Just two months shy of my 64th birthday, 51 years after the original date, I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah. The usual age for Jewish boys and girls to celebrate that milestone, which represents entering into the covenant of Abraham with God, is 13. Here I was, 51 years later, walking up to the platform (bimah) of my synagogue, along with 10 other adult women, chanting from the Torah (Old Testament), donning a prayer shawl and yarmulke, and doing what Jewish men have been doing for millennia.
Why did I do this? Why did I dedicate every Monday night for 18 months to spending 2 hours with teachers, rabbis, and cantors, talking over issues of Jewish identity, religious observance, customs, holidays, and pressing social and—dare I say—political issues?
The only answer I can give now, which is the same answer that I gave to the many friends and acquaintances who asked, is that I did it now because I had never done it as a child. I grew up in a very observant, orthodox Jewish family, and although my brother had a lavish Bar Mitzvah when he turned 13, I, as a girl, never had that experience. Was I jealous? Probably. Did I resent it? Surely. I did have other birthday parties, but never with the massive presence of family and friends he had, not to mention the fuss made over him that I never experienced. It is just sour grapes? I don’t think so. There was something in me that wanted to learn the basics that most Jewish boys have always learned, to bring myself closer to the almost universal Jewish experience of reading from the Torah at least once in your life.
I could have let the whole thing go and not participate, but when I got a notification from my synagogue, Park Avenue Synagogue, that they were starting up an Adult Bat Mitzvah class in January, 2012, with limited space, I signed up immediately. I was raring to go, to study the Judaism that has so shaped my life and worldview, to learn about things that I had heard of secondhand but never really understood, and—yes—to meet other adult women who wanted the same thing.
I never dreamed that this experience would lead me to meet a group of interesting, engaged, vital, and scholarly women who wanted to fill in the same gap in their experiences, doing things women have never done for the millennia of Jewish history (until recent decades), with the goal of mounting the bimah and reading from the Torah. We range in age from 30 to 75; we call ourselves the Bat Mitzvah Babes.
Our Bat Mitzvah was scheduled for the holiday of Shavuout (Tabernacles), which commemorates the Children of Israel’s receiving the tablets of the law from God on Mt. Sinai. The reading for that day is the portion from the book of Exodus, Chapter 19, describing the giving of the tabernacles, and listing the Ten Commandments. At the moment that the Ten Commandments are read by the reader, the whole congregation stands and puts a hand out in symbolic acceptance of the laws. It was pretty amazing.
That moment, the moment when I took what I had learned and proclaimed my faith to the congregation with friends and family present, blessed God, and chanted my short portion, was one of the highlights of my life. There I was, feeling my connection to the Jewish people and to Jewish women who had never had this opportunity, surrounded by people of like mind. That to me is the definition of transcendence—and religious. Suddenly, I belonged to the Jewish people in a new, very fundamental way.
I haven’t turned religious in any different way. I’m neither more nor less observant, but yet I feel a part of something larger than myself in a new way. The connection and the feeling have taken me to a new place, and this makes me happy. I guess that’s good enough.