Letty Cottin Pogrebin: Two Bat Mitzvahs, 60 Years Apart

By | Jan 05, 2012

Not long ago, my eldest granddaughter celebrated her bat mitzvah—two months shy of 60 years after I celebrated mine. I was one of the first girls in Conservative Judaism permitted the “privilege” of the supposed equivalent of the male coming-of-age ritual.

Besides being overwhelmed with emotion at witnessing Maya become an adult member of the Jewish people, I marveled at how much has changed since my bat mitzvah on a Friday night in 1952, presided over by Rabbi S. Gershon Levi in his high, crown-shaped black satin yarmulke and long black robe.

Maya’s bat mitzvah was held on a Saturday. The rabbi, Yael Buecher, was a recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has been Maya’s teacher for the past three years. Rabbi Buecher took a Torah scroll from the ark in the sanctuary at Hebrew Union College and unrolled it to Parshat Vayeshev, the story of Joseph and his brothers, and Maya chanted the Torah portion, her Hebrew beautifully articulated, her cantillation sublime. She had a special aliyah (the honor of reciting the blessings before and after the Torah reading). She delivered a d’var Torah (mini-sermon) of originality and depth about Joseph’s passivity in his relationships. Her parents and rabbi blessed her lavishly.

After the ceremony, we all repaired to a nearby restaurant for a party in Maya’s honor. A slide show catalogued her life from infancy, and in a later ceremony she rapped rhymes she’d written to laud the special qualities of various relatives and friends whom she called up in small groups to light each of 13 tall candles.

My point is not that her bat mitzvah was the best on the planet, just that it contained all the requisite elements of tradition, ritual, pageantry, content, continuity, commemoration and celebration, and that Maya was both the subject and object of the event. Serious and joyful in the way that significant religious moments are meant to be, it was a full-fledged rite of passage, not a stripped-down, “feminized” version of the real thing. The profundity of the occasion, and the amount of learning that she had had to master, was obvious to all.

Flash back to February 1952 at the Jamaica Jewish Center. Like all girls similarly “privileged,” I became a bat mitzvah on a Friday night. Saturdays were reserved for boys. I did not read from the Torah (the portion that week was Exodus 13:17 to 17:16, which includes the wonderful verse about the prophet Miriam leading the Israelite women into the sea). The scrolls stay in the ark on Friday nights, so I did not have an aliyah, and neither did anyone else. All I did was chant my haftarah (a passage from Prophets) from a Tanach, or Hebrew Bible, no different from the volumes everyone else could find in their pews. My speech was all about thanking my parents and teachers. I was not invited to interpret the text (Judges 4:4 – 5:3), which—propitiously, given my subsequent feminist commitments—was about the prophet Deborah, arguably the Bible’s ultimate female leader.

I wasn’t feted and fussed over; however, the synagogue bulletin, which I’ve saved for 60 years, says, “The Oneg Shabbat, arranged by Sisterhood, which follows the service, will this week be in honor of the Bas Mitzvah.” What’s more, I was grateful for the right to do and have even that much, since to many in our community, the very idea of a bat mitzvah was a radical threat to the authenticity of the Conservative movement, if not to Judaism itself.

Nothing personal about any of this. In 1952, equality for girls and women was virtually unthinkable. There were no female rabbis or cantors, no female Talmud scholars or synagogue presidents. Women weren’t counted in the minyan (the quorum of ten Jews required for public prayer), as they now are in most non-Orthodox congregations, or honored with an aliyah. Girls weren’t asked to offer a d’var Torah, even if, like me, they’d attended Hebrew school practically since birth, yeshiva for a couple of years and synagogue “religiously.”

Education? Immaterial. Commitment to Judaism? Irrelevant. Regardless of how much you knew, what you were capable of, what rituals you loved, or which obligations you wanted to assume, it all boiled down to failing the physical. The sign on the Jewish tree house said “Boys Only.” Back then, it never occurred to me to question this reality or the fact that the only people I ever saw on the bimah were men.

According to that synagogue bulletin, Rabbi Levi’s sermon the night of my bat mitzvah was “Jewish Law and The Jewish Woman.” I wish I could remember his message, since his subject would one day become a major focus of my life. He’s been dead for decades, but, given his pioneering stance on bat mitzvahs, I have the feeling he would have approved of everything my granddaughter did and all the changes she and millions of Jewish girls now happily take for granted.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a Moment columnist for more than 20 years, is at work on her tenth book, How to be a Friend to a Friend Who is Sick.

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