In the beginning… here we go!

I stared at the prayer book, more nervous than I’d been since… when?

Interviewing with Phil Bronstein for a job at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005? Doing my first book talk for Where Girls Come First in 2004?

Heck, it had been a long time since I felt this kind of pressure. It took me by surprise. 

I had been meeting with the senior rabbi of my temple, Temple Sinai in Oakland, California, to inquire about studying to become an adult Bat Mitzvah. He was encouraging and enthusiastic. But one question was whether I could read Hebrew well enough to go straight into the Bat Mitzvah study process, or whether I would need to take a semester or two of Biblical Hebrew. 

So the rabbi thrust a prayer book at me and asked me to read a section out loud. I hadn’t expected this. 

I launched into sounding the words out. I have a passable but rusty knowledge of modern, spoken Hebrew from two stints living in Israel in my teens and twenties, but I never learned to read well. I wasn’t sure if it were worse to go slowly and get things right but sound hesitant, or go quickly and sound fluent but make mistakes. I went quickly. 

I clawed my way over each letter like someone climbing across a field of boulders. Every so often I would come to a word that I recognized and feel a shower of relief.

After less than two minutes, it was done. The rabbi said I could stop.

Had I passed? failed?

When I had showed up for our meeting, I hadn’t expected a miniature version of a Julliard audition.

“That’s fine,” he said. “You have problems with vowels. But it’s okay.”

And then we moved on to talk about the Bat Mitzvah process, and scheduling, and whether there might be enough other interested temple members to form a class. 

So it was a go. We set another meeting date for early November. At the ripe old age of 51, I’m now at the start of this road to becoming a Bat Mitzvah — something that Jewish kids typically do at age 13.

And you, dear blog reader, are invited to join me. I hope this may prove interesting, entertaining and (dare I say?) thought-provoking to both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.

At the very least, it will be a good way for me to process my own thoughts and responses. And at best, I look forward to learning from your comments, observations, comparisons and questions. Not just about the Bat Mitzvah process, but about midlife adventures and transitions of all sorts.

Will you join me?

More to come in this space soon!


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22 Responses to “In the beginning… here we go!”

  1. Dan Fost Says:

    Mazel Tov! I look forward to reading about your adventure. And unless times have changed, and it, um, HAS been a while, you should be in for a lot of savings bonds and Cross pens.

  2. Carolyn Said Says:

    I love it! Mazel tov!

  3. Melissa Nappan Says:

    I’m hooked already. Do I get to go shopping with you for the Bat Mitzvah dress? (and do we have to go to Laura Ashley this time?) Seriously, I am looking forward to the chapter on what led you to this adventure…

  4. SusieM Says:

    How does one christen a bat mitzvah blog? (Seems somehow contrary.) I love the intro…I struggle with it all myself and am contemplating the bat mitzvah journey soon (when my calendar frees itself up a bit). Ben, on the other hand, quickly approaching 12, has now jumped ship…his struggles have turned him off to the praying and memorizing and God-worshipping. Looking forward to reading about your process…Big hug!

  5. Teresa Schilling Says:

    An excellent blog-inning. I look forward to your journey!

  6. Debra Solomon Says:

    Fabulous. I always had plans to do this but never carried through. I will live vicariously through you and expect an invitation in…when?…2 years? Good luck to you.

  7. Betsy Says:

    Congrats on your Hebrew exam; I would have flunked! I’ve been checking out yoga, Spanish and writing classes; still looking for an entry level “So Now Your Single and Looking for a Job” class. If you hear of anything let me know. Can’t wait to read next installment.

  8. David Jensen Says:

    Has the rabbi done something like this before with a 51-year-old woman? Did he give you some homework to do between now and the next meeting? Is a bat mitzvah anything like a “quincenera” here in Romantic Old Mexico? Are you going to rent a limo to go your bat mitzvah?

    Extremely curious readers want to know. Cheers.

  9. Susan Says:

    Ilana!!!!! Welcome to the blogosphere! I did not even know you were doing this. (adult bat mitzvah) What an adventure! I’m excited for you, and excited to read about your journey.

  10. Judy Pace Says:

    Ilana — Do I have questions for you!

    The bat mitzvah project sounds exciting, and very intriguing – especially the atheist/religion tension. And I look forward to reading blog entries on all of the afore-mentioned topics!

    Betsy, if you find a great place to learn Spanish in the Bay Area, do let us know!

  11. Wendy Says:

    This is great! Can anyone study for the Bat Mitzvah?

