Why I Wish I'd Had a High School Prom

For Hasidic Girls, Secular Milestones Seem Larger Than Life

Slow Dance: Teenagers dance at a prom in New Orleans in 2006
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Slow Dance: Teenagers dance at a prom in New Orleans in 2006

By Frimet Goldberger

Published June 02, 2014, issue of June 06, 2014.
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Sparkly gowns, heels, corsages, suits, ties, teenage pimples. Why yes, I’m talking about the high school prom — that quintessentially American rite of passage.

Like many other Jewish girls who attended yeshivas or all-girls schools, my knowledge of proms is secondhand. I know about the gowns and heels and ties and Jewish nerds who take to YouTube to invite super models to be their date (like California high schooler Jake Davidson did with model Kate Upton) — but I never experienced it myself.

Recently, though, I had the honor of observing a real prom in action, sans Kate Upton. A few girlfriends and I took a trip to Atlantic City for the weekend to celebrate our graduations from college. (After leaving the Hasidic community, I finally graduated college at age 28.)

We stayed in the Sheraton Convention Center — a hot spot for local high school proms. Entering the lobby on our way back from the beach, we observed a procession of glitz and glamour: pretty young ladies shimmying up the stairs in their sparkly gowns holding hands with their dates, while the single girls — there were no single boys, who must be a commodity in that school — trudged behind, looking just as glamorous but perhaps not so confident.

My friends and I hung out on a couch in the lobby, which served as front row seats to watch a woman who must have been the school principal snap pictures of the princes and princesses. We oohed and aahed and passed judgment on the girls who strolled past us wearing little material to cover their birthday suits. When the principal politely asked us to take a photo so she could be in it, we eagerly jumped up but then realized we had to decline because it was the Sabbath. We later apologized profusely and explained why we declined. But I won’t bore you with those details.

I wasn’t feeling envious, not a bit. Okay, maybe slightly envious of the life ahead of these young people and of that one young lady who looked like the love child of Daniel Craig and Jennifer Lawrence. What I felt, mainly, was regret. Amid the brouhaha, I wished I had experienced a celebration of my own entry into adulthood.

Most Jewish girls, like their male counterparts, celebrate the age of maturity, at which point they are obligated by Jewish law to perform God’s mitzvahs, by becoming bat mitzvah.

Not so in the community I grew up in, where the bat mitzvah does not exist. Girls go through childhood and adolescence uncelebrated. Boys, on the other hand, get festive parties: the Shalom Zachor party the Friday night after they are born, their bris, and the upsherin, the celebration of the first time their hair is cut at the age of 3, attend by parents, aunts, uncles and others interested in a slice of caramel cheesecake. In addition to the abundant toy cars and lego sets the child receives, he is taken to a cheder classroom, followed by a procession of loved ones, to read the aleph bet and to hand out pekelech, or loot bags to the bigger boys. And if that weren’t enough to celebrate His Greatness, he gets a mini wedding at the age of 13 — just because, well, he’s a boy.

And the girls — what do they get? Nothing. A peek from behind the curtain and a slice of caramel cheesecake.

I don’t, in any way, begrudge the boys of my youth their parties and rite-of-passage celebrations. I didn’t feel left out at the time, nor was I resentful of something I did not know existed; coming-of-age ceremonies for girls were as strange to us as bar mitzvah parties with half-naked dancers as entertainment. (I’m referring, of course, to Sam Horowitz’s party in his gone-viral YouTube video.)

Transitioning from childhood to adulthood is a momentous occasion — and one that should be properly celebrated. As an exacting mother and wife who insists on never missing a birthday, graduation, holiday or falling-out-tooth day, I believe rites of passage should be a right.

I wish I could go back in time and dress up my miserable, acne-bedazzled 12-year-old self and throw her a big party, while the boys sneak a peek from behind the curtains. Maybe I’ll do it one day as a 20- or 30-something still-acne-bedazzled woman and invite my fellow ex-hasidic girls.

I’ll even forgo my corsage and ball gown and holding hands with a boy who looks so young and insecure, you could practically put him in the sandbox.

Frimet Goldberger is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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