'Who am I Supposed to Be?': The Bat Mitzvah as a Transformative Ritual

Penina Adelman

     The coming of age ritual for Jewish girls is quite recent.  In over 5,000 years of Jewish history, the first evidence of a bat mitzvah rite occurred in nineteenth century Baghdad.  Rabbi Joseph al-Hakam observed that if a twelve-year-old girl received a dress as a gift and made the appropriate blessing for wearing a new garment, she became a bat mitzvah.  This is a far cry from the usual rite today, which often copies a boy's bar mitzvah.

     As with so many new rituals for girls and women today, there is wide latitude in the creation of new rituals and innovations in traditional ones.  This is because of the blank slate that is often the starting point for rituals for Jewish females.  Jewish women who came of age in the 50s, 60s, and 70's now have daughters who are reaping the benefits of their struggles to be seen and heard in the synagogue.  As a folklorist, I summarize the development of the bat mitzvah ritual in North America and raise questions about the significance of these changes for Jewish women and girls and for the Jewish community as a whole.


Becoming Orthodox Women: Rites of Passage in the Orthodox Community

Leslie Ginsparg

     This paper discusses the historical development of coming of age rituals in the Orthodox Jewish community in post-World War II America.  Throughout the twentieth century, Jewish communities developed rites of passage for their daughters that celebrated the entrance into adulthood, such as the bat mitzvah and confirmation ceremonies.  The growth of the feminist movement and egalitarianism in Judaism affected conceptions of what constitued coming of age for Jewish girls.  However, the Orthodox community, the most traditional branch of Judaism, eschewed both feminism and egalitarianism.  How then did Orthodox girls become Orthodox women?  How did Orthodox education prepare girls to come of age?  What life choices were celebrated and discouraged for girls entering into adulthood?  How did changes in an increasingly liberal and feminist-influenced American society and greater Jewish community affect conceptions within Orthodoxy?

     This paper addresses these questions by looking at Orthodox girls' high schools, a strongly female space where discussions of becoming Jewish women were constantly taking place.  It investigates changing conceptions of how the entrance into adulthood was defined and commemorated, and what those evolving rites of passage indicate about what the Jewish community valued and celebrated.


The Making of a Rabbi: Semichah Ordination from Moses to Grosses

Rabbi Jonathan Gross

     After mastering a difficult Haftarah for a bar mitzvah, it is hard to imagine that there is anything left for a Jewish boy to learn.  What makes a person a rabbi?  What does the title mean?  What knowledge and skills are required?

     This lecture will journey through the ages from the very first rabbi, Moses, all the way to current Semichah programs and curricula.  Biblical references to rabbinic leadership, curricula listed in the Talmud, the loss of the first Semichah tradition, and the fifteenth century controversy over reinstating it are all discussed.

     The paper compares the modern training of a rabbi to the modern rabbi's role and analyzes whether or not they are in sync.  The paper also includes some personal anecdotes illustrating the familial traditions that are often involved in deciding to become a rabbi.


Discourse About the Wedding Ritual: Hierarchies of Gender, Knowledge, and Authority

Irit Koren

     This paper is based on a sociological study of the ways in which women who identify as Orthodox feminists challenge, resist, and adapt the traditional wedding ritual.  The women I studied sought to modify the ritual; doing this required them to negotiate extensively with their husbands, mothers, fathers, and the officiating rabbis.  I collected the data through in-depth narrative interviews with thirty Jerusalemite women, all highly Jewishly literate, and with a subset of their husbands, parents, and rabbis.  The paper's aims are threefold: to examine the discourse produced by each of the groups I interviewed; to demonstrate how the theme of each group's discourse reflects the group's relative position along three hierarchiceal axes: gender, authority, and religious knowledge; and to delve into the societal significance of these discourses and their power to shape reality.



