It was a simple walk from her seat to the front of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a New York City synagogue. But when 12-year-old Judith Kaplan was summoned by her rabbi father to read from her Bible and recite some blessings, the act was revolutionary.
On a March Saturday in 1922, two years after women in America got the right to vote, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan broke tradition. He had, in essence, held a coming-of-age ceremony for his daughter, what boys at 13 had celebrated for centuries.
Of course, what Judith performed was not, in fact, identical. She didn’t read directly from the Torah, nor would the ceremony afford her the same synagogue privileges as males. But it did mark a giant step toward religious equality. Ninety years ago this month, it was the first American bat mitzvah.
A long, strange trip
Although the Society, which eventually evolved into the Reconstructionist movement, sought greater religious recognition for women, there were no overnight leaps to follow Kaplan’s bold example. It was more like evolution following revolution: Twenty-five years after Judith’s readings, only one-third of Conservative synagogues had adopted the practice. And then it wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that becoming a bat mitzvah transitioned from exotic exception to mainstream practice.
It’s been a long, strange trip, one that’s being celebrated this month in a series of programs at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Along with panel discussions and presentations, it includes “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age,” an exhibit co-created with Jenkintown-based Moving Traditions that will continue through April 27 at the JCC in Manhattan.
Rabbi Carole Balin, a professor of history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York who cocurated the exhibit, says it “honors those bat mitzvah pioneers who ascended to the bimah before the movement for gender equality in the American and Jewish communities took root.
“And pioneers deserve our attention.”
The more things change
While modern bat mitzvah girls sometimes add their own traditions — honoring a grandparent by wearing his or her prayer shawl, writing raps for the sentimental candle-lighting ceremony, even donating all of their gifts to their favorite cause — the oldest rituals remain constant. Girls must master Hebrew and its prayers, read directly from the Torah scroll, and offer some interpretation of scripture, a process that typically takes several years of basic education and intense concentration for about a year before the bat mitzvah.
Cantor Anita Hochman of M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill asks that students practice their Torah portions 30 minutes a day, six days a week. The emotional challenges — pulling off a very public ceremony at a difficult age — can be just as grueling. But Hochman sees the rewards as just as grand.
“I recognize that the girls, especially, may gain immeasurably from this beautiful Jewish experience,” she said. “They walk a little taller and feel a little more sure once they’ve accomplished something this challenging at the very age when they need that boost the most.”
It may be this early accomplishment that has catapulted so many women into putting their own imprint on Judaism. The most obvious: the emergence of women rabbis, which began when Sally Priesand was ordained by the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972, 50 years after Judith Kaplan’s big day.
Rabbi Roni Handler is editor of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s Ritualwell.org, a resource for innovative and traditional Jewish ceremonies. “What began as an effort to redress women’s ritual inequality has had the startling effect of reinvigorating Jewish ritual practice generally.”
Handler notes that baby-naming ceremonies for girls have taken their place alongside the Torah-ordained circumcision for boys. Female-centered Rosh Chodesh groups, where discussions about individual growth and spiritual challenges are the focus, thrive around the country.
Even the emergence of brilliant colors and beautiful textures for women’s kippot (caps) and prayer shawls suggest a vibrant female culture.
Says Handler, “The wonderful thing about modern Judaism is that we can add layers of innovation to the traditional. What began as a mission to include women in Judaism has paved the way for so much more.”
Gabi Cohen’s bat mitzvah in September was a mixture of ancestral connections and modern get-downness.
The Torah she read from was rescued from Europe during the Holocaust, an important distinction because Cohen’s great-grandmother, who died just a few weeks before her bat mitzvah, was a Holocaust survivor. Reading from the Torah made her nervous, but she remembers saying to herself, “You can do this!” And she did.
And then there was her post-ceremony celebration — a party with a theme she dubbed “Gabistock,” a nod to her affection for Woodstock-era music. Gabi’s dress, a triumph when it was found, was tie-dyed. And guests carried home tie-dyed Ts emblazoned with — what else? — peace signs.
Behind the scenes also were bat mitzvah situations old and new: Her mother, Marla, and her father, Yosef, were divorced and in new relationships. And Yosef’s mother, an observant Israeli who didn’t approve of girls reading from the Torah, ultimately skipped the event.
None of it is likely what the Jewish sages could have predicted, including blended families, party seating that doesn’t offend, and the enormous demands on today’s time-challenged families.
The result: Marla, a clinical psychologist, is working with M’kor Shalom’s Rabbi Richard Address and the synagogue’s health and wellness committee on a possible support group for parents of bar and bat mitzvah students.
“Until you experience it, you don’t realize how much stress even a happy event can bring,” Marla said. “I’d like to help other families through it.”
Rabbi Kenneth Carr of Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill has witnessed the range of emotions parents and students experience leading up to their big days.
“You see it all — excitement, anxiety, an attempt to be blasé. There can be misplaced anxiety and misplaced emphasis about a bat mitzvah, although we work very hard to dispel that.”
“The true emphasis,” said Carr, “should be on celebrating a child’s taking on adult religious responsibility. And it’s really up to the parents to make that the focus.”
At Or Ami, parents are expected to attend orientation sessions that educate them about the process, including tips on how to support their child through what can become a pressure-cooker. Still, said Carr, there’s always a singular moment of clarity that comes during the passing of the Torah through the generations, from grandparents to parents to child. “That,” he says, “is a pretty spectacular experience.”
For Hayley Kagan, her bat mitzvah’s most spectacular moment was the finish line.
Hayley is dyslexic, which meant she had to nearly double the usual preparation time.
Her mother, Gail Roth Kagan, didn’t have a bat mitzvah until later in life, but having that experience made her realize just how demanding it was for Hayley.
“My tutor and I came up with an analogy to the tortoise and the hare,” said Hayley, who had her bat mitzvah this month at Or Ami. “I had to work slowly and steadily to get to the finish line. That helped me not to get discouraged when I felt like there was so much to do.”
There are bat mitzvahs with girls who have special needs, “adventure” bat mitzvahs for students who train during mountain-climbing hikes, humanistic bat mitzvahs (similar to writing and defending a thesis), and of course, bat mitzvahs for women who never had the chance before.
At Shaare Shamayim Synagogue in the Far Northeast, a group of 12 women all older than 60 are training for an Aug. 19 rite of passage, one that will be a culmination of two years of intense monthly study and discussion with Rabbi Jean Claude Klein.
Participant Denise Ellner says the experience so far has been transformative.
“My brother’s bar mitzvah was the priority in our household,” says Ellner, a retired teacher. “But not having a bat mitzvah turned out to be the missing piece in my spiritual life.”
She’s practiced Judaism proudly all her life. “But this bat mitzvah at age 63 will prove to me that now, I’m a complete Jewish woman.”