‘Judith Kaplan wasn’t ancient history’
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‘Judith Kaplan wasn’t ancient history’

Jersey girl stars in bat mitzvah centennial celebration on Instagram

Dylan Tanzer plays the part of Judith Kaplan preparing for the first bat mitzvah in 1922.
Dylan Tanzer plays the part of Judith Kaplan preparing for the first bat mitzvah in 1922.

The 12-year-old girl in the Instagram video is almost contagiously ebullient.

“So today, out of the blue,” she starts off, “Papa told me at our new shul girls will be able to become a bas mitzvah just like the boys become a bar mitzvah. But no one has ever done that before!

“He said to me ‘Judith, one of these Sabbaths I’d like you to become bas mitzvah.’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not!’”

Yes, it’s Judith Kaplan, daughter of the famed Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and the first girl to celebrate a bat mitzvah ceremony — on March 18, 1922, when she was 12 1/2 years old.

Of course, it’s not actually Judith Kaplan — later Judith Kaplan Eisenstein — but rather 12-year old Dylan Tanzer of West Orange, a student at the Golda Och Academy, who is playing the part in a fictional Instagram account, @judithkaplan1922, in which young Judith Kaplan tells the story of becoming the first girl to celebrate the rite of passage — and shares ways in which life a century ago was not all that different from life today.

The project was created by the synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that was founded by Rabbi Kaplan as the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, now known as SAJ; its tagline is Judaism That Stands for All. Rabbi Kaplan taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship institution; his students and followers founded Reconstructionist Judaism. (His earliest effort at institution building was the creation of the Young Israel movement as a modern expression of Orthodox Judaism.)

The script was written by SAJ member Mik Moore, who runs a creative agency that produces videos and content for social impact campaigns.

The 10 episodes include looks at events of the time — the 19th Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified only a year and a half earlier. (“Now that woman can vote will they be treated as equal to men?” Judith posts) and jazz was in the air ( “How could such a forward-thinking synagogue have such boring music?” she asks.)

Dylan has no angst about her own upcoming bat mitzvah. Between her years of Jewish studies and her experience acting and singing, it’s not a surprise that she wants to do “as much as I can” when it comes to leading Shabbat morning services and reading from the Torah and haftarah.

A young Judith Kaplan and her even younger sister Hadassah. (Courtesy of David Musher)

Dylan has acted in community theater, as well as professionally in videos and podcasts. When a friend of her mother forwarded a post announcing the audition for the role, Dylan submitted a video of herself performing a monologue from the Diary of Anne Frank. And she got the part.

But as she read the script for the Instagram series, she was surprised to learn just his new the bat mitzvah ritual was.

“It’s crazy to think it’s only been 100 years,” Dylan said. “I thought girls were bat mitzvahed for much longer.”

Dylan was surprised again when she talked about her role as Judith Kaplan with her grandmother, and she learned that her grandmother did not have a bat mitzvah when she came of age, four decades after Judith Kaplan turned 13.

“It was such an amazing experience to learn from Judith’s perspective of how women weren’t treated as equal,” Dylan said. “Women were allowed to vote only a little bit before. I thought that was really crazy.

“It was amazing to tell Judith’s stories,” she added.

The full day of filming also was a pleasure for her, offering an opportunity for man`y costume changes in an apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan where Mik Moore’s grandparents, longtime SAJ members, had lived. (Mr. Moore’s grandmother just died, so the family still owns the apartment.)

“Every episode we added on a sweater, or a different dress,” Dylan said. “For the bat mitzvah scene they did my hair so pretty, gave me a pretty dress and a Jewish star necklace.”

Dylan has an Instagram account of her own, where she posts pictures and videos from acting workshops and hanging out with her friends. It’s “completely different” from the Judith Kaplan account, which is “like a YouTube diary,” she said.

Rabbi Tamara Cohen, left, and Rabbi Daniel Brenner

Moving Traditions, an organization focusing on Jewish teens, is incorporating the Instagram account and the bat mitzvah centennial into its B-Mitzvah program, which is designed to help sixth and seventh graders navigate the bar and bat mitzvah experience. Rabbi Daniel Brenner of Montclair, the organization’s vice president of education, explained the educational challenge: “How do you get sixth graders who may or may not have any sense of the history of this ritual to connect to this hundredth anniversary?”

