Six months before I turned thirteen, I informed my parents that I wanted a bat mitzvah. Prior to that time, we didn’t belong to a temple. I had never attended Sunday school. Once I made this request, however, my parents sprang into action. They hired a private Hebrew tutor for me, we joined a temple, and, most importantly, they booked Nifty Normans for the party. I chose my theme (telephones) and my color scheme (silver and pink.) I designed my dress (half sweatshirt with glitter, half taffeta skirt) and we booked Michael Jackson-style breakdancers to perform.
Looking back, I can acknowledge that I knew exactly what I was doing. My desire for a bat mitzvah was not based on an intense desire to read from the Torah or to claim my place in Jewish society as a woman. I wanted the party. Everyone at my school was having a bat mitzvah. I wanted one too. I wanted to fit in with my peers.
Flash forward to suburban Phoenix, 2015. My 12 year old daughter wants to fit in, too. But her needs are very different than mine. There are very few Jewish kids in her school. She will not be attending bar mitzvahs every weekend. She wants to blend in. She wants to be just like everyone else. She is not having a bat mitzvah.
We are disappointed, yes. But as a family, we decided that we still want to celebrate her 13th birthday together. We all agreed that we would use the money set aside for her bat mitzvah to go on a special trip instead. The kids helped plan the trip. We had several discussions about where to go and what to do. We made our decision and booked our dream vacation. We leave in a few weeks.
Our trip is to Paris.
Last night, our family sat down and discussed what we should do. We talked about terror and fear, and how it feels like there is nowhere safe in this world anymore. We explained to our kids what the world was like before September 11, 2001. We told them that life wasn’t always this scary.
Due to a bad case of bronchitis, I completely lost my voice this week. I never realized how much I used my voice until it was gone. I use it all the time- to yell at my kids and the dogs (and, let’s face it, my husband.) I use it to voice text. I use it to argue when I see injustice, which seems to be everywhere these days. After a full week of cough drops and antibiotics, I still can’t speak. But I do still have a voice.
When I turned thirteen and had my bat mitzvah, I became a woman in the eyes of Jewish law. But I was very quiet and timid then. I didn’t speak up very often. I didn’t want to be different from anyone else.
In reality, I didn’t actually become a woman until I turned 40. That’s when I began this blog. When I started to write, I found my voice. And in using my voice, I am able to speak out on things that enrage and frustrate me, and to find humor in even the mundane moments of daily life. I’m finally comfortable standing out from the crowd.
From the ages of 13 to 39, no one ever came up to me and thanked me for making them feel that they were not alone. Not one person ever contacted me to thank me for saying the things they were too afraid to say.
Once I turned 40, went on tour and started this blog, my life changed. For the past three years, someone has thanked me every single day. Whether I have made you laugh or cry, or helped you slug through another moment amongst the insanity of our world today, I have heard you as loud as you have hear me.
My daughter Lauren does indeed have a Jewish identity. She has been attending Jewish sleep-away camp for several years. She absolutely loves her Jewish friends and the customs that they celebrate together each summer. Our family attends Temple on the high holidays. We host or attend Jewish holiday celebrations all year long. Last year, her big brother had a bar mitzvah and she participated in the rituals and the joy that accompanied his personal Jewish journey. She has helped me build and nurture a non-profit foundation that has helped hundreds of children in our community. Her life is built around the very definition of the Judaism which is to help others. In Hebrew it’s called “mitzvah.”
So even though my daughter is not getting up on the bimah to read Hebrew, we believe that we are helping her to become a responsible Jewish woman. We are teaching her about the power of her voice and that sometimes, actions can speak louder than words. As long as it is safe for us to do so, we are hoping to teach her that even the simple act of visiting a country can show the world that you will not let fear win.
My daughter lives in a scary time, and I feel bad about that. On the other hand, she lives in a country where a woman might finally get to become president. She lives in a time when women like Oprah, Ellen and the women of the View dominate daytime television because they have strong voices. (When I was her age, the only people allowed to speak their voices on t.v. were men- like Phil Donahue and Johnny Carson.) She lives in an age of female CEOs and business owners, and powerful female voices like Adele, who can bring the world to her knees simply by saying “Hello.”
My hormonal pre-teen daughter is exhausted all the time. School is more challenging than ever, and her after-school activities are ridiculously all-consuming. With the little free time and energy that she has left at the end of the day, I want to try to help her to find her voice. I don’t expect her to find it today any more than I actually believe that a thirteen year old girl should be held accountable as a woman. I understand her desire to simply blend in for now.
There is no age limit on when a Jewish girl can have a bat mitzvah. But somewhere out there, there is an age limit for each one of us. We have no way of knowing when we will lose our voices for good. The women around me seem to be losing their lives earlier and earlier.
I need to teach her that at she grows up, she will have a very important role in our society. Not just as a Jewish adult, but as an American woman. She has to learn how to help change the world for good. Hopefully, sometime soon, the moment will come where she can figure out how to stand out from the crowd. She will figure out what she can do with her own voice to join fight against violence and crime and terror.