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How the Bat Mitzvah Revolutionized the Status of Jewish Girls

March 22, 2012 By:
Rabbi Carole B. Balin
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Judith Ginsberg celebrates with her mother, Adele Wall Ginsberg, in Larchmont, N.Y., on Sept. 19, 1959.

 

After her Bat Mitzvah in 1956, Margie Berkowitz remembers how her Zayde would say: "Margelle, chant your haftarah." He couldn't believe that a girl could become "Bar Mitzvahed."
 
In our day, Bat Mitzvah shocks few zaydes, and bubbes. In fact, thousands of bubbes who missed the opportunity as girls have followed their daughters and granddaughters onto the bimah to mark the rite as adults.
 
As the American Bat Mitzvah turns 90 this month, we celebrate the pioneering girls who "became women" at the excruciatingly awkward age of 12 or 13. Along with supportive parents and rabbis, they transformed Bat Mitzvah from a radical act into a traditional expectation, leading to the expansion of women's roles in Jewish life.
 
Bat Mitzvah is the change in religious status that occurs for girls at 12 years and a day, according to Jewish law, though no standard ceremony marked it until the 20th century. In contrast, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony began to develop at least as early as the 16th century.
 
Bat Mitzvah is now commonly celebrated across the Jewish spectrum, from secular to fervently Orthodox.
 
We trace the American Bat Mitzvah to March 18, 1922 -- two years after women got the vote -- when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's eldest daughter, Judith, read from her own Bible during a Shabbat morning service at a brownstone that would become the flagship synagogue of Reconstructionism. Judith recalled standing in the front of the room among the men but at a "respectable distance from the Torah." Her disapproving bubbes looked on from the back, where they sat among the women.
 
Although few B'not Mitzvah took place in the 1930s and '40s, rabbis were actively debating the merits of what one termed a "Bar Mitzvah for girls." If such ceremonies took hold, would girls be allowed to participate in Jewish ritual on a regular basis or would the rights associated with Bat Mitzvah be considered a one-time privilege?
 
The theoretical question became real as the number of Bat Mitzvah ceremonies climbed in the 1950s, with more than half of all Conservative and more than one-third of Reform congregations implementing them. 
 
According to Marilynn Huret and Anita Goldfeld, their 1953 Bat Mitzvah class was "an experiment to see if girls were able to learn" and even be counted in a minyan at their synagogue in Queens, N.Y. At first, they counted two women for a man, and eventually, went one to one. By midcentury, Bat Mitzvah had become "a symbol of the woman's rapidly changing status in the American synagogue," in the words of a rabbi from Pittsfield, Mass. 
 
By the 1960s, when Bat Mitzvah became ubiquitous in Conservative and Reform synagogues, rabbis considered the rite a boon to their communities. As one rabbi said: "The natural byproduct of the Friday evening Bat Mitzvah celebration is an increase in synagogue attendance."
 
With the emergence of the women's rights movement of the 1970s, the practice of Bat Mitzvah was all but normalized. Like all Americans, Jews began to redress the imbalance that resulted in large numbers of women being undereducated. With expanding opportunities, women broadened their knowledge and skills. Indeed, the institution of Bat Mitzvah often paved the way for girls to continue expanding the boundaries of female participation. In 1973 after her Friday night Bat Mitzvah in Homewood, Ill., Karen Sussan delivered a speech arguing that girls should be allowed to read Torah on Saturdays like boys. To her utter surprise, the following morning the rabbi called Karen up for that very honor.
 
At the same time, traditional shuls made further attempts to mark Bat Mitzvah publicly, often in settings outside of regular worship. After Shabbat morning services in 1978, Amanda Newman gave a shiur, or lesson, from the rabbi's pulpit at her New York City synagogue--"something they'd never allowed." As she walked off the bimah, her Orthodox rabbi asked the entire congregation to stand in her honor, "as you would rise for a great teacher, "she remembers. "It was extraordinary!" 
 
Over the last 25 years, Bat Mitzvah has come to look identical to Bar Mitzvah in all but traditional congregations, and women's participation in Jewish life continues to grow. When 83-year old Freda Heller became Bat Mitzvah in Poway, Calif., in 2002, her granddaughter placed the tallit she wore as a 13-year-old on her bubbe's shoulders. Two years later, Freda said she attained "the much desired certificate of confirmation. That, too, added to my wonder and delight." 
 
Rabbi Carole B. Balin  is a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, and co-curator of "Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age," an exhibit created by the locally based Moving Traditions and the National Museum of American Jewish History on view at the JCC of Manhattan through April. She will participate in a discussion of the subject at the museum (www.nmajh.org) on March 25. For more information, go to: www.batmitzvahcome.
 

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