Moving Traditions runs its B-Mitzvah program in around 120 synagogues across the country. Several are in Essex County; next year, the program plans to expand into Bergen County congregations thanks to a grant from the Russell Berrie Foundation.

The program consists of 25 sessions over two years, for sixth and seventh graders. Eight of them bring in the kids’ parents; “the parent and the preteen are chevrutas, a pair that studies together,” Rabbi Brenner said. The sessions are led by a member of the local synagogue’s clergy or educational team, who are trained by Moving Traditions.

This year, an hour of the program is devoted to discussing Judith Kaplan’s groundbreaking ceremony a century ago. It starts with the most basic of questions: “Why do people mark anniversaries? What is the connection of the bat mitzvah ceremony to the history of Jewish women speaking up and advocating for their rights?

“One of the goals is to help students understand the seeds of feminism. We look at a lot of the issues happening in the early 1920s and the ways they are connected to what is happening right now,” including women’s suffrage, racism, and voting rights.

This is the fifth year of Moving Traditions’ B-Mitzvah program. Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah fits well into the larger issues the curriculum addresses.

“Right around 12 and 13 is a time when many pre-teens are awakening into their political consciousness and into their identity and understanding of what it is to be a Jewish person in the world today,” Rabbi Brenner said.

If the bar and bat mitzvah does not actually mark the entry into adulthood except in terms of participating in Jewish ritual, it does mark the passage into becoming a teenager. The Moving Tradition program offers a chance for the pre-teens and their parents to discuss “what are the responsibilities of a Jewish teenager? What does it mean to be seen by others as a Jewish teenager?”

Rabbi Brenner notes that one significance of the bar or bat mitzvah is that “for many, this is the first time they’re inviting friends who are not Jewish into something Jewish in their lives.”

Century-old synagogue board minutes, as posted to the @judithkaplan1922 Instagram account.

This week, Moving Traditions hosted an online seminar for educators and clergy, “Celebrating 100 Years of Bat Mitzvah in the age of B-Mitzvah.”

“B-mitzvah” is a recent phrase that aims to avoid the awkwardness of the phrase “bar or bat mitzvah,” the typographic ugliness of “bar/bat mitzvah,” and the contemporary concern about preteens who would prefer not to identify with either gender.

“For some people, it’s a post-gender moment,” Rabbi Tamara Cohen, the organization’s chief of program strategy, said. “For other people, both teens and their parents, it’s still really powerful to be thinking about and having the space to talk about being in the process of becoming a woman or a man.”

“We’re using ‘B-Mitzvah’ as an umbrella term. It doesn’t mean everyone needs to call their ceremony by the same name. We don’t want to preclude gender from mattering. There are still kids who want to have a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah. There are still a lot of particular issues that girls face in becoming women, whether it’s the different ways they are treated by their classmates and even adults as their bodies are changing. At Moving Traditions we think gender still matters. It’s an important part of our identities.

“For some teens there is power in gender identity and in connecting with others who identify as girls, as boys, as men, as women, with mentors of the same gender.”

At the same time, she said, “for other kids it’s really empowering to talk about how that that’s not their experience, that’s not what they feel they’re becoming, because they’re identifying as nonbinary or transgender. It’s hard to create a space where both are true but it’s important. We want to honor the gender journey of all teens — they’re the ones who are going to tell us in the end.”

Rabbi Cohen lives in Philadelphia now but she grew up in Teaneck. When she became bat mitzvah in 1984, Judith Kaplan’s revolution definitely did not seem like ancient history.

“There wasn’t an egalitarian synagogue in Teaneck where I could have a Shabbat morning bat mitzvah,” she said. As a member of the Teaneck Jewish Center, which steadfastly resisted Conservative Judaism’s embrace of gender equality until it formally embraced Orthodox Judaism in 2011 by installing a mechitza to separate men from women in services, “the only option I had was reading from a Nevi’im scroll” — a book of the Prophets written on parchment like a Torah — “on a Friday night.” Instead, she read from the Torah on Shabbat morning at Havurat Reim, a prayer group that met in a rented gym.

She was a student at the Yavneh Academy at the time; she was one of the few non-Orthodox students at the Orthodox school.

“Every morning on the bus I would hear the boys leyning” — practicing their Torah chants — “while beating each other up,” in the way of preteen boys.

“I felt a lot of feminist pride in what I was doing. Judith Kaplan wasn’t ancient history. It was real.”

Julia Gergely of the New York Jewish Week/JTA contributed to this story.

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