A bat mitzvah shapes a girl into the woman she'll become
BY: Tova Mirvis
My brother turned 13 the year I turned 12, putting our bar and bat mitzvahs just a few months apart. We would both be having large parties at our synagogue with music and dancing. For the months beforehand, we both spent time selecting invitations and deciding on menus and color schemes.
But for my brother, the preparations were not limited to party planning. Starting a year before he turned 13, he met twice a week with a rabbi to learn the Torah portion he would recite before our congregation and to prepare the Sabbath service he would lead. Becoming a bar mitzvah is a public event marked by religious ritual. A 13-year-old boy is considered an adult member of the Jewish community, responsible for his own actions and able to play a public role in the community.
In Orthodox Judaism, however, there is no public ritual marking the bat mitzvah. Girls come of age in private, into a role that is private. Orthodox women do not publicly read from the Torah and do not lead prayers in synagogue. In the 1980s, even having a public bat mitzvah celebration went against the norms of my community in Memphis, Tennessee. Most girls who turned 12 (the year of bat mitzvah for Orthodox Jews) had no official celebration, except for a small reception at home, usually for women only.
My family had a sense of the imbalance between my coming of age and my brother's. We agreed to have my party in the synagogue, which took a step into the then-nascent world of Orthodox feminism, the movement to increase the role of women in Orthodox Judaism. We decided that at the celebration I would deliver a speech on the practice of lighting Sabbath candles, a ritual that belongs to women. I was excited about my speech, and proud of the topic. It felt, somehow, like I was asserting the importance of a space where I might play a primary role.