Posts Tagged ‘Becoming a Bat Mitzvah’

When rituals have meaning (or not)

February 10, 2012

Let’s start with an apology: My posts here have been getting fewer and further-between! Between the new job and the old freelance clients, I have found little time to focus on blogging in the past month. I will keep going, but perhaps not quite as often as before.

Meanwhile, as a gesture of atonement, I’d like to share a wonderful column from the latest J Weekly by Editor Sue Fishkoff. I’m on the J board, and was delighted to have helped hire Sue last fall. She is smart, energetic, deeply knowledgeable about the Jewish community and (as you will see) a super writer. I just wish we could clone her so she could both edit and write full-time for the paper.

FYI: If you’d like to see more of Sue’s work as editor and writer, J offers a free four-week trial print subscription by mail for California residents. Or if you’re far from the Bay Area, there is an excellent weekly e-newsletter that links to all the main stories.


The sacred meets the profound in a rite of passage

By Sue Fishkoff

I’ve always been fascinated by rituals. Maybe it’s because I’ve been through so few — no bat mitzvah, no prom (not cool, it was the ’70s), no graduation (’70s again), no wedding. Nothing sacred to mark the passage from one state of being, one phase of life, to another.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There was my conversion ceremony, that magical day when I dunked in the mikvah and joined the tribe.

At least, it should have been magical. Instead, it was odd, somewhat sad, but also kind of funny.

It was the summer of 1977, and I’d spent months studying the laws of kashrut and marking up my copy of Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s classic, “To Be a Jew.” I was 19, had spent a year on kibbutz, finished two Hebrew ulpans, milked hundreds of cows, and knew I wanted to formalize the connection I’d always felt to my father’s people.

The monumental day arrived, an August scorcher like you don’t know from in the Bay Area. I showed up at the run-down Orthodox mikvah in Perth Amboy, N.J. and stood in a darkened room while three long-bearded rabbis from Brooklyn quizzed me about traif, asked me why God gave the Torah to Moses and not to Noah or Abraham (a trick question, you have to know the answer going in), and tested my Hebrew.

An antiquated air-conditioner sputtered noisily in the corner. One of the rabbis barely spoke English. I would have giggled if I weren’t so petrified.

I passed — everyone does, apparently — and was shunted off to the changing room where I disrobed, cleaned myself and stepped into the fetid enclosure that passed for a ritual bath. An elderly woman squinted at me and told me to get in the water, quick, quick, the rabbis were coming.

The rabbis were coming? Wait a sec, I’m naked here! I scrambled down the steps and hunched over in the water, folding my arms over my breasts as the mikvah lady growled at me to take my hands away and let the water touch every part of my body. Oh boy, oh boy.

Suddenly she threw a wet washcloth on my head, the rabbis stepped behind a screen to my right, one of them mumbled a prayer, and the mikvah lady hissed at me to dunk.

Down I went, and up I came. More mumbling, more hissing, down again and up again. Then once more — mumble, hiss, down, up. And I was a Jew. No muss, no fuss, dry yourself off and out the door.

In the parking lot, the sunlight nearly blinded me — was it God’s blessing pouring down upon my head? Or just summer in New Jersey?

Again, no Champagne toast, no lifting of chairs, no kicking up of heels in a wild hora. Just me and Aunt Joan grabbing a tuna fish sandwich at the local diner.

Deprived of what should have been a glorious occasion, I decided that my next Jewish step would be marked with the proper solemnity. I was going to have an adult bat mitzvah. And I was going to don a tallit.

Here’s the thing with me and the tallit: I’m all about egalitarianism in shul. I feel uncomfortable behind a mechitzah. I like a woman’s voice leading services. I like being called up to the Torah. But I always declined the prayer shawl. I felt I hadn’t earned the right to wear it.

I was going to wait for my bat mitzvah and do it right. I was going to bask in the ritual.

Then last fall I was invited to be the scholar-in-residence at a Conservative synagogue in Florida. During Shabbat services, I was called up to the Torah, and there was the gabbai smiling and holding out a tallit for me.

I paused, then blurted out, “I’ve never worn a tallit before.” The gabbai hesitated. The congregation fell silent.

I took a deep breath, thought about my carefully laid plans and brushed them aside. How could I offend my hosts? Why was I being so arrogant? I took the shawl, said the prayer, kissed the fringes, and draped it carefully over my shoulders.

And I burst into tears.

Sometimes sacred moments just happen.

An adult bat mitzvah book?

July 14, 2011

When I started this blog, some folks asked if I were going to turn it into a book a la Julie and Julia. I gave a resounding NO. I just couldn’t see my Bat Mitzvah process as sufficiently dramatic or life-changing  to interest anyone (myself included) for 300 pages.

Fast-forward about 18 months. I studied for my Bat Mitzvah ceremony, became a Bat Mitzvah, celebrated, moved on with life.

