Sometimes I say that my mother was the first Bat Mitzvah at Temple Israel, because it was her idea. She was a feminist before her time. The first girl after four boys, like her brothers, my mother became a lawyer. Yet she practiced only briefly; parts of her nature were not really suited to it. She struggled instead, as she put it, “to accept her role as a wife and mother."
I had very little to do with my Bat Mitzvah except to learn my Torah part. I don't remember learning it, I don't remember when the idea of me having a Bat Mitzvah first came up, and I don't remember how I responded to the idea. Obviously I didn't object seriously. But I wonder, did I say “Yes,” enthusiastically, or did I say, “It's okay with me, if you want me to.” Most of my experience around my Bat Mitzvah is shrouded with this kind of vagueness and haze.
My older brother’s Bar Mitzvah I remember well. I remember Paul studying his Bar Mitzvah part, I remember the monumental preparations---especially the wonderful engraved invitations---that consumed my mother. I remember the luncheon and the magician who did the entertaining. I also remember how happy I felt. It seemed a mitzvah, a blessing, for the whole family.
Close to the end of the exhibition the photos gave way to canvases depicting contemporary Jewish life. I scanned quickly until my eyes came to rest on tableau of a bar mitzvah boy reading from the Torah, flanked on one side by his father and on the other by the rabbi. …I felt completely absorbed. In its treatment of the figure and the light the picture revealed to me a sense of the sustained upward impulse of Judaism into spirit. In it I recognize the basic religious urge that as the top the core of Jewish experience. The gentle streams of light filling the sanctuary above the figure evoked feelings of both profound yearning and fulfillment. The loving life gave both new and renewed meaning to the familiar images of Torah reading and religious coming of age; in that moment I realized how thoroughly Jewish I am.
I am still not an observant Jew, yet spirituality is an anchor of my life, and being Jewish another. Just perhaps had I grown up in an egalitarian tradition, I would have found a place for myself within traditional Jewish practice. At the unconscious level I am almost sure that having a bat mitzvah did hold spiritual meaning for me. In any case I take great comfort in the fact that being one of the pioneers of Bat Mitzvah has helped make room for Jewish girls to receive the holiness signified in the Jewish ceremony of coming to age, I felt so clearly that day at Auschwitz.
I suspect that successful traditions generally begin in vagueness. They are for the most part the result of an intending that comes from someplace much deeper and impersonal than the conscious mind. They are precognitive and their implicit goal is to change the context within which we experience. The conscious mind goes along, perhaps making up convincing sounding reasons that turn out to be correct, or perhaps just not knowing why. Yet with time, as these traditions influence the world they create a context of meaning that makes them fit at all levels of experience--- emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and historical.
After I posted this, I became haunted by the following passage Rosie Rosenzweig had written about her mother at her daughter's Bat Mitvzah. Born in 1900, her mother grew up in Grodno Poland; she immigrated before WWII to Canada to join Rosie's father, who had left several years earlier. The passage is from a longer piece called "Mourning Becames a Bat Mitzvah." The piece is one of Rosie's contributions to Sweeping Up the Heart: The Wisdom of Our Grieving, an anthology about loss and grieving a number of us from at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center are putting together.
Her First Touch at 82
by Rosie Rosenzweig
Can I touch it? She asked,
In blind devotion,
Groping the air above the scroll.
Can I really touch it?
And before the rabbi turned his head,
She lightly tapped her mouth
And then the parchment pure.
Can I do it once again?
And she knew it more this time.
I heard a learning from her mouth to me.
No lightning struck,
Nor clouds did part.
Only for a moment,
This memory opened up my sky.
My mother, my teacher,
May this blessing
Be more than a memory.