Episode 71: Bat Mitzvah at 100

Nahanni: Hi!  It’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome to the spring season of Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. We’re launching with the first in our anniversary series— the hundredth anniversary of the first bat mitzvah in America.

Carole: When I was in fifth grade, two years before I became a bat mitzvah. I dressed up for Purim as a bar mitzvah boy.

Jen: [laughs]

Carole:  I mean, it's insane, right?

Jen: What did you wear?

Carole: I wore…oh, it was 1975, I wore brown Levi corduroys. I wore this red—I have a picture of it—I wore this red blouse with an oversized collar. I put on a sweater vest on top of that. I found a yarmulke that had a distant cousin’s name on it. I took a white cloth, I Magic Markered blue stripes on it…

Jen: Oh my gosh.

Carole: I put it around my neck. I  ashioned a kiddush cup out of Reynolds Wrap, and away I went. To me, at the time, boys were the real Jews.

Nahanni: That’s Professor Carole Balin, the board chair of the Jewish Women’s Archive, talking with producer Jen Richler. Carole is writing a book about the history of Bat Mitzvah in America—a ritual she’s been fascinated with since she was a child. Her research includes interviews with dozens of women, representing many decades of bat mitzvah history.  Throughout this episode, you’ll hear some of their voices, too. This time on Can We Talk?, we explore the evolution of the American bat mitzvah, and how girls and their parents have pushed that evolution forward. Here’s Jen.

[Theme music fades]

 

Jen: It's interesting that Carole dressed up as a bar mitzvah boy, because for most of Jewish history, the rite of passage really was for boys.

There were some ceremonies to mark Jewish girls’ coming of age.  In the nineteenth century in Italy, girls dressed in white with flower wreaths on their heads would gather to recite prayers in front of the chief rabbi. In Baghdad, some girls marked their twelfth birthday by saying shehecheyanu, a blessing to mark milestones. And in the United States, as early as the 1840s, groups of older teenage girls and boys, mostly in the Reform movement, had confirmation ceremonies, in which they answered rote questions about religious life.

But the bat mitzvah ceremony did not exist for girls until March 18, 1922. That’s when Judith Kaplan stood in front of her Manhattan congregation, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, founded that year by her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. 

Carole: Bar mitzvah, since the 14th century, obviously has only been for boys. So Mordecai  Kaplan was really doing something groundbreaking by saying, no more, no more—you know, for six centuries only boys have been allowed to have, to undergo this rite. My daughters are going to do the same that boys are.

Jen: Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah was the first of its kind, but she still didn’t quite do the same as a boy would do at his bar mitzvah. Here she is, being interviewed by Ellen Dickstein in a busy Manhattan coffee shop in the 1970s.

Judith: I didn't chant the way girls do now or the way the boys at the time did. I just read. 

Ellen: Did you read from the Torah? 

Judith: I read a portion of the Torah but not from the Torah.  I was given a book and I stood up on the bima, but not at the open Torah. Radical they weren’t. As it was, it caused a great deal of disturbance.

Carole: She was relegated to a distance from the Torah scroll—she did not read from the holy scroll. Her father did that morning. And then when he was done and the Torah was safely dressed and put away, then she was called forward.

Jen: To find a girl who had a ceremony more on par with a boy’s, we have to jump ahead a few more years to the '30s, when some girls started having bat mitzvahs at Jewish summer camps directed by Mordecai Kaplan’s disciples.

Carole: I do know at Modin, for example, in 1934, the owners of the camp, their daughter, Kinneret Gensler—she was Kinneret Dushkin at the time— she was scheduled to have a bat mitzvah in 1934. And she dreamed of going to what they call the Torah Tree at Camp Modin, this big oak tree with huge boughs surrounding, like an embrace, this birch doored ark. And Kinneret dreamed of going up to the Torah Tree and taking out the Torah and reading the Torah “like all the boys had before me.” And Kinneret actually got her period and was not allowed to read from the Torah that day.

Jen: [laughs]

Carole: So that tells us two things. You know, one, about these strictures could be enforced, even though we can have a whole conversation about what the Talmud says about women and menstruating and touching holy objects. But it also tells us that Kinneret was going to be given the privilege of reading from the Torah, which is very remarkable, very unusual, um, unheard of in 1934.

Jen: The following summer, Gladys Salpeter Kraft had her bat mitzvah at Camp Cejwin. Gladys died in 2021, but here she is at the age of 97, reminiscing with Carole about her bat mitzvah.

Gladys: It was in August. It was on… I believe it was Saturday morning, the regular Shabbat services. I think it was just taken for granted that that was going to happen, because it certainly wasn't going to happen at the Temple we belonged to in the city.

Carole: In the summer camps, in the great outdoors, there was a lot more latitude for girls. We know that girls led services  themselves. Judith Kaplan talks about this in her diaries—she went to both Cejwin and Modin at different points. We know, also, that a young woman by the name of Ruth Bader, who became a Supreme Court justice, led services at her camp. I mean, there's just more freedom and more egalitarianism. And so it kind of makes sense that girls will be allowed these privileges that they wouldn't back at home, where there were more strictures in place.  And so Gladys, for instance, will read Haftorah, she'll actually chant aloud.

Gladys: It began with Nahamu Nahamu

Carole: Wow. So it’s right around the time of Tisha B’av, probably.

Gladys: That’s exactly right… “comfort me, comfort me.”

[musical interlude]

Jen: Bat mitzvahs were still relatively rare in the '20s and '30s, aside from in Mordecai Kaplan’s own congregation and at the summer camps where he had influence.

Carole: In 1931, a survey was done of 200 Conservative rabbis and only 6 of the 110 that responded said they had adopted bat mitzvah. Only 6. and many had never even heard of it. The Reform rabbis at the time were far more engaged in confirmation as the coming of age ceremony of choice.

Beginning in the '40s and even more so in the '50s, the bat mitzvah ceremony gains more traction. In the shadow of the Holocaust, Jewish girls’ education gets pumped up. There's a strong will to ensure the future of Jewry in the wake of so much loss. There's a desire to enrich girls’ education. And sometimes, in some places, that means girls become bat mitzvah, as a way to show that they are learning those same skills that the boys are.

One of the finest examples of a girl becoming bat mitzvah in the forties is Judy Paull Aronson. Judy was not allowed to touch the Torah her bat mitzvah. But what’s really terrific about Judy is she was not going to be held back. She was told she was not allowed to touch the Torah, but at 15, she was able to sneak into the sanctuary and she approached the ark and she opened the ark doors and she touched the Torah scroll. And from that moment on, she felt sort of instilled with this power as a Jewish woman

[musical interlude]

Jen: By the end of the '50s, about half of Conservative and one third of Reform congregations had introduced some kind of bat mitzvah ceremony. A striking example from this period was Judy Darsky’s.

Carole: What sets Judy apart is that her bat mitzvah took place in 1955 at the Isaac Mayer Wise Temple in Cincinnati. The temple in Cincinnati has been called the “mother church” of the Reform movement. And that's meant to point out that it is in the classical Reform style. It's like a cathedral. She gives kind of the standard speech of a bar mitzvah boy, but from a feminine point of view.

[Clip from speech plays] “Adonai Eloheinu, O Lord our God. I come before Thee to take my place as a bas mitzvah, a daughter of Thy commandments. O God, help me to grow in knowledge as a fine American and a noble Jewess.”

Carole: You hear the organ in the background…

[organ music plays]

Carole: For Judy, this was transformative. She said that her bat mitzvah stood as a center point for her throughout the rest of her life, kind of a fixture she'd go back to. She was extremely proud of it and became very involved in Jewish life.

[musical interlude]

Jen: The next major turning point in the bat mitzvah story comes in the '70s.

Carole: You know, with second-wave feminism, the impact of bat mitzvah really begins to be felt in terms of its popularity and in terms of its format, meaning that girls start to insist and demand that, you know, I go to school with these boys. I sit side-by-side with these boys. I want to do what the boys do. And Sally Gottesman is really a wonderful case in point.

Jen: Sally Gottesman grew up in Montclair, New Jersey and attended a Conservative synagogue called Shomrei Emunah, which is where she had her bat mitzvah in 1975. Nahanni spoke with Sally about how she fought to have her bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning, so she could read from the Torah.

Sally: Girls had Friday night bat mitzvahs at this Conservative synagogue that we went to. I was actually at an Orthodox day school at that time. And I wanted to have my bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning.

I felt very adamant. I think I was the only kid going to day school from that synagogue, certainly in my class. And I felt like I knew more than the other kids and how come I knew more than all the other boys who were having, you know, Saturday morning bar mitzvahs. And why could I not have a bat mitzvah on Saturday morning?

I think that I was interested because I really liked Judaism… I guess that I liked Judaism and I liked feminism and I couldn't understand why a girl couldn't have a bat mitzvah the same way as a boy did. Why couldn't I be called up to the Torah?

And, and in fact, this was about being called to the Torah on a bat mitzvah. It was not that… if I remember correctly, it wasn't that you could suddenly have an aliyah the following Shabbat. That wasn't the change that the shul was making at that point. It was that girls could have a Saturday morning bat mitzvah.

Nahanni: So women still weren't being called up to the Torah?

Sally: Not regularly, correct. So my parents helped to support my desire to have a Saturday morning bat mitzvah. And I had written a letter to the ritual committee talking to them about why I wanted to have a Saturday morning bat mitzvah. And then there was a whole synagogue process. And I became, in some ways, the test case for a Saturday morning bat mitzvah at this Conservative synagogue in Montclair.

Nahanni: So when you wrote this letter to the board and there was a whole process, was there resistance to what you wanted to do?

Sally: There was a member  who wouldn't come to shul that Shabbat. I remember he walked out. The Cantor of the shul wouldn't be the shaliach tzibur—you know, wouldn't lead services on the Shabbat that I had my bat mitzvah.

I remember that I wrote, im lo achshav ei matai? And I didn't translate it, I remember. That's what I felt, my 12-year-old act of rebellion was, I said, “If not now, when?” and figured if those people are in the ritual committee, they should know their Hebrew well enough not to have to have me translate it. I think the notion basically was. You know, if this was going to happen, why not make it happen now?

Nahanni: And then how did you feel when it happened?

Sally: I remember being very happy, actually. But it was actually also extremely meaningful to me. I felt very proud of myself, actually. I remember feeling proud of myself, both just simply for having a bat mitzvah. I cared a lot and I think that I knew that I had taken one, you know, one small step in this congregation.

Nahanni: And after you had your bat mitzvah, did other bat mitzvahs on Saturday mornings follow?

Sally: Yes. Yeah. That did become the norm at that synagogue.

Nahanni: So as an adult, you have been very involved in Jewish communal life.  How do you look back on your bat mitzvah from this vantage point?

Sally: I think it was actually a very, very important experience for me to realize that I could help to create change—that, you know, I could actually be a changemaker in the Jewish community.

Jen: Sally paved the way for other girls in her congregation to have bat mitzvahs that felt more on par with bar mitzvahs. But as she points out, it was a small step towards women’s participation in her congregation. Even when synagogues allowed girls to have a ceremony more like a boy’s, there was still a major difference.

Carole: The bat mitzvah was envisioned as a dead end. Unlike a boy who, when he became bar mitzvah, that was his gateway to engagement in Jewish life. That was when he would, from then on, be counted in a minyan, a prayer quorum, for the rest of his life. He would be allowed to be called up for an aliyah to bless the Torah for the rest of his life.  For girls, it was not the case at all. You did it and you were done. Things snapped back into place afterwards.

Logically it doesn't add up, right? I mean, if a bar mitzvah was the beginning of religious majority for a boy and he was allowed to take on all the commandments and fulfill them, and for a girl, she was never obligated—classical Jewish sources do not obligate a girl to take on all the commandments. So what would that mean, in fact, right? So it became a conundrum. And I think it pushed the movements that are guided by halakhah, by Jewish law, to change their thinking around it.

Jen: Changes in thinking about the status of women in Jewish ritual life didn’t happen at a uniform pace across all congregations. OK, quick history lesson here. Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist congregation was ahead of the curve when it came to egalitarianism. Partly at the urging of the bat mitzvah girls themselves, the board voted in the '50s to allow girls to read directly from the Torah scroll on and after their bat mitzvahs and to count women in a minyan. Other self-identified Reconstructionist groups soon followed suit. These decisions represented a break with the mainstream Conservative movement it had started within and helped launch it as a separate movement.

Often, when congregations made changes to allow women a greater role, they did so in frustratingly tiny increments. In the 1950s, for example, a Conservative synagogue in Queens, New York decided to count two women for every man in a minyan. It was only with the momentum of second-wave feminism in the '70s that the movement for gender parity really started to take off. In 1972, the Reform movement ordained its first female rabbi, Sally Priesand. The following year, the Conservative movement officially decided to count women in a minyan.

Moving into the '80s and '90s, increasing numbers of women started to participate in synagogue life: going up to the bimah, reading from the Torah, and serving on synagogue boards. And Carole says what moved these things forward, in almost every case, was the fact that girls got their feet in the door.

Carole: It's these girls who really transform Jewish life. They pave the way for all women to participate in Jewish life. And they do that in some ways by their presence on the bimah.

[musical interlude]

Jen: So far, our story has focused on the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements. In the Orthodox movement, Even going back to the '50s, there were some synagogues where girls had bat mitzvahs, usually outside of Shabbat worship.

Today, there’s a wide range of bat mitzvah practices in Orthodox congregations— from girls giving a sermon on a Friday night to girls reading from the Torah on Shabbat, usually in a women’s prayer service. In every movement of Judaism, over the past 100 years, bat mitzvah girls have gained access to Jewish ritual participation.

Carole: A coming of age is now regarded as the prerogative of every person across the communities of North America—you know, tween to senior, secular to observant, a born Jew, a person who converts to Judaism, of color, white individuals, with cognitive or physical challenges, queer and straight, every Jew, any Jew who masters the requisite skills is eligible. So there's a wonderful story, you know, of a woman named Gina Drangel.

Gina: I’m Gina. I had my bat mitzvah on April 27th, 2018. I will be 52 years old on March 18.

Carole: …and her daughter Anna…

Anna: Hi, I'm Anna. I'm 16 years old. I'm from Queens, New York and I celebrated my bat mitzvah on September 22nd in 2018.

Jen: Gina grew up in Queens and was raised Catholic. She loved singing in the church choir, but the Catholic teachings never really spoke to her. She started feeling drawn to Judaism as a teenager, after attending a friend’s Passover seder. Eventually, she met a Jewish man, converted to Judaism, and raised two Jewish kids, Anna and her brother Henry. Gina had her bat mitzvah just a few months before her daughter.

Jen: How did that decision come about? What made you decide as an adult, and an adult in your 40s, that you wanted to have a bat mitzvah?

Gina: Well, I'm very active with my temple. And my kids were in the religious school. And so I was always there, but I was also the president of the women's connection, which is the sisterhood, on the board. And the rabbi said that he will have an adult b'nai mitzvah class. And I always want to learn—I mean, I just love learning. And I just knew, you know, that this will be a great journey for me to continue.

Jen: Anna, as your mom said, she decided a long time ago that when she had children, they were going to be raised Jewish. So I'm guessing that it was not really like, as it was for your mom, a decision to have a bat mitzvah, as much as it was, kind of, you knew that you were going to have one. Is that true?

Anna: Yeah, it was just something that I knew was going to come, like, towards the end of my Hebrew school days. I was excited about it. I felt it would be something that would confirm, like, my Jewish identity, even more.

Jen: Are you someone who, like your mom, enjoys singing, enjoys the musical aspect of Judaism?

Anna: Yeah, that was, like, my favorite part of Hebrew school and the services. I really just loved, like, belting out the prayers and stuff.

Jen:  Gina, can you describe your bat mitzvah itself—what parts of the service you led, what memories stand out from that day?

Gina: So it was 13 of us who had a b'nai mitzvah. And all of us were from all different walks of life. There were some of us who converted to Judaism. There were some of us who were born and raised Jewish, but weren't able to have a bat mitzvah at the time. And our portion was from Kedoshim, from Leviticus. So we each had a verse and we had to sing it in Hebrew. It was the first time that I read from the actual Torah scroll. When the cantor opened up the scroll and asked me to use my yad to point to my verse, it just felt like it was a pull, like a pull, like someone was pulling my yad, like it just felt right. You know you do certain things in life and it just feels right? It just made me feel more connected in my Judaism, you know, leaning more into my Judaism. And I continue to lean more into it.

Jen: Can you say a little, actually, because that's my next question, is, like, what impact having a bat mitzvah, for both of you, had on your Jewish identity and maybe even on your Jewish practice?

Gina: When I converted to Judaism, I left some pieces of me behind, you know, because the face of Judaism, from where I saw, didn't really have my face. And as the years progressed, I realized that I need to bring more of myself onto the plate—because, you know, being Jewish is just not one way. And so having the bat mitzvah, it kind of sealed a lot of me becoming really whole, you know, because I really sensed, more sense of being a woman who is Black and bringing more of myself into the journey.

It’s not easy, because there are still many people who  just assume I'm not Jewish. I know I’m Jewish. That's why I'm glad I did the adult bat mitzvah. I’m not leaving anything else behind.

Jen: How about you, Anna? After your bat mitzvah, is there anything about your Jewish identity or your Jewish practice that changed for you?

Anna: I think it made me a lot more confident in being able to say that I was Jewish, because I had done one of the most Jewish things you could do. Growing up, many people would tell me I'm not religious enough, or, like, don't look Jewish. They wouldn't believe that I was Jewish at all. And especially not being that religious of a person,  it really got me down. But I think on that day, during the service just chanting my prayers and stuff, I felt, nobody can take this away from me. And I'm thankful I was able to have a bat mitzvah to help me feel that way.

[musical interlude]

Jen: Today, 100 years after Judith Kaplan first stood in front of her congregation, the bat mitzvah continues to evolve.

