B’not mitzvah rituals evolved over time, one family at a time, in all streams.
Here is an example. The year was 1960. The place was Crown Heights. Fraternal twins, a boy and girl, born to Shoah survivors, are raised in a ritually rigid Orthodox home. She is older by 12 minutes, and since he liked being a bully, she would often yell, “I’m 12 minutes older, have a little respect!”
They were born on Simchat Torah, one of the liveliest and happiest Jewish holidays – the one where they would share the fun in shul – dancing with their father around the bimah; tying the men’s shoelaces together during the Amidah; helping the older boys wrap the prayer leader in his tallit and carry him out of the building (people did wildly strange things on Simchat Torah). When the little girl turned nine, however, she was told, “OUT! You are a girl.” From then on, Simchat Torah was never the same for her. I know, because I was that little girl.
|At age 60, Jeanette Friedman finally celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah by reading from the Torah. Courtesy jeanette friedman|
My brother and I were the first set of twins delivered in my parents’ community of survivors, but we were not the only twins on the block. An older set of American Jewish twins lived next door. And on Shabbat afternoons, I would go visiting and once noticed a photo album with photos that pre-dated the bar-bat mitzvah disco days. She and her brother were all decked out, he in his tallit and big white kippah, she in a pretty party dress, looking as if they were sharing equally in the goodies and ceremonies. They were Conservadox, and she was a pioneer. This equality among twins registered with me, a student at the local Bais Yaakov school (a girl’s yeshivah that was hardly a bastion of feminism).
When my 12th birthday rolled around, I asked my parents how we would mark my becoming a bat mitzvah, but received strange looks as a response. A few girlfriends came over and gave me a birthday cake, which we ate in the darkened Sukkah. By then, my twin brother was already being prepared for his big day – which, because it was Simchat Torah, meant he would be given the additional honor of being the “chatan b’reishit” – the person whose aliyah symbolically begins the new yearly cycle of Torah readings. He would also have to give a slew of speeches over three straight days.
As for me, I would be chopped liver – except that I decided I would not be left out. If the girl next door could have a share in her brother’s bar mitzvah celebration, so could I.
As part of my brother’s celebration, there was a big party planned by my parents for their friends and business associates at a Manhattan hotel. My brother was going to have a dais with all his friends. Because this did not involve shul or ritual or rabbis, I insisted on a dais of my own and the right to make a speech, as well.
And that is what I did. My mother put me into a custom-made pink confection that made me look like a giant wad of bubblegum with a “Jewfro” in cat’s-eye glasses. I was surrounded by my friends, made my speech, and collected a few fountain pens. The entertainer was a young chasidic rabbi named Shlomo Carlebach, at the very beginning of his career. He was introduced as the Jewish Elvis (he did not appreciate that reference), but he strummed his guitar and sang about our souls once he got over his upset.
Decades later, my daughters marked their b’not mitzvah with divrei Torah and parties, but there was nothing elaborate, and nothing in a synagogue.
As I approached my 60th birthday, I thought, “why not mark my becoming a bat mitvah on Simchat Torah?” I talked to my rabbi, who agreed. So I taught myself to read from the Torah and, on Simchat Torah, led the congregation in prayer, was given an aliyah, read, and delivered a d’var Torah on the Garden of Eden.
It was a long journey for a person with short legs like mine, to be able to mark my becoming bat mitzvah on my 60th Simchat Torah – meaning 48 years after I legally became a bat mitzvah. And I am glad I helped create a new tradition for the women in our family, bringing them to the higher plane reached 90 years ago by Judith Kaplan.