Bat mitzvah girl Sasha Lutt reads from a tiny Torah scroll smuggled into the Kotel / Haaretz
I am sitting in front of my computer, talking via Skype with three women in Israel — Irina Lutt, her 12-year-old daughter Sasha, and Shira Pruce — who are kicking back after a day of school and work. Sasha made history at her bat mitzvah last week when she became the first female to read Torah at the Western Wall in 25 years. The fact that she’s a celebrity doesn’t seem to have registered with her. “You made the New York Times!” I tell her. She looks quizzically at her mother; she has never heard of the Times.
Shira, who is translating for us and trying to get Sasha to eat something, is director of public relations for Women of the Wall (WOW), the organization that has been fighting for a quarter century to secure the rights of women to pray at the Kotel. She and Irina know what a hard-won victory this bat mitzvah was for WOW and for the rights of women in Israel.
To begin with, they had to smuggle in a tiny Torah, because women have been aggressively and sometimes violently blocked from reading Torah at the Wall. Surrounded and sheltered by a circle of women, Sasha had to use a magnifying glass to read the text. She shrugs off my comment that this must have been tough. “I knew it really well,” she says.
You would have to have a heart encrusted with cynicism to not be moved by Malala Yousafzai.
It is, in many ways, a modern miracle. An activist for equal education for young girls in her native Pakistan, Malala survived a Taliban bullet and expanded her local quest into an international movement for women’s education in Muslim countries. This past week, she became the first Pakistani and the youngest person – seventeen years old – to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She is, in fact, the most famous teenager in the world.
But the proof of a truly inspirational story is that it moves beyond its own national and cultural boundaries, and that it becomes universal. I am going to suggest that this is truly the case with Malala – and that, more than that, her story needs to become the story of young Jewish girls as well.
Take the case of bat mitzvah.
Most Jewish girls who become bat mitzvah have little sense of how revolutionary that rite of passage once was – and how, comparatively speaking, it is one of Judaism’s most modern rituals. It is, in fact, “only” 92 years old – “born” when Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, was called to the Torah at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York. Or, to put it in generational perspective: bat mitzvah is only slightly older than many of the grandparents of young women who are becoming bat mitzvah now.
Why was bat mitzvah revolutionary? Because it symbolized, and continues to symbolize, that Jewish women would have equal access to the Torah, that their minds and souls would no longer be locked behind the mehitzah of ignorance, and that they would be able to see their own lives reflected in the beauty of the sacred letters.
Earlier this month, my social media feeds were full of comments about the recent Pew Study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Even more than the actual study though, it was the New York Times article about the findings that generated the most conversation, with its telling headline, “Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews.”
While the results emphasize that American Jews are proud to declare their identity, the more negative takeaways were captured in the second paragraph of the Times article:
The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.
I found this especially interesting because at the time I was reading the just-released book “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah” by Paula J. Freedman. “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah” follows the spiritual and social journey of 12-year-old New Yorker Tara Feinstein as she prepares for her Bat Mitzvah (or Bas Mitzvah as her Yiddish grandmother and Indian-born auntie refer to it).
And therein lies the rub: Tara likes to embrace both her Jewish and Indian identities, complete with chilis in matzo ball soup and a converted sari synagogue-party dress. But this also creates problems, as she deals with classmates who say she is not “really” Jewish, even though her Indian mother converted to Judaism before she was born, and that she is worshipping idols because she keeps an elephant statue from her grandfather in her room. As Tara wonders, when it comes to her Bat Mitzvah: “Was I about to become more Jewish, or less Indian?”
When my oldest daughter had her bat mitzvah, one of my proudest moments did not occur during the ceremony, though she certainly invested time and hard work in preparing. It came early Sunday morning when we were deciding what to do with the leftover food from our huge Shabbat Kiddush. My daughter suggested that we bring it to a shelter for women and children that she had volunteered at with her school, the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School.
This was a truly meaningful statement: My daughter embraced her role as an adult Jew who is able to see herself as capable of making the world a better place. That morning, before her bat mitzvah party, we delivered the food to grateful recipients at the shelter.
Something similar happened a few days before my second daughter’s bat mitzvah. We took a walk and stopped to talk with an older neighbor. She told us that she always made blintzes on Shavuot but hadn’t been able to this year. Without prompting, my daughter went home and selected some of the blintzes that she and her older sister had made themselves to share with our neighbor.
As I listened to friends and family begrudgingly make decisions about Hebrew school for their kids this year, I started a conversation on my personal blog about alternatives to the typical after-school programs. As I mentioned, I was not asking on behalf of my own family.
