This piece was originally written and performed for Storahtelling’s B-Mitzvah Gala in 2011. The version below has been slightly updated.
A letter to my mother on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah.
It’s so inspiring that after raising three children, sustaining a 37 year marriage, and going through menopause, you’re finally ready to become a woman.
I’m sure we’d both agree that the list of things that I’ve done that you haven’t is pretty short if I cross off the things you’d never do: premarital sex, psychedelics, karaoke—
Which is to say, there aren’t many things I can offer advice on.
But you know what one thing remains on that list?
Having a Bat Mitzvah.
So if you’ll indulge me…just a few words of advice.
First things first: Did you confirm the date with the shul yet? You should. I mean, because of the other b’nai mitzvah. I suggest going with July 5th, one day after your English birthday even though it’s 4 days before your Hebrew birthday. You could do July 12th, the Shabbos following your Hebrew birthday, but that’s Parshat Pinchas and the week before is Balak and 5774 is the first triennial year so at your shul you wouldn’t get to read Tzelofchad’s daughters so what I’m saying is: I think the warlock/talking donkey combo is more your style than public sex and massacre.
Please don’t go with public sex acts and massacre.
Just one Storahteller’s opinion.
I don’t mean to step on your toes, or tell you how to celebrate your bat mitzvah. I mean, after all, you are a woman now – this means you can make your own decisions about what color kippot you want to order and if the DJ should play the Electric Slide and the Macarena or just the Electric Slide.
Honestly, I would have appreciated having a greater say in my bat mitzvah celebration. I don’t remember being involved in picking my bat mitzvah date. I’m not sure how you decided on April 11th, since my birthday is in June, but if I knew then what I know now, I definitely would have requested another date. Any other date.
Because at 12 years old I was nowhere near understanding the spiritual or physical implications of animal sacrifice, leprosy or vaginal discharge.
Did you know that’s what my parsha was about?
V a g i n a l D i s c h a r g e
I realize now that maybe you didn’t know that.
That’s why my speech was about being the first Bat Mitzvah in the family. And about the talit.
To wear or not to wear?
As you consider your options, I want to remind you how you said if I was going to wear one at my Bat Mitzvah, I’d have to always wear one every time I was in shul.
Part warning, part challenge.
The greatest feminist lesson you ever taught me.
YOUR daughters were going to learn how to daven. And lain Torah. And lead services. What if one of your daughters wanted to become a rabbi? That was DEFINITELY going to be an option for YOUR daughters. And if it meant that on Friday nights, your father, my Zaydie, would intone a garbled-Ashkenazi-inflected Kiddush immediately following my Debbie Gibson pop-influenced rendition (because mine “didn’t count”) – so be it.
If it meant that the week leading up to my Bat Mitzvah we still wouldn’t know if Zaydie was going to show and when he did he stood in the back of the shul after he davened “legitimately” – so be it.
And if it meant that 14 years later, in the week leading up to my wedding, he once again threatened not to show because he questioned the intention and authenticity of Mike’s conversion – so be it.
The question I want you to consider now is:
Are you going to wear a talit?
Because when I made that promise on the bima that I was always going to wear it, which was actually a diversion from talking about discharge and dead birds, I didn’t know yet that I would drop out of USY less than a year later when I began to really embrace my distaste for institutional Judaism. I didn’t know that a year later when I would go to Israel for the first time, my favorite memories would happen after midnight on Ben Yehuda street and involve underage drinking and piercing. When I made that promise that I’d always wear a talit, I didn’t know that it would be another 10 years before I actually was interested in Jewish, and that I would never really like going to shul. I didn’t know that talit-wearing was optional for all genders in the reform movement and that my narrow, wool talit would always be itchy and never be good for hiding under or for keeping me warm.
I didn’t know then what I know now.
I know it’s a really big deal for you to have a Bat Mitzvah. I know it’s an even bigger deal for you to learn to lain even though they made you mouth the words in choir your voice was so bad. I know it’s taken 45 years to come around to the idea and it’s so scary for you that you are conveniently waiting another couple of years for the 50th anniversary of your 12th birthday – just so you have enough time to practice.
And I know that this might not be happening if you hadn’t moved to Florida and gone freelance, and become president of Buena Vida’s Hadassah chapter, or if Dad, after 35 years didn’t suddenly come around to liking shul and joining the board which we’re still all in shock over. I know that this might not have happened if Zaydie hadn’t lightened up so much in the last few years since my wedding, if he wasn’t rapidly aging, if that lady from Sisterhood didn’t offer to teach you trope for Sisterhood Shabbat.
I know that this might not have happened if I hadn’t worn a talit and if I hadn’t promised the huge sanctuary full of friends and family and regular shul-goers like the gum-lady and my tutor who smelled like nagchampa before I knew what it was and Rabbi Steindel who was so tall I had to stand on two blocks to even come up to his shoulders and Rabbi Chuck who everyone liked and Cantor Taube who you fought with because he wouldn’t let me daven musaf even though you wanted me to so badly and the choir which you never liked because it felt like church and the people who only came to shul because they read in the bulletin that there would be a Kiddush luncheon, if I hadn’t promised all of those people and you, that I would always wear a talit, this might not be happening.
But I’m really glad it’s happening.
I really hope it happens.
I confess, that now that you’ve chanted Torah and are even learning the haftorah trope, (fancy!) I’m a little concerned that you’re gonna back out of the whole ritual celebration Bat Mitzvah thing.
Well, I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again, I will be very disappointed if you don’t decide to go through with it.
As I tell my students: you don’t have a Bat Mitzvah, you become a Bat Mitzvah. And sure, that may have hypothetically happened when you were twelve just…magically. But there’s something to be said for ritual, for marking time and marking effort. Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is as much about standing up in front of the community and sharing a piece of YOUR story as it is about chanting the ancient collective story.
Remember how important it was for YOUR daughters to learn how to daven and lain? Remember the Women at the Wall who are literally being arrested for trying to exercise those rights publically on sacred ground at this very moment? I know you’d never call yourself a radical, but I was with you marching on the mall for Russian Jews when Gorbachev came to DC in the 80s, and I know that you want Jewish women everywhere to be able to wear a talit and pray out loud if they choose to do so. So please don’t underestimate the power of one woman standing on the bima, saying out loud, I am becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Don’t underestimate the importance of inviting your aging, orthodox father down to Florida to see his daughter chant Torah, of wearing a talit or not, of sharing a nugget of wisdom from your 60+ years of living a full Jewish life with your entire, extended community.
I’m really excited for you.
And really proud of you.
Just remember: talking donkeys trumps zealous massacre, and you know, if you’re gonna wear a talit, you need to promise me you’ll always wear it when you go to shul.
Your Daughter, Tzippora Malka bat Slava Eliah v’Moshe Zev AKA: frannyemail print