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Bat Mitzvahs Get Too Glitzy

Women fought for a ceremony to mark a Jewish girl’s passage into womanhood. Now the ritual’s meaning is often lost amid flashy parties and clothes.

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Jennifer Groen and her family, Elkins Park, Pa., April 26, 1986. (Courtesy Jennifer Groen and the JCC in Manhattan)
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My bat mitzvah was a low-key affair. I wore an uber-nerdy blue-gray knit dress with a boat neck, looking like a tween refugee from the secretarial pool in Working Girl. Girls in my Conservative shul weren’t allowed to read Torah back then, but I rocked my Haftorah, a Girl Power story about Deborah the Prophet. (She’s a judge! And she helps lead the battle against the Canaanites!) I designed my own invitations, inspired by a very Girl Power-y section of that Haftorah about a woman named Yael who killed a Canaanite captain by driving a tent pin through his head while he slept: The invitations featured a cartoon of a fiendishly delighted Yael with a mouthful of pointy teeth, chortling and clutching a Buffy-like stake while standing over the sleeping soldier. After the service, we had brunch at shul, and then I had a roller-disco party at Bobby’s Rollaway in Pawtucket, R.I. Oh yes, it’s ladies’ night and the feeling’s right!

All that—handmade invitations, a tale of female empowerment, a little Kool and the Gang—was plenty for me back in the 1980s.

But today, as I start to think about my oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah, mine looks like an ancient relic. Bat mitzvahs aren’t what they used to be. In some ways, that’s good: Girls read Torah confidently in a great many synagogues. And the ubiquity of the “mitzvah project,” in which the kid does something charitable or raises money for a cause, preferably one related to her own interests, is to be applauded (though not when the “mitzvah” seems to be a pro forma letter to guests hitting them up for donations—girlfriend, put some work into it). But sometimes, and I realize I sound as old as the hills here, the changes feel stark and disturbing.

These days, I’m often gobsmacked by girls’ outfits at their parties—and sometimes in shul, as well: gynecologically short skirts, bustier tops cantilevered over barely developed curves, nosebleed-inducing stratospheric heels. The bat mitzvah girl’s friends teeter into the party like a herd of newborn foals. Some hostesses provide baskets of ankle socks so that the girls can dance more comfortably after they take off their foot-bindings.

And oh, the dancing. Again, I sound like a pinched-faced Pat Boone fan, but vey iz mir, the volume! And the nightmarish “party pumpers,” shrieking and hectoring and whoo-ing the crowd into dances and ever-so-festive party games! Not even Paul Rudd could make this pleasurable.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to write yet another article bemoaning the expense of it all, with the Titanic-themed giant icebergs and the rappers and the decrepit rock stars and the Cirque du Soleil performers and the bouncers preventing young hooligans from trashing the bathrooms.

But I am a little concerned about the big picture. What’s the point of having a bat mitzvah—a symbolic ceremony marking the time when a girl becomes a Jewish adult, fully responsible for her own actions and choices—if she’s going to focus more on the clothes and the party than the ritual? Why choose to do exactly what everyone else does, with the only individualization being the theme colors, the degree of showiness, and the amount of pupik shown by both the bat mitzvah girl and her mother? The ungapatchka same-sameness seems particularly sad when you consider how hard individual girls and women worked to win the right to celebrate this milestone at all.

Indeed, ’twas not ever thus, you realize if you go back into the mists of time. The exhibit “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age,” on view at the JCC in Manhattan through April 27, then traveling to communities throughout North America, paints a portrait of a much more modest ritual. Presented by the Museum of American Jewish History and Moving Traditions, it examines bat mitzvahs going back to 1922, when Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan called his daughter, Judith, to … well, not the bima. She stood at the foot of the bima, “at a very respectable distance from the Torah scroll,” and read from her own Bible in both Hebrew and English. It was considered shocking back then, though Judith reminded the Chicago Tribune 70 years later, “No thunder sounded. No lightning struck.”

When you read women’s own stories of how resistant their communities were to their becoming bat mitzvah, you can’t help thinking about how much we take for granted today. Watching the slideshow on the home page of the exhibit’s website, in which women of different ages recall how fiercely they fought for this right and how much their bat mitzvahs meant to them, I found myself weeping.

