NEWS FEATURE: Celebrating the ceremonies they missed when young

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ Battling a case of nerves as the ballroom of the New York Hilton quieted, Tillie Rice Siegel took her place on a raised platform and read from the Torah scrolls.

Then, kissing the fringe of her prayer shawl, the Englewood, N.J., resident made her way to the front of the room to complete the bat mitzvah.

Such coming-of-age ceremonies are commonplace for Jewish girls today. But, in Siegel’s case, the event was extra special. At 87, she was the oldest of 60 women celebrating bat mitzvahs past.

“It’s really wonderful,” Siegel said afterward, collecting hugs and “mazel tovs” from her daughter and other relatives. “I feel like I’ve really accomplished something.”

Having a bat mitzvah never occurred to Siegel when she was growing up on Manhattan’s East Side during the 1920s. Tradition for 13-year-old Jewish boys for thousands of years, the ceremony wasn’t performed for girls until modern times.

Literally “son or daughter of the commandments,” the bar or bat mitzvah is a formal reminder to maturing youth of the binding quality of Jewish law. Following the lead of the women’s rights movement, most Reform temples had begun offering the ceremony to girls by the 1960s, and Conservative and Orthodox synagogues eventually followed suit. Still, experts said, bat mitzvahs didn’t become very popular for girls until the 1980s.

“All we did was throw candy at the boys,” Sheila Kane said of her childhood in a Conservative congregation.

Kane, of Margate, N.J., celebrated her overdue bat mitzvah with her sister, Bernice Billig of Sussex, N.J. Highlighting how recent the tradition is for Jewish girls, Billig’s daughter, Yvonne, also participated.

“They just weren’t doing it when I was 12 (in the late 1970s),” Yvonne Billig said. “I missed the cutoff.”

The celebration by hundreds of Jewish women gathered for the 84th National Convention of Hadassah, America’s largest women’s organization with 300,000 members, turned the hotel ballroom into a Jewish temple. A crescendo of joyful Hebrew singing ended the ceremony.

“I’m thrilled to pieces that this equality gives young women the same opportunities as young men today,” said Barbara Spack of Edison, N.J., who was the ceremony’s cantor. “Without women’s lib, this never would have happened. Gloria Steinem probably had no idea that burning bras would lead to women reading Torah.”

The ceremony, unwieldy at times with so many women trying to recite from the Torah simultaneously, followed a year of study, and participants were urged to continue delving into Jewish tradition.

Some women said it was the first time they had ever read from the Torah, but others said their lives already were steeped in Judaism.

Helene Miriam Frankel of Edison, N.J., said she never had a feeling of missing her bat mitzvah, even when her children were celebrating theirs in the 1970s. Her father was a Hebrew teacher at the family’s Conservative temple in the Bronx, and Frankel attended classes.

“Deep down, I do feel this is liberating,” Frankel said. “But I think I feel more the excitement and fulfillment in a cultural context.”


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