Eryn Loeb and her family at her bat mitzvah, May 1995.(Courtesy Eryn Loeb)
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Becoming Women

Bat mitzvahs tell us less about tradition than they do about how girls create rites for coming of age, as the new book Today I Am a Woman shows

Eryn Loeb
November 15, 2011
Eryn Loeb and her family at her bat mitzvah, May 1995.(Courtesy Eryn Loeb)

When I became a bat mitzvah in 1995, I wore a sparkly navy dress and silver pumps. Underneath I had on my very first black bra, though at 13 I hardly needed it. My hair was in a fancy braided up-do, accented with sprigs of baby’s breath. I had braces. My Torah portion was Behar; my haftarah, from the book of Jeremiah, was of a daunting length. Both were delivered on a Shabbat sandwiched between the ones on which two of my closest female friends stood on the bimah for their own coming of age. The service I led was followed by a luncheon and, at night, a square dance (that last most definitely my parents’ idea).

In addition to a small mountain of jewelry, many of the gifts I received were books. They were the kind of books you give a bat mitzvah girl regardless of whether she loves to read: hefty ones about big subjects, books of history and tradition conveying weighty life lessons. They were about Israel and Strong Jewish Women, mostly. Had it been published in time for my bat mitzvah instead of just this month, Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World would probably have been among them.

Edited by Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, the book would have been given to me to communicate the richness of Jewish tradition, and to make the point that my bat mitzvah was not an isolated experience. I would have already understood those truths; understood, too, that this was an occasion to underline them. Actually reading such a book would have been almost redundant. I might have leafed through it, but otherwise I would have resigned it to the high-up shelf in my bedroom where I put the rest of the well-meaning, impressive-looking books I was given. They were daunting, grown-up volumes, books that signaled a certain kind of responsibility. I knew even then that I might never actually sit down to read them, but that I’d never really be able to get rid of them either.

I vividly pictured all this as I read Today I Am a Woman. Even with no official coming of age bearing down, I figured my reaction to it would hew pretty close to the one I projected on my teenage self. Maybe it had something to do with the absence of the kind of existential pressure that comes along with a bat mitzvah, but reading it curled up on my couch on a cozy fall afternoon earlier this month, I found the book to be a genuinely moving read beneath its academic gloss. Organized by region, each country introduced with a brief description of its Jewish community, the volume includes a story or two from girls who had their bat mitzvahs in those places (or in some cases, the parents of those girls). The editors aimed for variety, gathering anecdotes from Kazakhstan to Colombia, India to New Zealand, Canada to Libya. Some of them are straightforward accounts of a familiar kind of service, while other contributors explain that they didn’t have a formal ceremony or ritual at the usual age but figured out how to lay claim to their Jewish identity in their own way. For Gina Malaka Waldman, born in Tripoli in 1948, leaving her country of origin was the most profound rite of passage. When she arrived in Switzerland to pursue her education, it was “the first time in my life I could say I was Jewish and not be afraid,” she writes. “It was at that moment that I became a bat mitzvah. I had come of age by making a commitment to my people.”

The first bat mitzvah in the United States dates to 1922, when Judith Kaplan (daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement) read from the chumash during a Shabbat morning service. Pinning down the very earliest bat mitzvah in the world is trickier; in her introduction, Barbara Vinick cites the writings of “nineteenth-century sage” Joseph Hayyim ben Elijah al-Hakam of Baghdad, which contain “the first indisputable mention of girls’ public coming-of-age.” But tracking the earliest roots of the ritual is kind of beside the point, as it took many (many!) years for bat mitzvahs to be seen as having any kind of equivalence to bar mitzvahs—and some communities still resist allowing girls to engage in the same level of preparation and participation as boys. A bar mitzvah, by contrast, has changed relatively little over its long history.

Today I Am a Woman is light on stories from kids who had the kind of over-the-top parties that make rabbis shudder. Instead, the accounts in these pages tend to come from families that care deeply about marking their daughters’ coming of age and who often had to think creatively about what that would involve—whether because they were part of communities without a clear tradition or a rabbi on hand, or ones in which women are forbidden from reading Torah. Some took part in group bat mitzvahs that felt a little minor-league compared to the rituals their brothers participated in and were bothered by the difference. Still others found meaning in their ceremonies anyway.

While there’s certainly plenty of immediate significance for a girl to find in this ritual in which she “becomes a woman,” there’s a reason a bat mitzvah is something one becomes—the verb suggesting a process rather than a singular occasion. In the moment, high-minded ideals about responsibility and adulthood and Jewish identity may be mere buzz words, eclipsed by more urgent matters like nervousness and excitement and lipstick (carefully applied to a girl’s own lips on this grown-up occasion, and also smudged on her cheeks from the kisses of doting aunties). That’s not to say the meaning is lost—no matter the extravagance of the party, months of study and preparation make a bat mitzvah’s gravity hard to deflect. But the meaning can take time to soak in. And inevitably—necessarily—it changes and grows along with the girl-turned-woman herself.

So, it’s not surprising that most of these stories come from women who are some distance from the occasion of their own bat mitzvah. There are many poignant reflections from parents. Monica Pastorok Cohen of Lexington, Mass., writes: “As [my daughter] Jocelyn began preparing for her bat mitzvah, I realized that it was the first time that she was doing something that I had not done, and with which I could not help her.” And there are plenty of stories in which a bat mitzvah takes on historical weight: Giorgina Vitale, who became a bat mitzvah in Turin, Italy, in 1937, describes bringing along her bat mitzvah album when her family went into hiding from the Nazis not long after.

Many of the bat mitzvah girls here explain that their ceremonies were meaningful largely because of what they made of them, rather than because of any predetermined part of the ritual. Because the specifics of a bat mitzvah are not constrained, what began as frustrating limitations (and in some places remain so) have become opportunities for girls and their families to craft rituals that have personal and spiritual resonance regardless of what those rituals are “supposed” to include. These can range from outfitting groups of bat mitzvah girls in identical dresses to involving them in social-action projects. In the process, those girls begin to understand that “coming of age” is not just about accepting tradition as it’s handed to them but about creating their own meaning. That’s an insight that can benefit boys, too, and in some communities already has.

At least, that’s the hopeful take-away from the wide-ranging set of experiences in this collection. A girl is an impossibly young 12 or 13 years old when she becomes a bat mitzvah. She has the rest of her life to reckon with what it means, to mull over her experience in relation to the generations of women before her, and to craft the story she wants to tell about it—whether she shares that story publicly (perhaps in a serious book destined to be a bat mitzvah gift) or just whispers it to herself.

Eryn Loeb, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in New York.

Eryn Loeb, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in New York.