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Bat Mitzvah revolutions and evolutions

Judith Kaplan (Eisenstein) made history 87 years ago today when she became the first American to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah. As the daughter of an innovative rabbi - Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism- she benefited from his belief in egalitarianism and his willingness to challenge tradition.

Since then, Bat Mitzvah has been a constantly growing and evolving ritual. Few people know that, while radical for its time, Judith's Bat Mitzvah was hardly egalitarian by today's standards: she read from a humash (printed version of the first five books of the Bible) after the regular Torah service. Until the feminist movement pushed the boundaries further, most girls even in the liberal streams of Judaism had their Bat Mitzvahs on Friday night, not Saturday morning, and didn't read from the Torah at all.

Each decade has its Bar and Bat Mitzvah trends. In the 1980s - my Bat Mitzvah era - Soviet "twins" were all the rage. Today, Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids are likely to have a community service component to their experience.

And adults have jumped on the Bat Mitzvah bandwagon. Those who didn't have a Bat Mitzvah when they were young now have the opportunity as adults to affirm or deepen their relationship to Judaism and learn new synagogue skills. NPR recently reported on what may be the oldest Bat Mitzvah group - women in their 90s - who will celebrate together next week in Beachwood, Ohio. Even Judith Kaplan Eisenstein had a second Bat Mitzvah at age 82 - this time reading directly from the Torah scroll.

If you're interested in doing some further exploration of Bat Mitzvah and other evolving traditions, check out JWA's latest edition of our Go & Learn lesson plan series. Drawing on the story of one girl's pursuit of a Saturday morning Bat Mitzvah, the lessons prompt reflection on what it means to be counted as equal in Jewish life and to confront the big questions facing Jewish communities today as traditions continue to evolve. Included are opportunities to conduct interviews on the impact of Bar/Bat Mitzvah experiences, or lack thereof. If you collect - or have your own - story about a Bat Mitzvah "first" experience (First in a synagogue? First on Saturday morning? First to lead services, read from the Torah, or wear a tallit?), please share it with us in the comments section. (Collected stories will also be shared with Moving Traditions' Bat Mitzvah Firsts project.)

"No thunder sounded. No lightening struck," said Judith Kaplan Eisenstein of her 1922 Bat Mitzvah experience. True, this "transgressive" ceremony didn't bring down American Judaism. But in a positive way, we're still feeling the ripples today, as we think about how to create meaningful rituals that include Jews of all kinds and at all life stages.

Topics: Ritual
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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Bat Mitzvah revolutions and evolutions." 18 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/Judith_Kaplan>.

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