I knew bat mitzvahs were a bad idea. I told my husband this in 2001, about 20 minutes after we returned from the hospital with our two new daughters and he said, “My parents want to know when the baby namings will be.”
I like to think of the baby naming as a “bris for girls,” a custom created by Reform Jews rather than God and therefore, in my mind, totally optional. So, over babies crying, I hollered as best I could—given the fresh incision across my abdomen—that there’d be no baby namings. Then, as I struggled to attach a newborn to each of my nipples, I added, “And there’ll be no bat mitzvahs either. So tell your parents not even to ask.”
But they did ask, and so did my husband, who typically asks for nothing.
“Why do you care so much?” I’d question.
Like Tevya, he’d answer, “Tradition.” Then he’d add, “Why do you?”
Bogged down in double-armed breastfeeding, I was unable to articulate the rub and lost the battle of the bat mitzvahs. But now, as the big day approaches, I think I can.
This evening I will preview the montage which, for those who aren’t Jewish, is Hebrew for a ten-minute movie showing the newly adolescent child’s every move since birth.
Like the baby naming, it’s a modern creation. However, unlike the naming, it’s not optional. When I asked my daughters whether they cared about having a montage, one said, “Oh, you have to have a montage.” The other explained that the montage is to be displayed at the party, with sections on Friends, Family, Camp and Activities and popular songs so the kids can sing along.
I’m not opposed to my children learning about Judaism. For a third grade school project, one of my daughters chose the topic of immigration in Chicago. While my husband created the mandatory diorama, I went with my daughters and parents on a trip to Chicago’s West Side. Our day culminated in a stop at Manny’s Deli, a religious experience in and of itself, where we ate corned beef and listened to my parents’ stories about their childhoods and how their own parents came to our city. By the time we finished, my daughter understood what she was reporting on and why it was important as a Chicagoan, an American, and a Jew.
The bar or bat mitzvah was meant to mark the beginning of Jewish education, the point at which children are ready to tackle the big-ticket, meaning-of-life questions. Instead they ask, “Where’s the party?”
My kids have celebrated at the Willis Tower and at a nightclub, where the front windows were wallpapered in images of the bat mitzvah girl dancing in booty shorts. I struggled to connect the dots between this display and the girl’s learning to read from the Torah, just as I struggle now to connect my go-ahead on the bat mitzvahs to the carnival we’re now sponsoring. Although I started with moderate intentions—an ice-skating party at the public rink with my daughters’ best friend and her family—it has snowballed into a 150-friend affair, where kids will skate and dance with a DJ on ice when they are not spray-tattooing or helping themselves to “light up” cotton candy.
In many ways, the teaching of any religion is synonymous with the job of parenting itself. It’s the task of instilling identity. Since much of Judaism is embedded with culture and tradition, it seems that much of raising a child to be a Jew is an osmotic undertaking that happens naturally and imperceptibly over the course of childhood so that by the time the child asks, as my daughter did the other night, “Why does everybody hate the Jews?” she accepts, as fact, that she is one. This, to me, is parental success. L’dor va dor—from generation to generation—at its best.
I wonder what my children are taking away from all of this. And, what we are actually celebrating. It’s not that my kids haven’t accomplished anything, but let’s be real—they have only the basics under their belts. They know some blessings. They can sing along at services. They’ve got a handle, I hope, on “Thou Shall Not Kill.” But by Good Book standards, these are requirements. The Torah commands Jews to pass on the ways and the values of Judaism from generation to generation. The education isn’t optional, it’s mandatory. So why do we celebrate as if we’ve done something exceptional? The bar mitzvah ceremony itself is a lovely age-old religious rite of passage. But I’m not sure when it morphed into an excuse to throw a Hollywood-style after-party.
What I should have told my husband years ago and what I should explain to my children today is that the celebration for reaching intellectual maturity should fall in line with the one for reaching physical maturity. My daughters should get a hug, a kiss, and a slap on the cheek for good luck—something akin to the fanfare Jewish tradition bestows on a girl when she gets her first period. And later, when they do something truly remarkable like win a lifetime achievement award or manage to organize their own daughters’ bat mitzvahs, they can have a montage.