But recently, I’ve started thinking about that book idea. And now I’m intrigued.

It’s not the kind of book that I initially rejected — not a first-person memoir of spiritual quest, not an Eat Daven Love.

Instead I’m thinking of a guidebook. A companion for women embarking on the process of becoming an adult Bat Mitzvah. (And men too, although they’re not as common.)

When Sam and I got married, we were deeply grateful for a book called The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant. Diamant — who also happens to be the author of the great Biblical novel The Red Tent — explained all the traditional wedding rituals and offered creative ways to reinterpret and personalize them. Ketubah? Seven blessings? Chuppah? Diamant explained it all, accessible and encouraging and feminist and informed. I would give that book in a nanosecond to any Jewish couple planning a wedding.

I can envision a similar kind of book for adult B’not Mitzvah. It would give the history of the Bar/t Mitzvah ceremony, and the components of Jewish worship and Torah reading; it would include stories from some of the thousands of women who have chosen to become B’not Mitzvah as adults. There would be questions to encourage personal reflection about this process, and suggestions for how to make it as meaningful as possible. It would be a supplement, not a substitute, for study with a rabbi and cantor at a synagogue.

DUH! My first reaction, thinking of this a month or two ago, was to slap my forehead like Homer Simpson. Why didn’t I think of this earlier?

But then second thoughts popped up, as they always do. (And as well they should.) The market for such a book is miniscule, much smaller than a Jewish wedding book. No commercial publishers would be interested. And women have been becoming adult B’not Mitzvah on a wide scale for more than 25 years now. Hasn’t someone written such a book already?

My friend Jane, who also became a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sinai in the past year, told me that she bought an adult Bat Mitzvah book when she started her process. My heart sank. Over the years I’ve found that nearly any time I have a Brilliant Book Idea, someone has written it already in a perfectly adequate manner.

Then last night I finally borrowed Jane’s book. And realized it was not at all what I was envisioning. It was a compendium of how to live a Jewish life, not a conversation about the Bat Mitzvah process.

Yay! I don’t think anyone has done what I’m imagining. There are lots of books for 13-year-old B’nei and B’not Mitzvah and their parents, but not for adults.

But that still leaves the question of how to fund it. I can’t put this amount of time in for free, or for an advance of a couple of thousand dollars. I think I’d need institutional support of some kind.

And it still leaves the bigger question: Is this a useful idea? Is it worth doing?

Hey you out there — yeah, you, blog readers who have tagged along with me for these months or years. Thoughts???

My Bat Mitzvah pencil

February 28, 2011

In the run-up to my Bat Mitzvah service, I made a lot of jokes about not being 13 and not needing any fountain pens as gifts.

Then today the FedEx truck drove up with this gold Cross pencil from my cousin Mark.

My Bat Mitzvah pencil

The pencil belonged to my uncle Bob Solomon, who died a week ago in southern California. We said Kaddish for him during my service. Mark had apparently been cleaning out Bob’s stuff and found it.  He wrote:

It was one of his favorites. I think I got eight or nine Cross pen and pencil sets when I was bar mitzvahed, so it was clear as can be that this was meant for you.

Wow. I am so moved. I never would have imagined in a million years that I would be given a Bat Mitzvah pencil at the age of 53… and that I would find it so meaningful.

There are the expected ways that one generation holds on to the memory of the previous generations, and then there are the unexpected ones.

Thank you, Mark. Thank you, Bob.

Both for the pencil, and for your love.

My d’var Torah – Vayakhel

February 27, 2011

Here’s the text of the d’var Torah (interpretation of Torah) I gave at my adult Bat Mitzvah service at Temple Sinai  on Feb. 26, 2011. My portion was Vayakhel, from the Book of Exodus, 35:1 – 38:20. There is a brief audio clip in the middle of this post that you may either choose to hear or skip.

For more about my Bat Mitzvah service (including some photos), see the previous blog post.


This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel, which means, “and he gathered together.” It comes near the end of the book of Exodus, right after that unfortunate incident in the desert where the Israelites lapse into idolatry and build a golden calf. 

In Vayakhel, Moses gathers the people together and tells them to bring all kinds of personal treasures to build a tabernacle to God. Before anything, though, he orders them not to violate the Sabbath – Shabbat is so important that it must not be infringed even for construction of a house of God. Then the people go out and bring their treasures – dyed ram skins and dolphin skins, fine linen and goats’ hair, gold earrings and nose rings. (I am sure there were a few Israelite moms and dads who were quite happy to donate their teenage daughters’ nose rings.) 

The people end up bringing so much stuff that Moses has to tell them to stop – an unexpected turn of events that probably strikes envy into the heart of anyone who has ever led a fundraising campaign. (And there are a few of you in this room today!) 

