Bat Mitzvah Rite Turns 90

Ceremony Opened Door to Expansion of Jewish Women's Roles

Celebrating Through Years: The Hyman family celebrates a bat mitzvah in 1955.
courtesy of judith hyman darsky
Celebrating Through Years: The Hyman family celebrates a bat mitzvah in 1955.

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published April 02, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

The exhibit features a timeline of bat mitzvah milestones, from Kaplan Eisenstein’s bat mitzvah to the present day. Visitors can also access audio recordings from their cellphones on which women from each decade talk about their bat mitzvah memories.

Diane Trilling, who turns 80 this year, celebrated her bat mitzvah in 1944, at Congregation Shaarei Torah in Brooklyn, after preparing for the ceremony at Hebrew school. “My Uncle Joe would scold my mother, in Yiddish: ‘A poor woman like you sends your daughter to cheder? What could be a worse shande?’” she recalls in the accompanying audio. Pearl Hochstadt, who along with Trilling and another girl celebrated her bat mitzvah that day at Shaarei Torah, said: “It was not a big affair. My parents were too busy to come to it.”

That’s hard to imagine, today. But it’s also hard to imagine that Kaplan Eisenstein, Trilling or Hochstadt could have predicted at their bat mitzvahs the leadership role that is available to girls today.

Eve Gertzman, who celebrated her bat mitzvah just a year ago, when she led Shabbat services at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, relates in the audio recording: “I was kind of the rabbi, in a way. It was a good feeling, knowing I was able to do that.”

But it has been a long road.

A 1931 survey of 110 Conservative congregations found that just six had adopted bat mitzvah. By 1948, only one-third of Conservative synagogues had held bat mitzvahs.

In 1950, while nearly all Reform synagogues held confirmation ceremonies for girls and boys in their mid teens, bat mitzvahs took place at just 25% while, in contrast, bar mitzvahs took place at 90% of Reform congregations.

According to historian Jonathan Sarna, the ritual gained traction after the Holocaust. “There was a sense that when we educated girls, it would later promote in-marriage, and they would bring up Jewish children,” said Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and chief historian at the NMAJH. “It’s not so different than the Bais Yaakov movement earlier,” which established the first full-time Jewish girls’ schools back in 1917.

Today, it is safe to say, bat mitzvah ceremonies with Torah readings are the norm for 12- and 13-year-old girls at non-Orthodox congregations. Even at Orthodox institutions, bat mitzvah has become routine. The last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in 1986, sanctioned celebrating bat mitzvah with a Shabbat party or a festive meal, the exhibit notes. In some Orthodox congregations today, a bat mitzvah will give a sermon from the bimah.

Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, was a close friend of Kaplan Eisenstein, who died in 1996.

“Judith always talked about her bat mitzvah as a moment of great importance to her father,” Levitt said. “He was trying to prove something; he was trying to accomplish something. She didn’t experience this as a feminist moment or as a liberating moment or as a moment of taking ‘my rightful place in the Jewish community as a young woman.’ No. She was doing something her father told her to do.”

It took nearly her whole lifetime to change her connection to it.

As Kaplan Eisenstein approached her 82nd birthday, Levitt suggested having another bat mitzvah, this time for herself. Kaplan Eisenstein, who was an accomplished musicologist, said she couldn’t read Torah and resisted the whole idea. But Levitt nudged her until she acquiesced.

Seventy years after her first bat mitzvah, Kaplan Eisenstein donned a special tallit made for the occasion and, at an event space in Queens in front of hundreds of family members and friends, chanted her Torah portion.

And in the end, Levitt said, “It was a really powerful experience for her.”

Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at dnussbaumc@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.