Need a quickie Bat Mitzvah
January 4, 2010 9:49 AM   Subscribe

I need suggestions on having a Bat-Mitzvah for my kid with the least amount of religion and religious school possible.

We're atheists who were brought up as Jews. We do enjoy the culture, so-to-speak, but the thought of going down the religious school route with my kids makes me very uncomfortable. With that said, my 10-year-old daughter is interested in getting Bat-Mitzvahed and based upon her interest (she went to a Jewish preschool that started the whole ball rolling) we enrolled her in religious school which she goes to once weekly, misses often, and doesn't put in the "work" . Frankly, her buds from school go and she like to hang with them. The religious school has already noted her frequent absences and has offered extra instruction. We really need to fess up about our (the parents) expectations. We are comfortable with no Bat Mitzvah, but the grandparents are freaking out saying one must be done. They're atheists, too (he-he), but have that strong cultural need for the ceremony (If you're understand).

Is there anyway to do a BatMitzvah Lite? Something that doesn't require a Haftorah reading? We the parents would love to go to Israel for a memorable vacation, stop by the Western Wall, chant a couple of words and say she got the Bat Mitzvah done. Possible?
posted by teg4rvn to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
IANAJew, but I would tend to think that this would be a question better asked of the Jewish community of which you happen to be a part rather than the interwebs, even webs as informative as AskMe. You're asking if there is a comfortable way of fulfilling obligations imposed by your community. Only you and your community can answer that.
posted by valkyryn at 9:55 AM on January 4, 2010

I am not Jewish in the least, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but would you/the grandparents be satisfied with some sort of rite of passage that you made on your own? It seems like that would also be more appropriate, given that she doesn't want to put in the work. You could still have a party and all, but this seems like a good opportunity to really think about what this day means for you and your family.

When I was in eighth grade, I had a lot of friends who were getting Bat Mitzvahed. I didn't think I was complaining about it that much (more "why didn't I get invited?"), but one day my mom and a trusted older female friend whisked me off to a nicer restaurant, read a few poems, and presented me with some pierced earrings made with semiprecious stones. I didn't have pierced ears at the time, and I said something about that because I'd always been told that it couldn't happen until I was 16 or something, and my mom said, "We'll have to see about that!" and took me to the mall right after we left the restaurant.

If you wanted to get some sort of semi-spiritual component into it, you might check into a local Unitarian church. Given their history with commitment ceremonies, etc. that don't necessarily have legal meaning but represent a lot for the people involved, they could probably help you find something to fit your needs.
posted by Madamina at 10:01 AM on January 4, 2010

Absolutely possible from my standpoint. I'm a rabbinical school dropout (realized I was an atheist) but I still participate in cultural events. I've written various essays about the cultural and personally meaningful aspects of Rosh Hashana and tashlich, Purim, and Pesach.

If you'd like, mefi mail me and we can talk about some ideas to make the event meaningful for your daughter, you and the grandparents.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:02 AM on January 4, 2010

I was Bat Mitzvah'd in my living room, with my grandpa serving as, I don't know, rabbi? MC? He lead the thing and I read my Torah portion and a sermon based on it. Then we all ate lots of food. It was small--just family and close friends. I think it was about as non-religious as you could get and still have the shell of a religious ceremony. We're a very secular (atheist) but very psyched for the tradition type of family.

You can check out what the Torah portion is for the time period and talk it through with her, do some analysis of what it's about and ask her if she'd like to present something--a sermon, an art project, a skit, a monologue, I don't know, whatever--about the themes discussed and what she thinks the relevance is now for her life. My portion was about tithing and I couldn't figure out what the hell it was, let alone how it was at all relevant in 1993. So, I talked to many adults, interviewed people and wrote a "sermon" on the modern-day themes I was able to excavate from the scripture and how they were meaningful and important to me and my community. I also chanted in Hebrew, but you can easily nix that. Maybe this is a way to do something official, that "counts," but also feels comfortable to you all?
posted by Rudy Gerner at 10:09 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, to back up what amro said--I have a friend, we'll call him Fred, who, growing up, had a rabbi as a neighbor. Fred's family is Jewish, but very non-practicing. One afternoon when Fred was about 13, the rabbi stopped him on his way home from school and invited him into his home. Thinking he was going to help and old man with his groceries, Fred followed his neighbor inside. When he got inside, the rabbi plopped a yarmulke on his head, said "repeat after me" and then rattled off a bunch of prayers in Hebrew. Being a polite young man, my friend stumbled through, repeating what he heard and when he was done, the rabbi said, "Great, you're a Bar Mitzvah."