"More Bar Than Mitzvah": Anxieties over Wedding and Bar Mitzvah Celebrations in Postwar America

Rachel Kranson

     "The way things are going, the inauguration of the first Jewish president of the United States is going to be a let-down for the man," joked a member of Great Neck, NY's Temple Beth El in 1961.  "The ceremony probably won't be able to stand comparison with his Bar Mitzvah."  This lighthearted jab at bar mitzvah parties was just one example of a general current of anxiety surrounding the increased extravagance of Jewish lifecycle celebrations in the years after World War II.  Throughout the post-war period, Jewish clergy, intellectuals, performers, and writers derided receptions that "stressed the 'bar' more than the 'mitzvah.'"

     This presentation analyzes the uneasy discourse surrounding the ways that Jews celebrated their bar mitzvahs and weddings in the post-war years.  Critiques of these lavish affairs suffused the Jewish press, rabbis' sermons, Jewish-American literature, comedic routines, and local community and synagogue bulletins.  These concerns ranged from humorous digs to the serious condemnation of clergy members and intellectuals, who feared that the conspicuous consumption exhibited at these affairs degraded the religious and cultural life American Jews.

     Anxiety over the rapid accumulation of wealth experience by many American Jews during the post-war years underlay the critique of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs.  In the imagination of post-war critics of American Jewish life, extravagant lifecycle events represented a tragic outcome of the Jewish encounter with American affluence.  The debate over bar mitzvahs and weddings, then, provide us with a window into how American Jews grappled with upward mobility in the years after World War II.


Karaism: An Alternate Form of Jewish Celebration

Daniel J. Lasker

     Karaism has been an alternate form of Judaism for at least 1100 years, basing its observances on a close reading of the Hebrew Bible in place of acceptance of rabbinic tradition.  As a result, Karaite practices differ from Rabbanite ones in a number of central rituals, including dietary laws, Sabbath and holiday observance, marriage laws, liturgy, and the like.  Despite their minority stauts through the centuries, Karaites have managed to survive and, in many cases, to thrive intellectually and culturally.  Furthermore, with a few exceptions, Karaites have been recognized by the greater Jewish community as part of the same body politic, despite their different Jewish way of life.

     There are perhaps between 30,000 and 40,000 Karaites in the world today, most notably in Israel and also in the Bay Area of the United States.  Despite their minority status and the inroads of secularization and assimilation to the majority Rabbanite culture or to their non-Jewish surroundings, many Karaites continue to maintain their unique practices with their own synagogues, rabbism and other ritual functionaries.

     The proposed overview of contemporary Karaite Jewish celebrations serves not only as a presentation of an alternative Jewish way of life, but also as a means of evaluating the limits of Jewish pluralism and tolerance of minority interpretations of Judaism.


New Jewish Rites of Passage and the Holocaust

Oliver Leaman

     The Holocaust has had a huge impact on Jewish life, and yet it has not noticeably affected the religion.  There have been some attempts at incorporating the Holocaust into rites of passage, such as bar/bat mitzvah, weddings, and funerals, and into the liturgy itself, but these have had a limited success and tend to be part of alternative services that are rarely employed.  This is in many ways puzzling, since if there is anything on which the Jewish world agrees, it is on the significance of the Holocaust for Judaism.

     To try to understand why rites of passage do not on the whole directly respond to the Holocaust, it is useful to examine various theories of how rituals in religion, and in Judaism in particular, operate, and why some are successful and others are not.  An examination is made of attempted changes to rites of passage incorporating new material linked to the Holocaust, and an account provided of which ceremonies look more plausible than others, and why.  The general issue of why the Holocaust has not in general been used in rites of passage is raised and linked to its proximity in time to us today.


Without a Minyan: Adjusting to Jewish Life in a Small Midwestern Town

The Mendall Family and Jerrold Hirsch, Kirksville, MO

     In 1999, our family moved to Kirksville, a small town (17,000) in northeastern Missouri, where we became one of just a few Jewish families, and the only one with children, observing holidays, and keeping kosher.  The adjustment has been difficult and empowering.  We left behind a vibrant congregation and, from necessity, have learned how to organize and lead seders and other celebrations, where before we had been primarily participants.  With the closest synagogue ninety miles away, we cannot attend regularly and have had to adjust how we celebrate holidays and simchas.  While we often feel isolated, we have become what friends call "the Jewish community center of Kirksville": we invite others (Jewish or not) to holiday celebrations and deal with the burdens and opportunities of being "on display" as the most public Jews in town.