The portion continues with a very detailed description of all the components of the ark and tabernacle  – the curtains, rings, boards, hooks, pedestals and so on — as the construction work is overseen by the master builders, Bezalel and Ohaliab. 

There were several things that struck me about Vayakhel. The first is that it is almost a mirror opposite of the preceding portion, the debacle of the golden calf. In the golden calf episode, the Israelites donate their jewels and treasure to create an idol that is a travesty of holiness. In Vayakhel, they donate their jewels and treasure to create a truly holy structure. It is one of the rare moments in the Torah where the people actually do the right thing! Rabbi Elliott Kleinman points out that it is not jewels and treasure – not material possessions — that in themselves are immoral. It is what people choose to do with their possessions. The contrast between these two consecutive sections of Torah highlights this choice. As individuals and as a society, we can use our abundant resources to serve false gods of ego, prestige and power. Or we can use those resources to do good and enhance our world. 

The second thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the importance of Shabbat, a point that has been emphasized by many of the commentators. Here the Israelites are about to build a house for God – can anything be more important than that? — and yet Moses tells them, before he says anything else, that they must stop that work on Shabbat. 

Vayakhel tells us that we may not profane the Sabbath even for God. Yet Jewish tradition also says there is one thing for which we may break the Sabbath – to save a human life. 

Thinking about this, I picture Jewish values as a pyramid of holiness – at the top, more important than anything, is preserving life. Just below that comes Shabbat, a time for rest and contemplation. Only under that come the physical trappings of what people typically think of as religion – the buildings, altars, prayerbooks, ritual items. 

Rabbi Abraham Heschel described Shabbat as itself a kind of sanctuary or tabernacle. Just as Bezalel constructed the tabernacle, we construct Shabbat – only we build it in time, not in space. We build it anew every week, and that has served us well. For the past 2,000 years, Jews have had neither a Temple nor a tabernacle – but wherever we went, we could construct space for holiness in our lives by observing Shabbat.   

The third thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the very detailed physicality of it – the vivid inventory of blue, purple and crimson yarns and tanned ram skins that the people were asked to bring, the mind-numbing recitation of all the screens and hooks and boards assembled by Bezalel. The Haftarah portion for today is remarkably similar, a description of the architect Hiram building Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. 

Both the Torah and Haftarah portions read a little bit like a shopping list for a trip to Home Depot. Hiram, for instance,  assembles “two pillars, and two bowls of capitals that are on top of the pillars, and two networks to cover the two bowls of the capitals on top of the pillars, and 400 pomegranates for the two networks, two rows of pomegranates for each network, to cover the two bowls of the capitals that were on top of the pillars….” 

It reminded me of when we remodeled our kitchen – that is, if, when we talked to friends about the remodel, we had chanted our process in Biblical trope: 

Chanting (click to listen to audio file)

Seriously, though, what are we supposed to make of this long, long construction manifest? 

As a Reform Jew, I believe that the Torah was written by human beings – humans who were wise and inspired, but were also creatures of their era. So we can speculate about some of the points that the author of this section was trying to make. 

I suspect he was trying to impress listeners with the power of a God who warranted such opulence and craftsmanship, much as the builders of medieval cathedrals tried to convey the grandeur of God in their tall spires. He was also probably trying to show how Bezalel and his craftsmen followed God’s instructions down to the exact cubit – as the rest of us should follow God’s mitzvot to the letter. And, as someone who was probably a member of the priestly class during the First Temple period, the author may also have been using the details of the tabernacle’s construction to justify the décor and rituals of his own era. 

But let’s step back from historical conjecture and think about what to make of this today, in our own lives. 

Despite that initial bow to the primacy of Shabbat, this portion is about the importance of place and setting in spirituality. There is so much attention to detail – those hooks, those boards, those 400 pomegranates – not 300, not 500, but 400, and two rows of them for each network. All these material details – the number of pomegranates, and how many rows of them for each network – are part of creating a very particular setting that will foster a connection to the spiritual. 

It’s a little paradoxical. The idea of spirituality is to get beyond the physical. And certainly people can have transcendent experiences anywhere – on an empty beach, a crowded subway, a seedy bar at closing time. So theoretically, it shouldn’t matter whether we are standing around in the wide open Sinai desert or entering a tent with dyed ram’s skins and golden cherubim and 400 pomegranates. 

But it does. That’s one of the lessons of the golden calf episode – as human beings, many of us paradoxically need physical cues to help us transcend our physical selves. An altar, a priest, a whiff of incense. God and Moses learned that lesson, and gave the Israelites a tabernacle to fill those needs in place of a calf. 

What do we as individuals need today? It varies. Some people find spiritual nourishment in group prayer in a synagogue or church. Others meditate or listen to music. Still others turn to nature – a walk in the redwoods or along the ocean. 

