Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Daughter of the Commandment

Photo (c) Amy Samin

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 2 April 2005.

Most people are familiar with bar and bat mitzvahs - those ceremonies where thirteen-year-old Jewish boys and girls participate in a Saturday morning service in synagogue and read from the Torah. Bar/bat mitzvah is a major milestone in the life of a Jewish child. Indeed, once they have attained the status of bar or bat mitzvah, the child is considered, religiously, an adult.

I became bat mitzvah at a later age. I was 21 when my brother and I went through this important life-cycle event together. We agreed that it meant alot more to us to have waited, and done our studying and preparation when we were mature enough to understand and appreciate the process. For us, it wasn't so much about the party that would follow the service; it was about learning what it meant to us to be Jewish.

We prepared for months before the big day, having special lessons with a wonderful gentleman named David Kipnis, who was a gentle if demanding teacher. We listened to audio tapes to learn the proper cadence and rhythm of the chanting we would do. Writing the brief speeches we would give meant hours of soul-searching, and attempts to find deeper meaning in the texts we had been studying (Sidra Vayyelech, Deuteronomy 31:1-11, and Hosea 14:2-10). The entire process took months. It remains one of the pivotal decisions of my life.

When my older daughter started 6th grade, I learned that in Israel girls have a bat mitzvah at age 12, not 13. I also learned that the Israeli concept of a bat mitzvah was something entirely different from the process I had been through some 20 years earlier. While the school put together a program intended to emphasize the religious aspects of this event, for most girls in the sixth grade becoming bat mitzvah was not much more than an excuse for a big, blowout party.

And celebrate, they did. Liat attended some 20 parties that year. All were held in the evening, at a reception hall or hotel, and featured dancing (with a DJ providing the tunes) and food (anything from hors d'oevres to dinner). Many parties also included such amenities as the opportunity to have your face (or other body parts) painted with henna, and a PowerPoint presentation about the girl. Some parties were strictly for friends and classmates; others included relatives and friends of the family. Naturally, many of Liat's classmates sought to outdo one another in terms of new outfits, later curfews, and the like. Of all the parties Liat attended, only one included a service in a synagogue, with the celebrant taking part.

Not surprisingly, when the time came in August of 2004 for Liat to celebrate her bat mitzvah, she chose to have a party similar to those those of her friends. We invited her friends and ours, and family members from both sides. The evening included dinner, dancing, and a speech written and delivered by Liat. It was a lovely party, and she enjoyed herself thoroughly.

Am I sorry Liat chose not to participate in a religious service, as I had all those years before? Perhaps, but only because I felt it to be a worthwhile and enriching experience. I doubt she would have looked upon the responsibility and extra studying in such a manner. No one forced me to have a religious bat mitzvah at her age, and I wasn't about to impose such a thing on her. I shared my experiences with her; showing her photos and the texts I studied, relating various stories connected with the celebration. Then I left it at that. Now that she has, technically, reached the age of majority, it is more important than ever that I let her make her own choices, even when I know I would choose something different for her. As hard as it is for a parent to admit, quite often, in the end, she is right.

(c) Amy Samin

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