The exhibit’s timeline is touching, taking viewers through milestones such as confirmation rituals for both boys and girls at New York City’s Anshe Chesed synagogue in 1846; Sephardic authority Ben Ish Hai of Baghdad sanctioning girls getting dressed up and reciting shehechiayanu at their coming-of-age in the 1870s; Rabbi Yehezkial Caro allowing a bat mitzvah ceremony in his temple in Ukraine in 1902. We see the movement gaining ground: In 1931, a survey of Conservative synagogues found that only six had adopted the bat mitzvah; by 1948, one-third had. The show puts the wider adoption of bat mitzvah ceremonies into an American political context as well as a Jewish one: It notes the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in 1970; the founding of Ms. magazine and the ordaining of Reform Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972. I appreciated the show’s inclusiveness, encompassing the creation of the role of “Rabba” for Orthodox women, the depiction of a group of Jewish adoptees from the same Chinese orphanage at one of the girls’ bat mitzvah, and the bat mitzvah of transgender author Rachel Pollack in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1998, 40 years after Pollack’s bar mitzvah.

Change isn’t all festive corsages and jelly candies, of course. There are stories of men throwing their prayer shawls over their heads and marching out when girls approached the bima, people scanning ahead in their siddurs in the hope that the bat mitzvah girl would make a mistake and embarrass herself along with the foolish rabbi who allowed her to do this. But lighter stories abound, too, like Margie Tarmy Berkowitz’s reminiscence of her 1956 bat mitzvah party in the basement, when her mom broke the ice by calling down, “Margie, why don’t you put on the new record by that guy named Pelvis?”

Frankly, the reason this whole topic makes me feel fragile is that we just got Josie’s bat mitzvah date. The notion of my little 10-year-old (who was only a moment ago a newborn—Sunrise, Sunset!) becoming a woman in the tradition of our people just blows my mind. Josie’s Torah portion will be Lech Lecha (“Go forth”), a fitting parashah for someone negotiating her way in the wide, scary world. It was also the portion of my wonderful friend Jill, who did not have a bat mitzvah as a child but chose to have one at 26—and then got a commemorative tattoo of the Hebrew words Lech Lecha. “It was a real transition point to ‘go forth’ into the rest of my life—the parashah really resonated with me and made me feel more connected to the Jewish people and to my own potential,” she told me, when I tearily told her that Josie would be chanting the same words two decades after she did. She added, “But tell Josie that Auntie Jill says, ‘Hold off on the tattoo until you’re 13-times-two, and then if you want to lech lecha permanently, go forth!’” (Uh, thanks, Jill? Well, better lech lecha than a little tramp stamp of a fairy, a boy’s name, or a Chinese character that supposedly means love but actually means “bite the wax tadpole,” I guess.)

The idea of my child being old enough to chant Torah, let alone go forth on her own terms, makes me weepy. Of course, the notion of her dressing like a two-dollar whore while jerking her hips to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” makes me even weepier. So, I was glad to attend a session on bat mitzvah clothing and values at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s What to Wear event (organized by my mom, featuring Tablet’s Editor Alana Newhouse, and horrifying The Forward) that put the bat mitzvah in a context of how women’s clothing reflects both spoken and unspoken messages about their role in society and choices of self-representation. We watched a video about different girls’ and families’ approaches to bat mitzvah, curated by Beth Cooper Benjamin, director of research for the Jewish feminist girls’ organization Ma’yan. At the event, I nearly wept with gratitude to meet one of the girls in the video, the awesome Ella Tav, 13, who chose a low-key, spiritual, non-Manolo-oriented path for her bat mitzvah. “My cousins had really extravagant and fancy bat mitzvahs in Toronto,” she told me later. “And I had friends who had big boom-boom parties. But my mom and I started out with ‘We are not having a boom-boom party.’” Ella’s mom, Rabbi Kara Tav, added, “I’m very sensitive to the sexualization of the teenager in the bat mitzvah. They don’t need to put on skimpy clothes and dance in a provocative way in front of their parents and each other to mark their coming of age in the Jewish community. I found it distasteful. Just because it’s the norm it doesn’t have to stay the norm.”

So, Ella had an ice-skating party at Wollman Rink in Central Park (like my own roller disco party 30 years ago, but with less embarrassing music). “All my friends were there but it wasn’t intense, it wasn’t stressful in any way,” she said. “It was like a gigantic birthday party. There was hot chocolate and candy apples and caramel corn. It was like being in a giant snow globe.” Her mom added fondly, “It felt like a fairy tale.”

And Ella kept the meaning of bat mitzvah first and foremost: “It means being able to participate more in the community, being a role model for younger girls to love where they come from and who they can be, loving the community they’re part of,” she said. When you think about what our forebears went through to win this ceremony for our children, and you talk to a kid who still gets that, how can you not kvell? And I’m breathing a lot easier at the thought of my daughter and me finding a way to mark this occasion in a way that reflects more spirituality than shoe-shopping.


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Huge, expensive Bnai Mitzvot are a curse on the Jewish people. Some people can afford them but other people are shamed into going into debt to pay for them. In some communities with large Jewish populations the kids go to one or two every week for 2 years. They get sick of them and I think it has a really bad effect on 13-year-olds to have so much attention lavished on them for this period of time. This plus summer camp which is 2 months a year of adults who are paid to indulge their every whim makes some very spoiled, entitled kids.

C>Hoarsen says:

Ypu are right, I can see the girls ankles

I am planning my daughter’s ceremony and party for this coming September. We will have a dj because it’s a celebration and dancing is celebratory. My daughter wants to dance. However, I am not hiring caterers: I, my friends, and my family are cooking. The last thing I want for my daughter is a mini wedding. To Sam’s comment, I would add that if a person is capable of being “shamed into going into debt to pay” for a bar or bat mitzvah party, that is their problem. The fact that other members of my congregation have spent $50,000 on their child’s party has no bearing on me or my daughter. The best thing we can teach our kids about becoming adults is that it is their responsibility to stand up for what they believe in, not what others around them tell them is “required,” and to be true to themselves and their own personalities. They should focus on the ceremony and have a party that makes them—not their parents and their parents’ friends—feel great about their accomplishment. They work hard and deserve to celebrate. At the same time, we are still their parents and can guide and even—gasp—set a limit or two!

For my bat mitzvah, we had a kiddush at the synagogue, a party for a few of my friends and that was it. Instead of a ‘blowout,’ we went to Israel, where I became bat mitzvah again on Masada. I was so proud of my family and that decision, and still am, and it is what I will do for my own children.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Boys and girls do not become adults at age 13 in any sense of the word. They become teenagers.

Maybe children matured or were forced to mature earlier in bygone days, but for the ceremony to really mark a child’s emergence into adulthood, it should take place at age 16 at the earliest.

But will any Jewish demonination dare to defy “Jewish law.” Don’t bet on it.

    Indeed lives were shorter ‘back in the old days’.  One need go only as far as Wikipedia to see that life expectancy even as late as the Roman Empire, was 28 years old, meaning that by 13 years old, one was roughly middle aged. 

    However, while life expectancy has greatly expanded over the years, and children at age 13, are not getting booted out of one’s home and into the workforce, the bar and bat mitzvah marks the age when Jews are obligated to follow the mitzvot on their own. 
    The idea that it is proud ‘defiance’ of Jewish law to push such a ceremony out to age 16 (why that age marks anything in particular is left hanging) seems foolish to say the least.  The idea that it is worthy to hide Jews entering their teen years from any sense of responsibility, in this case moral/ethical/religious, seems like a means of extending their period of infantilization, where they are not responsible for anything other than themselves. 

    I for one remember a certain amount of pride and honor, when someone from my shul went looking for people to complete a minyan so one of the members could recite the kaddish for their parents and that my classmates and I could stand and count for a prayer qurom. 

Ellen says:

I will have my daughter read this (and she is slated for Lech Lecha also; 2013) and we will discuss this. My own BatM was a low-key Friday night affair; I know my girls’ BatM’s will be a bigger deal but I will do my best not to make them into Cadillac Escalades, when they should be Toyota Prius (does that analogy work?)

Joshua Pines says:

They become adults in the Jewish sense of the word, Bennett. It means they are responsible for the mitzvot that adults are responsible for.

As for the article, I agree with the gist but I have a problem with the idea of being given the date of a BM. I understand there are challenges with logistics in large congregations but at the end of the day, one becomes BM the day he/she turns 13. We’ve lost sight of the meaning of the ritual (see Bennett’s post).

    What are you going to do.  Logistics have their place in a congregation, and if the children are going to put forth sufficient effort to for their Bar/Bat mitzvah to stand before the Torah and recite the day’s parsha and other portions of the service, then a bit of organization is worth it to honor their change in status despite the fact that it is age, not just the study that is key. 

Judith says:

Great article, Marjorie — I like that you recognize both the power of this life transition and the ways in which contemporary culture can constrict it. At the Jewish Women’s Archive, we’ve recently launched a new site — — designed to give bat mitzvah age girls an online setting in which to explore and express their emerging identities, away from the pressures of parties and performance. The site offers interactive features, a family history tool kit, and profiles of “cool” Jewish women, so that Jewish girls of all different backgrounds can personalize their coming of age experience and figure out what is meaningful to them. Please check it out! There’s no reason that the bat mitzvah experience needs to be defined only by what happens on the bima or at a party.

Liesel says:

Marjorie, I’ve enjoyed your columns since your Forward days. My granddaughter just had her Bat Mitzvah, at 12 because she was ready intellectually and emotionally, also because her parasha was Dvora and Yael. She can chant anything, though without printed tropes it takes longer. Her mitzvah project is to continue to accompany our (Reform) rabbi to senior communities on Friday afternoons, providing vocal and instrumental music at first and now participating in the services, and stepping in when the rabbi isn’t there — for the foreseeable future. The seniors get a kick out of her and it’s mutual.

But yes, at 12 her first thought was to ask every guest bring a can of food to the service; I reminded her she’d done that in third grade. Finding a more self-reliant project wasn’t hard; rather, obvious. Her reception and lunch were modest, like her gifts. No dance or post-party, period — reason alone for an early Bat Mitzvah. She can help her friends with their mitzvot, but we’re working on Maimonides’ levels of charity with her (social action, not social event). We just hope we haven’t created another future under-employed religious professional. We’re so proud of her, but it didn’t happen overnight or without us. And she has to earn electronic time.

Rosanne Skopp says:

I agree with much of your article. What rational adult wouldn’t? Tramping our 12 and 13 year old girls is as far from the beauty of a Jewish ritual as I can conjure. And the formulaic and grossly obscene parties where the father makes a touching charge to the mother thanking her for putting this whole event together: this party with its horrid music making any conversation impossible, this party with its focus on semi dressed women and drunken men gorging on tref food. Security guards to protect our synagogue and caterering halls from our own children! Tasteless and obscene.

But: what about Bar Mitzvahs? They feature the same scantily clad pubescent girls narrowly escaping bone fractures in their 6 inch heels, the same tasteless celebrations, and the same focus on the bar instead of the mitzvah. In our Conservative shuls we all see people in shul in cocktail clothes, looking out of place as they wait for the main event, the party following the service. I’m sure the same is true in Reform synagogues and I’m similarly sure that it’s rare in Orthodox shuls. The bar mitzvah may not be featured in the museum’s exhibit but it has certainly been a long and often undistinguished part of American Jewish life. I would say culture but the word hardly applies.

One point: the haftarah is read. There is no word Haftorah.

    Where are you in all of this planning?  A DJ or band leader is paid by the parents.  One can certainly discuss what music will be on the play list.  One can also determine how loud the volume will be at the touch of a button as well as when the music will be louder or lowered to allow for conversation (or even absent as I’ve seen at some affairs). 

    Same thing for the level of alcohol and food (especially why would there be Trayf food at a synagogue catering facility?)

    Same thing for the younger guests.  One can try to push dress in a certain direction (a notice of formal wear placed on the invitation), but that should be the least of one’s worries. 

Bennett Muraskin says:

Does anyone actually believe that 12-13 year olds are “responsible for the mitzvot that adults are responsible for?”

Given their level of maturity…?

Further, since there are 613 mitzvot, the entire proposition is absurd. Most people are lucky if they can recall the first ten.

    As a matter of fact, yes. 

    As for participating in all 613, perhaps you should review the list.  Many of the mitzvot were specific to practices in the Temple and when the Temple stood.  Likewise some mitzvot are specific to those living in Israel. 

    But, for those of us (self included) who need a refresher, here is a link:

Roseanne: I have had this argument with my colleagues before: Halftorah is house style. It kills me too.

Great comments, people. I think I love Leisel’s granddaughter. And I love the Escalade v Prius analogy!

Pesele says:

A couple of points:
1. The nature of the parties varies from region to region and even from congregation to congregation. In terms of region, the New York and Los Angeles regions are both viewed by some other regions as places that over-emphasize the party (I can’t speak to whether this is literally true–or even how I would define over-emphasis, but that is the reported perception).
Congregational expectations are largely driven by leadership. Rabbis, educators, cantors, lay leaders can develop expectations and education around dress, participation, and what the Bar/Bat Mitzvah does on bima or they can remain silent. But being shocked that families “do it wrong,” when they have little or no experience in “doing it right” (however the congregation, rabbi, or Jewish community defines this) strikes me as truly unfair.
2. Conflating the party with the service has a venerable history in the US (see, for example, Levitats’ work from the 1950s), however it ignores individual families’ lived experiences of preparation. Turns out that almost all American Jews find great meaning in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of their son, daughter, or grandchild, but somehow when these same people look at the abstract idea of Bar/Bat Mitzah, they only see the stereotype.

David Cohen says:

This article must be nearly 50 years old! That was my initial reaction when I read the headline. Come on. This debate has been raging before my Bar Mitzvah in 1963. Hahaha as the kids type on their emails and instant messages. LOL. Oy…You guys sure know how to break a news worthy story. I’m crackin’ up.
A Cohen from California…
Ok originally Massachusetts

Anne says:

“Ayn hadash tachat haShemesh” or, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” A Cohen in CA is correct. The “too much bar, not enough mitzvah” debate about this has been going on since we Baby Boomers were growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, if not before. Want to get your kid on the right track? Read Jeffrey Salkin’s “Putting God on the Guest List.” Read it with your child, way in advance of the Bat/Bar Mitzvah celebration.
A Bat-Cohen from Ohio, originally from NYC.

Mila Rogers says:

This past Friday I was at the Shabat Service to observe the Jahrzeit for my husband. I was not bothered that the women and girls’ ancles were showing. But I was embarrassed by the dresses of many of the women of the congregation and the teenage girls whose behinds were ! I do not understand this total lack of taste and decorum exhibited by both ! I was certainly not the only person who spoke to our Rabbi afterwards. Apparently no one is willing to bring it up at Meetings of the Temple because ???????. Guess yourself !

    Then the solution is to become more active in your synagogue.  Go to the board meetings.  Get on the committees.  Write articles for the synagogue newspaper.  Talk with other parents about proper dress during services.  Push the rabbi and other clergy to discuss this issue from the Bima and stress why it is important rather than just coming across as a religious version of the fashion police. 

Richard says:

Certainly since 1922 when Kaplan Bat Mitzvahed his daughter – and probably well before – these events have both reflected, and been used to change, the way we live our Judaism. NOt sure how wide of circle your using to source, but I’m in the midst of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circut in a progressive three-shul town in NJ, and with one Conservative exception, the dozen events I’ve attended (and/or kids have done) have exhibited thoughtful services, reasonable celebrations and parties focused on kid-fun, not silly expensive stunts. The economics may play a role, but mostly I think parents – and some clergy – recognize these events present an opportunity to show Judaism in a postiive light and experience. Shame on any parent that encourages largess or crassness….so 1990’s…

Amalia says:

Thank you so much for this article and for the link to “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age.” What a powerful collection of memories and feelings. The part that made me weep the most was when one woman said, “I’m Sally too” in reference to Rabbi Priesand (who was the rabbi in the temple to which I belonged growing up…what a wonderful photo of her so young and happy). What an amazing way to feel so connected to other Jewish women.

Josh says:

I agree with the article, but whoever wrote this is a terrible writer. I thought a lot of the things she said were completely ridiculous.

Josh says:

And Bennett, you clearly don’t understand the point of a bar mitzvah or the point of the mitzvos.

Interesting viewpoint on this issue (a similar topic to which I am planning to write my masters thesis), but the women are not the only ones with the “out-of-control” celebrations. To argue that the girls should consider downsizing without referencing the boys seems to me a great injustice to the Jewish children of America today. Keep it equal, or let it be.

My folks couldn’t afford synagogue membership and we moved around a lot while I was growing up. My connection to Jewish communal life would have to wait until I was well into adulthood. And one of the gifts I gave myself was to sign up for an adult B’nei Mitzvah course at the tender age of 36. I chanted, gave a short drash on my portion and silently cheered on my eleven other classmates as they did the same.

Afterwards, the synagogue threw us a lovely oneg with dessert and coffee and we all stood around as excited as kids, glowing in our acheivement. I felt more a part of the Jewish community than ever after that night. It was the best thing I could’ve done and from that point on I was never again regretful at not having had A Funk-tion when I was 13.

I know we consider 13-year-olds (and some 12-year-olds) to be Jewishly adult, but I’m pretty sure that far too many of them DON’T get what coming-of-age really means until they’re much older. (I certainly understand why the Reform movement instituted Confirmation — those three to four years can make a difference for a lot of young people.)

Abbi says:

I feel like we’ve been discussing this topic since I had my bat mitzvah 25 years ago. Remember when the Wall Street Journal reported on non Jewish girls in LA demanding their own bat mitzvah parties a few years ago? There will always be people who lack the self control or ability to resist the strong desire to impress others with their wealth.

And to the commenter who conjectured that the Orthodox don’t suffer from overblown bnei mitzvah parties-would that it were so! I just went to a party here in Israel that would have made a lovely wedding party, in 10 years. (I’m sure by American standards it was very modest, but everything is relative).

    Yeah, and every few years New York magazine likes to tout some extreme bar/bat mitzvah party as a ‘woe is us’ vision of how all bar/bat mitvah parties are held. 

    The reality is, a bar/bat mitzvah is a singular event for families, and every one makes individual decisions for these parties. 

Judy West Hollywood says:

Bravo Marjorie,
If you are at the Moving Traditions event in NYC on April 23rd, I would love to thank you in person for this article that rings true to me. I became a Bat Mitzvah on December 17, 1946 and am now teaching an adult class who will be called to the Torah in May 2013. For adults, it is a life changing event as it is for many 13 year olds.

Marjorie hon where have you been? These extravagant affairs are nothing new. The clothing is nothing new. Also if you go out of NY you will see that most communities do hold their children up to standards of appropriate age related dressing. People have been decrying this attitude since my children were young and they are adults now. By the way, just becasue others have an incorrect perspective of what a bat or bar mitzvah happens to be, doesn’t mean you have to comply.

I have been to bat mitzvahs that cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars and others that were lo-key affairs where the children were just happy. The experience is less about the children and more about what they have been taught at home too. You can have an extravagant party and the child be very religious understanding every aspect of their bar/bat mitzvah. You can have a low-key affair and the child not understand a darn thing they learned.

I will be honest I spent alot on my children’s affairs (by my standards anyway). The bar mitzvah parties was more of an adolescent’s party in total. But believe you me, in Westchester county that still adds up to a pretty penny if you do it right.

You also don’t want to do it wrong. The last thing you need is for your child to become a social pariah. Social issues are hard enough at this age, no need to be add to the nonsense.

    Do it ‘wrong’?!?  I’m sorry, but there is no such thing, and if you are so socially concerned about what certain ‘neighbors’ will think then keep them off the guest list. 

Bennett Muraskin says:

Thank you Beth! For a bar or bat mitzvah to have anything to do with a Jewish child becoming a Jewish adult, it would have to take place much later than 12-13!

Now how about letting the young adult, with the help of his/her family or teachers CHOOSE what Torah/haftarah portion they wish to read, rather than be forced to read whatever is up for that week–which may be obscure, irrelevant or downright creepy.

    Right, why bother to actually learn the torah portion set for that week.  Actually, why bother to go and read any portion of the Torah, especially if there are ‘icky’ parts, because hey, we get to coreograph our own lives in today’s ‘modern’ era. 

    Or not.  Sometimes life hands us ‘icky’ and even ugly parts to deal with. 

Pesele says:

In Pirke Avot, the age of thirteen is listed as being “for Mitzvot.” That is, whether the age of 13 fits our sensibilities or not, that is the textual reference. But about those sensibilities, despite many people who “know better,” Bar (and then Bat) Mitzvah has become especially in the past century in the US because it meets the needs of American Jews to be both American and Jewish. These needs can be mocked or trivialized, but they are no less real for all that. There are practical and sociological reasons that confirmation never did take off as the Reform movement wished it would.

