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.
Frankly, the reason this whole topic makes me feel fragile is that we just got Josie’s bat mitzvah date. The notion of my little 10-year-old (who was only a moment ago a newborn—Sunrise, Sunset!) becoming a woman in the tradition of our people just blows my mind. Josie’s Torah portion will be Lech Lecha (“Go forth”), a fitting parashah for someone negotiating her way in the wide, scary world. It was also the portion of my wonderful friend Jill, who did not have a bat mitzvah as a child but chose to have one at 26—and then got a commemorative tattoo of the Hebrew words Lech Lecha. “It was a real transition point to ‘go forth’ into the rest of my life—the parashah really resonated with me and made me feel more connected to the Jewish people and to my own potential,” she told me, when I tearily told her that Josie would be chanting the same words two decades after she did. She added, “But tell Josie that Auntie Jill says, ‘Hold off on the tattoo until you’re 13-times-two, and then if you want to lech lecha permanently, go forth!’” (Uh, thanks, Jill? Well, better lech lecha than a little tramp stamp of a fairy, a boy’s name, or a Chinese character that supposedly means love but actually means “bite the wax tadpole,” I guess.)
The idea of my child being old enough to chant Torah, let alone go forth on her own terms, makes me weepy. Of course, the notion of her dressing like a two-dollar whore while jerking her hips to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” makes me even weepier. So, I was glad to attend a session on bat mitzvah clothing and values at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s What to Wear event (organized by my mom, featuring Tablet’s Editor Alana Newhouse, and horrifying The Forward) that put the bat mitzvah in a context of how women’s clothing reflects both spoken and unspoken messages about their role in society and choices of self-representation. We watched a video about different girls’ and families’ approaches to bat mitzvah, curated by Beth Cooper Benjamin, director of research for the Jewish feminist girls’ organization Ma’yan. At the event, I nearly wept with gratitude to meet one of the girls in the video, the awesome Ella Tav, 13, who chose a low-key, spiritual, non-Manolo-oriented path for her bat mitzvah. “My cousins had really extravagant and fancy bat mitzvahs in Toronto,” she told me later. “And I had friends who had big boom-boom parties. But my mom and I started out with ‘We are not having a boom-boom party.’” Ella’s mom, Rabbi Kara Tav, added, “I’m very sensitive to the sexualization of the teenager in the bat mitzvah. They don’t need to put on skimpy clothes and dance in a provocative way in front of their parents and each other to mark their coming of age in the Jewish community. I found it distasteful. Just because it’s the norm it doesn’t have to stay the norm.”
So, Ella had an ice-skating party at Wollman Rink in Central Park (like my own roller disco party 30 years ago, but with less embarrassing music). “All my friends were there but it wasn’t intense, it wasn’t stressful in any way,” she said. “It was like a gigantic birthday party. There was hot chocolate and candy apples and caramel corn. It was like being in a giant snow globe.” Her mom added fondly, “It felt like a fairy tale.”
And Ella kept the meaning of bat mitzvah first and foremost: “It means being able to participate more in the community, being a role model for younger girls to love where they come from and who they can be, loving the community they’re part of,” she said. When you think about what our forebears went through to win this ceremony for our children, and you talk to a kid who still gets that, how can you not kvell? And I’m breathing a lot easier at the thought of my daughter and me finding a way to mark this occasion in a way that reflects more spirituality than shoe-shopping.
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Polish has no word for a leisurely, late-morning meal, but brunch is catching on in Krakow, with french toast, stiff drinks, and schmoozing