A Woman’s Voice

The adult bat mitzvah ceremony has been arecognized part of American synagogue life for more than a decade,but until now it has been easy to dismiss as an “angry woman’sritual.” The first wave of women to ascend the bimah took up theyad, the ritualhand-shaped Torah pointer, out of a profound sense of injustice andresentment. They bent furiously over the task of reading the ancientscrolls in the name of their sisters, mothers and grandmothers, andtheir younger much-maligned selves, all of whom had been explicitlyforbidden from ever approaching, much less touching, the holyparchment.

But if it began as a ceremony borne of women’sexclusion and resentment, not so now. This past weekend I saw proofat two Reconstructionist synagogues, the movement that created thebat mitzvah, that the b’nai mitzvot ceremony (men are participatingtoo!), is mellowing into a real celebration of Jewishmaturity.

At Kehillath Israel in Pacific Palisades, theevening in the newly-built skylighted sanctuary off Sunset Blvd hadthe aura of a conversionary experience, a lovefest to welcome “newJews” to the adult community. And in fact the five women and two menbeing honored were indeed “new” to Jewish competence, new to theirJewish selves. These seven had spent the past year learning orrefreshing Hebrew, Torah trope and Jewish tradition. But theevening’s highlight, beside an abbreviated symbolic reading of theTorah (usually confined to Shabbat morning) came as each adultdescribed the big Why – why were they now, as adults, so invested inJewish life?

Why indeed. One man learned he was Jewish late inhis teens, but his identity scarcely mattered to him until he visitedIsrael with a busload of Baptists and spent the trip spontaneouslybursting into tears.

One woman had spent a career teaching Hebrewschool but had been unable to read the unvoweled Torah text. Anotherhad spent a decade grieving for a deceased infant, and wanted toannounce to her friends and family that she was finally ready to bealive.

What I heard that night in the riveting stories ofgrief, discovery, rebirth, and inspiration were adults finding theirspiritual home. And it was a home amazingly without rancor, withoutbitterness; a home enterred now with a metaphorical kiss on themezuzah doorpost, in deep love and openness.

That ceremony, officiated by Rabbi Steven CarrReuben, made me appreciate from a new angle the benefit of maturitywithin the Jewish tradition. Ours is emphatically a child-centeredtradition. We emphasize teaching the children, the saying of the FourQuestions, the passing on the tradition to the next generation. Butadults need honor and meaning, too.

In my generation the need for honor and meaninghas a particular urgency. The number of adults competent to performpublic ritual has been dwindling, the result of twenty years spent inthe counter culture of Zen and spiritual experimentation. BabyboomerJews thought that after age 13 it was all over; the learning curvewas too steep. For a long time, they stayed away.

However today, as the boomers near 50, thatdecline may be reversing. According to the latest Reform Judaismmagazine, the desire for intensive adult education is so strong thatsynagogues are pressed to design adult education programs intenseenough in Torah study and Talmud to satisfy desire.

As it happens the matter of Jewish midlife was thecentral focus Saturday morning at the bat mitzvah of Emily Lodmer atthe Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue. Emily, and her husbandSheldon started MJC&S 18 years ago as a place to educate theirtwo young children in a remote outpost 20 miles from PacificPalisades.

But Emily made it clear that she had more on hermind than merely filling in an empty blank in her spiritualcurriculum vitae. Not by accident was the weekly Torah portion shechanted Behar, whose theme is the jubilee year, or age 50. (Therabbi, Judith HaLevy, asked the congregants to ponder what they willdo with the second half of their lives) She explicitly set out tocelebrate herself as a Jewish woman, using the ritual to explore thefuller range of wisdom that was now hers. Here’s what maturity meansto her:

* She gave the first aliyah, the honor ofapproaching the Torah, to the young adults of her community, and thenpassionately urged them, through Torah metaphor and the ritual ofcounting the Omer (the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot), to usetheir “special gifts” to nourish the world.

* She gave the remaining aliyot to her friends,children and husband and allowed herself to exult in the love andpride within a family and community that she had created.

* She urged her friends, in lieu of gifts, toperform “a spiritually deepening activity” from a list of 40 Jewishmitzvot (ritual practices), and then to document itsperformance.

Her bat mitzvah album includes letters, cards andphotos of friends celebrating giving charity, lighting candles,celebrating Passover, finding a teacher. Great wisdom here. Pass iton.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist at theJewish Journal. Her email address is wmnsvoice@aol.com.

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