Amid monsoon-like weather conditions, with rains so heavy that she could barely see while driving, Marilyn Karlstein was worried the beautiful new dress and Jerusalem silk tallit she bought for her bat mitzvah would get soaked.
Karlstein — who in May 2002 finally became a bat mitzvah at Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge, N.J., at age 64 — waited more than five decades longer than most Jewish women for that special day.
Bar and bat mitzvahs have been traditionally associated with years of Hebrew school studies, stress over the d’var torah with anxious parents, and that preteen awkwardness on the dance floor. But now the Jewish rite of passage typically reserved for teens is being transformed by Jewish adults seeking to rediscover or reclaim their Jewish identity in front of their family, friends and community.
Karlstein, who is my grandmother, shared her adult bat mitzvah experience with me.
“Like anyone, I was nervous and excited for the occasion, but I also had my eight classmates with me for support,” she said.
The phenomenon of adult bar and bat mitzvahs has become a regular feature at many non-Orthodox synagogues throughout the world for converts to Judaism, people who were denied celebrations as children, or those rediscovering their Jewish identity.
The bar mitzvah is a post-biblical practice that likely began to emerge in Judaism during the Middle Ages. Today bar and bat mitzvahs are a widespread feature of Judaism in modern popular culture. However, the phenomenon of adult bar and bat mitzvah evolved during the middle of the 20th century, when an increasing number of men began seeking to reconnect to their Jewish identities.
“They created opportunities for these men to study and applied the name ‘bar mitzvah’ metaphorically to the adult ritual,” York University Professor Stuart Schoenfeld writes for MyJewishLearning.com.
Rabbi Albert Axelrad, who ran Brandeis University’s Hillel, was the first to hold adult bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies in the early 1970s, according to Schoenfeld.
Men and women, however, are not required to have a bar or bat mitzvah. In Judaism, a person is recognized as an adult at age 13 for men and 12 for woman, regardless of whether a ceremony is performed or not. “The very lack of necessity makes such an effort even more remarkable as a concrete, hard-won, and public affirmation of Jewish identity and commitment,” writes author Ellen Jaffe-Gill.
The phenomenon of adult bar and mitzvahs, meanwhile, stems from the move in recent decades toward egalitarian practices in most non-Orthodox sects of Judaism. It has become an opportunity for women who were denied the chance to celebrate bat mitzvahs during their youth.
“I was finally fulfilling a childhood dream,” my grandmother said.
“I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home of immigrant parents,” she added. “I could do the services and prayers better than all the boys, but being in an Orthodox shul, the girls could not even sit with the men, let alone lead the service.”
Perhaps most importantly for women, learning to become a bat mitzvah has become an avenue to acquire the skills to be equal participants in synagogue life. However, adult bar and bat mitzvahs are not just limited to those seeking to rediscover their Jewish identity or overcoming boundaries. Carol Stollar, who has helped organize and plan the adult bar and bat mitzvah classes at Temple Reyim in Newton, Mass., says her classes have included converts to Judaism as well.
Regardless of the participants’ personal history, the process is seen as an opportunity to connect with Jewish identity more deeply. Many synagogues cater to this by turning adult bar and bat mitzvah classes into an advanced course on Judaism that may take several years to complete.
“The class was like an advanced college course on religion and much more difficult than the classes given to children. It was a two- or three-year course, teaching the Bible, the Psalms, the Sages, Jewish history, holidays and other religions, as well as the meaning and order of the service,” my grandmother said.
Though the more advanced educational component helps to differentiate an adult bar or bat mitzvah, the experience tends to take on added personal and spiritual significance for the students.
This may come from the fact that these adults are choosing to go through this process rather than being forced to do so as a teenager by their parents.
“When you are bar or bat mitzvah as a child, most times you really don’t want it, but your parents do and it’s an obligation. As an adult, it’s because you want to accomplish this wonderful achievement,” my grandmother said.
Although some teenagers do embrace the moment to enter adulthood, adults tend to have a greater appreciation of it.
“It was thrilling to read from the Torah and my portion of the Haftorah in front of everyone,” my grandmother added. “All in all, it was a wonderful day to share with my children, grandchildren, family and friends.”