I was born in Poland before World War II. Girls didn’t have bat mitzvahs. There was no such thing as Conservative or Reform Judaism. You were either Jewish or not, and the only kind of Jewish was Orthodox, where women sat separately in synagogue. They also left to pick up the cholent at the bakers, where it was being kept warm. You couldn’t light a stove on Shabbat (even though a non-Jew could have done it for you). Observance was very strict.
I also remember that my grandfather liked his glass of schnapps after the gefilte fish, which did not come in jars or frozen. My mother made it from scratch. She chopped it until it glistened. She saved the skin and each piece of gefilte fish had a strip of skin wrapped around it. Well, that was then.
During the war, we did not think much about observance on a daily basis. Life was more about survival. It took a while before we got to the United States. That was where I first heard about bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs, for that matter.
Life moved along. I got an education, I got married, I had children. But all the time, an idea was percolating in the back of my mind. I thought a bat mitzvah was something I missed … and really deserved.
During a long career as a chemist, I vowed to myself that someday, when I retired, I would do it. And so, I did!
Right after my first retirement (long story), I approached a friend who tutored kids for their bar and bat mitzvahs. I was nervous. I had wanted a partner, but no one would join me. For a while, I thought the rabbi’s mother would do it, but she passed away, so I decided to go ahead on my own.
I don’t sing, so the trop (the manner of chanting ritual readings from the Torah) was a scary prospect. My husband couldn’t stand the nightly practice, so I had to wait until he went to sleep. I labored for almost a year.
Finally, the day came. The Rabbi was happy since it was summer and nothing much was going on. As most of the kids were in camp and their parents had more leisure time, my “performance” attracted a larger congregation. This was, by the way, the synagogue’s first adult bat mitzvah (for years, the rabbi kept my picture in his office).
Everything was by the book. I sent out invitations and some of my co-workers came. It was awkward explaining to non-Jews that you can’t carry large gifts into a synagogue on the Sabbath.
My granddaughter held the Torah (she had worried about her clothing; I told her bare arms and shoulders were inappropriate). My son made kiddush. Most of the family got aliyot. I got through the haftorah without a hitch. I even made a speech entitled “Today I Am a Fountain Pen.” It was funny and sad at the same time (my parents would have loved it). We had a reception in the social hall.
I feel like I made history in our synagogue. There have been a few adult bat mitzvahs since, but they were in groups. I am still the only one who did it solo.
It felt good to keep my promise to myself. Tradition! Tradition!
Miriam Edelstein is Communications Chair for Hadassah Lower New York State.