As for what is read, in Reform and similar congregations (at least in the Bay Area), having B’nai Mitzvah choose the reading is a normalized and integrated part of preparing B’nai Mitzvah for the service and for their drashes. In Conservative and Orthodox congregations, B’nai Mitzvah typically read the Maftir (and additional aliyot sometimes) because the service and readings are central, not the students’ choices. These two modes of determining Torah (and Haftarah) readings developed as the movements (and congregations) found different ways to integrate Jewish and American values into Jewish ritual.

Karen says:

I completely agree with the comment about needing to recognize the bar mitzvah factory as well as the bat. I have a slightly different take on the whole thing. My oldest son’s bar mitzvah was four years ago, and he didn’t want a party – he wanted to visit his family in Israel. So we entertained local family for the weekend and took our kids to Israel for a month. That was right for him. Our 12-year-old daughter’s bat mitzvah is in about a month – all she wants is a party, because she has many friends and her friends are the center of her life. That is right for her. My youngest son is an athlete, and I can already imagine the soccer fest or basketball game we might hold for his bar mitzvah celebration. In each case, we want to mark this important moment in our children’s lives and share the celebration with our closest friends and family within the appropriate and relatively modest means of our lives. For us, it’s about celebrating life cycle moments; for our kids, it’s about recognizing who they are at this particular moment in their lives. Fortunately, we belong to a Reconstructionist synagogue (where Judith Eisenstein’s daughter is a member) where the clergy understand the capacity of a 12 or 13-year-old to be an “adult” as well as a kid. It’s life, love and marking – there are so many sad moments of loss in our lives, I am committed to the celebration of the happy ones.

However, I am taking my daughter dress shopping this week on spring break, and will take this article with me as a reminder of the issues of appropriateness there too …

Bennett Muraskin says:

Children today do not become adults at 12 or 13 in any sense of the term “adult.” Pirkey Avot doesn’t change that fact.

It is very rare, as far as I know, for the child and/or his parents and teachers to be free to choose a portion that is meaningful to them. Imposing whatever happens to be the prescribed portion on the child makes no sense and will alienate children who are forced to read weird or offensive passages.

Hyman Rosen says:

My son attends a Jewish day school and a Jewish summer camp, and in both I see an unhealthy and well-nigh fetishistic approach to controlling how girls should appear. One-piece bathing suits, jegging but not leggings, minimum widths for straps on sleeveless tops, minimum lengths of shorts, and on and on. It’s an attitude no different than that of the Israeli haredim who mocked schoolchildren for not conforming to the clothing style that they wanted to see, and reflects the ever present fear of female sexuality and the need to rigidly control it. Fashion is fashion and parties are parties, and this article is just another “get off my lawn” rant by someone who has gotten too old, at least in spirit if not in age.

    Right, why not let all the girls dress as Victoria Secret models and the boys with outfits appropriate for a Chippendales show. 

    Yes, there are guidelines.  It’s not a horrible thing, nor is it a straight jacket approach. 

Sally says:

Hyman, are you kidding? Fear of female sexuality is behind the clothing rules? I think these rules show a healthy respect for APPROPRIATE levels of modesty. it may also come as a relief to girls who feel peer pressure to dress in a revealing way, but don’t want to. These rules protect them. I suspect you have no daughters. Your comparison of such rules to the haredim who spit and mock children does not deserve a response.

The reason this is focused on bat mitzvahs is the confluence of three news pegs: The JTS conference on women, clothing and perception; the opening of the Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age exhibit at the JCC; and my own daughter’s receiving her bat mitzvah date (ok, the last one is only newsy to ME). This doesn’t mean I feel that bat mitzvahs are excessive and bar mitzvahs are just fine.

    mouskatel says:

    Maybe when writing articles like these in the future, consider providing this type of context. Otherwise, you sound a bit Rip van Winkly.

What an odd thing: I was at the Groen bat mitzvah pictured with this article. At the time, it was one of the more impressive bat mitzvah parties I think I attended.

OK, having read the column, I’m trying to figure out what the purpose of it was.

Is it one of the ‘Vey is Mir’ articles bemoaning the extravagance of the current era?

Is it one of ‘yea for girl power’ because Jewish girls now read a parsha?

Or is it “I’m not really certain about Jewish ritual, but good that we’re doing something?’

And throw in some Yiddish to make it sound all right.


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Bat Mitzvahs Get Too Glitzy

Women fought for a ceremony to mark a Jewish girl’s passage into womanhood. Now the ritual’s meaning is often lost amid flashy parties and clothes.