The ProsenPeople

The Sisterhood of Bat Mitzvah

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 | Permalink

On Monday, Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick wrote about the history of the bat mitzvah for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Today, Barbara Vinick writes about her own experiences. 

I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, the ceremony that marks the coming of age of Jewish girls. When I reached 13 in the 1950s, girls who attended three-day-a-week Hebrew School at our suburban Conservative synagogue north of Boston did not have that option. In those post-World War II years before the second wave of feminism, a public coming of age ceremony at Temple Beth El was strictly the realm of the boys. I didn’t really mind being excluded. After all, who wanted to go to special practice sessions with the cantor all year?

Not me. And the thought of chanting Hebrew and giving a speech in front of an audience of my parents' friends gave me chills. Ditto for a party with boys; I'd rather read a book. So I was relieved, even if I had to forgo the presents.

Fast forward about 50 years. Bat mitzvah has taken hold as a standard life cycle event for Jewish girls not only in the United States, but in every branch of Judaism all over the world. That’s what I discovered when I took on a project to collect stories for a book about bat mitzvah. The majority of the women and girls who wrote the entries had found their bat mitzvah ceremonies extremely meaningful and memorable, representing in some communities hard-won victories for religious freedom and egalitarianism. And some women like me had celebrated a bat mitzvah after studying as an adult many years later.

So now, after so much time has passed, I have begun to rethink my reticence. Why not now? I missed a golden opportunity last year when an adult bat mitzvah class began at my synagogue. Ironically, I thought I was too busy with my work for the impending publication of the bat mitzvah book. I'm still ambivalent. Performing in front of an audience still makes me nervous and, at 65+, my singing voice isn't as clear as it once was. But I'm slowly getting used to the idea. When bat mitzvah has meant so much to women around the world, who am I to resist joining their sisterhood? Stay tuned.

Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz have been blogging here all week.

Today I Am a Woman

Monday, January 09, 2012 | Permalink
Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick are the editors of the recently published Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World. They will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

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 in the U.S. took place in 1924 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.

Check back here all week to read more from Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick.