On Nov. 1, my daughter Josie became a bat mitzvah.
I am still walking on air, and now I am about to kvell and humblebrag and spew nachas all over you. If this is not agreeable to you, please go read about Jewish and Muslim fundamentalist extremism, Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, or anti-Semitic attacks in France. I won’t be offended. This column is the equivalent of my vacation slides.
Because I am an idiot, I did not understand that in most of New York City, one must call one’s shul for a bat mitzvah date a few years in advance. I called 18 months ago, and the portion closest to Josie’s actual birthday, Parshat Noach, was already taken. I was bummed—I like the rainbow-and-covenant aspects of the Noah story. But Lech Lecha was available, and it felt like the perfect parsha for a newly minted teenager: As Josie pointed out in her drash, her speech about the text, the words lech lecha mean both “get up and go” and “go to yourself.” In the parsha, Abram has to go to himself, taking a spiritual journey as well as a physical one. “Abram’s true purpose—his true self—was to spread the word of God, to found great nations, to start something new,” Josie wrote. “For me, finding myself involves smaller things: my family and friends, teaching and learning, and in the things I believe in—feminism, debate, literature.” A bat mitzvah, she said, is about transitions: from becoming a girl to becoming a woman, from journeying like Abram, Sarai, and Lot from somewhere familiar into a previously unknown world.
Of course we don’t expect our kids to instantly turn into actual adults. (It would be nice if they made us cocktails and paid our taxes.) But for many kids today, becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is the first chance they have to make choices about religion. I chose Josie’s shul, her Hebrew school. I’m the one who buys tickets to Yiddish plays, introduces her to Jewish art projects, announces that we’re making latkes. For her bat mitzvah, Josie made her own choices. She decided she wanted to do the entire Torah portion—not a given in our shul, where kids frequently do just the maftir, the last bit—as well as the haftorah, and help lead services with the rabbi and cantor. Our shul was lovely and flexible about letting Josie take a very active role. And I watched my often-flaky daughter, who regularly forgets her keys and leaves her homework in her locker, buckle down and work. She didn’t want to memorize anything; she wanted to learn the tropes for chanting Torah and haftorah so she could read other portions in the future. During the summer, she studied at camp and with her friends who went to Jewish day school and were already skilled readers. And best of all, when my perfectionistic kid (I have no idea where she got that quality, by the way) decided three weeks before the bat mitzvah that she wouldn’t be able to do the whole thing to her own satisfaction, she asked if my husband Jonathan and I would each leyn, chant, one portion.
A bar or bat mitzvah is a parent’s transition, too, and this was a big moment for me. I’d never read Torah. In my Conservative shul growing up, girls weren’t allowed to. I was thrilled and terrified. Jonathan, who grew up in a Reform congregation, hadn’t read Torah since his bar mitzvah. Unlike our daughter, we memorized our parts. (We did fine, by the way, though I accidentally let out a huge relieved whoosh when I was done, and the congregation cracked up.)
Josie decided she wanted a literary theme for the event. (We’re the people of the book, and she is bookish as they come.) On Etsy, we bought a dress with a print of book spines on it. Josie’s little sister Maxie got a skirt with a print of classic children’s book covers. Jonathan wore a book-print tie. I gave myself a newsprint manicure. Josie quietly created her own mitzvah project: For the past year, she’s been tutoring a non-native-English-speaking elementary-school student with special needs, teaching him to read. He adores her, and because she’s a cool big kid and not a grownup, he works hard for her. The two were matched up by Josie’s favorite teacher ever, Grace Chang (who came to the bat mitzvah), and met at the local library twice a week. I shouldn’t use the past tense; Josie has no intention of stopping. “You don’t stop doing the mitzvah just because the bat mitzvah is over,” she told me. (After the service, brunch, and party were over, I realized that we’d never mentioned the mitzvah project to our guests. I have nothing but admiration for kids who do hugely ambitious mitzvah projects that are creative, or that raise a ton of money for good causes—and I’ll write more about them in the future—but I like that Josie chose something small and private and meaningful to her and one other family.) (Though of course I’m bummed that she didn’t robotically hit up everyone we know for a donation to an ill-chosen charity and call it a day—it’s almost as bad as her failure to make a spangly Vegas-style video exhorting the ladies to show ‘em what you got, and shake it all around.)
I loved, too, that planning the bat mitzvah was a project Josie and I shared. We were on a pretty strict budget, which we chose to see as an opportunity. An amazing artist friend, Kim Phillips, wrote Josie’s Hebrew name, Yosefa Elisheva, in a gorgeous font, and gave it to us as a PDF file. Josie laid out the invitations on the computer, our groovy super-old-school East Village copy shop printed them out on card stock we’d bought at the local stationery store, and we decorated them with book-themed rubber stamps from a wacky East Village stamp store (which is adorned with warnings to local drug dealers not to use their stamps on bags of heroin). I’d had a stamping party with a bunch of girlfriends to make my wedding invitations, so sitting at the kitchen counter with Josie, both of us getting smudged with ink, felt like a lovely throwback.
