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Bat Mitzvah... Then What?

October 29, 2008

It was like climbing a mountain in high heels, those weeks leading up to the bat mitzvah service. After a year of intensive study for our daughter Rachel and planning by our family, the Shabbat arrived. At our Reform temple, bar and bat mitzvah families participate on Friday night and at the Torah service on Saturday--then we celebrate.

I'm sure every family struggles with the myriad of details to "produce" a bat or bar mitzvah celebration for their child. For us it was no different and probably more fraught by the subtext of being both an interfaith and interracial family.

Rachel with her maternal Great Uncle Gerry (Gerhardt), a Holocaust survivor, who had his Bar Mitzvah in Germany in 1934. Photo:  David Fishbein.

The framework for this stellar event had been evolving for years. We started by learning about Judaism as a family in an interfaith program (Pathways), graduated to becoming members of a Reform synagogue and reached a new level of religious experience when I, a Jewish adoptive mom of two girls from China with a Roman Catholic husband, studied for and became a bat mitzvah in 2004.

Just a few years later, on May 10, 2008, our daughter Rachel Xiaoqin (Rahel) was called for the first time to read from the Torah and be a teacher for our congregation. Her Torah reading (Leviticus 24:10-23) contained the powerful directive: "… as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him."

Rachel, from her 13-year-old perspective, grappled with the meaning of these words in her world of school and friendships. For her mother, the words reverberated in my family's history of loss, of decimation by the Holocaust. Pervading the joy of Rachel's being called to the Torah that perfect Saturday morning was the significance, especially for our family, of L'dor v'dor: passing the Torah from generation to generation.

Our invitations had an image of the Torah and the Hebrew words L'dor v'dor followed by "In the tradition of yesterday and with the promise of tomorrow." This interfaith/interracial family was passing the Torah to our next generation. When we selected the invitations, Rachel told me that she absolutely did not want her Chinese name, which is her middle name, printed on it. I respected her choice and think it has various origins: her Chinese name--Xiaoqin--is not easily pronounced in English and she didn't want people asking her how to say it. Also, becoming a bat mitzvah was, I think, a ritual for our daughter who considers herself a Jewish person who is Chinese, not a Chinese Jewish girl.

Rachel's choice not to use her Chinese name led us to add my family name--Molnar--as her middle name along with her father's last name of Italian origin, for the booklet distributed at the Torah service. Quietly, however, Rachel brought a reminder of China to the service with her. She happily displayed, to me, her bracelet of tiny pink pearls that she received as a gift during our trip to China, the summer before her bat mitzvah. Inside, I cried with joy at her making the Chinese connection to this Jewish lifecycle event; outside, I smiled and told her it looked lovely.

In 1995, the year Rachel became our daughter, American families adopted more than 2,000 children in China, mostly girls. When we adopted our second child in 2003, nearly 7,000 American families traveled to China to adopt children. Many girls adopted from China are being raised in Jewish families and the bat mitzvah ceremonies have begun! In anticipation of Rachel's bat mitzvah and to reintroduce her to her homeland, before she became a typically disinterested teen, we traveled to China in 2007. An important stop on the journey was a visit to Kaifeng, an ancient city with a history of Jewish residents and culture.

Braiding our daughters' identities as Asians, as Jews, and as third generation children of Holocaust survivors in an interfaith family with a Roman Catholic father of Italian origin--deep breath--is our desire and our challenge as parents. At religious school orientation this year, the school's director, in response to a question about interfaith families, responded that rather than being exclusionary to non-Jewish spouses, "We thank them for raising Jewish children."

With the support of my practicing-Catholic husband, we have made our synagogue membership a significant part of our lives: attending services, participating in temple events and always making it clear that Rachel's becoming a bat mitzvah would begin a new era in her religious education.

For Rachel's bat mitzvah year, our temple had some 50 children and about half are continuing their Jewish education in eighth grade. The hard work will be over, I told her, encouraging Rachel to attend classes after becoming a bat mitzvah--it's like a club. Religious education has been a haven from public school for Rachel. With temple membership more diverse than her school, she has always been accepted by her peers and encouraged by teachers to be inquisitive and express ideas. A friend who sent Rachel a thank you card for a bat mitzvah gift wrote: "Can't wait to see you at Jew school."

This year religious school curriculum has changes which are enticing to the post B'nai Mitzvah group. Rachel was asked to select two classes. She chose one class about Jewish spirituality and meditation and for her other class, picked "AIM a Jew" which explores Judaism's role in such common kid places as Facebook, blogs and wikis. "Does the Torah still have a voice?" the class description posits and it will focus on, "the topics of relationships, fashion, music, tattooing, piercing, decision making, celebrities and more from a 21st century Jewish perspective." A social time for pizza and chat begins the Wednesday evening program for 8th graders, which is when the 9th through 12th graders attend too. All quite appealing, I'd say, to an almost 14-year-old.

Last May, after Rachel read from the Torah for the first time, her father and I had a chance to give her our blessings from the bimah. My teary talk, which my husband read when emotions overwhelmed me, concluded with these words to Rachel:

"Judaism is more than a religion of thought and belief," wrote a Jewish scholar. "It is a way of being in the world … our way of being in the world." In Pirke Avot, rabbis said: "The world depends on three things: on Torah, avodah and g'milut chasadim--on Torah, on service to God, and on righteous deeds." Hold onto to these pillars of Judaism, Rachel.


Now that you've accomplished becoming a bat mitzvah, it's my prayer that you will love and learn about Judaism for your entire life.

Today Rachel told me the temple youth group is planning a fall trip to a Reform Jewish camp and she'd like to go … it's $180. Of course, it has "18," that's chai – life. Now, if we can just find that money in our already over-extended budget…Rachel will have a weekend to enrich her Jewish experience and to answer my prayers.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Hedi Molnar

Hedi Molnar, a writer and editor, lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. She is a second generation Holocaust survivor. Her family belongs to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.

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