‘Any chance you can meet this afternoon? Molly got her first period, and we were thinking it would be nice to have a ritual,” Molly’s mother texts one fall Sunday.
For months, Molly and I have been meeting weekly to prepare for her bat mitzvah. We meet in the Torah Hut, a small cabin in my Oregon backyard which I’ve painted mint green with yellow trim. Part secret getaway, part Temple, the Torah Hut is where I teach my students.
They show up for their first lesson with the same expression on their faces I must have had at their age: curious, a little nervous, proud to be old enough to begin. We sit side by side as I hand them the keys to our tradition, one by one. We trace signs in the air, stringing notes and syllables together until they add up to ancient stories. Sometimes the Torah teaches us how to live, I tell them. And sometimes it just helps us remember that being human is complicated.
After a year of weekly lessons, I stand beside each one — in a ballroom, a backyard, a rented rock club, an urban farm, a forest — as they chant from the scroll and become a full member of our tribe.
But today’s ritual is about something even older than our ancient Jewish traditions.
A few hours later after the phone call, beneath the cornflower-blue September sky, twelve-year-old Molly is perched on the edge of the claw-foot tub hidden in the bamboo thicket behind my house in her white T-shirt and purple leggings. Her mom and I stand behind her.
Molly looks up at me through gold-rimmed glasses.
“Okay,” she says, hands clasped tightly in her lap. “I’m ready.”
My body shakes like it always does before a new ritual: my jaw vibrating, my shoulders alert.
“OK,” I say brightly, trying not to sound nervous, leaning over to turn on the tap. “Here we go.”
She doesn’t know what to expect, and to be honest, neither do I. But this I know: in the midst of grocery shopping and the morning news, of dirty laundry and to-do lists and the Internet, we have rituals to remind us that magic is woven through every day like a thread of gold. If we stop for a moment, we can find it.
Most of our rituals are thousands of years old: the Passover seder, the Yom Kippur fast. But this? It’s brand new, or so old it’s been forgotten. Will I pull it off? Can I tap into the groundwater of divinity that runs beneath us, the constellations above us, the mysterious electricity that lives inside us? Or will Molly roll her eyes, will her mom shift uncomfortably, looking at her daughter apologetically, thinking, You’re right, this is weird.
My own bat mitzvah was the opposite of a backyard ritual. In 1991, I stood on the bimah, our temple’s altar, looking out at the enormous sanctuary. A kind man with a toupée had prepared me to chant the ancient Torah portion with cassette tapes, though I had no idea what the Hebrew words meant.
“She is a tree of life,” the hired choir sang behind a giant screen. Row after row of stained-walnut pews stretched to the back of the massive room. A folding partition hid another room the same size for the High Holy Days when the congregation quadrupled.
I was raised as a secular Jew. The rules were improvised. On the one hand, my request for a Christmas tree was denied, as was my wish to wear a gold cross around my neck - much as I begged, in the era of Madonna, It’s just for fashion! On the other, my parents very much enjoyed bacon with their breakfast.
And yet inside, I felt something tugging at my deepest center, pulling me towards the tradition.
I shivered as I approached the Torah scroll on my bat mitzvah day; the skin behind my ears tingled. Everything looked normal: my dress covered with small blue flowers, my black hair braided neatly, white tights on my legs and new patent leather shoes on my feet. But my stomach had the same deep flutter I felt when I saw pictures of earth from space.
Once or twice a year, when my family went to synagogue, I would trace the Hebrew letters in the prayer book slowly with my fingertips. I’d been taught how to pronounce them but not what they meant. I wondered about the resonant, oceanic depths I sensed beneath those syllables.
Now, from where I stand beside Molly’s mother, I can look through the Torah Hut window and see the sacred Hebrew books lining the walls inside. Their covers are mahogany, with golden letters that seem to flicker slightly. These books were written by men who lived centuries, sometimes millennia, before me, but instead of mysteries, they feel like old friends. I bought them in Jerusalem and have carried them with me ever since, boxes and boxes full of them, move after move until finally settling out west. Here they mingle with feminist commentaries, poetry books, histories of Goddess worship, and herbal healing manuals.
Molly smiles up at us as warm water pools around the soles of her bare feet. Now that it’s happening, we all begin to relax.
I dip my finger in a small jar of olive oil, glowing golden in the sun, and dab the thick wetness on Molly’s feet and forehead, as the ancient priests were once anointed in initiation. Welcome, Molly, I say, to the beginning of being a woman.
Molly’s mother scoops a handful of petals from a bowl we’ve gathered — rose, calendula, lavender. Following her lead, I grab a handful for myself. Though we haven’t planned it, when our eyes meet, we both raise our handfuls of flowers above Molly’s head. We open our fingers and they flutter down, handfuls raining down on her like rainbow confetti.
Peach pink, pale cream, deep red, bright orange, light purple petals fall on her hair, her T-shirt, floating on the water around her ankles. Molly swats a few petals back at us and we laugh.
Now Molly’s ritual has taken on its own life; it happens through us, almost of its own accord. Naomi and I take turns giving her daughter blessings. Between them, we pause, looking at the glistening blackberries ready to fall from the vine, the cherry tree beginning to drop its leaves.
“Molly,” her mother says, “I want you to love your body, to know how sacred it is. I hope you always find the strength to ask for what you need. To take care of yourself. To have adventures. To know that you are strong and beautiful. To know your tradition is here for you to inherit and change, to leave and return to.”
She takes her daughter’s hands. ”To always know,” she says, ”that I love you.”
Now the water is scattered with petals, a soft mosaic around Molly’s ankles. We recite the prayer giving thanks for being alive to see this day.
I’m not a rabbi. I don’t know the word to describe what I am: Bat mitzvah tutor with hippie add-ons? Ritualist? Jewish priestess? All I know is that as I move into my forties, people ask me to make up rituals for them – a friend going through a divorce, another trying to conceive a child. And I say yes.
I am one in a long tradition of women ushering other women into the mystery. It’s different every time. I’m always a little scared. That’s what it means to stand in front of the unknown.
Molly, her mother and I each place a red M&M in our mouths: a sacrament of blood and sweetness. In silence, we let the sugary chocolate dissolve, tasting the slight strain of bitterness as the food coloring streaks our tongues. Wind rustles the bamboo. We hold hands, three women in a backyard facing the mystery, which resonates around us and through us.
“Mazel tov,” I say. “Welcome to the journey.”
Alicia Jo Rabins is the author of Fruit Geode and the creator of Girls in Trouble, a musical project about the women of Torah.