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Far From the Tree

An open letter to writer Elizabeth Weil, who’s unsure how to help her 12-year-old become a bat mitzvah

Mark Oppenheimer
October 12, 2015

Dear Elizabeth (if I may):

I loved your essay, “The Unexpected Bat Mitzvah,” in yesterday’s Times Sunday Styles section about your daughter’s surprising decision to become a bat mitzvah. Everyone should read the piece, but for those who haven’t, a quick summary would be: you were raised Jewish, your husband was not, neither of you has much interest in religion, you’ve raised your two daughters to have faith in “love, books, nature, generosity: the standard liberal, coastal stuff,” and then, seemingly out of nowhere, your daughter Hannah, age 12, says, “Mom? I think I want to have a bat mitzvah.” And you aren’t sure how to handle it.

And as it happens, ten years ago, I spent a year traveling the country interviewing families about the joys and conflicts of the bar and bat mitzvah. Now, I don’t usually offer unsolicited advice—well, okay, I do, and you wrote very publicly about this issue, kind of inviting me in—so you’re going to get some free wisdom.

First, welcome to the huge number of American families in which members have differing levels of religiosity. Even if your daughter never goes through with her bat mitzvah, or she has one and decides that’s enough religion for now, she’s expressed an orientation toward religion—not something lefty and acceptable, like yoga or mindfulness, but millennia-old organized religion—that’s different from yours and your husband’s. And that can be hard.

Whether or not you realize it, you are in the exact same position as Orthodox Jews whose children decide to be merely Conservative, or liberal Protestants whose children attend an evangelical mega-church. You’re disoriented, baffled, maybe even a little hurt. We expect our children to go exactly at our speeds, to have the same levels of religiosity we have (even as we diverged from our own parents’ doctrines). Religion is like the highway of life: anyone going faster than you is a madman, anyone slower is an idiot.

Still, you seem to have handled this twist in the road pretty capably. Congratulations on honoring your daughter’s interest, not mocking it or deriding it or ignoring it. You went looking for the right rabbi for her, the right religious community, the right path for the family to help her do this thing that she wants to do. You even hosted a Passover seder, albeit one that didn’t go so well.

If there was one moment when I think you made a misstep, it was when you found, then rejected, the really swell DIY Jewish “start-up,” the floating congregation called The Kitchen (about which I, too, have heard awesome things). “For a lovely few hours, I was sure we had found the answer,” you write. “Then we learned that for Hannah to be bat mitzvahed at the Kitchen, we had to attend Sabbath services a few times a month. Even if I took Hannah, and Dan stayed home with Audrey (who had zero interest in this), our family would be apart most Friday nights. We pushed on.”

It’s actually delightful that you are skipping on Jewish worship so as to protect your Friday-night family time, which is itself a central ritual of Judaism. (That’s what Shabbat dinner is.) You don’t want Judaism to pull your family apart. But what if Hannah’s interest had been not Judaism but ice skating or debate, for which there were tournaments on, say, Saturday afternoons? Let’s set aside the sibling question and just ask, “Would your husband, even if he had no interest in ice skating, nevertheless commit to two hours a week of watching Hannah practice or cheering her on?” My hunch is yes. If Judaism is Hannah’s interest of the moment, why does it become Mom’s job to foster her engagement—why isn’t it Mom and Dad’s job, and maybe sis’s too?

It seems as if the Jewish stuff has fallen on you because you’re the ancestrally Jewish parent, but that’s looking at religion the wrong way. Children, like grownups, search for meaning, for purpose, and they find it through various activities and enthusiasms: cheerleading, ice skating, mock trial, and sometimes Judaism. Yes, there are serious differences among all these things, but at root, they are ways they help us figure out who we are, who our tribe is.

Your husband, Daniel, has made a career writing beautifully about his enthusiasms, like surfing and rock climbing, that are in many ways like religion. They don’t seem to have a utilitarian purpose, they can involve huge commitments of time, and to people outside the community they can seem silly: Who spends years looking for the perfect wave? Who ignores friends, family, and dissertation deadlines, and risks his life, just to figure out how to work that one face of a big rock? But surfing and rock climbing, like religion, offer community, excitement, intrigue, and, above all, a glimpse of the eternal, a kind of metaphysics.

Look, I’m hardly saying that a bat mitzvah guarantees the same thrill—for most children, it doesn’t. Indeed, as you say, you hated your bat mitzvah. But when a child does express an enthusiasm, parents have to understand it the way they’d understand surfing or rock climbing (or soccer, or cheerleading). All of these activities, can, if they becomes obsessions, tear families apart. All of them have downsides (concussions, death by fall at Yosemite, West Bank settlers). But as ways to seek community and meaning, they can all be wonderful. And they’re not interchangeable: for some children, religion gives what soccer or tae kwon do cannot. We don’t choose our callings.

A final thought about The Kitchen, synagogues generally, and bat mitzvahs: It sounds as if you have decided to go the independent-study route; you found Arik, who doesn’t work at a temple and studies with people in his home. He sounds great, and I wish you all well on your journey, truly. But keep in mind that Judaism really is a communal religion. I know that a lot of people, at all ages, have meaningful experiences in independent study, or with a few like-minded friends. But Jews aren’t like Christians. We believe that life is perfected in the family, and the network of families, and not in chastity, monasticism, or by living a hermetic life. You can come to Jesus through Bible study alone; you can’t come to Judaism without fellow Jews.

The fun parts of Jewish life, should your daughter keep with this religion thing, will be the communal ones: Passover seders, Hanukkah parties, building a sukkah in the backyard and inviting friends for dinner to enjoy it. And the most moving times may involve doing the things that grown-up Jews, those who have reached bat mitzvah age, should do. They are basically communal obligations: visiting old people in the hospital; giving tzedakah (charity); gathering with others to repent on Yom Kippur; or helping to make a minyan, a prayer quorum of ten adult Jews, for people who are in mourning.

What this means is that, in a pretty important way, Judaism as an individual journey doesn’t quite make sense. Somebody trying to figure out what Judaism means to her needs to meet elderly Jews, young couples with new babies, special-needs and disabled Jews, great scholars who mumble, etc. Like a lot of activities our kids want us to sign them up for, it requires getting in touch with the whole crazy subculture, at least for a few months or a year. Maybe that’s at The Kitchen, maybe a synagogue, maybe something else; the Bay Area, where you live, has as many funky, alternative ways to do Judaism as anywhere in the world.

I realize it might sound as if I am assigning you and your husband, or your daughter, work. I don’t mean to. Rather, I just want to suggest that if she has a Jewish itch to scratch, learning a little Hebrew and doing some one-on-one study, in preparation for a short ritual, may not be going about it the right way. The search for Jewish connection is, usually, a search for one’s tribe—who may, even within Judaism, be right-wing or left-, straight or queer, uptight or crazytown. Lord knows that Judaism, like every other American institution—sports, business, academia, journalism—is filled with a lot of people who are corrupt, spiritually hollow, and dishonest. It can take years to find the ones you jell with. But that’s the goal, and having Mom and Dad on her side, willing to help her with good cheer and carpool hours, may be what Hannah needs.

Happy New Year 5776, and best of luck to the four of you. If you need a seder next year, and you don’t mind four daughters and two dogs, you’re invited to my place.


Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.