I’d put myself in that last category. I enjoy the music, community and tradition of services, but I typically get much more of a sense of transcendence from being in nature. That’s where I get a sense of the miracle that is the universe, and an understanding that I am just a small part of it all. 

It’s Christian transcendentalists like Thoreau who get a lot of the attention for finding spiritual nourishment in nature, but I’m not the only Jew who feels that way. Here is an excerpt from a Jewish writer whose home I visited last summer. 

She wrote, “It’s not imagination on my part when I say that to look up at the sky, the clouds, the moon, and the stars makes me calm and patient. It’s a better medicine than either valerian or bromine. Mother Nature makes me humble and prepared to face every blow courageously.” She didn’t get to see much nature – only a tree through a dirty window, and even that only occasionally. She was Anne Frank. 

In any event, take the time to think about what that setting is for you. Then assemble it with all the care and diligence of Bezalel assembling the tabernacle. Construct it in both space and time. You can start small – a half-hour walk alone by the bay on Saturday afternoon? Fifteen minutes of meditation before work in the morning? Keeping a Debbie Freedman CD in your car to play on your commute home? 

Like the Israelites whom Moses gathered together in Vayakhel, we remain charged with assembling our own tabernacles, in space and in time. We remain charged with creating our own opportunities for spiritual reflection. In today’s hectic world, spiritual moments won’t happen automatically – we need to build them as consciously and deliberately as Bezalel crafted the tabernacle. 

So bring your dyed rams’ skins and your golden nose rings. Bring your favorite Mi Shabeirach melody or your favorite path in Redwood Park. Bring 15 minutes of your lunch break or two hours of your Saturday morning. 

There is a phrase in this portion – where it talks about people bringing their offerings to build the tabernacle, it uses the phrase “kol chacham lev.”  “All who were wise in their hearts.” Some commentators like Nechama Leibowitz have suggested that the hearts of the repentant Israelites were even more important an offering than their gold jewelry and dyed rams’ skins. 

May we be wise enough in our hearts to build the kinds of tabernacles we need to nourish ourselves today. 


Rabbi Chester typically asks adult b’nei and b’not mitzvah to say a few words about what led them to undertake this process – at the age of 53, it’s not something that my parents asked me to do, and I certainly don’t need any fountain pens!

 For me, this process was essentially an effort to fill in a gap in my Jewish identity. I grew up in a very assimilated family that did not belong to a synagogue, and I found my Jewish identity as a teenager in Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth movement affiliated with one of the kibbutz federations in Israel. I lived on a kibbutz for half a year after high school, and in Jerusalem for 18 months in my 20s. So I had a fairly strong understanding of modern Israel and its politics, modern Hebrew, and Jewish history and culture. 

What was missing was an understanding of the religious aspect of Judaism. As our family became more and more involved with Temple Sinai, and its wonderful community, I wanted to feel competent and conversant in the prayers and liturgy. I wanted to wear a tallit, but also to feel like I had earned the right to wear it. 

And I wanted to feel like I could pass Judaism on to the next generation – that if, God forbid, there was some Holocaust-type catastrophe and I was the only adult Jew left in the room, I could lead Shabbat services. 

It’s been a fun and stimulating process. I’ve articulated some of my own beliefs and deepened my understanding and love of Judaism. I met with Rabbi Chester individually and with our group of three other adult b’not mitzvah. I’ve also used my blog about the process to have extended conversations with our temple’s other two rabbis, and to have wonderful online conversations with many of you here today about issues like God, Torah, and my incredibly cute cat. If I haven’t managed to browbeat you into reading the blog by now, I encourage you to take a look and subscribe. I’m going to keep going with it, even after we’ve all gone home today and the caterers have cleaned up the last bit of cream cheese. You don’t stop being a Bat Mitzvah after the ceremony, and you don’t stop being “midlife” until… um, when, I don’t know, maybe someone here can enlighten me on that! 

The Academy Awards don’t start until tomorrow night, but I’m going to get a jump on the thank-you speeches.  I’d like to thank the people who helped me prepare for today. I’ll start with Rabbi Chester, who spent an unbelievable amount of time with me, both individually and as part of our group of adult b’not mitzvah. I feel privileged to have  come in “under the wire” with my bat mitzvah before his retirement. Thank you to Cantor Keyes, who is on sabbatical right now but taught me my prayers and chanting before she left, and Cantor Saxon who led the musical part of the service today and contributed the Peace Prayer from his original Gospel Shabbat. Thanks to Ophira Druch, whose Hebrew class I took last year. I’d like to thank Rabbis Mates-Muchin and Berlin for their support, and in particular for their time and willingness to discuss their personal beliefs in my blog. 

