Sisterhood Blog

Girls Celebrating Bat Mitzvah, Around the World

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

  • Print
  • Share Share
courtesy Indiana University Press

My Dear Sweet Daughter:

We’ve come a long way in making our place in the synagogue. When I was a little girl I once told my grandfather—my very old-fashioned Abuelo — that I wanted to be a rabbi. “That,” he said to me, “is very ugly.” He said the word in Spanish—fea.

I despaired. The bima, the Torah, even the dynamic fervent prayer — you know, the kind that comes with the feeling you have full access to God — would never be mine.

I was 11 then and having a bat mitzvah at 13 like you did was not an option for me. I would have to wait another thirty years to become a bat mitzvah. But in the intervening years between my childhood and my adult bat mitzvah, women made miraculous strides in Jewish life. For example, we don’t think twice about a woman being a rabbi. I remember the hoopla when the first women were ordained as rabbis in the Reform and Conservative movements. The first happened in 1970. The latter took place in 1985 when I coincidentally worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary. There was a lot of divisiveness over the decision to ordain Rabbi Amy Eilberg. It was still fea to a lot of people.

When Dad and I married six years later, we had our aufruf on the Shabbat before our wedding. An aufruf is a simple, sweet ceremony where a couple blesses the Torah in anticipation of building a Jewish life together. But we almost cancelled ours because I was not allowed to have an aliyah at Dad’s Conservative temple. In 1991, women were still only allowed to bless the Torah there one Shabbat a month. You guessed it, our aufruf was not on the designated Shabbat. We had the aufruf and I said the Ashrei from the bima. It was a huge compromise, and I only did it because Dad was so upset and embarrassed by his temple’s sexism.

It turns out I’ve been under an illusion all these years. Jewish women have always been creative, committed and observant when it comes to taking their places as b’nai mitzvah. I’d like to share a new book with you that beautifully illustrates this point. “Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World” is a compilation edited by Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz and recently published by the Indiana University Press.

As Professor Reinharz, who heads the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, a think tank devoted to Jewish women’s history as well as our future, notes in her introduction, “this book opens the door to many Jewish communities — large, medium, small and tiny — by focusing on one entry, the bat mitzvah story.”

The book is organized as its own idiosyncratic almanac — nine regions including Africa, Australia and the Caribbean — give entrée into Jewish communities you’d never guessed were large enough or organized enough to initiate their daughters into Jewish womanhood. But you know all about Jews coming from far-flung places. How many times have you heard people say, “I didn’t know there were Jews in Cuba!”

As you know because that is where my family is from, yes, there are Jews in Cuba. And Jews in Nigeria too. I was taken with the story of the coming-of-age story for girls in the Igbo tribe. One of the elder statesmen of the group, a lawyer, suggests that the tribe claims Jewish origins. There are 40 million Igbos — the majority of them embracing their Jewish roots. But only a tiny fraction practice rabbinic Judaism.

Their transition to womanhood is called isi mgba. Girls are draped with beads and pretty patterns are drawn on their bodies with a kind of white chalk. The girls then dance in groups to the marketplace where their mothers and grandmothers counsel them about the joys and responsibilities of Jewish womanhood. I love this pure version of the bat mitzvah.

Another thing that the book crystallized for me is how overtly some Jews connect the bat mitzvah with puberty. The Bene Israel, Jews who have lived in India for over 2000 years, have a ceremony when girls begin to menstruate. One woman describes a ceremony in which dried fruits and nuts, including coconut, were wrapped in a handkerchief and placed on her lap. Coconut is plentiful on the coast of India and is a symbol of fertility.

So my dear daughter, name a country anywhere in the world where Jews live, and you’ll see that the bat mitzvah has always been an intrinsic part of Jewish womanhood. Make sure to pick up “Today I Am A Woman.” (It’s on the coffee table in the living room). You don’t need to read the book chronologically. In fact, it’s better if you flip through the various sections and read whatever catches your eye. It’s similar to spinning a globe and letting your finger randomly land on a country.

You’ll glimpse at your sisters all over the world celebrating adulthood as women and Jews. And there’s nothing fea about that.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Egalitarianism, Books, Bat Mitzvah

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.