My kids go to a non-Orthodox day school, attend shul every week and live in a home that I’ve described elsewhere as “Reformadox”. I was asking for new ideas on behalf of my friends and as a concerned member of the larger Jewish community. I felt that, with so many disgruntled customers out there, there had to be some newer, experimental models to try.
I heard from families in various cities who belong to Reform or Conservative synagogues, but send their kids to a Chabad-run religious/Hebrew school program on Sundays, meeting the call of Jews who want their kids to experience a Jewish education, but not at the expense of the taking over the family’s schedule for the week.
Some families in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago said they dropped out of their synagogue’s Hebrew school for a newer organization run by an Orthodox couple called Jewish Family Experience. Rabbi Yehuda Polstein and his wife, Mashi Polstein, run their own school which, like Chabad’s supplemental school, meets on Sundays. JFE, as the group’s members call it, is based on another popular program in Cleveland called Jewish Family Experience, commonly referred to as JFX. At JFX in Cleveland, entire families meet on Sundays for Jewish education. I heard from parents in both cities who raved about the passion for Judaism their kids felt and the depth of knowledge the kids and parents learned during the once-a-week sessions.
I actually must thank Sam-the-Bar-Mitzvah-video dancer and his family for their voyeuristic and strategically-posted video of the burlesque dance routine that’s been making blogosphere news. They have certainly given us Rabbis fodder for our high holiday sermons.
But while many of us are busily typing up diatribes against the excess, the lavishness, the expense and the lack of Jewish focus, and while we are all right in our musings about so many of the wrong messages Sam’s scantily-dressed dancers gave off, I hope we don’t miss seeing it through one more lens: the feminist one.
Imagine you are one of the 12- or 13-year old girls watching the performance, whether live or on the video. What do you see?
You see a riff on all those music videos with hot girls shaking everything they’ve got around a male lead singer (this time a Bar Mitzvah boy). You see a 13-year-old boy hungrily adored by female dancers the age of older sisters, or worse yet, mothers. You see that “women” — in the form of the Ritual Rockettes — want that boy. You see that one guy can satisfy 20 girls. And that they all desire back. You see a boy being welcomed into a gaggle of females vying for his attention. They wait for him and on him. And you no doubt imagine yourself, the skinny, awkward, gawky tween, hoping to be one of those women soon — hoping to have a man to allure the way those women are not-so-subtly alluring and admiring Sam.
Resting on the butcher block in my Brooklyn kitchen are seven black and white napkins with the name “Caroline” written on them in a cloud of polka dots. I found the napkins — leftovers from my bat mitzvah — four years ago while combing through the attic as my parents prepared to sell my childhood home. My boyfriend and I used most of the napkins the following year. Two apartments later, we have seven left, all tangible remnants of the day I became a Jewish adult. Seven reminders my parents threw a kick-ass party organized by a top-notch party planner, who I didn’t realize was also a top-notch wedding planner until he kissed me on the cheek at my friend’s wedding.
I’m concerned that 17 years later, these napkins are the primary reminder of my becoming a bat mitzvah — the day I chanted 40 verses of Torah and led the service, an overachieving upgrade from the usual eight verses read, not chanted, at my Reform synagogue.
In the United States, especially amongst Reform and Conservative Jews, we all too often focus on the party and on ourselves, rather than the actual responsibility of becoming a Jewish adult. In the past few months, video invitations to Jorel and Daniel’s bar mitzvahs went viral on YouTube. While the videos are adorable testaments to the boys’ precocious playfulness, as well as their parents’ deep pockets, they epitomize the ongoing clash between American and Jewish values.
This is the first in a Sisterhood series on women, apologizing and Yom Kippur.
Forget your bat mitzvah, learning to drive and losing your virginity: College graduation is the one moment that truly signifies your entrance into the “real world.” Now you’re actually a grown-up, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride. At least, this is the impression I’ve received from every college commencement address I’ve ever watched. They usually involve some sort of discussion of the existential crisis of what to do with one’s life, plus some mildly witty cracks about struggling to pay rent and learning to cook. Yet, as consistently as certain themes and jokes are rehashed in these speeches, there’s one thing no one warns you about when it comes to your entrance into adulthood: coveting.
Since I graduated from college last year, my most striking post-collegiate realization was not that I should have taken an econ class or that it’s no longer socially acceptable to store vodka under my bed. Rather, it is that I have a frighteningly strong capacity for jealousy, competition and envy.
Ironically, being surrounded by 1,600 of my peers did not bring out my green-eyed monster. College provided a clear way to measure my progression; grades in classes, leadership positions in clubs and invitations to parties on the weekend were all the validation I needed to assure myself that I was doing the right things. And as long as I was happy, I (mostly) didn’t look to others.