Thank you to Sydney, Jane and Karen – the other adult b’not mitzvah whose personal journeys and questions helped deepen my own process. Friends Barry and Judy, who are fellow co-founders of the Julia Morgan School and all around inspirations to me. (And Judy’s mom Evelyn, who stepped in at the last minute to represent the previous generation in handing down the Torah.) Our chavurah, who are a veritable bar and bat mitzvah baking factory – we will have baked desserts for 11 kids’ bnei mitzvah by the time this generation is grown, and I hope we bake for another couple of adult b’not mitzvah after mine. (You potential b’not mitzvah know who you are.) 

I also want to share my appreciation of the New Israel Fund – an organization that so perfectly expresses my own values and visions for a just and democratic Israel – in my Bat Mitzvah invitation, I asked people to forego gifts but instead consider donations to New Israel Fund or to Temple Sinai. There is a table with information about NIF in Stern Hall which you can visit during lunch or on your way out. 

Finally – family. My brother and his family, who provide love and support – I feel so fortunate that you live nearby. My out-of-town relatives who are here in spirit. In particular, my Solomon cousins who are saying kaddish in Orange County today for my Uncle  Bob who died earlier this week.

And finally, Becca, whose own Bat Mitzvah was an inspiration to me,  and Sam, whom I love so much and who has been 110% supportive of me during this process and in anything else I have ever undertaken. 

Shabbat shalom.

Bat Mitzvah!

February 27, 2011

After fifteen months of preparation, it was a wonderful day. The forecasters’ feverish predictions of snow did not pan out, and the weather was crisp and clear. All the logistics (caterer, sound system, flowers etc.) went smoothly. There was a great turnout of about 120 temple regulars and friends from various parts of my life. Like at a wedding, one of the fun things was seeing people connect who knew each other from elsewhere but didn’t realize they also both knew me.

The service itself went well. I had a couple of minor flubs — I blanked out on the blessing for the tallit, and then I lost my place once during the Torah reading when I distracted myself by turning to greet the people doing blessings. But other than those bits, things went smoothly. The most stressful part was the Hebrew chanting; after I was done with that, giving my d’var Torah in English felt like a pina colada by the pool. My favorite moments were the d’var Torah and carrying the Torah scroll around the room while people reached out to kiss it with their prayerbooks or tallit. It was fun to be able to greet everyone that way, and to know that, at that point at least, all I had to do was put my feet in front of each other and not fall down. Easier than chanting.

Rabbi Chester said the most warm and gratifying things, both publicly at the bima and then during the private moment when he blesses the bat/bar mitzvah while the cantor sings. I’ve sat through many 13-year-old b’nei mitzvah services, including my daughter’s, and always itched with curiosity about what the rabbi was telling them.

Now I know…  he’s giving them the winning lottery numbers for the coming week!

Seriously, the part of his blessing that was most meaningful to me was when he said that if I were 40 years old rather than in my 50s, he would be pushing me to go to rabbinical school. It isn’t a career I ever considered, but it felt like ultimate praise coming from him, as well as a recognition of my commitment to Judaism. When he got to delivering the Hebrew part of the blessing, I bowed my head and he told me (I forget his exact words here) to picture the blessing that I need, and to envision myself in that state.

People really liked my d’var Torah. I’m going to post it on the blog in a separate entry, directly after this one. You can access it by clicking here. When writing it, I felt a strong urge to write a credo, or some overarching declaration of What Ilana Believes about life, God, Judaism, ethics, West Bank settlements, women’s rights, whatever. I opted to resist that urge and just focus on the Torah portion, which I believe in retrospect was the correct decision.

After the service, we had a delicious lunch catered by Temple Sinai member David Darwish, with desserts baked by my chavurah. That evening, my brother and sister-in-law hosted a small dinner with a cake by the amazing Paul and Marcia Masse, of Masse’s Pastries in Berkeley (who also happen to be former Julia Morgan School for Girls parents).

My Bat Mitzvah cake / Photo by Rob DeBare

I had given the Masses a photograph of my poppy-embellished tallit, as well as some pictures of the blue chultza shomrit (shirt) we wore in Hashomer Hatzair, the youth movement that was really the start of my Jewish identity. So the cake imagery represents my Jewish path, from teenage years through becoming a Bat Mitzvah. The Masses did an awesome job.

Now, the day after, I feel mostly tired and relieved that all this organizing is over. I am so happy that my group of adult b’not mitzvah is continuing to meet and study — that this was not the end of the process. I’m also looking forward to chanting Torah at other services in the future. That feels like the best of both worlds — the challenge/honor of reading Torah, but without having all the to-do of party planning.

Don’t get me wrong — the party aspect of this certainly was fun. And it was nice to bask in the appreciation and congratulations of my community, especially at a time when I’m accumulating rejection notes from literary agents and not making much headway in figuring out a new career. Actually, it was more than nice. It was wonderfully affirming to feel such support at a time when other spheres of life are challenging.

But still, I look forward to chanting Torah in the future without a party. Just as part of a congregation.

