On the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ritual: Two Books Explore Its Impact

By Rebecca E. Kotkin


Review of Bat Mitzvah: A Jewish Girl’s Coming of Age by Barbara Diamond Goldin (Puffin Books, 139 pp., $5.99) and Whose Bar/Bat Mitzvah is This, Anyway? A Guide for Parents Through a Family Rite of Passage by Judith Davis, Ed.D. (St. Martin’s Griffin, 283 pp. $13.95).

A Bat Mitzvah celebration on par with a traditional Bar Mitzvah is a relatively new innovation. Years ago, due to restrictions on a woman’s proximity to the Torah, girls were not permitted to be on the bimah (stage from which the service is conducted) along with the scrolls of law. That pretty much meant that a Shabbat (Sabbath) morning service was off limits to girls. If they marked their Jewish coming of age in any way, it was with a watered-down version on a Friday night–no Torah, no first aliyah (being called up to the bimah).

A lot has changed for women in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, and their participation in Shabbat ritual has exploded. Consequently, girls are now welcome, in most congregations, to celebrate their Bat Mitzvah the same way a boy celebrates his Bar Mitzvah. They will be called to the Torah for their first aliyah, perhaps even read from the Torah itself. They will chant a Haftorah (prophetic teaching), give a Dvar Torah, or explication of the reading, and maybe even lead a portion of the service.

As with any new experience, it helps to know what to expect before beginning the process. Barbara Diamond Goldin’s book Bat Mitzvah: A Jewish Girl’s Coming of Age is a wonderful introduction for girls as they start preparing for this major life ritual. It combines an historical view of the event with practical information about what to anticipate. Anecdotes from Bat Mitzvah girls and their teachers illustrate how girls can personalize and enjoy their special day.

Women have frequently been lost in the study of history, especially Jewish history. Accordingly, Ms. Diamond begins the book by providing a context for girls as they take their place in the ranks of Jewish women. She traces Jewish women from the matriarchs through scholars, activists, writers, artists and spiritual leaders, highlighting many little- known stories of bravery and commitment. She explores women’s roles from biblical times through the middle ages and into the modern era. She encourages girls to recognize the contributions of the generations of Jewish women who preceded them and made their egalitarian participation in Jewish ritual possible.

The second half of the book walks through the Bat Mitzvah itself, from the preparation to the participation in the service and into the celebration of the joy of the day. It outlines a range of approaches to study and enhancement of the ritual. Acknowledging that much of the service is dictated by the tradition of the Bat Mitzvah’s congregation, Ms. Diamond gives an excellent overview of the procedure and how the Bat Mitzvah fits into it. She includes many examples from girls who have become Bat Mitzvah and continued to find spiritual fulfillment either through ritual or leadership or works of tzedakkah (charity). She encourages girls to view the day as one important step in finding their place in their religion.

Taking a completely different tack on the day, family therapist Judith Davis, Ed.D. explores the family dynamics and how they are influenced by the Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration. In her book Whose Bar/Bat Mitzvah is This, Anyway?, Dr. Davis examines the stresses this rite of passage places on the family and parents of the Bat Mitzvah celebrant. For families embarking on the “year of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah,” this book is an invaluable resource.

One of Dr. Davis’s main points is that as parents approach the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they can no longer ignore those issues they have been avoiding. As is true for families during any life-cycle event, the realities of aging parents, family discord and religious differences demand to be reckoned with and will not disappear. Although many families would prefer to continue avoiding these problems, to a large degree, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah cannot proceed without a measure of reconciliation. Dr. Davis encourages parents to talk about these issues with all the parties involved to arrive at a reasonable accommodation.

Dr. Davis continues to explore the ritual as it relates to the changing family dynamics of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. As a coming-of-age celebration, the day symbolizes a change for the entire family, not just the 13-year-old child. As they become parents of an adolescent, the parents must acknowledge their own maturation and changing family structure. By following a number of families through the preparation, ritual, celebration and aftermath, Dr. Davis illuminates many of the emotions and meanings hidden in the day. Filled with wit, good humor and sensitivity, Dr. Davis’ book begins to prepare parents for the range of emotions they can expect to face as their child becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

Dr. Davis offers suggestions for specific problems such as intermarriage and divorce and encourages partners to talk through the myriad issues that arise. Reminding parents that their children will learn from how the adults handle the situations, she explains how every decision is an opportunity to teach the values you wish your young adult to take into his/her teenage years. Her anecdotes illustrate how families enhanced and grew from this family ritual. It is a tearful and joyous journey, and Dr. Davis provides numerous suggestions of how to enrich the experience for everyone.


About Rebecca E. Kotkin

Rebecca E. Kotkin is an attorney and the mother of twin daughters and a son.