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Bat mitzvah turns one hundred

One small step for a young Jewish woman; one large step for Judaism.

Judith Kaplan Eisenstein as an older woman

It was exactly one hundred years ago today.

It did not seem to be a big deal at the time, but it turned out to be a very big deal.

It started with Mordecai Kaplan. Rabbi Kaplan was one of American Judaism’s must original thinkers and communal activists — the inventor of the idea of the Jewish community center; and the idea that Judaism was an evolving civilization; and ultimately, the Reconstructionist movement.

But those innovations pale in comparison with what he happened to invent — on March 18, 1922. Rabbi Kaplan had no sons — only daughters. He persuaded his oldest daughter, twelve year old Judith (later Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, 1909-1996) to celebrate her Jewish coming of age. It was to become known as bat mitzvah.

This was not a popular idea — at least, not in the Kaplan family. Judith’s grandmothers wrung their hands over the planned ceremony, each one prevailing on the other to persuade her father to abandon the idea. It didn’t work.

Years later, Judith would remember that the night before the service, her father had still not decided on the exact form of the ceremony. (Winging it: I like that in a rabbi).

The next day, as usual at a Shabbat service, Rabbi Kaplan read the maftir (the concluding portion of the Torah reading) and the haftarah (the prophetic portion).

Then Judith recited the Torah blessing and read the Torah selection.

Later, she wrote: “The scroll was returned to the ark with song and procession, and the service was resumed. No thunder sounded, no lightning struck. The institution of bat mitzvah had been born without incident, and the rest of the day was all rejoicing.”

Judith’s grandmothers thought that she would be the first, last, and only bat mitzvah in America.

They were wrong.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso of Indianapolis, has written a wonderful children’s book about Judith Kaplan’s experience: Judy Led The Way. I chatted with her about it.

What inspired you to write “Judy Led the Way”?

No one was telling Judith’s story. Her becoming a bat mitzvah was nothing more than a paragraph in a history book. It was seen mostly as her father’s (Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s) innovation.  Judith often downplayed her role, but it was very much her accomplishment. Her father only wrote of few lines about it in his diary.  How easy it is now, after increased opportunities for women to forget how extraordinary, how difficult, and how lonely it was to take those first steps.  How important it is for us to remember, to retell those early stories, and not to take all that we have received for granted. 

You knew Judith Kaplan Eisenstein. What are your memories of her?

My husband, Dennis and I, were both students at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College at the same time, and we had come to know Judy during our studies.  Her husband, Ira Eisenstein, was president of the seminary and our teacher. I was invited to give the keynote address when she celebrated the 70th anniversary of her bat mitzvah, when she was 82.  Judy and Ira took an interest in their students beyond their academic achievements.  They were warm and friendly and always asked about our children.

I remember Judith sitting at the piano on Friday night, helping to lead the singing on Shabbat evening when our husbands were conducting the service.  She handed out notated music and insisted we could all benefit from following the notes even if we did not read music.  I wasn’t so sure.  But she had the uncanny talent to get congregants to sing in harmony.

Most of all, I remember when Judith spoke to our daughter, Debora, at her bat mitzvah.  She said: “Today you are the youngest bat mitzvah, and I am the oldest.  Always remember to make a joy of your Judaism.”

How did the first bat mitzvah reflect, and lead to, other advances in the role of women in Judaism and in American life?

Although she did not know it at the time, when Judith became bat mitzvah in 1922, she started a revolution. Perhaps that is how all great revolutions begin — with what, at first sight, seems only natural, like a black woman taking a seat at the front of a bus. You never know when something you and or others do, but consider trivial, will spark movements that will resonate throughout the world and change the future.

Jewish tradition has always evolved. It is what has kept it vital. What happened in 1922 was part of that evolution. It marked the beginning of a re-imagination and transformation of the role of women and the nature of Jewish community.

Women began to lead services, and chant Torah. Fifty years after Judith’s bat mitzvah, women began to be ordained as rabbis. The language of prayer became more inclusive, adding women’s voices. The way we tell our history and interpret our sacred text has uncovered women’s stories and perspectives. 

What advice do you have for young Jewish women who are about to become bat mitzvah?

  • You don’t have to look like, sound like or be like anyone else. Be yourself. Nothing about who you are is beside the point.
  • You are linked with people from long, long ago, and you are now becoming a link to the future far, far ahead. Stay connected.
  • Remember you only get nervous about something important.  It is normal to worry about what other people are thinking. You are not alone.
  • Take a deep breath. If you forget a Hebrew word, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you remember to be kind and just.
  • Let your Judaism grow with you.
  • Ask questions.
  • Find joy in being Jewish.

Let us locate this moment of bat mitzvah in its American moment. Just a few years before Judith stood up at the bima, American women became able to stand up in the voting booth. Rabbi Kaplan must have sensed that the evolving nature of what women could do – must have its implications within Judaism itself.

But, in fact, the idea of Jewish women celebrating their religious majority goes back even further than Judith.

It actually goes back to Iraq, in the 1800s.

Yes – Iraq, ancient Babylonia.

A nineteenth century Iraqi rabbinic authority, Rabbi Joseph Hayyim ben Elijah, mentioned coming-of-age celebrations for girls in his legal writings. The girl would accept responsibility for the commandments. She would wear a new garment. She would recite the sheheheyanu prayer.

(For those of us who do not often associate Iraq with Jewish innovations, let me mention that Abraham and Sarah themselves were “Iraqi” Jews, born in Ur).

Now, let us travel west — to Italy — where, again in the late 1800s, we would have found the custom of a twelve year old girl officially “entering minyan.”

When I was doing research on bar and bat mitzvah for my book Putting God On the Guest List, I heard  a rumor that Mordecai Kaplan had gotten the idea of bat mitzvah from witnessing such a ceremony in the Great Synagogue in Rome — back in 1920.

I was always curious about this. So, it was that some thirty years ago, I had the delightful opportunity to have dinner with Judith Kaplan Eisenstein. She was already in her eighties.

I asked her whether it was true — that her father had seen a girl “entering minyan” in the synagogue in Rome.

She laughed, and then she sighed.

“I had always heard that as well. But, as I recall, my father actually never went to synagogue in Rome when he was there — although he tried.

“Oh?” I asked. “What happened?”

She sighed again. “It was several days after Mussolini marched into Rome – and there were road blocks and barriers all along the road to the synagogue. So, he never got there.”

At that moment, I felt myself in the grip of world history, and Jewish history.

To every woman who has become bat mitzvah, and who will someday become bat mitzvah: mazal tov.

You are part of the unfolding story of the Jewish people, and of Judaism itself.

(My synagogue, Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, FL, is celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of bat mitzvah by inviting all women who have become bat mitzvah to chant a group Torah blessing together — this Friday evening, March 18, at 6:30 pm. Join us here!)