The incomplete Bat Mitzvah

February 24, 2011

I haven’t posted in a week, since my last entry on floral stress, and it would not be too far-fetched to assume that I succumbed to heart palpitations brought on by last-minute Bat Mitzvah preparations. Not true.

I have actually had a hectic and somewhat emotional week, but hardly any of it was related to the Bat Mitzvah — there was a lovely weekend visit by my Rhode Island sister and her family, a trip to L.A. with my daughter to look at colleges, and the death of a long-ailing uncle of mine in Orange County. (Suffice to say that this may be the only college-application trip in history to include a shiva visit.)

In any case, I’m back — both physically and mentally. I had my second dress rehearsal today with Rabbi Chester, which went well. I learned how to work the new sound system in the temple’s social hall, so I can plug in my iPod and play an Israeli pop music mix during the kiddush luncheon. (Thank you to Danny, Lisa and Yonit for sending me music! I had a blast learning new songs and making up the playlist.)

I even wrestled the Floral Question into submission, picking up six inexpensive orchids at Trader Joe’s that will look just fine in front of the bima.

Yes, a Bat Mitzvah orchid / Photo by Ilana DeBare

In an effort to share as much of the experience as possible, here is a photo of the biggest orchid. It looks like daffodils, but it’s an orchid, honest. It is locked in our bedroom right now so the cat doesn’t eat it before Saturday.

Tomorrow I’ll buy two challot (one for Friday night services, one for Saturday), bake some cookies and assemble cheese and fruit plates for Friday night, and review my Hebrew prayers and chanting.

Amidst all this bustle, there are some things that feel incomplete.

I realized a while ago that I would not learn everything I wanted to learn by the time of my Bat Mitzvah service.  I can reel off a list of Jewish stuff I wanted to do/learn but have not gotten around to, such as:

  • Go to a mikvah (ritual bath)
  • Go to services at an Orthodox shul, to compare with the Reform liturgy
  • Learn and incorporate into my life some Hebrew blessings over daily events like waking up, getting dressed etc.
  • Learn more about the Biblical prophets (nevi’im)
  • Learn some of the history of Chasidism and its legends…

But you know what? I’m totally okay with not having gotten to all this.

Unlike many 13-year-olds, I don’t see becoming a Bat Mitzvah as the conclusion of a process — or as the end of my Jewish education. It’s more like a gate along a path. I look forward to continued reading, learning, participation. My little group of adult b’not mitzvah will continue meeting and studying with Rabbi Chester up until his retirement in June. The four of us are also planning to read Torah together during services sometime over the summer, so we’ll be required to keep our Hebrew chanting up to par.

I’ll also keep this blog going. I won’t change the name: Once you become a Bat Mitzvah, you remain a Bat Mitzvah. And the “midlife” part? I’m not sure precisely when midlife gives way to the next stage of life, or even what the correct term is for that next stage  — late-life? retirement? cronehood? AARP membership? — but I am certainly not there yet.

So Midlife Bat Mitzvah it will continue to be, at least for the forseeable future.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the Bay Area, please feel free to join us for services at Temple Sinai this Saturday at 10:30.

And if you’re not nearby…  I’ll do my best to share the day via the blog. Thank you for accompanying me along this path!


February 17, 2011

Okay, it was bound to happen sooner or later — pre-event stress.

But over flowers?

I feel totally prepared and comfortable with my Bat Mitzvah service. And there are practically no bells and whistles surrounding the service — at least not compared with my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah four years ago, which involved printed invitations, hotel rooms and transportation for about 25 out-of-town relatives, multiple family dinners and brunches, a DJ party complete with chocolate fountain for the teenagers, and shopping expeditions for two completely different outfits for the Bat Mitzvah girl. (Plus we were coordinating all this with another girl and her family.)

Mine will be positively Zen-like in comparison!

But still, it’s a week away, and so the stress hit me tonight. Over the silliest thing — flowers.

At our temple, the Bat/Bar Mitzvah family is in charge of providing the flower arrangement for the bima (dais). It’s a big room, and so needs a big arrangement, and that can get pricey. Several weeks ago, I was at a Bat Mitzvah where the family placed five orchids on the bima instead of a florist-designed arrangement, and it looked great. Simple, elegant and LESS EXPENSIVE. I asked the mom where she got the orchids, and she said Costco, for about $13 each.

Bat Mitzvah orchid?

I figured orchids were the way to go. So yesterday I went to the Costco in Richmond and discovered they were totally OUT of orchids. The store computer said there were orchids at the San Leandro Costco, so I drove to San Leandro.  Of course they were totally out of orchids too. Apparently orchid season ended with the end of Chinese new year. I could have bought some bare-root rose bushes or blueberry bushes, but that didn’t seem to quite fit the bill.

Today I stopped at Trader Joe’s, which also has orchids. But were they the right orchids? Were they pretty enough? Full enough?

