Bat Mitzvahs Get Too Glitzy
Women fought for a ceremony to mark a Jewish girl’s passage into womanhood. Now the ritual’s meaning is often lost amid flashy parties and clothes.
My bat mitzvah was a low-key affair. I wore an uber-nerdy blue-gray knit dress with a boat neck, looking like a tween refugee from the secretarial pool in Working Girl. Girls in my Conservative shul weren’t allowed to read Torah back then, but I rocked my Haftorah, a Girl Power story about Deborah the Prophet. (She’s a judge! And she helps lead the battle against the Canaanites!) I designed my own invitations, inspired by a very Girl Power-y section of that Haftorah about a woman named Yael who killed a Canaanite captain by driving a tent pin through his head while he slept: The invitations featured a cartoon of a fiendishly delighted Yael with a mouthful of pointy teeth, chortling and clutching a Buffy-like stake while standing over the sleeping soldier. After the service, we had brunch at shul, and then I had a roller-disco party at Bobby’s Rollaway in Pawtucket, R.I. Oh yes, it’s ladies’ night and the feeling’s right!
All that—handmade invitations, a tale of female empowerment, a little Kool and the Gang—was plenty for me back in the 1980s.
But today, as I start to think about my oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah, mine looks like an ancient relic. Bat mitzvahs aren’t what they used to be. In some ways, that’s good: Girls read Torah confidently in a great many synagogues. And the ubiquity of the “mitzvah project,” in which the kid does something charitable or raises money for a cause, preferably one related to her own interests, is to be applauded (though not when the “mitzvah” seems to be a pro forma letter to guests hitting them up for donations—girlfriend, put some work into it). But sometimes, and I realize I sound as old as the hills here, the changes feel stark and disturbing.
These days, I’m often gobsmacked by girls’ outfits at their parties—and sometimes in shul, as well: gynecologically short skirts, bustier tops cantilevered over barely developed curves, nosebleed-inducing stratospheric heels. The bat mitzvah girl’s friends teeter into the party like a herd of newborn foals. Some hostesses provide baskets of ankle socks so that the girls can dance more comfortably after they take off their foot-bindings.
And oh, the dancing. Again, I sound like a pinched-faced Pat Boone fan, but vey iz mir, the volume! And the nightmarish “party pumpers,” shrieking and hectoring and whoo-ing the crowd into dances and ever-so-festive party games! Not even Paul Rudd could make this pleasurable.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to write yet another article bemoaning the expense of it all, with the Titanic-themed giant icebergs and the rappers and the decrepit rock stars and the Cirque du Soleil performers and the bouncers preventing young hooligans from trashing the bathrooms.
But I am a little concerned about the big picture. What’s the point of having a bat mitzvah—a symbolic ceremony marking the time when a girl becomes a Jewish adult, fully responsible for her own actions and choices—if she’s going to focus more on the clothes and the party than the ritual? Why choose to do exactly what everyone else does, with the only individualization being the theme colors, the degree of showiness, and the amount of pupik shown by both the bat mitzvah girl and her mother? The ungapatchka same-sameness seems particularly sad when you consider how hard individual girls and women worked to win the right to celebrate this milestone at all.
Indeed, ’twas not ever thus, you realize if you go back into the mists of time. The exhibit “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age,” on view at the JCC in Manhattan through April 27, then traveling to communities throughout North America, paints a portrait of a much more modest ritual. Presented by the Museum of American Jewish History and Moving Traditions, it examines bat mitzvahs going back to 1922, when Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan called his daughter, Judith, to … well, not the bima. She stood at the foot of the bima, “at a very respectable distance from the Torah scroll,” and read from her own Bible in both Hebrew and English. It was considered shocking back then, though Judith reminded the Chicago Tribune 70 years later, “No thunder sounded. No lightning struck.”
When you read women’s own stories of how resistant their communities were to their becoming bat mitzvah, you can’t help thinking about how much we take for granted today. Watching the slideshow on the home page of the exhibit’s website, in which women of different ages recall how fiercely they fought for this right and how much their bat mitzvahs meant to them, I found myself weeping.
The exhibit’s timeline is touching, taking viewers through milestones such as confirmation rituals for both boys and girls at New York City’s Anshe Chesed synagogue in 1846; Sephardic authority Ben Ish Hai of Baghdad sanctioning girls getting dressed up and reciting shehechiayanu at their coming-of-age in the 1870s; Rabbi Yehezkial Caro allowing a bat mitzvah ceremony in his temple in Ukraine in 1902. We see the movement gaining ground: In 1931, a survey of Conservative synagogues found that only six had adopted the bat mitzvah; by 1948, one-third had. The show puts the wider adoption of bat mitzvah ceremonies into an American political context as well as a Jewish one: It notes the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in 1970; the founding of Ms. magazine and the ordaining of Reform Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972. I appreciated the show’s inclusiveness, encompassing the creation of the role of “Rabba” for Orthodox women, the depiction of a group of Jewish adoptees from the same Chinese orphanage at one of the girls’ bat mitzvah, and the bat mitzvah of transgender author Rachel Pollack in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1998, 40 years after Pollack’s bar mitzvah.
Change isn’t all festive corsages and jelly candies, of course. There are stories of men throwing their prayer shawls over their heads and marching out when girls approached the bima, people scanning ahead in their siddurs in the hope that the bat mitzvah girl would make a mistake and embarrass herself along with the foolish rabbi who allowed her to do this. But lighter stories abound, too, like Margie Tarmy Berkowitz’s reminiscence of her 1956 bat mitzvah party in the basement, when her mom broke the ice by calling down, “Margie, why don’t you put on the new record by that guy named Pelvis?”
Polish has no word for a leisurely, late-morning meal, but brunch is catching on in Krakow, with french toast, stiff drinks, and schmoozing