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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.

Marjorie Ingall
March 27, 2012
Jennifer Groen and her family, Elkins Park, Pa., April 26, 1986.(Courtesy Jennifer Groen and the JCC in Manhattan)
Jennifer Groen and her family, Elkins Park, Pa., April 26, 1986.(Courtesy Jennifer Groen and the JCC in Manhattan)

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?”

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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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.