With floral design, we have ventured into one of my areas of total lack of competence and confidence. I couldn’t trust that my orchid choice would be successful. I came home and called the florist we had used for our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah — and was told the arrangement would cost two hundred and fifty dollars. And that the price of little stemless carnation heads — which congregants throw at the Bat Mitzvah in celebration after she completes her chanting — has gone up and would cost something like one hundred and fifty dollars.

(You can gauge my stress by the number of italics and capitalized words in this blog post.)

So I called another florist, who it turns out is somewhat cheaper. I’m still gagging, but not quite as much.

But this is only partly about my floral insecurity. There is suddenly a lot going on. My sister and her family are arriving from Rhode Island tomorrow for a weekend visit, and the day after they leave, I’m taking my daughter down to L.A. to look at colleges until Wednesday night. On Thursday night, my father-in-law arrives. Somewhere in the middle of all that, both my husband and one of my nephews have birthdays. And I have a couple of work-related interviews, a j. weekly board meeting, and my second dress rehearsal.

It occurred to me that with kids, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child just has to worry about getting their chanting and d’var Torah right, while the parents worry about logistical things like hotel rooms and flowers. Everyone may be stressed out, but the stress is divided.

As an adult Bat Mitzvah, on the other hand, I’m in charge of both the substance and the logistics. Even with help from spouse and friends, it’s kind of like being my own mom.


Okay, I feel somewhat better having written this post.

Blogging as stress reduction? I never thought about that when I started Midlife Bat Mitzvah.

But it’s cheaper than paying for a massage, and healthier than downing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

Bat Mitzvah dress rehearsal # 1

February 15, 2011

Yesterday was the first of my two “dress rehearsals.” Well, no dress, not even my tallit, but I ran through the entire service on the bima with Rabbi Chester – basically, me reading and chanting my sections of the service and him saying “la la la” in his typical joking way whenever the cantor or congregation was supposed to chime in. 

The bima at Temple Sinai (actually an old photo -- the bima, or dais, was recently lowered and widened to be wheelchair accessible)

It went really smoothly. The sanctuary’s acoustics for speaking are great. (Even better than singing in the shower!) And I know my Torah and haftarah chanting down pat: The only glitch was a brief moment of total brain collapse when I couldn’t remember which of the many baruch atah adonai melodies to use for the haftarah blessings.

I wasn’t sure that I’d really need one dress rehearsal, let alone two. I mean, I’m not 13! But there’s a bunch of minor maneuvering that it’s helpful to practice. (Where on the podium do I stash my speech? Which mike to use when I turn to face the ark?)

More significantly, the rehearsal was worthwhile as a way to get used to being on the bima.

I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking over the years in bookstores, classrooms, and big auditoriums. But the sanctuary felt grander – the stained glass windows, the eternal lamp, the knowledge that people had filled this room every Shabbat for 80 years and other similar rooms for 2,000 years. 

It echoed, both literally and figuratively. 

I wasn’t really able to take all of that in, though. I was too busy trying not to lose my place in the Torah scroll, groping for the right haftarah blessing melody. I didn’t look up from the prayerbook for the first two-thirds of the rehearsal – and I’m someone who knows that you need to look at the audience when giving a speech.

It was basic let’s-get-through-this survival mode. It was like a wedding where the bride and groom are so keyed up with nervous excitement that they don’t remember any of their conversations with guests. And they never get a chance to taste their cake. 

By the time I got to my d’var Torah, I started to relax. And giving a sermon is so much easier than chanting Torah and haftarah – it’s in English! 

I suspect that the second rehearsal next week will allow me to loosen up further. I’ll be able to let go and open myself up more to the power of the tradition.

By the time of my actual Bat Mitzvah service, I’ll have a better chance of enjoying the (metaphorical) cake.

For me, at least, the rehearsals aren’t about getting it right – they’re about having the time and opportunity to realize what I’m doing and what it means.

The Bar Mitzvah-Industrial Complex

February 13, 2011

I ushered at Shabbat  services this morning, where a 13-year-old boy was becoming a Bar Mitzvah.  This is one of the little routines at our temple — the family of an upcoming  Bar or Bat Mitzvah is responsible for ushering at the service of a Bar or Bat  preceding theirs.

There are good reasons for this. It takes one little task off the to-do list of the harried Bar Mitzvah family, and it helps foster a sense of community — a sense that the Shabbat morning service belongs to everyone, not just the Bar Mitzvah family.

But in reality, it often doesn’t.

Many times, a Shabbat service that includes a Bar Mitzvah feels like a private event. Friends and family of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah outnumber regular congregants. The sanctuary is filled with visitors who don’t know the songs and prayers, or with teens who sit in a pack and giggle and whisper. The Bar Mitzvah’s parents give speeches about their child that may be very moving, but that don’t have anything to do with Judaism. And as impressive as the d’vrei Torah of many 13-year-olds can be, they rarely match the insight of a sermon by a rabbi or other adult speaker.

