“Where are you heading?” a friend asks.
“I’m on my way to pick up Naomi from her bat mitzvah lesson.” I reply. The response is silence and a slightly confused look. “She’s going to read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah and she’s started studying for it. You know, I’m American and all, and I grew up in a Reform synagogue; I read from the Torah at my bat mitzvah and so my daughter is going to do it, too.”
Afterwards, I kick myself for sounding so apologetic, as if my eccentric immigrant ways somehow needed justification in Israel.
Indeed, my daughter Naomi has begun studying for her bat mitzvah. Every week, I shuttle her to and from the home of a friendly cantor who is instructing her in the ways of the Torah. I’m really proud of her. She’s an ambitious girl who participates in two school choirs — and aspires to equal her older brother who impressively chanted his whole portion at his bar mitzvah. She’s not content with a symbolic memorization of a short passage. She’s learning the complex rules of chanting, and she is determined to impress her audience of friends and family, male and female together. And then afterwards, it will be time to proudly celebrate.
In the American Jewish world in which I grew up, such a plan is totally conventional. But here in Israel, it still feels daring. Despite the inroads that the Reform and Conservative movements have made and the slow but steady evolution of feminism within Orthodoxy, a girl standing and chanting from the Torah before a full congregation in a synagogue is still viewed as radically out of the ordinary — an oddity.
To be sure, in secular Israeli society, bat mitzvahs are cause for celebration and do not go unrecognized. But the celebrations usually resemble a more meaningful version of Sweet Sixteen party — a buffet, music, dancing, festivities, speeches, a slideshow. Judaism and spirituality rarely play a role, and the synagogue has nothing to do with it.
This is not the case regarding bar mitzvahs. Even many of the least observant Israeli families insist on their boys having some form of ceremony in a synagogue — not doing so feels as un-Jewish as skipping circumcision.
But while secular Israelis may not view women reading from the Torah as forbidden, they tend to view it as utterly unnecessary. A few organizations, recognizing the need to inject meaning into the rite of passage have stepped into the breach and created bat mitzvah programs designed to inject meaning into the bat mitzvah passage, without involving religious ritual. The most active group, Matan, operates “a value-based program which focuses on providing positive role models for Jewish girls” across Israel, and has successfully marketed the concept abroad as well.
In the Modern Orthodox world in Israel, the tradition of bat mitzvah is now recognized, but how it is marked varies. Some merely throw a party like their non-observant counterparts. In Orthodox feminist circles in Israel, it has slowly become acceptable for girls to read from the Torah — but strictly in an all-women’s setting that is not the synagogue — usually a library or a private home. My niece belongs to the synagogue of the Orthodox feminist pioneer Leah Shakdiel. At her bat mitzvah Shabbat service, when it came time for the Torah reading, the women carried the Torah out of the main synagogue into the library. A few men were allowed inside, behind a mechitza at the back of the room; it was important that there was less of a minyan.
My niece’s ceremonial aliya to the Torah, however, is still an oddity in Orthodox Israel, as my daughter’s will be in the non-Orthodox Israel. How ironic that the experience of a Torah-centered bat mitzvah — which so solidified my Jewish identity and commitment at a young age, and set me on a path that led me to Israel — is such a rare commodity in the Jewish state itself.