(March 13, 2012 / JNS) In the 90 years since Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s oldest daughter, Judith, became the first American girl to mark her Jewish coming-of-age in a synagogue, the bat mitzvah celebration has become an accepted practice in many synagogues.
Honoring this history, the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Moving Traditions non-profit have collaborated on a new traveling exhibition, “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age,” which is on display through April 27 at The Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at The JCC in Manhattan.
“In less than a century bat mitzvah has gone from being so radical to so mainstream—so much so that my own daughter, when told that her grandmother could not have a bat mitzvah and that I could have one only on Friday night, said, ‘That is so weird!’” says Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions.
The exhibition grew out of a project initiated by Moving Traditions board chair Sally Gottesman to collect personal stories called “Bat Mitzvah Firsts” through an Internet survey. This meshed well with the organization’s goals.
“At Moving Traditions, we look at how Judaism needs to continue to change in each generation to reflect how women and men live their lives today and how we want to live our lives going into the future,” Meyer says.
The new tradition of bat mitzvah was propelled by a generation of enterprising young women, supported by their parents, rabbis, and synagogue ritual committees. “In some ways, it is a forward trajectory when you stand back,” says Meyer. “But when you look up close it is not exactly linear. It is in fits and starts as Jewish life changes over time.” For example, the young women who had the first Saturday-morning bat mitzvahs were often not permitted to return the next week to the same bimah for an aliyah.
Many of the early bat mitzvahs were held on Friday nights, when there is no Torah reading, whereas today in most Conservative and Reform congregations, bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are virtually identical. In traditional congregations, a girl often delivers a talk, or she may chant Torah in the presence of women only; others in Orthodox circles either just hold a party for the bat mitzvah girl that is not connected to Shabbat, or do not celebrate the bat mitzvah at all.
To create an exhibit, Meyer and Gottesman sought advice from staff at the Philadelphia-based National Museum of American Jewish History, and the museum agreed to partner with them. As the idea grew and developed, they decided to expand the survey data by recording 11 oral histories, under the guidance of documentarian and Moving Traditions board member Lori Perlow, who co-curated the exhibit with Josh Perelman, a historian at the museum, and Rabbi Carole Balin, professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
“Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age” is not only about a coming-of-age ceremony for girls, but more broadly treats the process by which individuals help shape and change ritual. “It’s an amazing story of how Jewish life changes and how gender is often at the center of change in Jewish life,” says Meyer.
As the exhibit came together, the curators learned that the development of bat mitzvah was parallel to progress in the women’s movement. Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah came two years after women got the right to vote, and the real flourishing of the bat mitzvah across denominations came in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, along with the development of feminism.
Another unexpectedly surprising tidbit arose in the personal stories contributed through the survey. “There is some kind of correlation between women pushing for a bat mitzvah and becoming important figures in American life,” says Ivy Weingram, who managed the exhibit for the museum, citing Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and many rabbis as examples.
For Meyer, one of the most moving personal stories was that of Marjorie Lehman, now associate professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who observed her bat mitzvah in 1976 in Hewlett, NY. Meyer says, “She writes about her longing to kiss the Torah and touch and hold it the way boys could. She was so invested in Jewish life, but was not allowed to have a bat mitzvah.” When their synagogue refused to allow the bat mitzvah, her family supported her by borrowing a Torah, and she had her aliyah in her backyard.
The exhibit has no actual artifacts, but rather images of artifacts and graphics from the women who completed the survey and some from the museum’s collection. One of Weingram’s favorite museum artifacts from the exhibit is a letter Mordecai Kaplan sent to Abraham Joshua Heschel, congratulating Heschel on his daughter Susannah’s bat mitzvah and alluding to Kaplan’s other three daughters: “You probably know, Dr. Heschel, that I inaugurated the Bat-Mitzvah celebration with my oldest daughter Judith in April 1922. She was the first of the four reasons for my doing that, the other three also being girls.”
Meyer emphasizes the importance of engaging with Jewish history. “If we don’t understand where we’ve come from, how do we understand who we really are? And this helps us imagine where we might want to go,” she says. “Many of the girls longed to participate in the Jewish community, and by taking this risk and stepping out as a bat mitzvah pioneer, they were in fact helping to create the Jewish community in which they wanted to participate.”
In parallel with the New York exhibit, the National Museum of American Jewish History will be marking the 90th anniversary of the bat mitzvah through special programming and a national effort to collect and preserve bat mitzvah artifacts.
“The last panel asks visitors to contribute their own bat mitzvah stories and memories,” says Weingram. “It is through these personal stories that the history of bat mitzvah in America unfolds and is brought forward in the museum.”