Done and done.

So, yeah, I think that technically you just need to utter a phrase or two and you're golden.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 10:13 AM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

My cousins and niece and nephew did community projects to go along with their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, something that proved that they were becoming adults and giving back to their community. I thought that was great, and that is something you could do without a formal tie-in to a synagogue, I'm sure.
posted by pinky at 10:14 AM on January 4, 2010

We the parents would love to go to Israel for a memorable vacation, stop by the Western Wall, chant a couple of words and say she got the Bat Mitzvah done. Possible?
This is definitely possible. Even somewhat common.

Things you should know: the Western Wall is set up like an Orthodox synagogue. That is, it has seperate sections for men and women, and it's generally expected you follow those rules.

Also, many people misunderstand the meaning of the ceremony. Bar/Bat Mitzvah is literally just an age thing, a birthday. At that age, you get the right to do things like chant the Torah blessings, and the traditional readings and such are just the celebrant publically doing some of the cool new adult things they're now allowed to do. It's really more like getting free drinks at a bar on your 21st birthday than like a wedding ceremony. You don't lose any of the new rights / responsibilities by not having a ceremony. There are no magic words that need to be said.
posted by kickingtheground at 10:37 AM on January 4, 2010

for what it is worth:
I managed, somehow, to get bar mitzvahed (I am now 80), and am a non-believer but cultrually conencted. My two older kids did not get the ceremony, and this is odd because my first wife had a rabbi father, a rabbi uncle, a rabbi grandfather. But my second wife, not very religious in her upbringing decided with me to have the ceremnony and the study for my son and for my daughter.

Since, our kids and we no longer belong to the temple, feel connected nonetheless, and are glad we did what we did when we did it, knowing that being a non-believer does not mean you are a non-Jew...
in sum: why not do the wschool thing and then decide to be what you and your kids want themselves to be? That way, best of both worlds experienced and compared.
posted by Postroad at 10:42 AM on January 4, 2010

Amro's got it right. If you can get her called to the Torah for an aliyah, that's technically her bat mitzvah. You can do it in a way that won't require too much Hebrew study--just talk with her, find out her expectations, and then meet up with your rabbi and discuss options.

This, by the way, is how I became a bar mitzvah.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:44 AM on January 4, 2010

I had an atheist Bar Mitzvah. We sent out invitations to a "coming-of-age" party, my parents rented a room at the Columbia Faculty Club, and I made a speech about how botany could save the world from starvation.

I got presents, everyone got a party, I didn't have to learn Hebrew.
posted by musofire at 10:46 AM on January 4, 2010

Excuse me if I rain on the parade a moment. This is kind of like the religious version of asking around for a good online Ph.D. diploma mill that you can get your degree at in a few weeks. Don't be surprised if the real Ph.D.'s think your question is at at best naive, and at worst offensive, too.

A Bat Mitzvah is a Jewish religious ritual, and it's traditionally (if not by strict requirement) a lot of work -- but you seem to want to completely remove both of those requirements from the definition of the term. This is...unwise.

If you're atheists and just not comfortable with religion, then stick to your guns and don't have a ceremony you don't believe in, as part of a religion you don't believe in. Attempting to do it so ridiculously half-assed just comes across as entitled and offensive to those of us who do think these rituals mean more than just "chant[ing] a couple of words and say she got the Bat Mitzvah done", as you so charmingly put it.