     David (13) and Joshua (10) are each the only Jew in their school; they often feel isolated and are sometimes treated badly by other children.  David and Joshua  discuss their experiences with oral historian Jerrold Hirsch; and Daniel and Barabara describe and analyze their experiences, separately and together, and consider how those experiences reflect or contrast with trends in American Jewish life.


Materializing New Jewish Ritual: Jews with Jewish Tattoos

Erika Meitner

     How are contemporary American Jews using the ritual of tattooing, and the resulting tattoos, to engage in Judaism and construct their own Jewish identities?  This paper explres the experiences of Jews with overtly Jewish tattoos in order to better understand the role of a particular material practice in creating a distinctive religious experience.  Tattoos with specific Jewish iconography personalize and narrate the spiritual; Jewish tattoos serve as proclamations of Jewish pride, thoughtful responses to personal crises, purposeful attempts to engage in Jewish rites of passage, or as acts of defiance against segments of the Jewish community.

     For Judaism, this is a controversial assertion; because of legal and customary injunctions against the practice of tattooing and the stigma attached to tattoos after the Holocaust, the notion of a Jew with a Jewish tattoo, for many, becomes ironic or paradoxical, subersive, or simply heretical, depending on one's level of engagement with Judaism.  How does a new material ritual incorporate itself into Judaism--particularly one that comes from practitioners and specifically defies Jewish law?  Who become the new ritual experts in this case?  How do issues of self-representation via technology and virtual community play a role in the growth of this new ritual?

     The trend of Jewish tattoos has changed what defines the outer margins of the contemporary Jewish community in America, and tattooed Jews illuminate issues present in the broader Jewish community.  A Jewish tattoo turns the body into a site that provides opportunities for engaging in conversations about challenging notions of religion, sanctioned ritual, community, and religious authority.


Same-Sex and Heterosexual Jewish Wedding Ceremonies in Conversation With Each Other

Vanessa L. Ochs

     However religious same-sex commitment rituals are called--commitment ceremonies, same-sex marriages, civil ceremonies--and however couples construct them, using traditional weddings as their template or inventing newer practices that challenge cultural paradigms, they inevitably reflect or make comment upon the current political backdrop.  Whether articulated or not, the rituals call to mind that the right of same-sex couples to engage in legal partnerships and to enjoy the same rights and beneftis as heterosexuals couples is being vigorously debated in state and national courts of law, among clerics, and in the public square--not to mention, as intimate and often wrenching conversations within families.  The ceremonies that emerge to celebrate same-sex relationships in Jewish communities are radical, transformative gestures with a potential to challenge the status quo on a governmental level and to continue to expand the rights and dignities of gay Jews within Jewish communities.

     The goal of this paper is to reflect upon two ritual practices: the same-sex commitment ceremonies as well as liturgical additions to the wedding ceremonies of progressive heterosexual Jews.  These additions are intended to raise awareness of the inequalities and indignities experienced by same-sex couples and to instigate change, while acknowledging their own privileged status.


Nes Gadol: B'nei Mitzvah Program for Children with Autism

Steven Puzarne

     A learned Rebbe once observed that in both Hebrew and Yiddish, the words to learn and to teach are virtually the same, suggesting that according to Jewish tradition, teaching is simply a more intensive form of learning.  Over the past few years, I have had the honor and privilege of intensively learning with, and from, a special group of young people--children with autism--as they prepared to become B'nei Mitzvah.

     Working in both group and one-on-one settings, I have had the opportunity to observe several important trends, and make several revelatory discoveries, all of which hold great promise for these young people and the Jewish community of which they are a rightful part:

  • An increased Jewish communal awareness of the burgeoning number of special needs children within our midst.
  • A concomitant sense of obligation to offer these children and their families equal opprtunities for Jewish enrichment.
  • The remarkable and seemingly innate love of Jewish ritual and spirituality that these young people possess.
  • The profound transformative affect that becoming B'nei Mitzvah has on special needs children, producing benefits that are both farreaching and long-lasting.

