Culture and Tradition–My Bat Mitzvah

“Today I am a woman,” was once the opening phrase spoken by many 13 year old Jewish girls at their coming of age ceremony, a Bat Mitzvah.  For centuries, the phrase was more gender biased as only young men participated in this rite of passage, known for boys as a Bar Mitzvah. The joke among my contemporaries who reached puberty in the 50s or 60s, was that the first lines of  a nervous young man’s speech  to friends and family might come out as,  “Today I am a fountain pen,” in acknowledging the traditional bar mitzvah gifts, and forgetting the solemnity of the rite of passage itself.  Today the idiomatic mistake might sound like this: “Today I am  an iPod, an x-box, an investment bond,” but it all amounts to the same thing—today I am grateful for the gifts I have been given. But what of the “coming of age” event itself?

Perhaps it is because I was 51 years late in having a Bat Mitzvah that the spiritual aspect of this ancient tradition was so profound for me. Though rather long passed the age of adulthood, the ceremony in which I participated with 17 other mature Jewish adults  on December 8, 2012, meant so much more to me than I suspect it would have had I completed it at age 13. At my age, the preparation itself held deep meaning and I was able to consider what and how I would participate, without parental expectations. Only I had expectations for my role and I was able to surpass them due to the loving support I received from my classmates.

I hadn’t felt I’d  missed anything when at age 13 I knew I was  not having a Bat Mitzvah because it was not part of the tradition in which I was raised.  I even equated the idea of a girl participating in the ceremony as merely being competitive with the boys, not progressive and enlightened. It seemed those that had a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony in a synagogue, then had huge indulgent parties to celebrate.  Little did I then believe that any child of 13 was truly an adult man or woman, but the party aspect was very real and compelling.

However, I came to the decision about 15 years ago that one day I would like to have a Bat Mitzvah as I saw the learning opportunity that it provided my 3 children, and I yearned for them embrace the traditions of my ancient people, and our customs and beliefs. It began to mean something more with each stage of the children’s lives, and the idea grew within me that they should come to love what I cherish and to understand and pass on values that have come to me from past generations. How to transmit values and culture is perhaps the greatest challenge of parenting.

Each of my three children did learn the necessary, if minimal amount of Hebrew scripture, chanted from the Torah, write and delivered a teaching or sermon, and publicly thanked friends and family for the gifts. I felt their experience replicated what I knew, but could not assure me that my children felt as I do about being Jewish. I didn’t in fact know what it should feel like or what their learning had been.

At age 63  I had the opportunity to join with a group of adult learners who wished to experience a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and so began the year’s journey with 15 women and 2 men, aged 34-72, born Jews, Jews by choice, some with Jewish school education, and some with little or no prior formal Jewish education. We were all thirsty for the learning, the comraderie, the mysteries of the sacred service of Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We expressed different reasons for enrolling in the program, but we all seemed to share the desire to complete something special, crossing a threshold to Judaism, to becoming more Jewish, a better Jew or “joining the ranks” of the Jews.

I think it means all of these things and more. Rites of passage generally come with certain life cycle events, and this one is identified with youth and the transition to adulthood, to responsibilities, to commitments, to lifelong learning, and to the passing on of a culture. For the adult learners, it was the fulfillment of a dream, a purpose, a vision. We too were agreeing that we were taking on new responsibilities and but of a different order. We were soul mates, classmates, and even room mates when we shared a weekend at a spiritual retreat. We learned songs together, practiced our Hebrew chanting, studied one small portion of a Biblical reading that would bind us together forever, as it was the one linked to the date of our special event, our communal B’nei Mitzvah.

In class we were reminded of what we already knew, we raised questions, found new meanings in small rituals, learned new rituals with significant meanings, and collectively planned the event we would celebrate with our most immediate families at our collective rite of passage. We planned and prepared and, parsed texts and probed ways to get the most from the experience, ways to support one another, ways to enrich the day, and ways to avoid conflicts and problems.  Imagine planning a birthday party for 18 people who share a date, but have very divergent interests, talents,  and norms about how things are to be done. Yet all wanted a meaningful, participatory experience, in which each person would be special, the whole would be wonderful and the event perfect.