When you leave college, the measures of success and validation are not only nebulous (especially if, like me, you graduate with no idea of what you want to do), but it becomes pretty clear that some — maybe many — of your peers have jumped WAY ahead of you. They have better jobs (or in my case, they just have jobs). They have apartments, some of which are shockingly spacious. They nab the article for the publication you’ve adored since high school. They find the perfect significant other to bring to alumni events.
Days before Pesach we celebrated Girlchik’s bat mitzvah. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah is always cause for celebration, but hers was particularly sweet, since she had suffered a brain bleed around the time of her birth and her prognosis then was uncertain. Moments after telling me that my week-old daughter had suffered a major stroke, the hospital’s neurologist said: “It’s in God’s hands now.”
Today, thanks to hard work on Girlchik’s part, some great physical, cognitive and speech therapists, as well as God’s bountiful blessings, we were able to celebrate the bat mitzvah of our wonderfully healthy 13-year-old.
And thanks to a fascinating exhibit on the history of bat mitzvah put together by Moving Traditions, and The National Museum of American Jewish History, the topic of the bat mitzvah has been in the news lately. A recent piece on Tablet notes that “bat mitzvahs aren’t what they used to be.” To which I say: Thank God (and Jewish women) for that.
We can preoccupy ourselves with the ridiculously high hemlines and heels worn by some bat mitzvah girls. We can look to the Fort Knox-equivalent amounts of money spent by some families on over-the-top parties. Or we can concentrate on the things that have changed for the better.
Where are the … waitresses? Not at one popular Jerusalem eatery, at least not on Thursday evenings. That’s apparently when yeshiva boys descend on Heimische Essen to get their fill of kugel and kishka. In an effort to secure the über-strict Badatz kosher certification, Heimische Essen has agreed to employ an all-male wait staff on that night.
In related news, a teenager from Dimona, deep in Israel’s Negev desert, was expelled from her religious school for working at a fast food restaurant. The franchise was kosher, but the job required her to work alongside men, an apparent violation of her high school’s modesty code.
Nose jobs, and tired, old “shiksa goddess” stereotypes get the punk-rock treatment, courtesy of the Miami plastic surgeon Michael Salzhauer. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons is investigating the self-billed “Dr. Schnoz” for his new music video about a yarmulke-clad “beak like Jewcan Sam” keeps him from winning over the girl of his dreams. The music is courtesy of the Jewish punk band The Groggers.
Forget the Aspirin: Three years after winning FDA approval, the second-generation female condom has arrived in the Jewish state.
When we talk about bat mitzvahs, we tend to focus on the more absurdist elements of the day, like our regrettable sartorial choices and tales of general teenage awkwardness. We get so caught up in the puffy sleeved pink skirt suits and the fact that Ron Greenberg decided to do “Love Shack” in the karaoke booth with Jessica even though you asked him first, that we fail to consider how truly progressive this ceremony once was.
The bat mitzvah was a major achievement for early Jewish feminists who, caught up the fervor of the suffragette victory of 1922, decided to claim the right of passage as their own. Now, in light of bat mitzvah’s 90th anniversary, the JCC in Manhattan is hosting an exhibit about ceremony, as well as a concert and performance this Thursday night dedicated to the ceremony.
The show is headlined by Girls in Trouble, led by singer/songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins, and will feature performances by comedian Judy Gold, performance artist Glenn Marla, writer Deborah Feldman, and actress Sam Mozes.
The Sisterhood spoke with these women about their sometimes funny, sometimes boring, and sometimes empowering experiences up on the bima. Feel free to share your bat mitzvah story in the comments section below.
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.
Jennifer Moses wrote a recent and much-discussed Wall Street Journal essay titled “Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?” It opens with the writer listening in on a clutch of 12- and 13-year-old girls in the ladies room at a bat mitzvah party as they discuss other girls. The girls are, as you might expect, dressed in too-short dresses, long earrings and Kardashian-esque eye makeup.
It was a different bat mitzvah party than the one I recently attended where a 13-year-old guest wore what appeared to be 6-inch stilettos and a skirt so tight and short that she literally couldn’t sit down without giving the 7th-grade boys even more to see than she had planned. But it could have been any one of a countless number of such parties where the girls dress like hookers.
Now, I’m no advocate of the Jewish burqa look either. On the way to do some pre-Passover shopping at Pomegranate today, I saw this store, “Tznius Princess,” where the wedding gowns in the window had more fabric than Carol Burnett’s take on Scarlett O’Hara’s in “Gone with the Wind.” I’ve written here about turning to Mormon shopping websites in my attempt to find dresses that are neither overly bare nor overly burqa-esque for my daughters to wear.
