The Bat Mitzvah I Never Had

I'm writing this in a coffee shop as my daughter meets for the first time with our rabbi to study Torah for her bat mitzvah. She's well prepared. We've reviewed all of the parshas up to her portion, and she read her parsha (Behar) on her own over this past week.

I feel like a pro, having already shepherded one child through this process, but what I don't feel is a sense of nostalgia for my own bat mitzvah ceremony. Why?

I didn't have one.
Those of you who've only known me as an adult may be thinking....

But anyone who knew me as a tween is thinking...

My "blunder years" were awful, and every shy, reticent, introverted, misanthropic, angry bit of me was multiplied 1,000-fold. I have look back on those years and wondered if I could have been "forced" to do it and thus risen to the occasion? Maybe, but I certainly don't blame anyone for not waging that fight with me. I would not be moved.

I've "done" all the rituals, though.

The first time I chanted Torah was August 28, 2004, parsha Ki Teitzei
From the archives of Go West. Young Jew (8/31/04)
I'm still riding high from my Torah reading this past shabbat. I admit to being very nervous about the whole thing. I was fine through most of the morning service, until the Torah service started. As soon as the Torah was taken out of the ark, I could feel my heart racing and my hands start to sweat. I had my paper with the portion on it tucked into my siddur. I took it out to glance at it, and I swear it was like I'd never seen it before, even though I'd listened to the tape probably 50 times and was hearing the trope in my dreams.

Here I was, reading from a Torah that had been saved from Prague before WWII, a Torah that is identical in every way to every other Torah scroll around the world, THE Torah. It was such a different experience than reading from a Chumash or Tikkun. I hit every note, got every word right, needed no prompting, and when I was done looked up into the faces of a very proud father, husband and mom. The gabbai and the rabbi were both pretty amazed, and then the rabbi told the congregation that it was my first time layning, and everyone gasped. He also told them that I'd never had a bat mitzvah and then did the misheberach for a bat mitzvah girl and people sang Simon Tov u'Mazal Tov.

Was that my bat mitzvah ceremony? I suppose we could count it as such. My parents were there, and I know they were very, very happy to see their one and only child on the bimah, chanting Torah. And I studied the heck out of that portion. I could chant it right now (which would be awkward in this Starbucks with the couple sitting next to me doing their New Testament bible study.)

Several people who've heard that I did not "have" a bat mitzvah at  age 12/13 have suggested that I have one now. Why not age 43, 30 years late? I've always said no. Why?

There have been so many Bat Mitzvah moments...

  • My first aliyah was on the Congregation Har Shalom bimah, on May 24, 2003, with a 7-day-old Ellie in my arms receiving her Hebrew name.
  • I've always been a practitioner of Judaism, though I got real about being a student (and teacher) of it when I moved to North Dakota in 1994 and had to represent "my people" to my classmates, many of whom had never met a Jew before. You really learn when you teach. 
  • I've read every parsha and turned the Torah over and over again, looking for its secrets and finding my own voice to add to the chorus of Israel, those who struggle with this wonderful, terrible, people-defining and people-dividing book.
  • For 7 years I was a professional Jewish educator, teaching Hebrew High and then serving as the director of our synagogue's religious school. I lived my Judaism out loud, and I carry the lessons of those years -- some of them very heavy -- with me each day. [Any scars from that adventure are healed each time I run into an old student (as I did tonight) and remember what I taught them and what they taught me.]
  • I have taken on and shed mitzvot over the years wavering from
blatant disregard (I Don't Want Your God!)
do-it-yourself observant-ish (God Said So!)
spiritual atheism (Judaism Without God)

Too many developmental milestones have come and gone for me to "become" a daughter of the commandments.

Besides, it's someone else's turn now.

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