As an Asian American Jew, My Coming of Age Is an Ongoing Process

My bat mitzvah didn’t magically solidify my sense of belonging, but I now realize that to put that weight on one experience is unrealistic.

I’ve always loved a good coming-of-age story. While growing up, the fantasy and dystopian YA fiction I read was peppered with societally constructed ceremonies, trials or fights to the death to mark the passage from childhood to maturity.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend my cousin’s bat mitzvah at a Reform synagogue in the Midwest. Though all four of my grandparents were Jewish, only one set of cousins have had b-mitzvahs and, as such, I haven’t been to one in years. It was a joyful moment for my cousin and her family, and the event inspired me to reflect on what my own bat mitzvah — a little over a decade ago — has come to mean for me.

Though I attended Hebrew school long enough to learn the letters alef through dalet, the drive to the synagogue was long and my parents didn’t feel at home with the rest of the community. We stopped going and contented ourselves with Shabbat prayers here and there, occasional attendance at High Holiday services, and annual Seder at our friends’ home. My involvement with Jewish life remained in this low-key state until I met my friend, “R,” one middle school summer at a sleepaway art camp.

R invited me and my parents to her bat mitzvah in New York City, and when we went, I felt something click. R’s family belonged to a Secular Humanistic Jewish congregation, and rather than read a section of the Torah, R delivered a speech (in English) representing the culmination of her studies on a specific Jewish topic. Like me, R is Asian-American — unlike any other Jew I’d met to that point.

It wasn’t only the academic nature and minimal Hebrew of R’s ceremony that appealed to me and made me think I, too, can do this. As someone who had long flirted with atheism, the concept of a community that celebrated shared culture but excised direct appeals to God resonated with me as something I could sincerely embrace.

My family joined Machar in the D.C. metro area, and though it meant I would be bat mitzvahed at age 14 rather than 13, I embarked on two years of weekend study of Jewish history and traditions in preparation.

The joint ceremony, shared with another boy in my cohort, took place at the Kay Spiritual Life Center on American University’s campus; my classmate and I each presented our research projects to an assembly of our congregation, our families and our friends. Outside of school plays, it was my first major public speaking experience. We sang, prayed, and invited family members to share readings that were meaningful to us. Overall, it went beautifully.

My cousin’s bat mitzvah was held at her synagogue where her dad is the president. The building is large and modern; its sanctuary was bright with natural light and the lobby was colorful with artwork, books, and posters for community events. The rabbi was young and energetic, and he characterized becoming a bat mitzvah as becoming not only an adult in the Jewish community but also a prayer leader. My cousin exemplified this role as she stood with the rabbi and cantor throughout most of the service and led some of the prayers.

Though my bat mitzvah venue was lovely, it struck me how lived-in my cousin’s synagogue felt. I wondered what it might have been like to be bat mitzvahed in a sanctuary that was a dedicated Jewish space, rather than one built to be multipurpose and multifaith. In the flurry of greetings and congratulations, it was clear many of my cousin’s guests came from a close-knit and engaged Jewish community — notably different from the people I’d invited to mine.

In the months after my bat mitzvah, nothing had felt particularly different. Neither I nor my parents had made any bonds strong enough to overcome my increasingly busy weekends or the long drive to our congregation. As a ninth grader, I certainly didn’t feel like an adult in any community — I didn’t even have my driver’s license.

My parents and I drifted back to our routine of sporadic Shabbats and services, and I began to think more about what it meant, as an adoptee and person of color, to belong to a group that emphasized the cultural aspects of Judaism. What elements of culture, really, could I claim? I didn’t have those words for it in high school, but I remember idly hearing about a friend of a friend who had gone on a Birthright trip to Israel and wondering, was I Jewish enough to go? It was not the trip itself that interested me — I was aware of criticisms of the program, and traveling with a group of people I’ve never met is my introvert’s nightmare. Nevertheless, it felt like if the answer was yes, then I’d have a second authority besides the bat mitzvah to reaffirm that I was Jewish and other people thought so too.

Why was this important to me? I couldn’t say precisely, but as identity politics were crystallizing into hot political discourse, I was feeling the weight of labels and community and finding something to cling to that I could claim as belonging. Secular Humanistic Judaism, with its de-emphasis on the religious aspects of a religion, already feels difficult to explain to people who often seem surprised to learn I’m Jewish in the first place.

While my cousin’s ceremony toasted her individual achievements, it also felt like a celebration and reflection of her engagement with Jewish life. References to generational connection abounded, most poignantly represented to me in her family’s symbolic passing of the Torah from her elders to her when they gathered together on the bimah.

Like my cousin, I suppose my engagement with Judaism also echoes my immediate family’s example. In our case, it has manifested as a facet of our identities but not a central force in our lives. Creating or finding community takes time and energy, and sometimes even with those efforts, the fit isn’t quite right. Reflecting on these two bat mitzvahs I’ve been reminded that along many different axes, not just Judaism, I will always feel in-between.

My bat mitzvah didn’t magically solidify my sense of belonging, but I now realize that to put that weight on one experience is unrealistic. Despite the arcs of teen movies, the truth is that one singular event — whether it’s having a first kiss, getting your first job, defeating a dark lord or becoming a bat mitzvah — is never going to make you feel “adult” all by itself. Coming-of-age is an ongoing process whose endpoint is not fixed; you might summit one mountain only to learn that larger ones lie ahead.  In attending my cousin’s bat mitzvah and taking the opportunity to reflect on both hers and my own, I’ve come to understand moments like these not as the end of my coming-of-age journey, but as steps along the way.

Marina Cooper

Marina Cooper (she/her) is a Chinese-American and Jewish writer from the D.C. area. She earned her BA in English from Princeton University in 2021 and misses those days when her schedule allowed her to take meandering midnight walks.

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