Maybe your daughter could write a long paper or work on a project that explores a theme from Jewish history and compares it to the present day, or she could raise money to help refugees fleeing the genocide in Darfur, or she could volunteer at a food pantry once a week every week for six months, or something along those lines. Tikkun Olam, and all that. And then when she's done, maybe she could give a presentation about her work at a small party for the family and friends. Hand out the flexible glow stick necklaces, do the YMCA and "Feelin' Hot Hot Hot", wheel out a birthday cake at the end, the whole she-bang. Kid happy, parents happy, community enriched, planefare to Israel saved, and one fewer family chugging through what they see as an empty ritual. Everybody wins! Well, grandparents might be a little miffed, but this is your kid, not theirs, and they can always refer to the event (to their friends) as a Bat Mitzvah, even if you don't.

But if your daughter is going to have a real Bat Mitzvah, in the sense that that a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is traditionally understood as a passage to committed Jewish adulthood, she needs to get serious about religious school and start studying now and not miss any more classes. Maybe she doesn't realize the character of religious school for her and her friends is about to change drastically in the next year or two. It's not going to be hang-out time anymore, really soon now. And at some point, if she keeps missing too much school, they won't let her have a Bat Mitzvah; even super-Reform shuls have standards to uphold. She is going to have to learn to chant Haftorah, and most places ask that girls learn their Maftir these days too. Also, she'll have to know cold at least five to ten other important prayers, in Hebrew, for which she would be leading the congregation. (I went to Hebrew school three times a week and I still had extra tutoring for mine, plus help from my father, who coincidentally had the same parsha as me for his own Bar Mitzvah 25 years earlier.)

Can she commit to that? Can you? I've grown up attending a wide mix of Reform and Conservative friends' and relatives' Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and this is the bare minimum any of them would require of their students (even at some notoriously super-Reform places, like Temple Emmanu-El in NYC and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in LA). I also have non-religious cousins who went to Israel for their thirteenth birthday and refer to the event as...going to Israel for their thirteenth birthday (but our grandparents refer to it as their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, because that's what makes them happy).

Whatever you all choose -- and your daughter really needs to be on this decision too -- you should choose soon: most nine- and ten-year-olds I know have been assigned their dates already. This is going to be a long-term project in an explicitly Jewish religious context (and that does mean religion, not just culture) -- or else, a big birthday party that also had some community do-gooding involved. Stick up for your atheism or commit to Jewish Pubescence 101. Both are perfectly valid choices.

But please, don't attempt to split the difference.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:51 AM on January 4, 2010 [21 favorites]

We're atheists who were brought up as Jews. We do enjoy the culture, so-to-speak, but the thought of going down the religious school route with my kids makes me very uncomfortable. With that said, my 10-year-old daughter is interested in getting Bat-Mitzvahed and based upon her interest (she went to a Jewish preschool that started the whole ball rolling) we enrolled her in religious school which she goes to once weekly, misses often, and doesn't put in the "work" . Frankly, her buds from school go and she like to hang with them. The religious school has already noted her frequent absences and has offered extra instruction. We really need to fess up about our (the parents) expectations. We are comfortable with no Bat Mitzvah, but the grandparents are freaking out saying one must be done. They're atheists, too (he-he), but have that strong cultural need for the ceremony (If you're understand).

Speaking as an agnostijew who generally has no problem misappropriating religious traditions into new contexts, if your daughter wants a Bat Mitzvah in a synagogue (and in the synagogue that her friends attend, specifically), the appropriate answer is, go to Hebrew school and do the requisite work to have one. If she refuses to do that, or if you're genuinely uncomfortable raising your daughter with religious customs, it seems fine to discuss with her an alternative coming-of-age ceremony that is meaningful both to her and to you as a family, but she'll need you to go to bat for her with her grandparents. I also think you'll need to do some work to suss out what your daughter actually wants: does she want to feel accepted into the community of her synagogue? Does she want a big party? Does she want something to mark her as an adult? Even if the technicality is that she's bat mitzvahed at 12, I don't see what value that has in meeting your daughter's needs or desires--that might work to placate the grandparents (though honestly, I think placating them might send the wrong idea to your daughter about your beliefs, or lack of them, but that's up to you), but it doesn't really fulfill the cultural role that the ceremony has.