I was always certain that I was never going to be one of those mothers. A bar or bat mitzvah isn’t a wedding, after all. The important thing is that your child is reaching the age of maturity and reading from the Torah. It’s not about the color of the napkins, the quality of the appetizers or the fancy outfits.
Big parties just aren’t me. But then I take a look at the pictures of my daughter’s big, beautiful and undeniably lavish event last week, I think to myself: What happened?
Somehow, the same momentum took over that drove me when I planned my wedding. Except, somehow, the pressure to make this a beautiful ceremony and festive party was greater.
We learned from the cover story of the past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that there is a debate raging in developmental psychology and neuropsychology circles as to whether there is a new stage in human development called “emergent adulthood.” Some might call it “prolonged adolescence,” but apparently, a lot of people are asking a variation of the question “What Is it About 20-Somethings?”
The jury is still out as to whether the fact that so many young people in their 20s are not yet financially independent, settled on a career, or in long-term, committed romantic relationships is a definitive indication that humans are not cut out to assume the responsibilities of adulthood until they reach the age of 30.
Whether or not you completely buy the new theory, this re-thinking of the timing of the true onset of adulthood has not only biological, social and economic implications, but also religious ones. If brain imaging research has found that the human brain does not finish its major growth and hardwiring until approximately age 25, then what are we Jews doing declaring young people adults at the age of 12 or 13?
There are those childhood pictures that are reminders of our cuter selves. Aw, There I am with the freckles! And that’s me with chocolate sundae smeared all over my face! Precious.
And then, of course, there are those pictures of yesteryear that have a more humiliating bent. A particular one comes to mind: I’m wearing a bat mitzvah dress with shoulder pads that were about two and a half times the width of my upper arm. But I look so cheery, braces and massive glasses and all. Everything was so much bigger in 1992 — the glasses, the dresses, the bows (a baby-pink one on the dress and a lighter pink one on my head). No micro-minis on the bimah back then. (Case in point, the fashions seen in this recent Sisterhood video of a bat mitzvah that took place the same year as my own.)
Before Paul Rudd broke into television and movies, the “Dinner for Schmucks” star was working the bar and bat mitzvah circuit in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. He emceed my bat mitzvah party, back in 1992 — months before landing a recurring role on the NBC drama “Sisters.” (“Clueless” was still a few years off.)
The soft-spoken aspiring actor whom my mom and I met on the hunt for bat mitzvah DJs — I took an immediate liking to Rudd — turned out to be the perfect choice for the event. Rudd, donning a yellow tuxedo jacket, a ruffled shirt, shorts and Doc Martens, ably and energetically led us through all of the bat mitzvah staples: candle-lighting, Coke & Pepsi, toasts, limbo, “Hands Up,” challah-cutting and “YMCA.” And as the “Today” show-themed bat mitzvah party came to a close, he invited my friends onto the dance floor to sing a moving rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For.”
“Where are you heading?” a friend asks.
“I’m on my way to pick up Naomi from her bat mitzvah lesson.” I reply. The response is silence and a slightly confused look. “She’s going to read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah and she’s started studying for it. You know, I’m American and all, and I grew up in a Reform synagogue; I read from the Torah at my bat mitzvah and so my daughter is going to do it, too.”
Afterwards, I kick myself for sounding so apologetic, as if my eccentric immigrant ways somehow needed justification in Israel.
The Sisterhood Digest:
• Rachel Lester, a 15-year-old who attends a Modern Orthodox high school, has been elected Los Angeles’ youngest-ever public representative.
• The New York Post reports on the rise of million-dollar bar and bat mitzvahs. Among the lavish affairs that the paper details is one bat mitzvah at which the guest of honor emerged from behind purple lamé curtains “dressed in a cropped circus ringleader jacket — a duplicate of the one worn by Britney Spears on her ‘Circus’ tour — a top hat, and fishnet stockings. A troupe of Cirque du Soleil performers surrounded her…” and another in which the bat mitzvah girl “descended from the ceiling of Cipriani Wall Street harnessed to a wire and dressed in a catsuit. Then she was serenaded by Jon Bon Jovi for 45 minutes.”
I’m going Mormon.
After all, I do love watching “Big Love,” and I can’t deny the appeal of having a “sister-wife” who wouldn’t mind doing the laundry for everyone in the family.
But mainstream Mormons no longer practice polygamy — it’s been against official church policy for more than a century — so the “sister-wife” situation is off the table. And anyway, there’s no way I could join a religion whose leaders sanction converting dead Jews to Mormonism for “the benefit” of their eternal souls.
But I have converted to their shopping.