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.
Yet I still felt that my bat mitzvah was not given the same attention as my brother's bar mitzvah. And, in a sense, I was right. For my brother, there were important decisions to be made: which parts of the service he would lead, which male family members we would invite to participate in the service. For me, all the decisions fell into the realm of party planning.
In the end, after the months of planning, my party was fun. It was fancy. It was public. And, as 12 years old is young for any kind of true coming of age, that was enough for me at the time. My biggest disappointment was not that the evening lacked ritual but that most of my classmates wandered outside during my speech and played a surreptitious game of truth or dare.
But looking back, I feel that the event lacked substance. If the community one enters is a religious one, where ritual and prayer take center stage, then there ought to be some ritual ceremony to mark this arrival. In some circles within Orthodox Judaism, bat mitzvahs are developing a public, ritual component. This is the result of the sometimes seamless, sometimes contradictory movement of Orthodox feminism. Some girls mark the occasion by leading prayers and chanting the Torah portion at an all-women's prayer group. Other girls mark the occasion by studying a designated portion of sacred texts and having the celebration that traditionally marks such an accomplishment. Even in communities where any kind of Orthodox feminism is considered an oxymoron at best, heresy at worst, public celebrations are more accepted, almost passé.
Fifteen years after my bat mitzvah, I still feel the same anger I felt during the preparations for my party. I still am an Orthodox Jew, and I still struggle with the role women play within this world. By being involved with Orthodox feminism, I have seen that Orthodox girls today have options that weren't available at the time of my bat mitzvah. I know that a daughter of mine will have both a public and a ritual bat mitzvah.
Still, in some ways I look back warmly at my own bat mitzvah. However accidentally, it awakened in me the struggle between Orthodoxy and feminism that would later form my primary religious identity. The limitations of my bat mitzvah opened up a later, more meaningful coming of age.