I say this because, while I understand and even agree that religious traditions can be meaningful in a purely cultural context, as they connect us with our family and denote the passing of time, it strikes me as disrespectful to those who are truly religious, and for whom such ceremonies have religious meaning, to take the time and the resources of what they see as a sacred place, and ask that they make numerous concessions for your lack of religious belief. In other words, I celebrated the solstice privately with my husband: I didn't go into a Catholic church and ask that they change mass for me to make it accessible and meaningful in a non-religious context.

Because of this, and in agreement with what kickingtheground says about the Orthodoxy of the wall, I'd also advise against the Western Wall idea. The religious status of women at the wall can be (to use the most value-neutral language I can) jarring to modern reform-Jewish sensibilities. You might want to read a little bit about the Women of the Wall, and you might also want to keep in mind that most Israeli girls don't even have Bat Mitzvahs.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:10 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Or, what Asparagirl said.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:11 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you (or the school) really explained the issues to your daughter? Does she understand the various points of view on the subject? Maybe she's old enough to think about what it really is that she wants from the ceremony, whether it's religious for her or cultural, what the consequences may be of the various options, what it means to her grandparents, and so on.

Then she can decide for herself whether she wants a formal religious ritual, or a coming-of-age party, or something else. And you can (hopefully) stand up for her choice to her grandparents.
posted by emilyw at 11:13 AM on January 4, 2010

I'm Jewish. I went to Hebrew School (and generally spent the time hiding Babysitters Club books inside my prayer book.....) but a lot of my friends didn't go to Hebrew School and also had bat/bar mitzvahs.

They "rented a rabbi" i.e. found a local rabbi who tutored them through their Haftorah portion and the prayers. I'm guessing there are retired rabbis where you live that will do this. Alternatively, you can go to Israel.

I'm not religious in the slightest bit, but I'm glad I went through the process. It was a neat (and big) accomplishment at 12 and something I'm still proud of, even though I haven't been in a synagogue in years.
posted by melodykramer at 2:40 PM on January 4, 2010

I thought favoriting Asparagirl would be enough, but I've been thinking about your question non-stop since I read it.

A Bar/Bat-Mitzvah is a coming of age ceremony. It's one of the first big steps into becoming an adult, and in a lot of ways, one of the most positive markers Jews have along the road to adulthood. The thing is, like a lot of coming of age ceremonies, there's work involved. It's facing the work, accepting the challenge, and meeting it that makes the person an adult, and the ceremony is what confirms this.

Even as a recovering Jew/apathetic agnostic, I have issues with using the community to serve as a backdrop for a meaningless (to you) ceremony, or as a way for your daughter to do what all the other kids are doing. The real point, though, is do you want your daughter's first step on the road to adulthood, something that could be a huge milestone in her development, to be full of corner cutting and easy way outs? Is that something you feel comfortable with your daughter learning at an impressionable age?
posted by Ghidorah at 3:05 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here is an option that might avoid hypocrosy:
Your daughter becomes a Bat Mitzvah automatically at age 12 in the sense of being old enough to be eligible for the religious responsibilities and privileges of an adult.

So, treat your daughter's Bat Mitvah as a fait accompli as of her birthday. Then acknowledge her coming of age by giving her a meaningful chance to learn about her Jewish heritage by taking a family trip to Israel. Don't bother with mumbo-jumbo at the Western Wall - after all she is already technically a Bat Mitvah. Instead of viewing the trip as somehow making her a Bat Mitzvah, view as an opportunity to act as a Bat Mitzvah by learning about her own heritage and the religion and culture of her people. (After all, study is one of the commandments (mitzvot) for a Jewish adult so learning about her religion and history is an appropriate action for a young woman who has just become a daughter of the commandments (bat Mitzvah)
posted by metahawk at 4:01 PM on January 4, 2010

I have a friend who's an Orthodox rabbi in a place without many Jews. He gets together regularly with the Reform rabbi there, and he once explained the difference between Orthodox and Reform thinking to me. For Orthodox communities, bar- or bat-mitzvah is something you are. It means "mature enough to be considered an adult for religious purposes". It happens with or without any ceremony, so the only obstacle to J Random 13-year-old-Jew having a bar-mitzvah ceremony is possible scheduling conflicts. They would be outraged at the idea of someone being excluded because he didn't go through enough classes.

