Looking back on their bat mitzvah: Women of all ages share the day

Betsy E. Horen at her bat mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem, Israel, on Dec. 25, 2011. Courtesy of the Horen family
Betsy E. Horen at her bat mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem, Israel, on Dec. 25, 2011. Courtesy of the Horen family
Posted: March 28, 2012

In celebration of the bat mitzvah's 90th anniversary this year, we asked readers for their memories, and we got a heap. We heard from women ranging in age from 88 to 14, with bat mitzvahs dating from 1953 to 2011. Some were funny, others poignant, a few regretful, many joyful. To all our readers who shared, thank you (and mazel tov!)

Back in 1970, girls were relegated to second-class status. We conducted the Friday night service, but there was no Saturday Torah reading for us. That was OK, but I was exceedingly jealous of my male counterparts who got lavish Saturday evening parties - with live bands! As for the guest list, on one point I was insistent: My good friend was to be invited. Her first name was Joan; her last name Sledge. She and her singing sisters were the first African Americans to live in our Olney neighborhood. I also demanded that Joni sing at the dinner. I only remember how proud I was. Of course the Sledge Sisters became Sister Sledge, and the rest is musical history - and maybe bat mitzvah history, too.

Sue Lieff, 1970

East Norriton

As a rabbi involved daily in religious education, I often share this story with the kids approaching their own bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies: Though I practiced diligently for my bat mitzvah, I used the wrong tune when reciting my haftarah blessing and had to recite it again. Still, I say, they let me become a rabbi. I tell them this to assure them that a bar or bat mitzvah is not a test. You cannot fail being Jewish and you can't mess up your entrance into the community - you're already a part of it.

Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler, 1988

Bryn Mawr

My bat mitzvah included three other girls, and was one of the very first at Congregation Emanu-El in Philadelphia. It was very exciting to be part of this "new" concept, but I was very nervous. My hands were so sweaty that the blue dye from the prayer book came off all over them. The service was perfect and was followed by a celebration for all four of us. I have since had the greater pleasure of attending my own children's and grandchildren's bar and bat mitzvahs.

Beverly Rubin Samson, 1953


My bat mitzvah was at Oxford Circle Jewish Community Centre on Nov. 22, 1963, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. Rabbi Romirowsky decided to go ahead with it, but as you can imagine, it was very chaotic and certainly not a day to celebrate. The rabbi's sermon was broadcast over speakers into the community. As for my part, I was told to just start my portion on the page indicated, which was actually its end. I just remember wishing that I was not there and could have a "do over."

Lois Urkowitz, 1963

Mount Laurel

When I was 12, I left Hebrew school, which meant that I could not become a bat mitzvah in that synagogue. Luckily, my grandfather is a rabbi, so he agreed to tutor me. But we still needed to find a location that would host the service and the party. After looking at a country club, a hotel, and a Chinese restaurant, we found this little Italian restaurant. My mother made an ark out of a cardboard box, my grandfather borrowed a Torah and a cantor, and I played a song on my violin.

Robin Weiner, 2008


Way back when I was bat mitzvahed,Temple Sholom in Philadelphia had only one bat mitzvah service for the entire year. Five young ladies stood together on the bimah and shared the recitation of the portion of that week. There was no catered affair after the service; we went back to my home, where my parents served a light supper. One of the desserts was my grandmother's famous apple strudel, which she made in honor of my special day. My grandparents were observant Jews and did not ride on the Sabbath, but this once they took a taxi to our synagogue. When I think back on my bat mitzvah, that memory is very precious to me; especially since my grandmother died just a few months later.

Arline H. Winkler, 1954


We were getting our nails done when I got the phone call from the caterer asking whether we were going through with our daughter's bat mitzvah scheduled for the next day. A snowstorm was scheduled to deliver not just one wallop, but a second storm bigger than the first. My daughter took the news, as she always did in difficult situations, with uncommon maturity - the party was rescheduled for the following week and the service would go on as planned. She did a wonderful job, playing to a near-empty house. Afterward, I took what few fearless friends showed up and went to the only open restaurant on Montgomery Avenue, Al Dar. We ate lunch off the menu and cut her cake, sharing it and singing "Happy Birthday" with strangers in one big communal celebration for my little girl, now a woman. The next weekend, we got dressed again, and her party went on with a full house. But it was about the little lunch at Al Dar, among close family friends and strangers, that we reminisce - one of life's treasured, unexpected surprises.

Gail Glassman for Genny Glassman, 2003

Penn Valley

My wife was of the generation where, in Conservative congregations, bat mitzvahs were considered unnecessary. When, on a family trip to Israel this past December, our great-niece was going to be a bat mitzvah at the Western Wall, my wife was encouraged to be a bat mitzvah, too. With a bit of humor and a determined desire, she did herself proud in her chanting. While the accomplishment was heartfelt for all of the children, it did not compare with the mature meaning it held for my wife, for me, and for all those who were there to share the event.