All of this I share in writing, not because I am a Jew celebrating a common Jewish ritual, something performed by every girl and boy, but to share the lessons learned from this experience. There are many, and I will encapsulate only a few for I now know that over the remainder of my life, I will interpret and re-interpret the many lessons learned from my Bat Mitzvah and most of all, I will be sustained by the experience at age 64 that I could not have imagined at age 13, would have been so deeply rewarding. Here is what I learned:

Life’s transitions are enabled by being demarcated and celebrated.

Friendship is the best support one can have on any journey.

A journey is to be treasured for the lessons learned, as much as for the end goal.

A common purpose enriches any event.

Sharing learning is a blessing and one that means different things to different people, so listen to the views being expressed.

Becoming an adult is a process that continues throughout one’s life, not at a moment in time.

Taking up a challenging new task or learning is very rewarding and one is truly never too old.

So, though each of us has our own path, our familial and cultural practices and beliefs, we can all find value in traditions, in community, in challenging ourselves. Age is no barrier to learning.

Have a Happy and Healthy 2013 and cherish your loved ones, hold them near and dear!



About modcpresident
I grew up in Calgary, where I completed a BA at the University of Calgary, then travelled and taught in Kenya and the Canadian Arctic during the heyday of Trudeaumania, hippie travel and social experimentation. I settled in Vancouver to complete a Master of Social Work degree at the University of British Columbia, and stayed another 8 years. After graduating I was a Social Planner and eventually became the Executive Director of the Social Planning and Research Council of BC. Ontario March of Dimes recruited me in 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons and the 30th anniversary of the agency. It has grown from a budget of $5m in '81 to $100m in 2010. Services have expanded drafmatically. We incorporated a non profit housing corporation in 1992 and a national charity in 2001, and since 2006 the latter has operated as March of Dimes Canada. We own and operate several properties that provide accommodation and independent living services to 77 people in 4 municipalities and will add another property this year. Two other exciting non profit entities have been incorporated in my 30 years (yes, it has been 30 years!) and we expect to hold our first fundraiser in the US this year and to initiate our first service south of the border also. My role as President and CEO continues to be that of creating a vision, fulfilling the mission and developing strategic plans to meet an increasing demand for services from people with disabilities and their caregivers. This is achieved through direct service, advocacy and peer programs. On a personal note, I live with my 17 year old daughter and two cats, and enjoy their company a lot. My two adult sons are doing interesting exploration in their own lives and I am intrigued with how they are progressing. In my spare time, I have various volunteer roles on several non profit boards and committees, and enjoy creating programs for building awareness of diversity and disability. I think it has become true for me that youth is, while not "wasted on the young," something that I appreciate more with age. Adventures are physically more challenging for me now, so they have to occur in new dimensions.

6 Responses to Culture and Tradition–My Bat Mitzvah

  1. drizgroup says:

    Very nice! Sorry I was not able to post the photo earlier.


  2. The lessons learned are so universal and we sometimes forget to reflect on life and follow our beliefs. Congratulations on your Bat Mitzvah and all the best in the year ahead!

  3. Gary Magarrell says:

    Blessings dear friend and thankyou for sharing this great experience with us. Indeed we must mark these critical moments in life as we continue to grow as a child of God. Best wishes from sunny Australia and happy new year.

  4. Mazel Tov on your Bat Mitzah, and on your commitment to lifelong learning. Thanks for sharing this experience.
    Enjoy your next journey

  5. kevin loberg says:

    Congratulations Andria and what a beautiful example for your kids. Something which they will take with them for the rest of their lives. Mazel Tov!

  6. kevinloberg says:

    Congratulations Andria and what a beautiful example for your children. As they travel on their respected journeys through life, I imagine that the experience, memories and lessons from your bat mitzvah will become more and more valuable, and sacred, to each of them. 🙂

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