My upcoming adult Bat Mitzvah is now a few days less than two months away. Several of you have asked me to write something in response to the question that is the title of this post. I appreciate the question. It’s an important question, I suppose, not just about the uses of my time, but about what is deep within me that would make this a priority. I have thought a lot about it and I have both more to say than I can write in one post, and in other ways I do not know or at least cannot articulate yet some important aspects of the answer. But I will write this one and hopefully a few other posts about what I have been thinking about in answer to that question.
The actual day of the Bat Mitzvah (October 30, 2010) will be almost two years to the day from the day I first set foot in the office/study of my Rabbi for a meeting that he had posted asking people to come to a meeting if they wanted the opportunity to “explore” the possibility of preparing for an adult Bat or Bar Mitzvah (October 27, 2008). I joke about having backed into this to some extent. I went to that meeting. I was interested, having not had a Bat Mitzvah as a young girl, and because we had just joined the congregation and I thought, “how could it be anything but good to go spend a couple hours in a small group with the rabbi, getting to know him, talk to him and connecting with other members of my newly chosen congregation?” As it turned out, after the meeting was over, we started talking scheduling for upcoming meetings and what books to buy. I thought, “hey, wait, what happened to the whole exploration part? The part where I get to consider do I want to do this or maybe not, or maybe yes but maybe not now? ” But the meetings got going and finding no good reason to not go, and thinking for the first many months, “I can always drop out later…” I went. I enjoyed the time in his study enormously. I enjoyed the reading I did. Two months from now will be the culmination of what turned out to be a lot of hard work, some soul-searching, some routine plugging away at something. It will be the culmination of a project where part of the process of doing the project has been actually figuring out why I was doing it. It was like I couldn’t make the decision about doing it without the experience of actually doing it. The why is complex and multifaceted. I’ve been a resounding yes, on the if question for some time now. I don’t view the Bat Mitzvah itself so much as the end of something but rather as the beginning of something– a skill that can take me to places I think I want to be at different times in the future, a giving to myself the opportunity to take my membership in my community more seriously. A quiet putting my stake in the ground about something I’ve known since I was about 14 years old– that it was very significant to me to be a Jew and that given the choice to un-choose it, I would choose being a Jew again; I do choose being a Jew and casting my lot with the Jewish people and all our great strengths and all our deep foibles.
I have a lot to do and to learn and some things to write for the Bat Mitzvah itself. Being unemployed has not left me vast hours of free time, as one might assume. In fact on many days, quite the opposite. Nonetheless I have finally really ramped up my Hebrew study, which is fortunate, interesting, and satisfying (those three things are not necessarily synonymous, but that is how it is happening for me).
So other than having walked into a meeting not knowing that I couldn’t just not show up to the next meeting without telling someone why, I am studying for and doing this Bat Mitzvah for my daughter. Well, for me, but doing this for my daughter, is how I found my way to do this for me. Even this is hard to explain, but here is how I can put it. When we were preparing to adopt I was crystal clear in my own mind and with my partner, that it was very important to me that we raise our child as a Jew in a Jewish household and with a Jewish community around her or him. My wonderful partner, raised a Catholic, but no longer a practicing Catholic, agreed without much waffling. We already had a Jewish household. By which I mean all the ritual observance in our household before and since my daughter, is Jewish observance. We aren’t part Jewish and part Christian. We aren’t Jews who just have a Christmas tree because my partner did have one growing up. The household is a Jewish household and my partner comes to services and knows and does Jewish observance alongside of me. She has always done this and always chosen to do so, freely, on her own. Although she has not converted to Judaism and doesn’t consider herself Jewish (nor do I), from the earliest days of her relationship, she took my Judaism seriously. She took the long historical and current oppression of the Jewish people seriously. And she took on, what I think was in her own mind, a serious role as an ally to me as a Jewish woman and to Jews everywhere. And one, but by far not the only way, she has done this is to have with me, a Jewish household. Her clarity and dedication to this is right, but also quite remarkable in the very liberal society in which we live– a society that lacks a certain kind of rigor. Her dedication to this is worthy of another post all to itself, or many. But that, as I often say, for later.
