Reflections On The Bat Mitzvah Rite Nearly A Century Later
Tue, 04/17/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Sally Gottesman
Sally Gottesman

Ninety years ago this spring, on 86th Street in Manhattan, the first girl became a bat mitzvah. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein was invited to read from a chumash (a printed book of the Torah) — not a Torah scroll — on a Saturday morning — not a Friday night — by her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. She read and a revolution began. 

How did we get from that morning in 1922 to today, where most Jewish girls in New York and around the world have a bat mitzvah of some sort? A new exhibit, “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age,” is on view at the JCC in Manhattan and it seeks to answer the question. Based on research conducted by Moving Traditions, an organization I chair that encourages boys and girls to engage more deeply in Judaism, the exhibit chronicles the circuitous route of the bat mitzvah through the stories of the girl “pioneers” who brought this ritual to life. More than 150 women of all denominations whose bat mitzvahs were “firsts” in their community were interviewed.

Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah is included, and set in its historical context are many other firsts in local communities: a first Friday- night bat mitzvah, a first Saturday-morning bat mitzvah, a first to wear a tallit, a first to read Torah, a first adult bat mitzvah, etc.

Moving Traditions undertook this research because we are interested in how ritual evolves and is adopted by Jewish communities across America. Our impetus was our two successful projects for adolescents — Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood — that we’d like adopted as ritual in the lives of teens rather than a take-it-or-leave-it-program schools and synagogues offer.

Moving Traditions conducted the bat mitzvah research with an honest sense of urgency because many women who were among the first bat mitzvah pioneers are already dead, and many others are well over 70. Indeed, almost all of the rabbis who officiated in the first decades are long gone, and several rabbis who had important stories to tell passed away while we were in the survey phase of our work. 

What we learned was obvious, but critical: there are many stages to change and adaptation, even within the same synagogue.  Just as the revolution began by reading from a chumash rather than a Torah, and on a Saturday morning rather than a Friday night, change is neither linear nor consistent. Every synagogue espoused bat mitzvah in its own order and at its own pace. There were outside forces at play that spurred change on — such as inclusion of prayers for bat mitzvah in siddurim — but it took individuals in each community to advocate, often against steep pressure, for each step along the way.

The second lesson we learned was that partnerships rather than individuals brought about ritual change. There was often one instigator, but to make the bat mitzvah happen, it worked best when a girl, her parents, and the rabbis worked together. (Watch the six-minute video that accompanies the exhibit for two stories — one from the 1940 and one from the 1970s — of what happened when one of those stakeholders was absent: www.batmitzvahcomesofage.org.)

Finally, every woman we interviewed describes being motivated to participate, and galvanized by the experience of having had a bat mitzvah. None of these pioneers described her bat mitzvah as her graduation from Jewish life.

Unfortunately, thousands of girls and boys who will have their bat or bar mitzvah this year will say “I’ve graduated” from Jewish education. Indeed, most synagogue Hebrew school systems are designed for this “graduation,” and end in seventh or eighth grade, when teens have their bar or bat mitzvah. Thus, it is not without reason that young people think that the “final exam” is their bat or bar mitzvah ceremony. 

What can we learn from history, and specifically from “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age,” if we want teens to stay engaged in Jewish learning and the Jewish community rather than “graduate” when they are 12 and 13?

Bat mitzvah “pioneers” all gave serious thought to what it meant to be a girl, a woman, and a Jew at the time of their bat mitzvah and beyond. These issues engaged them with Judaism. Their b’not mitzvah invited them to wrestle with Judaism. We know from Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood that when boys and girls are invited, indeed required, to wrestle with questions of meaning — including gender and identity — in a Jewish context, it gives them the insight that Judaism is relevant and has an important language they can apply to their lives.

Thus, by the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah, my hope is that our Jewish education system asks the following questions of boys and girls as they become b’nei mitzvah, as they become women and men:

What does it mean to be a man? A woman? A Jew? A Jewish woman? A Jewish man? What is obligation? What is choice?  What does it mean to undergo a rite of passage into a community? What is one’s role in that community? How are you a pioneer as a woman? How are you a pioneer as a man?

In addressing these questions, teens will benefit. And so will we, the Jewish community, when b’nei mitzvah is a true stepping-stone into the Jewish community rather than a graduation from the Jewish community.

Sally Gottesman had a first Saturday morning bat-mitzvah at her Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, N.J., in 1975. She can be reached at sally@eleemosynary.net. “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age” is on view at the JCC in Manhattan through April 27. It was co-produced by Moving Traditions and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

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