Our shul’s tradition is to invite the entire congregation to the kiddush. (In my shul growing up, you provided some eclairs and gross rainbow-striped marzipan things for the congregation, then had a brunch for your own guests. This way is more egalitarian, if more expensive.) Our shul’s executive director arranged for a lovely smoked-fish spread, and we surrounded the modest flower arrangements with a sprinkling of hearts cut out of vintage hand-typed library catalog cards. (Etsy again.) We put out little flowerpots filled with iconic Lower East Side shop Economy Candy’s gummy worms with signs reading “Bookworms.” We also amused ourselves before the Kabbalat Shabbat service by putting up signs in every bathroom stall reading “This way to the Ministry of Magic,” with an arrow pointing to the toilet. (This is a Harry Potter reference.) For the adults, our little literary joke was the program explaining the service, which our talented art-director friend Jack designed to look like the worn cover of the iconic late-‘70s-early-’80s Dell Yearling edition of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? (one of my contributions to Tablet’s 101 Great Jewish Books list). Instead of the tag line “Margaret Simon—almost twelve and full of questions,” it had a quote from Lech Lecha: “And you shall be a blessing.”
I surprised myself by crying all through the rehearsal with the rabbi a few days before the service. Josie’s voice was so lovely and confident, her air of self-possession so great, her Hebrew and chanting flawless. Our shul is in a former Quaker Meeting House, with its beautiful, simple, squared-off lines; it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Here was my child in this timeless space, performing an ancient ritual act that was closed off to girls for so many years. The kid and the space and my family and me—it all felt like the paradoxical, beautiful, symbolic embodiment of continuity and change all at once.
I was glad I’d cried, because on the day of her bat mitzvah, with the weeping out of my system, there was only room for joy. Josie’s a New York State champion debater, and her d’var Torah was a fiery feminist speech about Sarai and Hagar being treated as property and how far Judaism still has to go to treat women as full people, but how far it has come, too. (You should have heard the first draft. It would have singed your eyebrows. She did, however, retain the line about women in the Torah being traded around like Pokemon cards.) For her Torah reading, Josie used a gorgeous yad my brother and his husband bought her. She wore a tallit my mom and her husband got her. We missed my dad and Jonathan’s stepdad, mourning that they didn’t live to celebrate this day with us.
That night, we had a party in the Rare Book Room at The Strand, one of Josie’s favorite bookstores. This was the one thing she desperately wanted. It was a small party, mostly kids. No loud music, no celebrity DJ, no hip-thrusting party pumpers. There was an iPod; Jonathan and Josie had made a playlist. Chris, the adorable florist at Whole Foods in the East Village, made us gorgeous, affordable, teeny bouquets in French jam jars. We hired a caterer, Judy Hundley, who understood our budget, our kashrut and allergy constraints, and our nerdy bookish vision. The tables were decorated with Jonathan’s, Josie’s, and my collection of vintage children’s books, flowers, and little luminaria filled with LEDs (for some inexplicable reason, the bookstore doesn’t allow open flames near the rare books). We’d rubber-stamped them with vintage typewriter images. Jonathan, our tech geek, bought old-fashioned Edison light bulbs and clipped them all around the bookshelves. Josie wore a skirt with a vintage Alice in Wonderland illustration on it—Etsy again. Instead of a gift bag, she carefully selected a book for each guest (at McNally Jackson, my favorite local bookstore); her best pal Emily, whose own bat mitzvah was two weeks earlier, helped her wrap them in craft paper and put library cards with her friends names on them. Jonathan’s college pal Deborah Copaken, a former war photographer and author of Shutterbabe, and her colleague Cristobal Vivar unobtrusively captured the action. My enduring memory of the party will be of kids draped all over the leather club chairs and lying in puppy piles on the floor, reading and playing Apples to Apples: Jewish Edition. At the end of the night, without prompting, Josie thanked all the staff individually. (I told you I was going to brag.)
Our lovely child-free pals Mattie, Joe, and Jack helped us load everything out (the downside of a DIY event) and then helped us drink the leftover liquor after the kids went to bed. In the morning, our friends who run an amazing bakery in the neighborhood dropped off platters of pastries and pitchers of iced ginger green tea for our out-of-town guests. I loved that almost everything we bought came from our beloved East Village and Lower East Side. I loved that I got to do geeky crafting and talk about books with my kid, who is turning into a grownup I’m so proud of. I like that we did things our way. And I’m looking forward to 2017, when Maxie—ptui ptui ptui—will have Noach as her parsha; I’ve already reserved the date.
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