Bat Mitzvah Battles With My Atheist Husband

By Jennifer North


We stood under the huppah of my ancestors 15 years ago, a Jew and an atheist, looking out toward our future together. From that point forward, I made all the decisions about the religious and spiritual life of our family, and that’s how I liked it. Until…

Molly North
Photo by Barbara Warren

As we sat down together to begin planning for our daughter’s bat mitzvah, I quickly realized that the next year would be filled not only with negotiations with my daughter about when and for how long she would practice her Hebrew, but also with my husband as we navigated through the mucky waters of our differing priorities.

Before that, it had been easy. As I did run-throughs of our seders, he would make matzah ball soup. But now it was time to dig deeply into the family’s budget. I worked for a nonprofit and money was tight. For every $100 we spent on the bat mitzvah, that was $100 less we had for the air conditioner that would soon break, or to repair one of our aging cars. And we had always made all major financial decisions together.

By the time we sat down for our initial discussions, I had already researched local venues. I knew that we could get the most for our money by holding the party at a restaurant. We wouldn’t have to pay separately for the space, and we wouldn’t be charged for every napkin, fork and spoon. My husband agreed with my assessment. Food was a requirement. I was thorough in my research and he was comfortable with my judgment about atmosphere. I would take him to the venue before signing a contract, and we would discuss menu choices together. “Whew, maybe I dreaded these conversations for nothing,” I thought.

As we discussed the guest list, we knew it could easily get out-of-hand. While we had few intimate friendships, I was on the synagogue board and my daughter seemed to have ever-widening social circles herself. We set some ground rules: we wouldn’t invite anyone that the bat mitzvah girl didn’t personally know, and she wouldn’t invite anyone that she didn’t see outside of school unless we were reciprocating for another affair that she had attended. Since she is one of the youngest in her class, that upped our total by about 20.

Our next discussions focused on the “peripheral” items. That’s when it started to get very tense in our household. My husband didn’t think we needed a professional photographer… or a DJ for that matter.

And as we starting talking numbers, I began to seriously question whether or not we would be able to do this in a way that I would be happy with. His priority was to get it over with as painlessly as possible. My priority was to ensure that our values were infused into every element of the day and to host an event that would be meaningful for everyone involved.

We settled on a $5,000 budget, but neither of us was happy with it.

The North Family
(L-R) Dad Matt and daughters Molly and Letty at Molly’s bat mitzvah. Matt was less than enthusiastic about spending a lot of money on Molly’s bat mitzvah. Photo by Barbara Warren

He wanted to spend less. I thought I would need more. As I sharpened my pencil, my family stepped in, offering to pay for discrete items that I felt were important but he was unsure of. My sister paid for the photographer. My parents, the music. And that art school education sure came in handy as we made the centerpieces ourselves.

As we got deeper into the planning, my husband began to seem resentful. He was uncomfortable with the materialistic expectations that we were catering to. He was disconnected with my daughter’s preparation. For him there was no direct link between celebrating her accomplishments and her blossoming womanhood and the dollars that were quickly disappearing from our bank account.

As the tension mounted, I resolved to redouble my efforts to create meaningful moments for everyone important in my life, especially my husband. So now it was time to get down to the real business.

Since we belonged to a Reform synagogue, Matt was able to join me on the bima for each honor. But I decided that every element would be purposeful. Rather than have Matt join me for the blessing before the Torah, an honor that is encouraged, I instead opted to have Matt and his father open the doors of the ark as the rabbi took the Torah out and presented it to the congregation. Since Matt was not permitted to recite the Hebrew blessing, nor would he have wanted to, it seemed more genuine for him to support Molly and me by opening the ark for us to take out our Judaism… an act that is true to the spirit of his role in our family.

Together, Molly and I looked at the service and made thoughtful decisions about how to maximize each opportunity. We put aside all of the expectations, and instead chose to focus on the way that the Jewish tradition allows us to create and appreciate sacred moments. My 10-year-old daughter played her violin to bring us out of the silent prayer. We chose our own readings to integrate into the service. We offered our guests an expanded booklet that included Jewish art, supplemental readings, poetry, biblical quotes and a guide to making the service meaningful.

Rather than rely on the typically hokey and excruciatingly long candle-lighting, where the bat mitzvah girl calls up her “top 10” in rhyme for a photo op, my husband and I lit candles as a memorial to those who could not be with us, including his mother whose name Molly bears. We then acknowledged the light that had been handed to her by those who came before.

We ended the day with a small Havdalah service at our home to mark the end of Shabbat, separating the holy from the ordinary. Led by a close family friend, we closed the day with candlelight, and it didn’t cost a penny.

We are now entering into the planning stages of bat mitzvah number two. And Matt has sarcastically shared how much he is looking forward to another year of conflict. But this time he is solely referring to the ceaseless back-and-forth that we now all recognize as a necessary part of the day’s banter. “Did you study your Hebrew?” I ask. “No,” goes the reply. “Do it now,” I say. “I’ll do it in a little while,” is the stock answer. And on and on it goes.

Was Matt moved by seeing his daughter in full bloom, by lighting a candle for his mother, by the outpouring of love we received from everyone around us? Like a glacier. While undetectable to the naked eye, I am certain that when he looks back on that day, he does so with a smile and a funny warm feeling inside his chest. We shared another beautiful moment together… one that we will both remember as a highlight of our life together.


About Jennifer North

Jennifer North is director of communications for JCCs of Greater Philadelphia. She is a board member of Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., where she lives with her husband and two daughters.