When I was a young girl growing up on Long Island, it was not the norm for girls to have a bat (or as we called it then, bas) mitzvah. Sure, I knew one or two girls who had them, but they weren’t from my shul.
They attended Temple Gates of Zion, which was much more liberal than Congregation Tree of Life, the Conservative synagogue my family had joined. I attended Hebrew school there, and quit voluntarily after my second year.
“Don’t you want to have a bat mitzvah?” Rabbi Gottlieb asked me.
Uh-uh. Maybe, if my sister had had one, I would have felt differently. But I had already gotten out of the class all that I thought I would need: the ability to read my siddur and follow along. That I didn’t know what I was reading made no difference to me. So no, but thanks.
Hebrew school was boring, dull, uninteresting, dry, unenlightening, deadly and not where I wanted to spend my time. The teacher spoke very little English, had no concept of how to teach, held no control over her class and paid most of her attention to Tzvika, her young son, who sat in the classroom while she taught.
The class was mostly girls, and we had our own agenda for these forced incarcerations in the synagogue. We insisted that our morah (teacher) allow us time for snack. And during snack, there was no teaching. And we insisted that, since all our mothers were active in the sisterhood, we needed to follow their example, and have secret pals. Which meant, time to exchange our secret pal goodies. Which meant, out of the two hours allowed for class, we were now down to 90 minutes.
None of the girls in my class celebrated b’not mitzvah, to my knowledge. In fact, until 1993, when my daughter had her bat mitzvah, I had never even attended one.
As time went on, it became more acceptable, and then commonplace, for girls to go through the same process as the boys: Begin Hebrew school in the Alef class, no later than third grade of public school. Go on through Hay class, take private tutoring lessons with the cantor or b’nai mitzvah teacher, celebrate your bar or bat mitzvah. If your experience was a good one, you would likely continue on through Hebrew High.
When it was time for my first child to become a bat mitzvah, she asked me if I would do it with her. I was happy that she wanted to share the spotlight with me but reluctant for very private reasons. Not wanting to disappoint her, however, I went to our rabbi and asked his opinion.
“Sure,” he said, “You can become a bat mitzvah with our adult class. But not in time for your daughter’s bat mitzvah.” Well, in that case, forget it. His reasoning was that it’s more than just learning the parashah. It’s all the other lessons that go along with it. I felt it wasn’t necessary; hadn’t I already learned this stuff?
Working in the Jewish community as I do, my Jewish education has gone far beyond what my earlier Hebrew school would ever have touched. Now I knew so much more about the history of the Jewish people. As part of my work as a Jewish journalist, I read books, dvrai Torah, articles, columns. We celebrate the holidays at my office with some learning and tradition. More than just book-learning, my Jewish education was now part of my daily life. So did I really need to do more?
I had long since learned that, although I never got up and publicly proclaimed my readiness to accept the responsibilities of a Jewish adult, I became a bat mitzvah automatically on my thirteenth birthday on the Jewish calendar.
In reality, I was glad of the excuse not to join her on the bimah. I had often looked at the announcements of adult b’not mitzvah classes with a secret desire to join one, but I didn’t feel, somehow, that it was right. Or that I was worthy of it. Or some nonsense like that. In my shul, now and then the gabbai would come to me as I sat in the pew on Shabbat and ask if I would take an aliyah. I always said no. I gave no reason, I just said no. I didn’t feel that it was right, since I had not had a formal bat mitzvah, to stand at the Torah and recite the prayers.
And then I received an e-mail from my sister-in-law. She was planning the honors list for her daughter’s bat mitzvah. And I was being given an aliyah. And not just me, my mother, who had also never been called to the Torah, was being given an aliyah — and she had accepted. So did I. I didn’t make a big deal out of it, but I was very nervous.
I felt that this was a major step: minor to onlookers, who would never know the tug-of-war inside me, and to my family, who never knew that I had doubts about being called to the Torah for any reason. But major to me, because it was something I had purposefully avoided for so long. And then came the big day.
Mom took her place at the bimah. She didn’t miss a beat. I took my turn. No problem. Piece of cake. I looked at the Torah open in front of me and recited the blessings. When the next person was called, I moved aside, to the next position as is traditional, to signify my reluctance to leave the presence of the Torah. And then I returned to my seat.
Later in the service, the rabbi mentioned that this bat mitzvah was not just the first time Aileen, my niece, had been called to the Torah. It was also the first time for her grandmother, my mother. He talked about the mitzvah, the two generations, and everybody beamed. Including me.
I didn’t tell anyone it was really three generations.