My husband and I recently attended the Bat Mitzvah of a dear friend’s daughter. Our daughters are all adults, but our friend from college days married a younger woman, and so his oldest child is just becoming a teenager. His lovely wife is Jewish, which explains why a friend from a Catholic university invited us to his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

The ceremony took place during the regular Shabbat morning service at the temple. Although I have been to several Hanukkah celebrations, a couple of Seder dinners, and one Jewish funeral, I’d never gone to a Bat Mitzvah before.  The program we received at the door announced the occasion of our friend’s daughter becoming a Bat Mitzvah, which made sense when I read the explanation: Bat Mitzvah literally means “Daughter of the Commandment”. (For boys, Bar means “Son”.) We were, on that spring morning, commemorating a young girl’s turning an age when she is now obligated to observe the commandments of God.

My eyes, of course, spilled tears when our old friend gave a moving, beautifully written speech in honor of his daughter.  And what a daughter! She ably led most of the service, in Hebrew. She read from the Torah, chanted prayers, and even gave a brief, insightful homily on a reading from Leviticus concerning the treatment of lepers.  She was confident and sincere and vibrant. I thought that, compared to the preparation and study required for this occasion, the sacrament of Confirmation was a walk in the park for my daughters. They’d been confirmed with twenty or so other Confirmands, but a Bat Mitzvah stands alone.  My daughters had attended two years of classes and performed hours of community service, but they had not ever had to lead a service or organize an individual service project to benefit others. They had never been so singled out in front of their congregation.

The Shabbat service was rich in tradition and yet fresh in intention, strikingly alive with the commitment to making the world a better place. There were similarities between the Shabbat service and the Mass: the traditional dress of the presider, the responsorial psalm, the communal prayer of the faithful, the Scripture reading followed by a homily, the cantor leading us in song, the reverent treatment of the Torah scrolls, whose central location in the ark was akin to the Eucharist in the tabernacle. I imagined Jesus with his family at his local Shabbat service. I imagined the early Apostles adapting the tradition in which they had grown up to the mystery of the new Paschal meal. A Catholic in the Jewish temple, I felt curiously at home.

I also understood starkly what it must be like to attend a Catholic Mass for the first time: the sitting, the standing, the gestures, the responses, the music, the ritual, the reverence accorded to seemingly normal objects; above all, the complete nonsensical quality of it all to a newcomer. At the Shabbat, I didn’t comprehend the language. People wearing shawls suddenly rocked up on their toes in unison. The prayer book was read from back to front. My husband wore a yarmulke on his head.  I thought of all the friends of our children who had accompanied us to Mass over the years, just because they had slept over at our house, and I had a dawning respect for the grace with which they had sat through our unintelligible worship.

A great party followed the Shabbat service: good food and drink, sweet desserts, smiling friends and family, interesting conversation, music, dancing, gifts, and lightness of heart. Our friend’s daughter is a Bat Mitzvah now. Already a gifted child wise beyond her years, she is a daughter of our loving God, a daughter of the future. With daughters like her, it is a future in which we can place our trust and faith.

 

Comments

ofer barsadeh | 4/12/2011 - 5:20am
Cody's remark was especially apt for me. i remember the first time i went into a church for the wedding of my uncle's catholic maid. i was perfectly sure i would be struck down by lightnening as soon as i came out.
this was pre vat-2; the service was in latin. the church was dark and sombre and amazingly beautiful. the idea of organs and choirs so foreign (before reform judaism had made a huge influx into the australian jewish comunity). most of all, i felt i was a traitor. for i knew that when i went back to school the following monday, i would still be the "christ killer" (i kid you not - that first time my class mates emerged in 1st grade from their religious instruction class to beat me up is still engraved on my mind. i had no idea who jesus was, nor any recollection of having killed him. we jews had been sent to another room, and it wasnt until the following year that i heard the word nazi or hollocaust). 
Cody Serra | 4/11/2011 - 3:47pm
Thank you for this uplifting article, Valerie. I am so glad that now we can attend these type of ceremonies in the "other Houses of God" without being censured as it was during my childhood.

