How The Bat Mitzvah Has Changed: A Grandmother Reflects

At my daughter’s bat mitzvah celebration on Oct. 31, 1981, I was nervous, excited, joyful and awed at the sight of a 12-year old girl standing on the bima of our Conservative synagogue, reading a large section of the Torah portion from its scroll, then chanting her haftarah.

At my granddaughter’s bat-mitzvah celebration on Jan. 22, 2011, I was nervous, excited, joyful and perfectly at ease at the sight of this 12-year-old girl standing on the bima of our Conservative synagogue, reading the entire Torah portion from its scroll, chanting her haftarah, conducting the Torah service, and leading the congregation in “musaf,” the additional prayer service on Shabbat morning.

Their performances and my reactions to them offer a bird’s-eye view of the enormous changes in Jewish women’s roles during the past three decades.

To be sure, in 1981, bat mitzvah ceremonies were the norm in the Conservative movement, and the sight of a girl on the bima did not shock anyone. Yet, the sight of women in general on the bima was not ordinary, not an everyday occurrence. It would be almost four more years before this movement would ordain women as rabbis, and longer for female cantors. Women might be called for “aliyot,” to recite the blessings before and after the Torah reading (and some synagogues did not even allow that), but not many chanted out loud from the Torah as my daughter did. The bima was still a man’s place, with women putting in occasional appearances.

In the Orthodox movement, a bat mitzvah celebration meant a party on a Saturday night, maybe a Sunday breakfast or luncheon, occasionally a girl giving a d’var Torah, a brief talk on the Torah portion. When my daughter began studying her Torah portion and haftarah, the boys in the Orthodox day school she attended teased her. Why was she doing that? A girl’s reading doesn’t count, after all. The classmates who came to her bat mitzvah were advised by the school to pray at home first and to view her readings as a performance, like an opera or popular musical. They did not really count as part of a religious service.

Nobody today would think to tell my granddaughter that her part in the services didn’t count. Although in the Orthodox community girls may still celebrate their bat mitzvahs on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon, many conduct parts of the ritual themselves. Some read from the Torah or haftarah in a women’s minyan; others give learned d’var Torahs. Almost all know that a girl can be as skilled in Jewish practices as her brother — or more so.

In my granddaughter’s Conservative world, of Manhattan’s Solomon Schechter School and Camp Ramah, it is taken for granted that girls learn the same things boys do and use their skills equally. Not every girl or boy conducts as much of the service as she did (I have to brag a little, don’t I?) but the expectations are the same. All learn to read Torah and each child has a classroom bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. Everyone counts, for one another and for the Jewish community.

I never had a bat mitzvah celebration. Nobody I knew did. Although Judith Kaplan, Mordecai Kaplan’s daughter, had the first bat mitzvah back in 1922, for many years only a handful of girls followed her example. Some of my feminist friends say they resented not having the festivities their brothers had. I didn’t. I heard my brother practice for his bar mitzvah, learned the cantillations with him, and was grateful I didn’t have to perform. He could keep all the fountain pens and Swank tie clips (de rigueur gifts in those days); I was happy to be an observer. Not until much later, not until my daughter’s bat mitzvah, did I recognize the satisfaction that can come from mastering a Torah portion or chanting a haftarah before a congregation.

When someone asked Eliana, my granddaughter, beforehand whether she would be nervous at her bat mitzvah celebration, she said, “I’ll probably be nervous, but I’ll be prepared.” If she was nervous, it didn’t show, but the year of intensive preparation did. She looked poised and confident executing every one of her duties, her beautiful voice chanting the text or leading the congregation in song. It would never occur to her that it was enough, as a girl, to be an observer at her brothers’ bar mitzvahs.

Her mother, my daughter, knew of the battles a previous generation fought to give her a voice in Jewish life and liturgy. To my granddaughter they are ancient history. Why, she might wonder, would a girl not be allowed to come of age Jewishly in the same way a boy does? In that wondering lies the success of the past decades. And I feel blessed.

Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.