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“Blessed are thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who did not make me a woman,” said my stupid, boasting cousin every day. “Blessed are thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who made me in accordance to his will,” said I.
Every once in a while, a teacher tried to explain to us girls why the seemingly insulting blessing meant something different than what the seemingly insulting blessing actually said; why what our eyes saw was not what our minds should comprehend, and why our ears should not hear what our lips loudly read. Women are every bit as holy in God’s great eye, she said, because we enable the men to study the holy Torah.
But the entire matter was a puzzle to me. I would look down at the prayer book and attempt to differentiate between the reading, the seeing and the actual meaning, and in my mind, I’d secretly wonder, “Why would anyone ever want to be a boy?”
I liked being a girl. I liked that I was not beaten. I liked my life simpler and less rigid than that of my show-off cousin. I liked that I could miss a prayer and no one would look at me like I’d just murdered Cain.
And anyhow, the teacher told us that we too have a special mitzvah, one that boys do not have. We have modesty. A girl who is modest in dress and in behavior is equal in greatness to any Torah scholar.
It was during my brother’s bar mitzvah that I began having doubts. The preparations for his 13th birthday went on for weeks — there was a hall to choose, a musician to hire, floral centerpieces and cream-colored invitations. For months my brother studied with my father the sermon he would give in front of one hundred men; for days he practiced wrapping the strap of the tefillin, placing it correctly on his left arm. With the tefillin, boys become real men, fully initiated members of ultra-Orthodox society. With hats on their heads, they are counted as part of a minyan, the 10 men needed for prayers. And they study Torah like true scholars, from dawn until dusk, every day.
A boy’s bar mitzvah is a momentous occasion. His life the day before he turns 13 years old is completely different from his life the day after. A girl’s life, on the other hand, remains the same.
I told my father that it all seemed very unjust. I wanted a bar mitzvah too.
“It isn’t fair,” I said. “He has a bar mitzvah like a small wedding. He gets a new suit, an expensive watch and gifts piled high. And what will I get? A party at home with my friends? Twelve helium balloons? A girl’s bat mitzvah is like any other birthday. It’s stupid.” And I went to sleep in a huff.
I changed my mind the morning after my brother’s bar mitzvah. I heard the alarm clock from my brother’s room, and I thought it was morning. But it was barely dawn. I stumbled out of bed and watched in sleepy horror as my brother, fully garbed in hat and coat, took his tefillin and left for the early morning prayers.
The next day, the alarm clock rang at dawn again and did not stop. Through the thin wall, I heard my father shake my brother, reprimanding him, demanding that he wake up now. It was time for the morning prayers. And my brother, rubbing his eyes miserably, stumbled out of the house to yeshiva.
This was the part I had not realized on the night of my brother’s bar mitzvah. That he would have to wake up early every single day for the rest of his life.
He was now a 13-year-old man. He could no longer dare miss the morning prayer; no longer waste time reading the mystery books he loved. He could no longer take art or music lessons, and he could no longer play silly board games after school. There was no after school. Yeshiva ran until nine.
So we watched our brothers, 13-year-old men, soldiers in the army of God: They were up at dawn and asleep by 10 p.m., the time in between filled with prayers and rigorous study. All secular education stopped in eighth grade. Sports and exercise were strictly forbidden. Those with private English tutors were mocked. One did not waste an hour and a half of the day on garbage like math or history; they mere distractions, trivial matters unbefitting a true Torah scholar.