     While the Jewish rite of passage is ancient, the participation of special needs children is more recent.  To expand this participation, I have been working closely with Vista Del Mar of Los Angeles, creating special needs prayer books, curricula, and multi-sensory classroom techniques to address the unique learning strengths of this group.

     To date, we have supported six special needs children in ascending to the Torah, and they have reciprocated by reminding us of a simplier time when transformation superceded celebration as the order of the day.


Memory, Questions, and Definitions: Images of Old and New Rites of Passage

Ori Soltes

     This paper begins with the observation that Jewish identity is rife with questions regarding the definition of categories--what is "Jewish"? what is art as opposed to craft?--and that Jewish rites of passage reflect this truth and the truth that part of the answer to such questions articulates and interweave betweeen the individual and the community, as between memory and futurity.  Art and artifacts, particularly within the past generation, reflect a growing address of this complication.  A child enters the community with a brit milah--and in many cases where the physiology of gender prohibits a brit, a baby naming.  Garments and accoutrements reflect this bi-genderal expansion.

     A child arrives at a point of fuller actualization as a member of the community by participation in the Passover Seder, asking the very questions that set in motion the narrative taht quintessentially defines Jews as a people of memory and questions.  The refocus on mythohistorical participants in that narrative has yielded a new object on many Seder tables: the Miriam Goblet that, paired with the Elijah Gobert, helps expand the possibility for both child and adult participation in the story.  With the increased pairing of bat with bar mitzvah, gender-specific symbols of individualized enfranchisement in the community, by way of a new vocabulary of tallitot and kippot, have spread, and with that spread a further blurring of the traditional line between art and craft.  That blur may also be seen not only in works of art for wedding ceremonies, but even in those that serve for the commemoration of loved ones in the form of yartseit candle holders.

     These, in turn, intersect the proliferation of objects reflecting on the Shoah and the commemoration of its anonymous dead.  A relatively recent holiday interweaves the individual and the community with a new vocabulary of artistic word, sound, and image, as its paired counterpart, Yom Ha'Atzma'ut, celebrating the rebirth and birthday of a communal land, has also yielded art that, coming full circle, interweaves memory with questions.


"Lest the Earth be Utterly Destroyed": Elijah's Covenant Between the Generations

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

     Some 2500 years ago, the prophet called Malachi - "My Messenger"--spoke forth a vision of the future, at once ominous and hopeful, that has been seen in Jewish tradition as the last outcry of the classical Prophets: "Here! -- I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of that great and awesome day of YHWH, so that he will turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest I come and strike the earth with utter destruction" (Malachi 3:23-24).  That outcry comes ringing down the millennia to us, who live in the generation when indeed the age-old web of life on earth is in deep danger.  Of all the dangers facing us, the greatest seems to be that of global climate crisis.

     Malachi's outcry calls on us to imagine ways in which the hearts of parents and children can turn toward each other, so as to prevent dire destruction of our earth and much of human society.  When can we take up the mission of Elijah, and how?

     There is a singular moment in the spiral of Jewish life when the older and younger generations meet each other face to face.  A moment when people meet across the generations, with full and open hearts.  A moment when people are open to learning and open to making commitments about how they want to walk their life-paths from that moment on.  At such a moment, both generations have the opportunity to consider the world that the older generation will bequeath to the younger, and what responsiblities and challenges the younger generation will inherit from the older.  To turn their hearts toward each other.  This moment is the bar/bat mitzvah (and, to a lesser degree, confirmation).

     Can we make that moment one of facing a profound challenge that the older generation has wrought and the younger generation will inherit: the global climate crisis?  Can we bring learning, ritual, and commitment to the preparation and enactment of this moment?  Can we bring new life to bar/bat mitzvah learning and the ceremony itself, reaching much deeper into this rite of passage than the conventional ritual of memorizing the chant for a Torah portion or Haftarah?

     The Shalom Center has developed a curriculum that is appropriate for bar/bat mitzvah preparation, as well as a ritual for the service itself that brings the generations face to face, heart to heart.