Attending a Shabbat service when you don’t know the Bar Mitzvah family can feel like walking in on someone else’s wedding or baby shower.

And in a large congregation like ours — nearly 1,000 families — the chances are pretty good that on any given Saturday, you won’t know the Bar Mitzvah family.

“I feel like a third wheel when I go to a Bar Mitzvah service,” one longtime congregant told me at lunch.

As wonderful as it is, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a doubled-edge institution. On the one hand, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are a pillar of modern Judaism and synagogue life. They boost religious school enrollment and temple membership. They create goodwill and play a major role in shaping the next generation of committed Jews. They’re an invaluable coming-of-age experience for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah him or herself.

On the other hand, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies in many big  congregations have escalated to the point of dwarfing regular Shabbat services — becoming a kind of Bar Mitzvah-Industrial Complex.  (And I’m not even talking about the parties!)

How do you create Shabbat services that will speak to the needs of adult congregants while also honoring 13-year-olds in a manner that meets their family’s expectations?

This particular weekend, it happened that my congregation was holding two simultaneous Shabbat services. So when I finished ushering at the Bar Mitzvah service in our large sanctuary, I dashed around the building to an alternative lay-led service in our new, smaller chapel.

Temple Sinai holds these lay-led alternative services once a month. They’re filled with music — guitar, violin, drums, tambourines — and feel very participatory. Many attendees are “regulars,” everyone seems to know the prayers and melodies, and everyone also seems to know each other.

Today’s alternative minyan felt simultaneously more modern and more traditional than a classic Reform service. More modern: The guitars and folk melodies gave it a Jewish-renewal feeling. More traditional: There were more people wearing tallitot, and bowing or covering their eyes during prayer, than in one of our regular Shabbat services. Afterward, there was a potluck lunch,  a homey contrast to the catered luncheons put on by many Bar Mitzvah families.

So that’s one answer — different services for different needs. One service for the Bar Mitzvah family and friends, one for congregants who want something more intimate and communal.

But that’s a lot to organize. It feels like a bit of a jerry-rigged solution to me. Wouldn’t it be preferable to  integrate a Bar Mitzvah into a regular, adult service — so the 13-year-old chanting Torah would be  just one small part in a service that involved and spoke to the entire congregation?  But I’m not sure that’s an achievable or realistic goal.

What do you think? Any better ideas?

Less than one month out

February 2, 2011

Our temple‘s monthly bulletin arrived this week, including the page that lists congregational birthdays, anniversaries, new members and b’nei mitzvah for February. And there I am — a little color photo of me right next to one of the 13-year-old boy whose bar mitzvah precedes mine!

Things are pretty much under control. My d’var Torah is written and my Torah/haftarah portions are learned. I’ve coordinated music selections with Cantor Stephen Saxon — yes, the cantor from the Gospel Shabbat that I blogged about last spring! — who will be filling in since our regular cantor is on sabbatical.  I’ve met with the caterer about the kiddush lunch after services, and figured out who will be doing aliyot,  and picked a favorite quote to appear in the printed program. Still ahead are two dress rehearsals with Rabbi Chester, plus a medley of additional small logistical errands.

When I run into friends these days they say, “Oh, just three weeks! Are you excited?”

And weirdly, I’ve only been able to say, “I guess so.”

This is entirely my own doing. I have a lifelong mental habit of looking at things with a critical, skeptical eye. I see the deficiencies, the limits, the broad context that makes something just a tiny dot on a big field. That’s a useful habit for journalism,  and for politics, and is in fact essential in editing one’s own writing.

It is not so useful in personal life.

Take parenting. I always resisted being one of those parents who SWORE that their child would be the next Mozart because she banged on the piano when the Raffi tape was playing. I made a point of keeping things in perspective — yes, she’s cute, smart, talented, but heck, so is every other three-year-old, and the piano banging is really only piano banging, and it’s really no big deal. Which is all true, but maybe I missed out on a little bit of fun by not letting myself crow like a character from Peter Pan.

And now my Bat Mitzvah. I’ve spent the past year telling myself it is no big deal. I’m not 13 and Becoming A Woman, I don’t want a big party, I gave myself so much time to do this that the work has been pretty mellow, these are skills that come easily to me, what would be a much bigger deal is selling my novel….  and so on.

I’ve made it hard for myself to feel excited. But now I want to feel excited! I don’t want to plod through the day like I’m checking off items on a to-do list and only afterward say, “Huh! That was pretty cool.”

I need to let go a little bit and let myself feel proud  — even if, truly, it hasn’t been as hard as selling a novel.

It turns out that letting go of my reflex of skepticism may actually be harder than any of the chanting I’ve had to learn.