What Can We Learn from B'nei Mitzvah Past?

Bmitzvah.org: B Mitzvah! The Bar and Bat Mitzvah (R)evolution

A Jew from Yemen once told me how he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah back in the land of his birth. What left an indelible impression on him was staying up all the previous night with his grandfather, and together reciting the entire Book of Psalms. Submitted by Rabbi Monty Eliasov, Austin, TX

Beth Ornstein was bat mitzvah in 2002. "This has been the best year of my life. I really worked hard, and everyone had a great time. My grandmother came from England, she’s 84. I was so happy to see her." Beth has a book of pictures and memorabilia she’d created from the event, it was bursting with masks and every note sent back to indicate attendance had a blessing on it. That it seems, was her teacher’s idea. "She taught us to make the return cards a spiritual message to lift each other’s spirits on the path to bat mitzvah. That works, you know!" What about the masks? "My bat mitzvah as around Purim time. I researched every midrash I could find about Queen Esther and wrote one of my own. I asked my friends to write midrashim (story commentaries) as presents for me, a few really did! They read their at the party and then they surprised me with a skit about Queen Vashti. Then everyone sang the Esther song, even the stodgiest people in our family got into the spirit of it. It was a day to remember!"

Sandra Goldman was 13 in 1956, but became "bat mitzvah in 1955, because the congregation did not want anyone to imagine the rights of a Jewish male were being conferred upon me. I was not allowed to read from the Torah, but rather gave a one page Torah talk at Friday night services. For this privilege my parents lobbied for three years prior to the event. Her mother recalls: "We had one daughter, no sons and so our awakening began. We were very active in the synagogue, I think we had even opposed bat mitzvah for someone else's daughter a few years before. I began to invite members of the board over for Shabbat dinners. Sandra would sweetly chant the kiddush (blessing for the Sabbath done over a ritual cup of wine) and some would marvel at the novelty of a girl doing so. Others would chide us as being inappropriate, suggest we would give her "notions" and suggest perhaps I’d have a change of life baby boy to fulfill my desires for a Torah scholar in the family. Ultimately, the fact that we were major donors and threatened to withdraw from the building fund campaign was the key factor in securing her "bat mitzvah." There was no major preparation involved, the rabbi insisted that she report on what the sage Rashi said about something in the portion and deleted Sandra’s personal commentary about the questions the portion raised for her. We tried to compensate by throwing an elegant party, but she was very out of sorts through the whole thing, angry at the rabbi and disappointed. Oh, we wanted her to at least carry the Torah around for people to kiss it, but the ritual committee voted a resounding no."

Alica Millman was bat mitzvah in 1998 in Queens, NY. Her congregation does not allow women’s voices to be heard during services and a one-way mirror covers the women’s balcony that separates them from men in the synagogue. Her aunt, who is no longer orthodox, went to great lengths to make the following telephone interview possible:

"Yes, what Aunt Sarah says is true. We have a sort of secret women’s society. The rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) is a very learned woman, he actually studies with her, though I don't think we're supposed to let on that we know that. When the men go to the rabbi’s shiur (class) many of we women meet her at Sarah Leah’s home, because she has a big living room. There we study what she has learned that week. We don’t have access to a Torah, but when a girl reaches age twelve, about two years ago, we started celebrating her transition to womanhood. We bring her small flowers and different editions of the book of psalms. I worked very hard on a talk about all the examples of love I could find in the Torah. I quoted a Hassid, the regular sages don’t have that much to say about love. Because of that one girl told me I’ll end up marrying someone with a fur hat and long ear locks. I don’t like that kind of prejudice, I just want lots of children with a pious husband who isn’t uptight. Besides, we don’t leave the neighborhood, where could I meet such a person? Did you read that Dinah went out to meet the daughters of the land? She was so punished for this. But I think about Aunt Sarah’s choice all the time."

Lynn Feldheim was not bat mitzvah. "I grew up in center city Philadelphia and belonged to the big conservative synagogue. In 1953 when I turned twelve and wanted to start studying for bat mitzvah like my cousin did in Miami, the rabbi turned ashen at my question and told me to ask my parents about the important role of women in Judaism, keeping the home and having babies. He said I should be concerned with looking beautiful and playing with my friends. In my heart that was it for me and the practice of Judaism. Today I’m a member of the Ethical Culture Society, it serves my purposes. Of course I feel Jewish, but the only way I do Jewish is by being active in volunteer work." Upon being asked about the possibility of doing bat mitzvah as an adult she replied: "I don’t see any reason to contemplate such a thing."

Copyright 2002 P'nai Yachadut-Reclaiming Judaism and Rabbi Goldie Milgram