Carole: There are efforts now to create gender neutral or gender inclusive ceremonies. As gender expansive kids make themselves known, come into the limelight, synagogues are creating rituals for them, or the kids themselves are. I spoke with Soren Claire Barnett. Soren was called to the Torah twice: first as a bat mitzvah in New Jersey in 2011 and then as a bar mitzvah on a Birthright trip in 2016 in Israel. Soren, over the course of that first coming to the Torah to the second, changed their pronouns to they/them, changed their name, and felt that they wanted to even the score and be, as they put, “the gender neutral dream.”

One could argue that with the rise of gender expansive kids, that the ceremony will become genderless altogether. I don't know if that's going to happen. There’s all kinds of implications that I think we just don't know yet as a result of agender kids, non-binary kids coming to the fore and helping us to think through the gender differentiation of Jewish life.

[musical interlude]

Jen: Why do you think the history of the bat mitzvah and the ceremony itself, why has that captivated you so much that, you know, you have devoted a lot of time and energy to studying its history, to interviewing these women whose bat mitzvahs have spanned the decades and, and now putting together a book about it. Why is this story so powerful to you, and what does it mean to you?

Carole: I think I'm captivated by this story because it's the fact that girls of 12 or 13 years old really spark a revolution. And this is not the demographic that we tend to think of as an agent of history, a subject of history, really making change. And this is exactly what those girls did. And in a funny, ironic way, I think their superpower was their innocuity, their harmlessness, their ability to come across one way, but really package this power that once it went out into the world, all women realized, hey, I can do this too.

[theme music plays]

Jordana: I'm Jordana I live in Washington, DC in Shepherd Park, and my bat mitzvah is supposed to be in, I believe, four months, at Shavuot.

Alexandra: Hi, I'm Alexandra Kosloff. I'm in seventh grade and I'm from LA and I'm celebrating my bat mitzvah on September 10th, 2022.

Helena: Hi, I'm Helena Varon. I live in Bloomington, Indiana. So my bat mitzvah is on August 13th, 2022. It's coming up in just six months or so. I will be, like, doing the Torah portion, and also the Haftorah and a few other prayers.

Jordana: I'm excited. I think it'll to be able to spend—I think it's like a four-day weekend with my friends and family.

Nahanni: So I wanted to tell you that it’s the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah. Did you know that?

Jordana: I did not. That's very interesting, actually.  It’s kind of an interesting fun fact I can tell people.

Alexandra: I feel like if you think about it, it's, it seems like a long time, but then it's actually really not that long, considering how old, like, Judaism is.

 

Nahanni: Mazal Tov to Alexandra, Helena and Jordana, and all the other kids celebrating b’not mitzvah this year. Thank you to Professor Carole Balin, who shared her research and expertise for this episode. Carole is writing a book about the history of bat mitzvah in America. Thanks also to the American Jewish Archives for the clip of Judy Darsky’s bat mitzvah.

The Jewish Women’s Archive is partnering with SAJ—Judaism that Stands for All—for a National Shabbat in celebration of Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah a hundred years ago this March 18.  Visit batmitzvah100.org for details and to share your own bat mitzvah story. For a glimpse into Judith Kaplan’s thoughts leading up to her bat mitzvah in 1922, check out JudithKaplan1922 on Instagram.

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. This episode was produced by Jen Richler. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard “Tiny Putty” by the Cabinetmaker from Blue Dot Sessions. Listen to Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk or anywhere you get your podcasts.

I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Join us next time for the second in our anniversary series, when we talk about how the women’s group Ezrat Nashim crashed a meeting of more than a hundred male rabbis at the Rabbinical Assembly.

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I just found this website. I had a Bat Mitzvah at Camp Modin in the summer of 1961. It was really important to me. My best friend at Modin, Carol Paull ( who eventually became head counselor at Modin) invited me to her BM at her Reform Temple in Shaker Heights 0hio. I loved it and she was wonderful. When I came back to Jersey City, where i lived, i asked my psrents if i could do it. Our shul in Jersey City was Orthodox. My parents agreed that I could have it at Modin and my father tutored me. My dad, Dr. Harry Schneider had worked PT as a chazzan in New Haven, when he was one of very few Jewish students at Yale College, graduating in 1933. The Bat Mitzvah was wonderful and I was very grateful to Modin and the influence of Mordechai Kaplan there. I would love to talk with Carole Balin. My email is liz.schneider@brooklaw.edu. I am a law professor who specializes on gender issues at Brooklyn Law School. Liz Schneider

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 71: Bat Mitzvah at 100." (Viewed on April 13, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-71-bat-mitzvah-100>.