Expanding Bat Mitzvah

"No thunder sounded. No lightening struck," recalled Judith Kaplan Eisenstein of her history-making 1922 Bat Mitzvah ceremony, the first in America. She is pictured here at her second Bat Mitzvah ceremony, where she was honored by a number of prominent Jewish women, including Betty Friedan and Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

Institution: The Ira and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein Reconstructionist Archives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

On this day in 1922, Judith Kaplan--daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism--was called to the Torah in what is known as the first bat mitzvah ceremony in America. It was a relatively spontaneous event, planned the night before, and she did not read from a Torah scroll but rather out of a printed book, but the event nonetheless charted new territory (not to mention scandalized her grandmothers).

Today, bat mitzvah is much less radical and much more standardized, though what it entails--when it takes place and what the bat mitzvah does to mark her entry into Jewish adulthood--looks different depending on the norms of her community. At the same time, the mainstreaming of bat mitzvah, I would argue, has led the expectations of what this milestone can mean to become somewhat rigid and, sometimes, unimaginative.

So in commemoration of the first bat mitzvah, I'd like to share an excerpt from a poem that JWA recently discovered on its fabulous trip to Santa Fe. Lorraine Schechter's "I Didn't Have a Bas Mitzvah" reminds us that there are many different ways that girls have (and continue to) mark their coming of age. Here's an excerpt (you can read the entire poem here):

...I didn't have a
Bas Mitzvah.

That day on 212th Street
shivering in the cold, I was confirmed
without ceremony, without gifts.
I found a voice within that was true
and it urged me to listen.
I needed to obey
even at twelve years old,
even if the Rabbi was hurt,
even courting my parents' wrath,
and tempting God's.

We were so excited to discover this poem because we've recently embarked on our own bat mitzvah initiative and are thinking carefully about how to expand the definition of what constitutes a bat mitzvah so that more girls and their families can mark this milestone in ways that feel personally meaningful, not rote. Bat Mitzvah Interactive will provide web-based activities designed to open up the experience of bat mitzvah for girls and their families to include exploration of family history and role models, taking the bat mitzvah experience beyond the typical focus on a synagogue service and a party.

If you had a bat mitzvah ceremony, what was meaningful to you about it? What fell flat? If you didn't have one, did you mark your transition to Jewish adulthood in some other way? Is there something you wish you had done to celebrate this milestone?

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One moment that still stands out from my Bat Mitzvah almost 30 years ago was a passing of the Torah from the Rabbi to each of my parents and finally to me. It truly made me feel connected to my family and our heritage in a way I hadn't expected.

My bat mitzvah fell on Rosh Hodesh, and I remember learning from my tutor about the connection between Rosh Hodesh, the moon, women, and feminism. I remember that my speech was about women and feminism, which is pretty funny considering where I ended up (at JWA!). That ended up being the only meaningful part of my bat mitzvah experience. (The rest was just stress at being forced to have a huge party at the most awkward period of my life.)

I wish I still had a copy of that speech. I'll ask my mom if she saved it!

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Expanding Bat Mitzvah." 18 March 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 2, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/expanding-bat-mitzvah>.

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