I attended a friend’s Bat Mitzvah this weekend. She’s in her mid-70s. For the uninitiated, a Bat, or Bar, Mitzvah is the Jewish service that marks a child’s passage into adulthood. It is also what you call the individual involved; Bat/Bar Mitzvah means ‘daughter/son of the commandments.’ Traditionally, this happens on, or near, the child’s thirteenth birthday. But, as evidenced by my friend’s accomplishment, there is no age limit on the practice.
To prepare for the service, one learns to chant a particular section of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, or for those so inclined, the Old Testament, in Hebrew. To chant, however, one must not only read Hebrew, but must also learn how to read the trope, the little marks that indicate what the melody is at any given phrase. This is not for the faint of heart. It requires many months of study with a tutor, and hours of practice. For traditional B’nai (plural) Mitzvah, that studying usually happens while their peers are doing homework, playing after school sports, or watching television. This is why the days leading up to the B’nai Mitzvah can be accompanied by some resentment on the part of the honoree (and perhaps why the relieved parents often throw a big party when it’s all over).
As if all that studying isn’t enough work, the B’nai Mitzvah also write a D’var Torah, a talk about the section of the Torah they chanted. I’ve heard some spectacular D’var Torahs delivered by thirteen-year olds, none more impressive than that of my own daughter, but the more mature B’nai Mitzvah bring a perspective to their analysis that comes only with age.
Many of the older women who pursue becoming a Bat Mitzvah, are from a time when most temples did not allow girls that opportunity. That was a privilege, and a duty, that belonged only to boys. As time went on, and the women’s movement picked up steam, girls were allowed to have Bat Mitzvahs, but they were often relegated to Friday nights, and instead of reading from the Torah itself, they read a Haftorah, a portion from the Prophets, a work that complements the Torah. That was the experience my sisters and I had when we were girls. Today, both boys and girls read from the Torah, on Saturday mornings.
Individuals who become B’nai Mitzvah later in life are driven by one or more common desires; to explore their spirituality on a deeper level; to be closer to their community; to study Hebrew and enhance their appreciation of the prayers. For some women it may be as simple as reclaiming that which is their right. Whatever their motivation, I greet the new ‘adult’ members of our community with the same pride I would feel for the more traditional set. To my friend, and all the older members of our community who came before, a heartfelt Mazel Tov.