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The Bat Mitzvah Gift

April 19, 2010

This article originally appeared in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix with the title "The bat mitzvah gift or, 'Because I said so'." Reprinted by permission..

I did not have a traditional Jewish upbringing. For one thing, my mother wasn't. And for another, we moved every couple of years, which made belonging to a wrapped gift in blue paper with purple ribbontemple--even one that would have us, in all our half-half glory--tough for my younger brothers and me.

The Jewish world we knew began and ended in our own home. It was the candle-lit table in the dining room on Friday nights and the stories my father told about his childhood in Germany. It was the Sunday New York Times and Zero Mostel singing "Tradition." It was a small world, and it seemed to contain only the five of us.

Like most parents, I wanted my daughter to have what I had not. In my case, that meant a sense of being grounded in a particular community and tradition. I wanted her to feel that she belonged. And that's why I joined a temple.

Ironically, that didn't happen until after I'd divorced Anna's father. A Reform Jew with two Jewish parents, he had grown up as part of a large Jewish community, belonged to a synagogue and had a bar mitzvah. But he hadn't been interested in joining a temple as an adult. Anna was 5 when we split up, ready to start Hebrew school, and so she did.

I loved everything about Hebrew school. I loved the songs and the prayers and the snacks. I loved the Hebrew book with its colorful pages. I loved the sound of the language.

There was only one problem. Anna, the person who actually attended the classes, was not as keen.

When she was little, it was the studying she complained about, and being bored. Now, as she approaches adolescence, it's all about the interruption of her free time. "My friends don't have to go to school on the weekends," she says sulkily on Sunday mornings.

I have pointed out to her on more than one occasion that her friend Cece, who is Catholic, most definitely goes to religious school on the weekend, as well as to church several times during the week besides. But the solipsism of the preteen means that there is only the injustice of her own situation, to the point where the prospect of Sunday morning begins darkening her emotional sky some time on Friday.

I ask her how she'll feel when her friends from Hebrew school have bat mitzvahs and she doesn't. I remind her that her aunt on her father's side opted not to have a bat mitzvah and, as an adult, regretted the decision. But you may as well say to a child, "When you're a dinosaur, you're going to regret this," as try to get them to imagine themselves at any time in the future, let alone as actual grown-ups.

As a last resort, I tell her that if she really wants to drop out of Hebrew school, we need to meet with the rabbi first, because it's a big decision. But she's no dummy. "I'm not going to talk to Rabbi," she says. "He'll make me feel like I have to stay. So I'll just stay."

It's not the ideal attitude. But it will do, for now. And frankly, I think there's a part of her that's grateful I'm laying down the law. We still have the mornings where I hear myself say, "You have to go because I say so." Or, "Do you know how lucky you are that you get to do this?" - a phrase guaranteed to make any kid resent anything.

But I run the risk of her resenting the experience, and resenting me, because I know that she is getting something that will sustain her in years to come.

I saw it when our beloved dog lay dying and she sang the prayer she'd learned at temple, which comforted both of us. I see it in her sense of right and wrong and how people ought to be treated. I see it in the pride she has in her own Jewish identity, even when others try to make her feel ashamed. And, I hope, I will see it in her face the day she stands on the bimah, looks out at the people who love and support her, and takes her rightful place in the world as a Jewish adult.

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." 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." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") 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. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Deborah Susser

Deborah Susser is the associate editor of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix and a regular contributor to KJZZ, the Phoenix NPR affiliate.

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