last visit five years ago.
In my sixth decade, I continue teaching the holy Hebrew tongue from scratch to my budding bar/bat mitzvah students. I chant the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta with them and I empower them to decode the mysteries in all those final letters and strange vowels that play upon our gutteral abilities. Some Americans can do it better than others, but most struggle with a more perfect “chet.” Each one of them succeeds in getting close to their Hebrew heritage.
Some parents ask me again and again: “Can my child have a bar mitzvah without learning Hebrew? Hebrew is such a barrier. It takes too much time to learn. They’ll never use it again. I hated learning it myself during Hebrew school. Why put the pressure on them? ”
Ah, yes, the Hebrew controversy yet again. Why Hebrew?
I listen and I empathize for there is truth in everything they say. And then there is another truth: The veracity that the Jews have a special relationship with this ancient language with its venerable sounds. Hebrew is the best kept spiritual secret of the Jewish people.
Classical Hebrew is used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world. The language is attested from the 10th century BCE to the late Second Temple period, after which the language developed into Mishnaic Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is spoken by most of the eight million people in Israel, and it is one of the official languages of the country, along with Arabic. As a foreign language it is studied by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, by archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, by theologians, and by Christian seminarians.
To learn Hebrew is to tap into a resource that offers more than just the acquisition of knowledge. Hebrew connects the Jewish child with a historical telescope that reaches beyond our insular present. Putting sounds and words together creates a jigsaw puzzle of revelations. Like a mathematical logarithm, when they figure out how to read the most familiar of prayers, a light sparks inside of them.
The child delights in himself/herself when upon entering the synagogue they can read from the siddur that only a few months ago looked like a Chinese manuscript from a disappearing dynasty. They embrace this “adult” practice. This mandatory mitzvah to learn the Hebrew language, one prayer at a time, is magical, mystical and memorable.
I teach Hebrew by design. God’s design.
I run a pretty rockin’ Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah service. I’ve officiated at several hundred of these events. I’ve been to hundreds more by some great Rabbis, but even with the warmest clergy, the best intended preparation programs, and helpful guidance of thoughtful books such as Putting God on the Guest List (by, Jeffrey K. Salkin), Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are missing the mark.
The original meaning of the celebration was that a child was entering puberty, and now was responsible for the commandments. Puberty can be a tricky time, no wonder so many wise traditions developed rituals for its arrival. Age 13 boys (and 12 for girls), is the average on-set of puberty. In the Mishnah (200 CE), this corresponded to having grown 2 pubic hairs (2 is for real, 1 eh, might just be shmutz), B. Talmud Niddah 52a. As a rite of passage, dealing with the physical changes of adolescents might be meaningful. However, we live in an age where people are rightfully creeped-out by almost anybody talking about sexuality with minors. Perhaps, especially clergy. So puberty remains the elephant in the room. Even dealing with the physical and hormonal changes of becoming a teen is a topic that most clergy wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Because we collectively fail to connect what is really happening in the life of the teen, the celebration’s meaning, both the service and party, has been diminished. When a rite of passage looses its core it can become fairly comical, think Keeping the Faith with Ben Stiller and Ed Norton, or more recently the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man. Faux-Mitzvahs have been popping up over the past few years. These are celebrations for 13 year-olds of any religion that want to celebrate the way their Jewish friends are doing. And why not? Have you heard the joke: “That was more ‘bar’ than ‘mitzvah’?”
I love the “today you are a man” speech. This kid doesn’t have a job, nor has he seriously considered how he intends on investing his 401k. Even being a little league star hardly counts as manhood. In truth, this kid is about to head into some fairly big ups and downs. Such is the nature of becoming a teenager: All the physical capabilities without the sechel (smarts) to navigate. Consider this insight from the Department of Health and Human Services:
With an immature prefrontal cortex, even if teens understand that something is dangerous, they may still go ahead and engage in the risky behavior. Recognizing the asynchrony of development of the regions of the brain helps us to see adolescent risk-taking in a whole new light. This broadened view of risk-taking and the concept of self-regulation are explored in the next section.
As my Head of School at New Community Jewish High School, Dr. Bruce Powell, says, “The car rental agencies have it right.” It turns out, you can’t rent a car until you are 25 years old, the accurate age of the end of adolescence. With brain scans, neurologists tell us that the frontal lobe continues to develop until the age of 25 (leave it to the free-market to figure it out before science). If we’re not going to deal with kids’ physical and psychic development at Bar Mitzvah, we might be wise to wait until the next, more politically correct milestone, maybe getting a driver’s license, or high school graduation. And if we want to hold onto the golden “today you are a man” line, might I suggest waiting till age 25.