This years Mitzvot Unplugged relates to Bar and Bat Mitzvah. I am taking the opportunity to discuss more general issues as well.
“What do you do at a Bat Mitzvah anyway?” That is the question that my daughter asked me recently. We had been invited to two Bat Mitzvah celebrations that day. As my daughter is approaching the traditional age of accepting mitzvot, she and we had been thinking about celebratory aspects as well as possible ritualistic aspects of marking this event.
No Set Celebration
For a young Orthodox girl, this is not so straight forward. Although Orthodox young women have been celebrating reaching Bat Mitzvah for one or two generations, sometimes three generations, there is no one set way of celebrating. There is no packaged ritual as there is for Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah over the years developed from a drasha/dvar Torah to reading the Torah and or haftorah in shul and often some sort of party or kiddush. But for Bat Mitzvah, some young women choose to lein, some young women choose to have some sort of party, some choose not to celebrate at all. There is no one set method.
Those two Bat Mitzvot we attended, were completely different. Both were on Hanukkah, but one was a laid back communal traditional tefilla, albeit with instrumental hallel with meal, dancing, singing and dvar torah. The other was a party with donut decorating, some speeches, a meal and shtick. Neither were quite what my daughter had in mind. Not because she did not enjoy both events, but because they did not feel like her. She has some clear ideas of what she would want to do and what she would not want to do, both from a celebratory and acknowledging the religious aspects of the event.
Because there are fewer customs related to Bat Mitzvah, there is much more choice regarding what can be done. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. As a mother who did have a Bat Mitzvah celebration, I do have some thoughts on some of what it should look like. When I was approaching 12, I was given a choice. If I wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah celebration, I would need to do a learning project. It took me a while to decide, but I did. And I learned on my own, with some assistance in the way of loans of resources from a local female scholar.
I am glad I did that. It is something I want to pass along.
With my daughter, we have been discussing learning towards her Bat Mitzvah for a while. Initially she wanted to do a siyum mishnayot, and we started when she was nine. However, at a certain point, I suggested that we choose a different topic. I saw the difficulty in some of the concepts. After a discussion about when a child is cognitively ready for mishna and gemara, and thinking long and hard, I was not sure it was a good idea to continue. I want her to really enjoy the learning. Not be turned off to learning mishna (for a discussion of girls and talmud Torah, see Ann Gordon’s insightful guest post on the topic.)
Thinking about it, I figured she should choose a topic that would give her the opportunity to explore concepts in Torah that really spoke to her. I have been suggesting another topic, which I think she would enjoy more, and I think she does like the idea. For this idea, I am trying to encourage a mix of learning together and her learning on her own (with assistance as needed).
Moms and daughters- the tensions
I am not sure whether I should take a more hands off approach. Having discussed bat mitzvah expectations with other moms, I know that I am not the only one who does not want to push our own desires onto our girls. Our girls are not us and we do want to empower their religious selves.
I have asked different moms about how young girls are or have approached learning. I have heard about girls who have done a siyum of all tanach, on mishnayot, who are working towards a siyum mesechet gemara, or learning about shabbat or hallah. Some are learning how to lein and some are participating in their local bat mitzvah program, like the one Matan and Drisha run.
I have yet to hear about girls learning with their mom’s towards a siyum mesechet gemara. Usually they are learning with their dads. Discussing this topic with various moms, I have in fact heard from some moms that given the tense mother-daughter dynamic that often starts at around the time when our daughters enter their pre-teen years, many prefer to learn with their fathers. Or many of their moms prefer to have their daughters learn with their fathers. I feel that these issues merit further thought.
It has become more common for bnai mitzvah to do a chesed project. We have various chesed projects in our Mitzvot Unplugged series, such as the program at Melabev. Where we live, often the school organizes this. We have a few ideas about projects, but nothing we want to share publicly yet.
So what do you do at a Bat Mitzvah?
I think it will be another hundred years or so before there is a more set celebration, and a clear answer to “what do you do at a bat mitzvah?” What does stand out for now? Finding something fitting for our daughters to grow into themselves and into their contributing selves. I would love to hear other perspectives on this topic.
For those interested: JOFA has an interesting journal on this topic. I particularly liked Rabbi Samuel’s article about preparing for the Bat Mitzvah with young woman and her family. Howard Blas’s article about making special needs Bat Mitzvot meaningful is important and meaningful. The post-bat mitzvah, Tzipporah Machlah Klapper’s piece about choosing to do a siyum on seder Nezikin could help young women. In addition, Daniel Rothner from Areyvut, who kindly contributed a post about Mitzvah clowning to Mitzvot Unplugged in the past, contributed about Areyvut Bnei mitzvah programs. Another great resource is Matan’s anthology Traditions and Celebrations for the Bat Mitzvah on the history of bat mitzvah.
I would love to hear your stories about this topic.