The dream of a beautiful bat mitzvah — but whose dream would it fulfill?
For my daughter to have a bat mitzvah would be a dream come true — but for whom, for her or for me? Throughout my life, people have told me that I am only half Jewish, as my father is Jewish and mother is Japanese Buddhist, although Reform Jews now recognize children of Jewish fathers as Jews. I remember my own childhood as a series of colorful feasts of Jewish and Japanese tastes. But I still hunger for more meaningful cultural and religious traditions, as I had no formal rites of passage, no opportunity to study for a bat mitzvah or a tea ceremony.
Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother did not mean I visited double the number of temples during holidays, like some special at your favorite restaurant. Instead I watched longingly as Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah and Japanese kids celebrated the Shichi-go-san, a festival for girls and boys that celebrates the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthday. At my house we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday.
While life in my family was always amusing and entertaining as a multicultural and interfaith family, we sacrificed both cultures and faiths in the interest of supposed peace and avoidance of cultural conflict and disharmony. As a result, the absence of religious and ethnic identity has left me longing for a personal identity I am just now beginning to find.
When I look at my daughters, I see their faces as both azoy shayne and uruwashii, “so beautiful” in Yiddish and in Japanese. I hope they never have to share my experience of being shunned and shamed for not belonging truly to either one culture or another. As a child I found it laborious and dispiriting to explain to Jewish and Japanese kids why I did not look just like them with either perfectly straight or wavy hair.
We celebrated holidays with few customs except culinary ones, with both miso and chicken soup served at the celebratory table. Growing up with Jewish and Japanese parents meant I lived among two distinct cultures, with an identity that was less secure and more obscure. As I did back then, I continue to long for a stronger sense of my Jewish culture, as well as to be considered simply Jewish rather than half.
Since my parents were artists who believed individual faith was a personal decision, even for small children, there are no marked passages to remember. Except if you count the afternoon I wore my grandmother’s silk kimono with my best friend’s prayer shawl to a Jewish deli in Hollywood. OK, I concede, there were no ceremonies — but that was certainly a rite of passage!
I suppose I should listen to sympathetic friends who attempt to console me.
“Saying you’re only half-Jewish is like saying you’re only half-pregnant,” says one. “Even a bit Jewish means you’re one of the tribe!” he continues, as he passes me a piece of bacon.
Remind me not to consult him should I decide to make a kosher home.
Or there is my friend who lists all the “cool” famous people who are half-Jewish, like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Gloria Steinem. Even Geraldo Rivera got to have a bar mitzvah, although his mother was Jewish.
My middle daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mommy, I think I am a Jewish girl. Can I attend Hebrew school like Daddy did?”
“Yes,” I answered, as I kissed her tan, cool forehead. “You are a Jewish girl, and you will know all of the traditions I never did.”
As my daughter will soon turn 10, my husband laments that she has not received any formal Jewish education. Dancing the hora at weddings, watching the Marx Brothers and trying on his yarmulke for laughs does not count.
Unlike me, my husband had a bar mitzvah when most ceremonies were still respectable, unlike a bat mitzvah I attended in which I couldn’t figure out which person on stage was the rapper for hire or rabbi for hire. Maybe they were the same person.
I can think of no parent who does not wish more for their children than they had, but I remain in a quandary: Do I wish my girls to have a bat mitzvah celebration because I missed out, or for more honorable reasons? Many American Jewish families consider having a bar or bat mitzvah to be the sole experience of their children’s Jewish education, a symbolic occasion securing them in the Jewish tradition.
Indeed, I have decided this is a gift I will give to our daughters, who are confident that they are Jewish and deserve to study in the traditional way all the more. Perhaps I am no different than my Jewish sisters and brothers, as I too want to ensure that my daughters feel secure in their Jewish identity, with this celebration a testament to their strong cultural history. The worst that might happen might be that they would study for a few years, receive a little more gelt than guilt and experience a valuable celebration they would neither be able to forget, nor wish to.
In the meantime, I have dreams of what my own bat mitzvah might have been like in laid-back, lackadaisical 1970s Southern California, when many expectations and traditions for children were abandoned, leaving many members of my generation feeling abandonment.
I see myself in a proper but pretty dress from my favorite Sears catalog I used to keep in a drawer by my bed. I am in a beautiful L.A. temple near my father’s Beverly Hills boyhood home and I begin to chant from the Torah in my songbird voice, while both my Jewish and Japanese relatives are verklempt and tokui — overcome with emotion and pride in two languages.
Too many mazel tovs and kisses are given to count, and my lyrical mother gently fixes a velvet ribbon in my hair while my father tells me how proud he is.
After that, my dream is not so clear, although there is some blurry vision of overeating knishes and California rolls simultaneously until I have to lie down, something I am still guilty of today.
Somebody please call the doctor.
Francesca Biller-Safran is an investigative print and broadcast journalist and recipient of The Edward R. Murrow Award. She specializes in political and social inequalities and is currently working on a book about her background. She is married with three daughters, lives in the Bay Area and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from InterfaithFamily.com.