What an Orthodox Bat Mitzvah Means to a Mother

BatMitzvahSliderOn the occasion of my eldest’s bat mitzvah which took place this past Sunday, I got to thinking about what it means to be the parent of a child who becomes a bat mitzvah – and an Orthodox one at that. In my pre-observant days, my bat mitzvah was mostly about memorizing the Torah portion, chanting the haftarah, and leading services, which was followed by a mega (on a yacht) party on the Hudson River. I didn’t believe in God at the time.

Twenty-two years, a religious lifestyle, and married with four kids later, I find myself on the other side of this story – the woman planning the party (t’was not on a yacht) and prepping the bat mitzvah girl. She did not read from the Torah nor chant the haftarah. She did not lead a service, but she does (or at least tries to) pray everyday and does believe in God. In preparation for her big day, she learned some pieces of Torah with my husband, wrote and gave over a beautiful d’var Torah to one hundred of our family and friends with poise and confidence.

I spoke too. I praised her for the incredible young woman she has become. She was not an easy baby (she screamed seven hours a day for the first three months of her life), nor was she an easy toddler (she had fits, was willful, and like most toddlers, wanted the best and the first of everything for herself). Through hard work, though, she has transformed herself into a giver. I spoke about how she is always careful to save her siblings treats from her goody bags when she comes back from birthday parties. And whenever she’s with her multitude of younger cousins, she is the first to give of her own portion to one of them. A couple years ago on Pesach, when all the girl cousins had matching dresses and hairbands, a five year old cousin lost her hairband and without a beat, my daughter took the band off her own head and handed it to her cousin, just in time for the group photo.

My husband spoke after I did and interjected an important point: our daughter is not just a giver – she, thank God, has a strong sense of self and knows when not to give in. One time a few years ago, after an art project in school, she volunteered with some classmates to clean paint brushes off in the bathroom. The cleaning activities led to lots of water being splashed onto the ground and my daughter grabbed some gobs of paper towel, got on her hands and knees, and started wiping up the floor. Her classmates, incredulous at her behavior, pushed back “Why are you on the floor?” they wanted to know, “Isn’t it the janitor’s job?” My daughter explained that, yes, it would fall on the janitor to clean up their mess if they didn’t, and she didn’t think that was fair.

What I realized after my husband added this part about my daughter’s sense of self, is that Hillel, the famous sage, summed up what we have been fortunate in twelve years to help our daughter become – the essence of what we had gathered together to celebrate on Sunday night:

“If I am not for myself, who will be?” Take a stand, live with conviction, have a backbone, don’t cave to outside pressure. But then, Hillel goes on to say:

“If I am only for myself, what am I?” While you must stand up for your beliefs, you have to (at the same time) not be so strong or so stubborn that you forget about everyone else – be a giver. Hillel then concludes,

“And if not now, when?” This last part is what we need to instill in our daughter, now that she has entered the world of Jewish adults and is capable of making a difference. She is thankfully young, but time passes quickly. With her strong convictions and her generous heart, she is ready to go out and start changing the world. And she should not waste a minute in doing so.

Mazel tov on your bat mitzvah, my sweet girl!

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Allison Josephs About Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

Comments

  1. Josh Schechter says:

    Mazal Tov!

  2. Catholic Mom says:

    Mazel Tov on your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah! She looks beautiful in her dress and your pride and love for her shine through in your essay.

    Since this is an education site, however, do you mind if I ask a question that probably doesn’t occur to “insiders” at these events? I have been to many bar and bat mitzvahs. As someone who comes from a completely different tradition, there is something about them that always seems strange and makes me uncomfortable, and that is the extreme focus on the child. Everyone from the rabbi to the parents to friends and families stands up one after the other and proclaims what a wonderful/talented/accomplished person the child is and often recites lists of these accomplishments. It’s like a bunch of eulogies for a living 13 year old.

    My issues are two fold. First of all I personally find it embarassing and uncomfortable to watch a 13 year old sitting there being told how amazing and wonderful they are in front of a captive audience of adults. Yes — they probably ARE amazing and wonderful, and they did work hard preparing for their Bar Mitzvah. But they are not graduating from med school nor did they save someone’s life and even if they had it would be strange to invite a huge audience to listen to their relatives tell everyone about it. I know the parents are not bragging — but that’s how it feels. It would seem like this should be a private thing where the parents say “we’re so proud of you and we love you so much and we’re taking the occasion of your bar/bat mitzvah to say it outloud.” The public thing just seems cringe-making — particularly when it goes on and on from speaker after speaker.

    Secondly, and this is probably just a cultural misunderstanding, the event does not seem to be focused on God but on the child. In the Catholic tradition, in none of our three “rites of initiation” (baptism, first communion, confirmation) is the child even mentioned by name except at the moment when the sacrament is conferred. Even when you die, you are not supposed to be talked about as part of the service. The eulogy is technically not a part of the funeral mass at all — it is supposed to tke place during the wake the day before. But because Protestants do it at their services, now Catholics expect it (and often get it) and every so often some family gets upset when a priest tells them that no eulogy will be delivered during the funeral mass. But the point is — we gather to praise God, not ourselves.

    Not trying to be negative in any way, but I have never had the nerve to ask anyone about this before and your site exists to help explain these things. 🙂

    Thanks!

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Catholic Mom. There is an idea which comes from the Torah which says that you shouldn’t say all the praise about a person in front of him or her. I mentioned that in my speech to my daughter. As a person who had praised lavished on her on her bat mitzvah, I can tell you, though, that I didn’t mind. I could tell my daughter didn’t either. If the kid is a brat, well, then that’s another story. But if it’s a good, hardworking kid, gosh, we live in an age with such low self-esteem, I think it can be very healthy for a kid to hear how loved s/he is. My husband lauded me in his speech and I didn’t mind that either! In terms of God – more secular Jews tend to have less God in their simchas and life in general (hence being secular) but most Orthodox Jews have God as a big focus. My daughter’s thank you speech went from less to more and she ended with a thanks to God.

  3. steve zuback says:

    Mazal Tov!!

  4. Hello, Allison.
    Mazal tov on your daughter’s bat mitzva!
    In my opinion “catholic mom” has hit the nail on the head. We have lost the right perspective when it comes to celebrating bar and bat mitzvas.
    It is supposed to be the day when our children become obligated in keeping Torah and mizvot. Our obligation, our service to the One G-d, henceforth should be at the center of attention.
    Maybe sometimes we need “outsiders” to tell us where we go wrong.
    Kind regards,
    Devorah

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Devorah. I agree that it ultimately boils down to service of God but I think we can praise our kids in the process.

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