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The first bat mitzvah: No thunder sounded. Or did it?

Consider the courage it took 100 years ago for Mordecai Kaplan's daughter to leave the comfort of the women’s section and chant the Torah blessings
The author with her husband, Daniel Eisenstadt, and middle daughter Ariella Musher Eisenstadt, on the occasion of her Zoom bat mitzvah in 2021. (courtesy)

One hundred years ago this Thursday – on March 17, 2022 – my great-aunt Judith Kaplan (later Eisenstein) became the first bat mitzvah in the United States. Inspired by the suffrage movement and the experience of fathering four daughters, Judith’s father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, considered instituting a ceremony to mark a girl’s maturation a vital part of reconstructing Judaism so that it resonated with the times. Shortly after establishing his own synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ, now known as Judaism that Stands for All), Rabbi Kaplan sought the board’s approval to initiate the new ritual, and to give the first honor to his eldest daughter.

Unlike today, when preparations for a bat mitzvah often take months or even years, Rabbi Kaplan took his 12-and-a-half-year-old daughter into his office the Friday night beforehand and asked her to practice the blessings before and after reading Torah as well as selecting a supplemental portion for her to read in Hebrew and English. Judith recalled him “severely” correcting her diction. Like most teenage girls, she was nervous, not so much about causing discomfort to her disapproving grandmothers, but particularly about how her friends would respond. After the Torah reading concluded, she left the comfort of the women’s section to chant the blessings before and after reading Torah, and then to read both in Hebrew and English the section her father had selected for her. Afterwards, she recalled “No thunder sounded, no lightning struck. The institution of the bat mitzvah had been born without incident, and the rest of the day was all rejoicing.”

It is important to mark anniversaries, to draw attention to moments of change and those who instigated such transformations. But institutional and systemic change is often slow and less likely to result from the actions of single individuals than as the consequence of widespread activism. The same could be said about the normalization of a rite of passage for Jewish girls, as well as broader efforts to make Jewish religious and cultural institutions egalitarian and inclusive.

Judith’s three younger sisters publicly marked when each became bat mitzvah wearing new dresses – for some, their first store-bought ones – replete with pleats and ribbons and even lace from their mother’s engagement dress. Judith’s youngest sister, Selma, recalled hers, in February 1927, having been the first double bat mitzvah. Felicia Lamport read their Torah portion in Hebrew, and Selma read it in English. “In our day, we did so very little,” she reflected retrospectively, “we were not that knowledgeable and sophisticated.”

Judith Eisenstein at her second bat mitzvah ceremony in 1992. Source: The Ira and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein Reconstructionist Archives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

But the Kaplan sisters and the SAJ were the exception. In their and even their daughter’s generation, few women had the opportunity to become bat mitzvah. Furthermore, if they did, it was often in ways that differed markedly from their brothers. Rather than reading Torah and Haftorah on a Saturday morning, they might lead a Havdalah or Friday night service. In the Reform movement, the communal and egalitarian ceremony of confirmation, marking the end of a young person’s Jewish education, had largely replaced the b’nei mitzvah ceremony. In the Conservative movement, individual rabbis and congregations adopted the practice, but the movement’s Rabbinical Association did not establish guidelines for a bat mitzvah until the 1950s. Even the SAJ did not institutionalize the ritual until 1958, the year my mother became a bat mitzvah.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the bat mitzvah became mainstream, at least outside of the Orthodox world. Still broader religious egalitarianism did not prevail. For many young women, unlike their brothers, becoming bat mitzvah marked the culmination, rather than the beginning, of a young woman’s leadership role in the synagogue’s ritual practices. In many communities, although a young woman could mark her bat mitzvah ritualistically, she was then prohibited from blessing the Torah (having an aliyah), carrying a Torah, and counting for a prayer quorum (minyan). Even the SAJ did not inaugurate its practice of calling women to the Torah until December 2, 1950, when Judith and her mother Lena were among the eight women given the first honor, five months before Judith’s eldest daughter Miriam herself became a bat mitzvah.

Demands by second-wave feminists for full ritualistic participation, significantly altered the landscape by the time I became a bat mitzvah in the mid-1980s. At the SAJ, it was assumed that my bat mitzvah would look like my older brother’s bar mitzvah, and my rite of passage represented a beginning rather than an end of ritual participation. Still, I arrived at college in time to participate in demands that women be able to lead Friday evening services in the Conservative minyan and to push for gender-inclusive language in prayer. Feminist Orthodox women too were seeking to expand women’s spiritual and religious roles.

A few weeks ago, my second of three daughters celebrated the anniversary of her Zoom bat mitzvah. Thankfully, for this fourth generation to become bat mitzvah, it is difficult to imagine Judith’s world. My three daughters have grown up seeing women rabbis, cantors, and board chairs. They have always known that their parents expected each of them to become a bat mitzvah, that their ceremonies would be egalitarian, and that – we hope – this rite of passage marks the beginning, not the culmination, of their participation in the Jewish community as adults.

Today, an increasingly post-institutional, post-denominational, gender-fluid generation is witnessing another profound transformation in the Jewish rite of passage ceremony from gender specific bar and bat mitzvahs to the gender-neutral b-mitzvah. In this case, the transition into Jewish adulthood has less to do with taking one’s place in a gendered world than it does with rethinking and often dismantling such expectations.

Even as the organized Jewish world has become more equitable, it still has a long way to go to be inclusive across race, gender, class, and ability. Sexual harassment, gendered assumptions by hiring committees, and the genuine difficulties of balancing work with family obligations, particularly given the responsibilities of maintaining a Jewish home, continue to work against women assuming leadership roles in Jewish organizations. Moreover, many Jewish institutions have only recently begun to work to incorporate the range of Jewish diversity among their leadership.

Perhaps remembering the courage required for a 12-and-a-half-year-old girl to leave her comfort zone among her sisters, mother, and grandmothers, to enter a male world and raise her voice will inspire younger generations to continue the work of embracing the diversity of voices, bodies, and experiences that constitute the Jewish world today. Judaism, as Mordecai Kaplan wrote, is an “evolving religious civilization.” May it continue to develop.

About the Author
Sharon Ann Musher is Associate Professor of History at Stockton University and author of *Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture* (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Her forthcoming book, *Promised Lands: Hadassah Kaplan, Zionism, and the Making of American Jewish Women*, uses her grandmother’s archive to explore the coming of age of American Jewish women in the early twentieth century.
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