Changes are slow happening in our Catholic church, but when they happen, are so greatly appreciated . They open our conscience to the greatness of God Presence in the hearts of so many, who also celebrate, love and serve Him in earnest, as we are called to do, in those other God's houses.
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn | 4/11/2011 - 6:39am
Beautiful! Thank you for this.

This reminded me of a story from my childhood. My father was Jewish but did not practice his religion; he did love the Catholic church and was the driving force in getting my Irish Catholic mother and I to church each week. We were very involved in our parish - because of him.

In 1965, when I was 8 years old, we attended my cousin's bat mitzvah. My parents wisely told me that this was "God's other house" and that the same respect and reverence should be shown. I walked into the sanctuary wide-eyed and filled with awe wondering what this "other house" would be like. While I was completely confused by the lack of statues and so forth, I was comforted by the Hebrew. I did not understand it, but then I did not understand the Latin in church either, but I loved hearing it as a child. (Latin mass is a memory that I appreciate but have not enshrined!)

In any event, I loved this other house of God and could not wait to tell Sister Agnes Marie the next day when I had "Catechism class."  After all, I loved God and she always affirmed that so beautifully, so the thought that I had the privilege of going to his "other" house was to be proclaimed.

Maybe not so much - Sister gave my parents a stern talking to afterward and I was to never mention this again.

I don't look at that memory with sadness; Sister was doing what she was brought up and trained to do and she was actually a lovely nun. What I do think is that the spark of familiarity and yet difference, was all apparent to my 8 year old senses. It was sacramental and transcendent and that is at the heart of our Catholic lives and imaginations.

I am so glad that you got to have this experience, something I wish that more of us have had. I have been to many Bar and Bat Mitzvahs over the years and have loved them all. I wonder sometimes what our confirmandi would do under the same circumstances. In any case, there is more that binds us rather than divides us. And what is more hopeful than that as we make our way towards Easter.



JANICE JOHNSON | 4/10/2011 - 10:40pm
Thank you, Valerie, for this lovely story.  It brought back many memories for me and as I was reading I kept thinking: "yes, yes, yes.  I too felt at home in the Jewish temple and I had had previous experiences at Jewish weddings, Seders and Hannukah celebrations.  It was about 7 years ago that I was invited to a Bar Mitzvah of the grandson of long-time friends of mine.  Beforehand I read a "Bar Mitzvah for Dummies" to learn more about the rite.  It was helpful as I was seated in the front row of the temple!  The young man, Jeff's mother is an observant Jew, daughter of a Rabbi.  Many of the other family members, including the father and my friends are secular Jews.  So, it was very inspiring to see and listen to my friends read prayers to God with reverence.

What made the experience even more touching was the fact that Jeff is diagnosed with Asberger's Syndrome.  I followed, with my friends, the course of his lilfe from the time the family became concerned about his development, through many evaluations, tentative diagnoses and finally this diagnosis.  His father, who died of cancer two years ago, and was a superior court judge, and his mother who is a District Attorney pursued every avenue of treatment and special education services.  All seemed a bit worried as to how Jeff would handle his Bar Mitzvah  (alone, just as you described it).  The compassionate Rabbi shortened the rite by an hour or so.  Jeff's mother worked with him for hours and hours.  Well, he did just fine with all the readings and prayers in Hebrew.  It was amazing to see.  He looked pleased and happy with himself and everyone was joyfully congratulating him. 

Jeff graduated from high school and is a junior at a midwestern college, away from home, which is West Hills, CA, and struggling mightily.  I'm sure he misses his dad who was such a big part of his life and dealing with the Aspergers must be very difficult.  He needs our prayers.

Thank you again!
Janice
NORMA NUNAG | 4/10/2011 - 8:31pm
Thank you for sharing your experience.  I think it is wonderful when we allow ourselves to be opened to other traditions,  It is very enriching and broadening.
Yaldah Michael | 5/22/2012 - 6:19am
Thanks for sharing your experience of Bat Mitzvah.  Really awesome celebration!!
The Bat Mitzvah celebrations today have often turned into lavish events. Bat mitzvah gifts also plays an important role in these events.