Betsy E. Horen, (submitted by her husband, Robert A. Horen), 2011


In the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Torahin Willingboro, an auburn-haired 13-year-old sat in a cushioned chair. She was swathed in a juicy-grape minidress with cap sleeves, sweating profusely in the face of her command performance. Well-rehearsed, the young woman recalled the months of preparation, walking around the house chanting her haftarah so many times that her mother, who couldn't read Hebrew, could recite it along with her. The rabbi nodded and her tremulous voice rang out. Her father beamed at her; he could read Hebrew and knew that when it was all over, she had nailed it. Afterward, her mother shared that she saw her staring at the side door, wide-eyed, as if ready to escape.

Edie Weinstein, 1971


On my bat mitzvah, I wore my father's tallis , and I was 51. With others from my adult b'nai mitzvah class, I stood on the bimah and the years of feeling like an outsider became a distant memory. I tried to overcome really bad stage fright and spoke, among other things, about my father, who had passed away two years earlier. Wearing the tallis was like having him next to me, encouraging me as he always did, not to be afraid of anybody or anything. I did it for both of us. He never had a bar mitzvah, either.

Jill Caplan, 2004


I was all excited and ready for my bat mitzvah, but that was also the day of the first huge snowstorm of 2009. I was so mad. I don't like snow to begin with, so two feet on my bat mitzvah wasn't in the plan. Many of my camp friends couldn't come, and some family members, but it turned out OK.

Leslie Reinheimer, 2009


I was raised attending Sons of Jacob Synagogue. The year prior to my bat mitzvah was spent practicing. We finally found my dress at Saks. I had my photo taken with my lace dress and hairstyle containing more banana curls and hair spray than the environment or taste would in later years permit. A month before my bat mitzvah, I was volunteering at the YMCA teaching children to play kickball when I was hit in the wrist. They called my mother to say I seemed to have broken my arm. Her first reaction was, "Thank goodness her dress has short sleeves." And so I wore my white lace dress from Saks, bouffant hair and a cast up to my shoulder, courtesy of Newcomb Hospital.

Ileen Branderbit, 1969

Vineland, N.J.

My bat mitzvah was planned for the day Yardley received more than 28 inches of snow. Luckily, my parents knew the forecast and changed my bat mitzvah to Feb. 7, a Sunday! Everybody arrived safely, and I had a speech that people laughed at. The rabbi asked me to talk about a leader and how he or she compared to Moses. I picked Charlie Manuel. This is an event I will never forget. A Jewish girl who got bat mitzvahed on a Sunday!

Jessica Forest, 2010


For his bar mitzvah, my brother read Torah on a Saturday morning, followed by a big party. All of our relatives came in from out of town. I had a Friday night bat mitzvah and could only read the haftarah . Few relatives attended, and the party was modest. I loved chanting and leading prayers, but I felt like a second-class citizen. My parents tried to placate me by telling me that they would give me a big wedding. Even at that age, I felt that this was wrong. I wanted to be encouraged to lead the community.

Deborah S. Meyer, 1970


A bat mitzvah at 60 years old? Why not? It was March 1995 and I was on the bimah. When I scanned the audience, I saw my granddaughters, quietly busy with crayons and paper. After the ceremony, 5-year-old Denali proudly presented her drawing titled "Mom-Mom Torah." She had sketched me standing at the lectern singing. A stream of music notes arced upward. Above my head, a "balloon" encircled a red heart with the words "I love you" written in her beginner's hand. Framed, hanging in my home today, is this, my most treasured bat mitzvah memento.

Judith Gensib, 1995

Cherry Hill

Tampa, Fla., in 1961 had a tiny Jewish community with, naturally, three synagogues. Even my synagogue conducted two services, as the Syrian Jews prayed separately. I was bat mitzvahed by myself, and although I was not allowed to read from the Torah, I did conduct the rest of the service - pretty heady for a 13-year-old. I thought sadly this was the one time in my life I would be the center of attention. With weddings, you have to share. The highlight was slow dancing with my crush, 6-foot Stanley. He seemed terribly serious and mature, though pimply. He grew up to be a Florida judge, and I was horrified to learn he had sentenced a mass murderer to death. I continued to pursue center stage by being a teacher.

Emily Solomon Farrell, 1961


Approaching my 70th birthday, I thought about a ritual called a "simchat chochmah" - a celebration of wisdom. It would resemble a bat mitzvah, but be designed by myself and my rabbi. I chose a date near my birthday and close to Passover, so that all my children would already be in Philadelphia. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that had I celebrated a bat mitzvah at 13, it would have been the same date and Torah portion. Words cannot describe my pride and joy when I carried the Torah around the sanctuary followed by my six grandchildren, with me, haltingly, lovingly, chanting through my tears, and delivering a dvar Torah about second chances and learning after the fact.

Dr. Patricia B. Wisch, 2002


I had a lot of help from family to "dress me up"for my Friday night event at Temple Sholom in Levittown. Beautiful dress; the hair looked OK. But my pale, freckled face just wasn't up to their standards. Makeup went on. I was thrilled! Then my grandmom (no fashion plate, believe me) had the wonderful idea of giving me eyebrows. She had a heavy hand. It was hideous. And, the only real memory I have of that night was feeling like a vampire. The pictures proved me right. Two black caterpillars over my little pale eyes, completely overpowering my very white face.

Susan Vineberg, 1958


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