Bar/Bat Mitzvah Half Century Later

Rabbi David Bar Mitzvahby Rabbi David J. Cooper

A lot has changed in the 50 years since I celebrated becoming bar mitzvah on May 30, 1964, a few days after I turned 13 on the Jewish calendar. The anniversary has spurred my thinking about the many changes of the last half century, and especially as they are reflected in the ways we celebrate this coming of age rite in our evolving tradition.

Only one of the girls from my class at Hebrew day school who attended that service had a shul celebration in which she marked her coming of age. My older sister hadn’t had one. As a matter of fact, the very first bat mitzvah celebration had only been 42 years before the date of my service. But in the 1960’s, most Jewish girls were still not celebrating such a service. Today, in most non-orthodox synagogues, young women are celebrating every bit as much as young men are. I would not have predicted that. Nor would I have predicted that so many of the officiants of these services today would be women rabbis.

Changing Expectations
But even among boys, the ceremony has evolved in the last five decades. For example, what does the celebrant usually chant? In Conservative and Orthodox circles, the boys were expected to chant at least a very small segment of Torah, but the full haftarah, a reading from the rest of the Hebrew Bible that was associated with that morning’s Torah portion. After all, it was easier to learn how to sing the haftarah, which was chanted from a book with vowels and the musical trop printed right on the page, as opposed to the Torah parchment, which lacked these aids. But it seems that today more youth have come to chant from the Torah scroll than from the haftarah. Back then, in Conservative circles, if girls chanted anything at all, it was haftarah or a segment of it, and usually not at the Saturday morning service. Also, girls who engaged in this rite did so at age 12 rather than 13.

Most of my local Reform synagogues neither had bar nor bat mitzvah, but rather an annual confirmation of the whole class on Shavuot.

My Service
Having grown up in a mixed Orthodox, Conservative and secular family, mine was an Orthodox service. My father, who had passed away a few years before, had been a lay rabbi and cantor, and I was expected to carry some of his legacy. So it was understood that I was to chant not only from most of the full Torah parasha as well as the haftarah, but I was also expected to be the cantor of the service. The cantoring part was rather easy, because I knew Hebrew and had been attending Orthodox as well as Conservative services for as long as I could remember. I actually enjoyed the year and a half of prep that I did, mostly to learn the Torah and haftara with my adult cousin, Isaac, who served as my teacher. The delving into every prayer in the Orthodox Shabbat service became the basis for my appreciation of the liturgy and it became the first poetry that I memorized. It has stayed with me all these years and lies behind all of the liturgical writing I’ve done, especially at Kehilla.

From Set to Customized Service
Four years after my celebration of bar mitzvah, Arthur Waskow wrote the Freedom Seder, which was printed in Ramparts Magazine, of which I was an avid reader. Seeing a social-action haggadah printed in a radical journal shook me up, because it signaled to me that I could interweave my Jewish interests and my political activity. But it also told me that I could use my familiarity with the liturgy to create customized services to meet the real spiritual needs of the moment. An early example of this was in the mid-70’s when, on a mimeo machine, my bar mitzvah student and I rolled out a prayer booklet for his socialist bar mitzvah service. Well, it turned out that many other people were also using their mimeo machines and then photocopiers, and then their laptops, to create new prayer service books. And so today, in many Jewish spiritual communities and at bar and bat mitzvah services, we find a wide variety of variations on the prayers, reflecting the spiritual sensitivities of people in the 21st-century. I would not have expected that in 1964, when the only choice we had was which mass-printed siddur to use.

During these 50 years, the Reform movement phased down confirmation, and more and more adapted bar and bat mitzvah. In some circles, the affair became an elaborate show of wealth, while in other circles,simplicity and spiritual depth was more encouraged, as we do in Kehilla.

In 1964, there was no idea of an orthodox bat mitzvah service. Admittedly, it is still uncommon, but the pressure to mark a girl’s coming of age has reached into the orthodox community, where some have experimented with different rituals to reflect the young woman’s coming into her responsibility for mitzvot. To some extent, this reflects the changes in the education of orthodox women, some of whom have attained as high or higher level of text mastery as ordained orthodox men. Some of these women serve as advisors to Jewish law tribunals. And at the Jewish Institute of Riverdale and at the Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale in New York City, a few such women have been ordained as Rabba or Maharat, a near equivalent to Rabbi.

30 Years of Kehilla Bat/Bat Mitzvahs
And in Kehilla’s 30 years, we, too, have evolved. Of course, from the get go we treated boys and girls the same. Rabbi Burt had already departed from the common practice of the time, and dispensed with didactic teaching of a full class. Instead he instituted a system of one teacher with only two students to work creatively on exploring their spiritualities.

In those days, we had no building, no sanctuary of our own. We rented space for Saturday morning services, which were mostly when we were celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah – less than ten times a year. Different families rented different locations. There were no chavurot; each family was on its own. Like a wedding, almost all the attenders were invited guests with few Kehilla congregants, other than close friends, in attendance. Each family turned out its own full prayerbook which took them and the teachers a lot of time and effort. A few of those services were led by Rabbi Burt or by me, a lay leader, but most of the services were led by the teacher, and the music varied, according to whomever was the song leader, sometimes someone unfamiliar with Kehilla. Frankly, the services were nowhere near as participatory as they are today.

Today, our program has each bar/bat mitzvah family within supportive chavurot. The class and their families have many creative opportunities to interact before any of the services begin. We do it in our own building with our own prayerbook (which will be improved during the next period of time). And even so, each service is unique, and each family prints a small supplement that further customizes the service for that morning’s gathering. And each bar/bat mitzvah service is an affair to engage both invited guests and the whole congregation.

On My 50th
About two months ago, I noticed that my parasha, BeHaalot’cha was coming up on June 7, coincidentally the same weekend as the opening for the art show at Kehilla of my needlepoints along with Lili Artel’s fabric arrangements. So I decided that I’ll celebrate the half-centennial by cooking for and sponsoring the kiddush and chanting from my Torah and haftarah portions—but in Kehilla style,which has been my evolving tradition for three decades.


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    August 25, 2014

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  2. Barracuda
    September 8, 2014

    I was actually at your weekend Bar Mitzvah at Gartner’s Hotel 50 years ago,
    I’m the son of your cousin Isaac who taught you your Bar Mitzvah lessons, and am
    touched that my father’s time with you inspired you so.

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