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      You need to be Jewish to become a Bar (male) or Bat (female) Mitzvah. Also, the different movements within organized Judaism have different requirements. For instance, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism both allow girls and women to become a Bat Mitzvah. But Orthodox Judaism — which does not allow women to read aloud from the Torah — does not. I believe that the Reform and Conservative movements started allowing girls sometime in the 1960s. (When I was growing up around 1970, I had girls in my class who had a Bat Mitzvah, although I did not.)

  12. Marlene Wizelman Says:

    Ilana, your interest in an adult bat mitzvah is fascinating to me, primarily because I have avoided religious connections as an adult.

    As a child and until I left home for college, I felt quite deeply about my religion. I often journaled about it. As an adult, I’ve avoided organized religion. I taught my children about loving one another, respecting the earth, and took them to Sunday School for a few years. Each one decided she no longer wanted to be associated with a church, and they’ve moved on. Yet, like their mother, they deeply appreciate the non-violence position that my father modeled for us during WW II.

    I look forward to your insights and thank you for including me. Marlene

  13. Eran Strauss Says:

    Hello Ilana and others, It is so interesting to me that this occurred at this time in your life. Coincident to our shared backgrounds, I too have become much more intersted in Judaism and have started my own “private education”, very lately, This is true for others that Iana and I know mutually from our youth.

    I met a wonderful man through work, Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil, who has had a long relationship with a great rabbi of our time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
    He ( Arthur) wrote a book, ” On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz” which was so moving and interesting, that I followed up further, and arrived at ” The Thirteen Petaled Rose, A discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief”, by Adin Steinsaltz.

    I just began the book and am already lost. However, there is a glimmer of understanding in the back of my consciousness and I think I am onto something really good.

  14. susan milligan Says:

    I am looking forward to your journey and what motivated you to do this. Were you ever confirmed? My understanding is that you become Bat Mitzvah upon turning 13. I once attended an Orthodox Bat Mitzvah ceremony. The girl was 12, not 13. She did not participate in the Torah reading or actual service but, when it was over, she came up and did something and the rabbi spoke with her, mostly about the need for modesty in clothing and behavior. I was raised in the Reform movement when girls did not have a Bat Mitzvah ceremony and all of us went to Confirmation at age 16.

  15. Ali Says:

    Chazak, Chazak Ve’nitchazek!

    Wonderful thing you are doing, Ilana… Looking forward to following your adventure. My third child, Nina, is about to do her bat mitzvah, so alot of this is very fresh in my experience.

    She herself is dealing with the restless bifurcation of a religious rite, prompted and supported by parents who are atheistic, poor thing. But she is being a good sport about it, and it will hopefully be a life enriching experience.

  16. Jody Says:

    Congratulations, Ilana on your meaningful journey. What an exciting process to engage in at this point in your life. I’m glad you are doing a blog…you have such a wonderful writing style and are so articulate about the reality of your experiences. Looking forward to more…! Jody

  17. alto artist Says:

    Mazal Tov! I’m helping three friends of mine learn to chant Torah for their joint 50th birthday Bat Torah next year–such a wonderful way to mark the event. I look forward to reading more about your journey.


  18. Kaveh Says:

    What an adventure, the learning process, the language challenge (esp. as an adult), and the writing process! Looking forward to reading about your journey, Ilana.

  19. andyrossagency Says:

    Great Blog, Ilana. And good luck with the Bat Mitzvah (sp). I’m not much of a Jew, but I have a client with a book coming out. Jonathan Boyarin is one of the great Yiddish scholars of the world. Also an Orthodox Jew. He wrote a memoir of his summer as part of a minion. Spoke a lot about Phalactories (sp).

  20. Kofi Says:

    Hey Ilana-fabulous idea. I’m looking forward to following the journey. My parents gave me the choice of bat mitzvah or sweet 16 party. I chose neither. The big question-live music or DJ at the party?

  21. Marti Says:

    Ilana, I’m so happy you started the blog. Have been reading Karen Armstrong along with the “No God” authors of late. Seems we are all trying to make sense out of something that we either turned away from or hastily embraced in our youth. I finally took an online religion class through De Anza College a couple of years ago when my then atheist bf joined the Catholic church. I was hungry for whys. The class was fantastic. Unfortunately, the instructor retired, just as I was ready for Religion 102. But the one thing I took from the class is the notion that “God” is us, in all of us. I wish someone would start a group to read and explore not only the notion of God, but the reconciliation of God and ideas regarding the creation of the universe (that’s the NASA side thinking). So, kudos for exploring, writing and wish the print weren’t so small on these darn blogs!

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