Bat Mitzvah as Rite of Passage into Self and Community

My daughter Ktoret Ashira was born on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem in 2001. Two and a half years ago we celebrated her bat mitzvah at Shira Hadasha in Melbourne, Australia. The bat mitzvah was a true rite of passage and transformation that comprised many aspects and layers, several of which I detail below. Each child/adult is different and each rite of passage will have its own dimensions that are affected by the individual child, the family situation, educational context, the broader community and more.

Having space to be fully seen

Ktoret spent the better  part of a year learning how to leyn (read Torah from the Torah scroll) and reflecting on her portion, the opening of the whole Torah, from the beginning of Genesis. She took on a lot of responsibility by choosing to read the full Torah portion, as well as Haftarah, taking out and returning the Torah to the Ark, as well as delivering  a d’var Torah (Word of Torah). She also led the Kabbalat Shabbat service the night before. She took her full space as a ritual leader in the congregation, and did so with such grace, charm and intentionality. It was deeply moving for everyone, and not only for me her mother.

Having space to express one’s voice

Upon my request, Ronit Prawer, Ktoret’s experienced teacher extraordinaire, noted down the questions and significant conversations and reactions that Ktoret had while she was learning how to read her Torah portion. Ronit’s teaching style nurtured Ktoret’s unique perspective and voice as she valued the responses to and questions she had of the text. When it became time to compose her d’var Torah, I sat with the list that Ronit shared with me and I interviewed Ktoret, and typed out her responses. This formed the basis of Ktoret’s d’var Torah, which you can read here.

Ktoret knew that I had a wonderful birth experience with her and that gender equality was a strong guiding value in our household, and in her d’var Torah she explained that she did not accept the curse that Eve got from God — both about grief in childbirth and about women being ruled by men. (With this in mind she chanted these verses in the specific mourning trope of Lamentations!)

In addition, her great-grandmother had passed over in the previous year and Ktoret spoke about  a powerful lesson she learnt which changed her perspective about death. She heard her grandmother talk about a hospice nurse who made a visit to her great-grandmother as the time of death was approaching and the nurse (who had just met Nana Trude) said “Have a great journey, Love!” For Ktoret this showed that people can be significant to you and they can change your life even if you only meet them once or know them a very short time. She also learnt from this story that death doesn’t have to be bad and can be seen as a journey. Ktoret shared these and other important life lessons that she was in the process of learning and absorbing into the depths of her being.

Being nurtured by the sisterhood

On the Friday night before her bat mitzvah, as Ktoret was leading Kabbalat Shabbat, flanked by other women of the community, it struck me that Ktoret was so blessed to have a whole precious group of women of different ages who had been nurturing her to take her place in the community, have her voice and play a role. As my friend recently said, it is so important for us that our young and growing daughters have many “mothers” and also “sisters,” many different positive and nourishing relationships and connections with other women, as well as with their mothers.

Joining the community of men and women

In the few years since the bat mitzvah, Ktoret has continued to read Torah monthly at the Leader Minyan in Jerusalem, thanks to the encouragement of and incentivization by her dad. I am struck by how appreciated she is as a member of the community. It makes a difference not only to have women who are willing and able to read Torah, but the presence of active young women taking ritual leadership encourages women both younger and older to take their place and have their voice in community. Ktoret also started a tradition of baking a cake for the minyan as well! She is blessed to have that space to express her belonging and they are blessed to have her and acknowledge as much.

The gift that keeps on giving

An important part of the bat mitzvah was using it as an opportunity to spread the light and contribute more broadly to community. With that in mind, we raised money for an Israeli-based organization called Microfy that provides micro-grants for women who are refugees and asylum seekers to start businesses in Israel. This connection led us to visit Hulot detention center and attend a Freedom Seder, as well as to host two friends, Omar and Adam, for a few nights after they were released from Hulot.

In these ways, bat mitzvah becomes a rite of entry into self, sisterhood, prayer community and the wider world, all for the good.

As I reflect back on this milestone, I both honor the journey and simultaneously understand that now I would approach it somewhat differently. That is the way things happen when our lifecycle events reflect our integrity. They meet us at different moments in our journeys.

It just dawned on me that I am waking up from being under a 20-year spell of the patriarchal god. I don’t know that I want to be in constant negotiation with male-centered texts. I don’t want to contort myself to find specks of light. I do want to bequeath to my daughter the knowing and constant unfolding of the knowing of the power of her body and the power of the earth and our connection to it. I want to honor our blood and give it back to the earth. I want to feel my contiguity with the earth and my own creatureliness and I want my daughter to have that similar sense of earthly belonging — even as we are pulled up and always joined to the heavens.

Rabba Dr. Melanie Landau is available for consultations to create transformative, deep and touching rites of passage. Not for the faint-hearted.

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