Being Female and Orthodox Caused My Identity Crisis

Collage by Judy Goldstein.

The aroma of Sabbath food at my decorated dinner table smelled drastically different from that of my other Jewish friends. Our prayers, spoken fast, with each Hebrew word echoing off the walls, were much longer than the five-minute service my school put together at the end of each week. I also wasn't able to sit next to my brothers at synagogue. Rather, I was restricted from their view by a thick wooden wall, wreathed in white linen. This was nothing that my friends experienced at our school or at their synagogues. None of these differences ever made sense in my mind until the age of womanhood, until my bat mitzvah.

As I was the youngest of six kids, three girls and three boys, b’nai mitzvah weren't a new enterprise in our family. But I faced specific challenges, as I turned twelve after my parents' divorce.  

My father is an Orthodox Sephardic Jew, and my mother is a convert Conservative Jew. At the time, I was a naive girl, uncommitted to her Jewish identity. 

When the topic of my bat mitzvah surfaced in my two households, it became evident that my bat mitzvah was not going to be like the ones my friends were having, which involved taking the bimah at our local Jewish school for Friday night and Saturday morning services and celebrating at a big party later that night. I begged my parents to switch synagogues, from Chabad to the one all of my friends were studying at. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to fit in. 

To nobody’s surprise (except my own) my parents were unwilling to give up the tradition of their ancestors, including the struggle to survive long enough to celebrate a child arriving at her womanhood, just because she felt awkward about being a different kind of Jew. 

So, it was decided. I was going to be having an Orthodox bat mitzvah, meaning that as a woman, I was unable to read from the Torah, just another thing that made my experience unique. The commandment to read the Torah has always been required for men, and oftentimes they were even praised for standing up to do it. Our traditions allowing them to take part in a minyan, wear tefillin, and dress in a tallit each were part of their bar mitzvah services. Yet, for an Orthodox woman of the same age, having a similar service, the idea of cherishing the same moment of togetherness with God, is unacceptable. 

In other words, while my three b’nai mitzvah partners, each male, spent months preparing for their service, I sat at home questioning my Jewish and feminine identity. I even started to question my connection to God. I was so upset that simply because I am a woman, I wasn't deemed worthy enough by God to complete one of the biggest mitzvot of my religion. Then I started to think, if this is true, why am I dedicating so much of my time and thoughts to him?  

After pleading to be just like my Reform friends for superficial reasons, like not wanting to stand out, I then felt upset about my Orthodox bat mitzvah because of a deeper reason: not wanting to be excluded from ritual due to my gender.

When the calendar started to creep up on September 7, 2019, I knew that I was going to have to face my insecurities. It is tradition at my Jewish school to have a Torah service each Thursday, featuring the person who is going to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah that weekend. I knew that I would be the only kid in my grade who didn't have a portion to read. I sat in the front row of the theater, sweating, holding the armrests of the chair next to me. The rabbi called up my name along with the names of my b’nai mitzvah partners. Standing awkwardly on the side, despite it also being my special weekend, I was only permitted to read the blessing before my male counterparts could read their Torah portion. It pained me to know I didn't have a Friday night service to get ready for the following night, nor did I have to wake up to be at the synagogue early the next morning. 

I remember all my friends coming up to me at my Saturday night party remarking, “You're so lucky you didn't have to read Torah,” or “I'm so jealous you just get to have a party and be done with it.” While these comments were obviously made innocently, they really got to me. I didn't feel lucky. I didn't feel like somebody others should feel jealous of. I was upset that I didn't get the opportunity that everyone dancing around at my party did.

As a seventeen-year-old, I still question my branch of Judaism for this blatant gender bias. Looking back on my bat mitzvah, it doesn't feel like the most special night of my life, because the holiest part was stripped from me. 

Nevertheless, I don’t wish it had happened any differently. Without experiencing the bigotry that comes with Orthodox b’not mitzvah, I never would have formed such a deep, nuanced relationship with my religion and femininity. I don’t have all of the answers, and I can't exactly pinpoint my spiritual identity, but I know that I want to live in a world where I can honor both my religion and my gender, and I know I can make that possible.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Tuchshnieder, Elah. "Being Female and Orthodox Caused My Identity Crisis." 27 October 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 12, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/being-female-and-orthodox-caused-my-identity-crisis>.