I might have been bat mitzvah when I turned 13, but in truth, no such ceremony was available to me as a daughter of Orthodox parents, and so I waited 57 years before I finally stood on the bima to observe my spiritual birthday.
Under the guidance of Rabbi Avis Miller at Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, several dozen women in my cohort completed two years of study and preparation, among them my own daughter. We came together from many backgrounds and levels of observance, and for some of us, no previous religious training at all. We were adult women of all ages and experience, and in Behalotecha, our Torah portion, we found particular meaning for a group whose individual journeys had been as varied as ours.
Behalotecha begins with an injunction of the Lord to Moses: “Speak unto Aaron, and say unto him: when thou lightest the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the candle stick.” We are told that Aaron was instructed to arrange the wicks in such a way that they formed one luminous cloud. In our diversity it was fitting that we be representative of that divinely inspired menorah, each of us a discrete flame, creating together a single blaze in reflection of God’s holy light.
My own pilgrimage began long ago. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the years we lived in exile in Jackson, Mich., 65 miles from where my extended family huddled in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit, I came to have conflicting feelings about my Orthodox upbringing. We made compromises in Jackson. Though kosher meat arrived weekly on the Greyhound bus, packed in dry ice and fuming when my mother opened the brown paper wrapping, though we assiduously avoided mixing milk and meat in carefully calibrated never-varying menus, we had no shul to attend, and, anyway, my father found it impossible to stay home from the shop on Shabbat, his busiest day of the week. We made up our own rules. I played with my paper dolls on Saturday, but avoided the sin of cutting them out. Reading a schoolbook was okay; writing out arithmetic sums, forbidden. I dutifully ate tuna fish or egg salad sandwiches at Kresge’s lunch counter, but in the end, it was a BLT and a Coke that marked my first apostasy. The Saturday afternoon matinee inevitably followed. Without the watchful eyes of religiously observant relatives, the impulse for straying was always out there. More than that, I brought home the concept of the “melting pot” from school and indoctrinated my parents. It was important to file away at our individual differences. Jewish or not, we were Americans; that’s what mattered.
Summers and major holidays I spent with my grandparents in Detroit. I learned mendacity then. The girl scout troop my mother let me join and then made me quit because it met in a church: I could tell that story, but I wouldn’t risk Zayde’s scorn by mentioning the Sunday school at Jackson’s Temple Beth-El to which my parents reluctantly sent me. To Zayde, Reform Jews were worse than goyim; they were supposed to know better. So I dutifully tore the toilet paper into little sheets on Friday afternoon and on Saturday went to synagogue, where I sat with Bobe in the balcony with the other females, and later, I ate cholent for lunch, lucky for a piece of succulent meat among the potatoes because I was a favorite of hers.
By the time we moved back to Detroit in 1943, I was ready for a new “religion” to replace what I had never really had. I joined the Labor Zionist Movement, and I don’t know what my uncles considered a bigger sin: the fear that I might bring down the capitalist system or that I’d pre-empt Moshiach’s right to carry us on his wings to the Holy Land. Later, I married, and together with my husband, raised four children in Washington. Slowly, slowly I began my spiritual journey back to Judaism.
On a Shabbat morning in June 2000, I read from the Torah scroll in the presence of family and friends. Behalotecha tells us that our people were enjoined to keep the Passover in its appointed season. But those who might be on a journey far off, they were given another opportunity to celebrate on another day in another month. Like the traveler who could not observe the Passover during its appointed days, so I was for many reasons unable to become bat mitzvah at the traditional time. Like my bat mitzvah sisters, I was a woman who had been on a journey, and now, together, we were able to celebrate the sublime blessing of the second chance.
Faye Moskowitz, English department chair at George Washington University, is the author of four books; her most recent is the memoir “Peace in the House” (Godine, Boston, 2002).