When Feminism Met Judaism

Posted: March 05, 1992

She stood in front of the men of the congregation, a chubby 12 1/2-year-old girl with straw-blond hair and brilliant blue eyes. She wore a pink silk dress her mother had made.

The girl read aloud in Hebrew and English a passage from the Bible, which she held in her own steady hands. Her father, a goateed rabbi, listened intently from his perch on the bima, or platform. The girl's mother, two grandmothers and three sisters watched from the back of the synagogue.

It was a Sabbath service in March 1922, at the newly founded Society for the Advancement of Judaism on 41 W. 86th St. in New York City. The girl was

Judith Kaplan, eldest daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism.

On that Saturday 70 years ago, the rabbi's daughter made a public - and, at the time, unique - passage into adulthood. She became the first Bat Mitzvah, the first female to go through a sacred rite that was the counterpart of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, which Jewish males have publicly celebrated since medieval times.

The Bat Mitzvah is now a standard rite of passage for females not only among Reconstructionists, but in Conservative and Reform synagogues as well. Traditionally, the ceremony is for 12- or 13-year-old females. But in recent years, women of all ages have been celebrating or recelebrating their Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

And it all began with the rabbi's daughter.

"I was pretty scared," recalled Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, now 82, a retired musicologist living in Woodstock, N.Y. "I was alone in the front room with all of the men. Ma was far away from me. I had to talk loud and I had to say every syllable properly."

Eisenstein seemed amused that an almost forgotten event from her childhood would be the subject of a 70th-anniversary celebration March 21 in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., sponsored by the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (Hebrew for fellowships).

For years, she said, she has received letters from young women about to undergo the Bat Mitzvah ceremony.

"They're told about me by their teachers," she said with a smile. "I've become a class project."

Eisenstein is married to Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, founder and president emeritus of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. She herself taught the history of Jewish music at the college for many years.

Now that she's in her 80s, Eisenstein has decided it's time to go on a health kick. The blueberry cake her 85-year-old husband serves is cholesterol- and sugar-free. She's also given up cigarettes, she said, but not an occasional whiskey, which she prefers straight up, on the rocks.

The first Bat Mitzvah was done with little fanfare, Eisenstein said. It was planned the night before by the late Rabbi Kaplan, your basic religious maverick.

Rabbi Kaplan saw Judaism as not just a religion but the evolving civilization of the Jewish people. He believed that each generation had the right to reinterpret ancient traditions. That's why he created the Bat Mitzvah ceremony. It's also why, in 1945, a group of Orthodox rabbis excommunicated Rabbi Kaplan and burned his books.

The night before the first Bat Mitzvah, Rabbi Kaplan had his daughter practice reading in Hebrew a passage from the Torah, which would customarily be read by men. Reading the Torah is difficult because it is written in a Hebrew script that doesn't include any markings for vowels. The rabbi repeatedly drilled his daughter on diction.

"I don't remember what I read," Eisenstein said in a recent interview. ''I didn't work on it the way kids work on it now, for a half year, with lessons every week," she said. "All I did was read it through with him Friday night, and Saturday morning I went to the synagogue and did it."

Rabbi Kaplan, who had four daughters and no sons, believed in equality of the sexes. In his diaries, he made it plain that he regarded Judith as his disciple and intellectual companion. By today's standards, however, the first Bat Mitzvah wasn't a model of equality.

The rabbi's daughter was not permitted to read directly from the Torah during that first ceremony. She had to read from her own prayer book. She also had to stand below the platform, "at a very respectful distance from the scroll of the Torah," which was rolled up for the occasion, she said. Also, the men of the congregation hogged the front seats, contrary to the rabbi's wishes. Rabbi Kaplan had quit his previous rabbinical post because of the membership's insistence on separate seating for men and women.

At today's Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, young women read directly from the Torah. Women also recite blessings and chant from the haftarah, readings from the prophets that are chanted every Sabbath. Women also give speeches from the bima, and sometimes lead the prayer service. They usually wear a prayer shawl, or tallit, which is worn by boys at their Bar Mitzvahs.

As flawed as it was, the first Bat Mitzvah was a beginning for Jewish feminism.

"The Bat Mitzvah marks the change in women's status in Judaism from having been in the category of minors and slaves to being eligible to be a responsible adult in Jewish life," said Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert, an administrator at Temple University.

Reconstructionists have gone far beyond the Bat Mitzvah. In the last 20 years, female rabbis have created ceremonies for women that celebrate biological changes from menstruation to menopause. Ceremonies have been written for child-weanings, miscarriages and even abortions.

But the Bat Mitzvah has special significance.

"To be standing there and reading from the real Torah was just a glorious moment," said Lynn H. Green, 33, of Cherry Hill. In January, Green, a women's health care administrator, read from the Torah at the Germantown Jewish Center as part of a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of her Bat Mitvah.

Green, who was raised in a Conservative synagogue in Ventnor, N.J., was never allowed to read directly from the Torah at her original Bat Mitzvah. She always felt cheated until her service earlier this year.

"As a feminist, what was very important to me was to take ownership of the ritual," Green said. "It was a complete and empowering experience."

Ann Ellen Dickter, 42, of Drexel Hill, was raised as an Orthodox Jew. She was 37 when she had her Bat Mitzvah at the Reform Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City.

"I felt like I was claiming back something that I should have had, something valuable," said Dickter, director of a hearing and speech center. ''Just being up on the bima was an incredible feeling because it was like forbidden. It gave me an incredible feeling of strength."

And how did the original Bat Mitzvah feel?

"I had mixed feelings," Eisenstein said. "I was certainly happy to be important, you know, but on the other hand I was uncomfortable. When you're 12 years old, you don't want to be too different. And this was being different."

Today, she sees the event from her past as a "a symbol that women want their place in Jewish life."

"It's an active place," she added. "Not just a passive role."

comments powered by Disqus