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Three Incredible Bat Mitzvahs

A sweet story about a group of women—three octogenarians and one nonagenarian—who embarked on a journey to become bat mitzvahs shows, once again, that it’s never too late to fulfill a lifelong dream

Jesse Bernstein
May 24, 2016

Think back to your own bar or bat mitzvah. Was your voice creaky? Was your face covered in acne? Were you sporting a mouthful of metal? Were the hot lights and hormones firing in your synapses giving you sweaty palms and a dry mouth? Did you let out a sigh of relief the following weeks when your sniggering friends found themselves similarly unmoored upon the bima? Oh, the memories…

For many 13-year-olds, these experiences are par for the course when it comes to becoming a bar or mat mitzvah. Last week, however, three women who shared a bat mitzvah dealt with realities uncommon among teenagers who participate in the Jewish rite—hearing aids, new medications, and shaky walkers.

For Charlotte Gottlieb, 85, Charlotte Markowitz, 85, and Sy Laufe, 90, their bat mitzvah ceremonies signified the coming of something a little different.

This month in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the three women read from a Torah at their retirement home for the first time and spoke to a crowd of friends and family who had gathered from across the country to mark the occasion in a story, reported by The Washington Post. Recently, Gottlieb, Markowitz, and Laufe, who had spent their lives as spectators to the bar and bat mitzvahs of their children and grandchildren, finally experienced it for themselves.

“Every time I have attended a bar or bat mitzvah service, I have had the yearning for the same experience,” said Gottlieb. “The feeling that something was missing from my life was with me.”

The process began eight months ago, when the group began their studies in earnest with Cantor Susan Berkson, who suggested that it would take about two years to acquire the knowledge and skills to successfully complete the ritual; the group insisted on an eight-month deadline. “At our age, we don’t know if we have two years,” Markowitz said.

Their classes resembled those of any cantor preparing a bunch of bat mitzvah students in any synagogue. Berkson corrected wayward vowels, chided students who forgot to bring their prayer books and praised their progress.

But then again, these classes were different. “My medication is driving me crazy,” Laufe complained during class one day. “Join the club,” Markowitz said wryly.

Laufe once sat down for class and promptly realized something was wrong. “Oh, I forgot my hearing aids,” she said.

The women were once four, led by Barbara Solan, who passed at the age of 87, just two weeks before she was scheduled to take the bima with her friends.

Solan’s daughters, who read their mother’s prepared remarks in her place at the service, said that they buried her in the prayer shawl that they had purchased for her to wear at the bat mitzvah. Traditionally only men are buried in the tallis—another barrier that Solan broke.

During their lives, the group had seen the bat mitzvah in every form, as the now-standard ritual went from a radical Reconstructionist statement to widespread acceptance to Samantha being hired to publicize one on Sex and the City. Gottlieb and Markowitz grew up in Orthodox communities, where the embrace of the bat mitzvah was reluctant, while Laufe’s synagogue (the home of the famous Trefa Banquet), a more innovative establishment, dropped bar and bat mitzvahs all together.

There is, of course, a unique aspect to bar or bat mitzvahs later in life. They happen for a variety of reasons. Baalei teshuva will often have bar or bat mitzvah as a symbol of rededication to the faith, while adult converts may view see the ceremony as marking a new era in their lives. Or because of a dying wish from one’s mother. Or for charity.

Of course, the bar or bat mitzvah is conferred upon a Jew as soon as he or she turns 12 or 13. The ceremony is pure patronage: as Leon Black reminded us, sometimes you have to recharge the mitzvah. But for people of such an advanced age as the Chevy Chase trio, their bat mitzvahs do not apparently symbolize reaffirmation, but rather a capstone of sorts, a way to celebrate a life lived Jewishly.

Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.

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