I will try to write even more about this later, but mine and my sister’s history is something like this. We were born to two Jewish parents. I was born just 10 years after the end of the Holocaust and my sister, 15 years after. Our parents had two similar but very different experiences with Judaism growing up. The effects of class and money shaped their parents’ different relationships to Jewish community life, assimilation, and other things. But both our parents were unquestionably identified as Jews and so were we, growing up. My mother was raised in a tight, interconnected Conservative Jewish congregation and community in St. Louis. Her mother kept a kosher kitchen/household. My father was more working class– from a kind of lapsed Orthodox family– which is to say as far as I can tell, they didn’t practice as consistently as my mother’s family did, but what they knew– what was Jewish to them, was simply and plainly, Orthodox Judaism.
One thing about being in my 50’s as opposed to say, my 30’s is that I have a much longer view of certain things. For reasons also related to class and classism, my father, who moved our family out of the city and to the suburbs, got mad about something classist that was directed at him when he joined a suburban Jewish congregation when I was a toddler. And (as Jews who have been, as a people, thrown out of so many places, are sometimes wont to do) he “tore up his membership” right then and there. They didn’t join a congregation for about 18 or 20 years. Now in hindsight, this was a rather long, but finite spat with organized Judaism in my father’s lifetime. One that anyone who knew him could have foreseen would come to an end soon. But it so happens that his spat with congregational affiliation coincided with all the years my sister and I were growing up and we didn’t have the benefit of either that long view or of growing up in a congregational community. So for our childhoods, we were Jews with all of the Jewish oppression and internalized oppression, but without a warm Jewish community, a Jewish home base, a formal Jewish education or all of the lovely songs, stories, traditions and people surrounding us. We missed the things that you get not just from your own household, but from a larger community. We were in exile from the relatively small (Jewish) community that carried on somewhat in exile from the larger, dominant Christian community of the US. It was lonely and without a frame of reference. Confusing. I fault no one for this neither my father nor my mother, but it took both my sister and me a long time to sort out our own desires and needs for a larger Jewish community.
So when my daughter was born, and even before, I knew I wanted to raise my child as a Jew and one thing I knew for sure. I knew that one thing that brings joy, that makes the harsh and complicated easier, is a community. A Jewish community if you happen to be a Jew. My beautiful daughter as it turned out, would have a complex life– a life with the complexities of adoption, of racism and being part of a mixed race family, of having lesbian parents, white parents and older parents. She is part of a mixed heritage household though we live as a Jewish household. As it turned out she is also embracing the joys and complexities of having a brother to whom she is close but who doesn’t live with her. She handles all of this with her usual great depth of intelligence, with aplomb and with style– her own style. It is actually not as complicated as I thought.
So I thought about her and about Judaism and I thought the one thing that is a must is a community. I wanted her to have all that and to do some of the things that give you credibility in a community– a Bat Mitzvah for starters. I didn’t think at that point of the meaning of being able to read Torah– I just thought of the membership that is conferred with that ritual. And then when she was about 5 or 6, having been to several Bar and Bat mitzvahs of her cousins, who are young people who are very important to us, she began to declare that she didn’t want to have one. She didn’t want to do it. And I couldn’t make her… Did she have to have a Bat Mitzvah?, she would ask. I would say, yes, I thought she did have to have one– but that we would keep discussing. And then came the clincher. “You didn’t have one.” she started saying.
I do have a policy that I will generally not force her to do anything that I have not taken on myself. And because she has a long memory and a grip on certain things as fierce as a terrier dog, I decided I’d better get going on my own if I was to have any leverage pushing the issue with her. What I foolishly didn’t anticipate was that this wasn’t just the prerequisite for forcing her to do something. But that it would be good for me to really become part of a community. To tackle a very serious piece of study. That there would be great joy and great personal depth as well as a sense of accomplishment in learning to read Torah. That this would be deeply meaningful to me, just as I believed it would be for her. That it would be good for her to see me do this, precisely because I am doing something good, valuable, meaningful and hard.
So here I am. Two months away. With more to learn and more to be revealed to me about the meaning of this undertaking. But it is coming clearer and clearer. As is often the case, in my case, and for many of us parents we think we are leading and guiding them, but ultimately if you open your mind and heart, it is unclear who is the leader and who is the follower. What is clear is that I am very much the student, the learner here. And I feel very lucky that it is so.