In Reform communities bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies are part of the whole life cycle that ties people into the community. Because they're more significant, the temple gets to determine who can have the ceremony. Since they want kids to participate in the community and attend classes, that's typically what they demand. They would be outraged at the idea of someone getting to have the ceremony while not fulfilling his/her duties to the community.

Now, you're not interested in an Orthodox ceremony - especially since Orthodox Jews don't do bat mitzvah ceremonies well, perhaps at all. And you're not interested in being tied to a Reform community and have your daughter go through the hoops. So my suggestion is that you contact friends and family and organise something yourself, perhaps based around a trip to Israel (for the religious aspect) and some social work (for the community aspect).
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:58 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

If her grandparents want to celebrate your daughter becoming an adult part of their religious community, let them organize something with their religious community - an aliyah, a dvar Torah, a sponsored kiddush, etc. They could do this in addition to anything else she does.

If you want to celebrate your daughter becoming an adult in your concept of Jewish community or heritage, organize that. Study Hebrew with her and go visit Israel, study Yiddish and go visit Poland/wherever your family is from, study Jewish literature or philosophy or music or cooking Or whatever is meaningful to you about being Jewish that you want to share with her and do something to capture and celebrate that.

If she wants to celebrate becoming an adult in her religious community, which sounds like is her synagogue and Hebrew school, support her in participating in their process.

Any of these, or combination of these, or all of them, could be meaningful and important to you as a family and her as an individual.

If all you really want is a big party to invite your parents and friends to that visually resembles a reform bat mitzvah, that's possible too. But is that really what you want to share with your daughter about your relationship to her Jewish heritage and what, when push comes to shove, your own values and beliefs mean to you?

Honestly there is such a rich history of Jewish secularism, atheism, etc, it sounds like it could be a great family project for her bat mitzah, that could actually share something with her about your family's values and relatinship with Judaism and be meaningful to all of you.
posted by Salamandrous at 3:31 AM on January 5, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the thoughtful responses.

I think we'll have the sit-down with our daughter and see what she really wants (we were going to do that anyway). This was certainly never about the party; we told her 1-2 years ago that we would not be doing the whole hoo-haa catering hall, feeling hot-hot-hot experience, which she's always been cool with.

Sticking up for one's atheism sounds all well and good, but I'm not sure that it is a child's "cross to bear" in her community considering how atheists are viewed (i.e., subhuman). Frankly, she's a child who does not believe in the supernatural...but heck that might change and I want her to to come to her own decisions about these issues...when she's ready.

I guess we're more Jew-ish than Jewish.
posted by teg4rvn at 7:47 AM on January 5, 2010

I'm 16, similarly Jew-ish, and I didn't have a Bat Mitzvah of any sort. I 100% wish I had. I went to plenty Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, including one of a boy who considers himself a 'secular Jew' (his mostly centered around his awesome community service project, which was writing/passing a bill in our state legislature with help from a local politician creating a program to have a kids board to advise our state legislature. In addition, he had to go back multiple times to get said program renewed.). I can't remember how much religious stuff there was - there was some bible study involved but I think that was the extent of it.

I have attended Jewish summer camp (once) and tagged along with friends to a few events (that they ALWAYS ask me to go to). I never feel 'Jewish enough', though, and I always feel kind of out of place. I didn't do much of the religious school thing, though I did do a bit. I have the Jewish heritage thing going pretty clearly, but not much religious foundation. We celebrate major holidays with our grandparents, but that's the extent of it.

I guess my point is that she'll probably regret not doing something later, and it's a pretty adaptable ceremony. She ma ynot realize it now, but when all her friends have Bat Mitzvahs and she has nothing, it's not gonna feel awesome. It doesn't need to be a production, involve tons of tutoring, or be some expensive extravaganza. But, because she may regret it later (and I know technically you can have your later, but...) you should do it.
posted by R a c h e l at 3:36 PM on January 5, 2010

« Older Creative Inspire 5.1 speaker system for computer   |   Horny Cat is Trapped in the Bathroom Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.