I did not have a bat mitzvah. I might have come up with a lot of reasons not to do it at the time, but there was actually only one that was real: the kids in Hebrew school were mean, and I wanted to get out as soon as possible, and that was it, end of discussion. (I was indeed a nerdily-dressed and hopelessly awkward 11-year-old, but you were cruel, Hebrew school classmates who are most definitely not reading this.)
The skipped bat mitzvah was not an issue until I decided I wanted to work in the Jewish community. When I interviewed for jobs, no one ever asked me if I’d had one, there was no quiz about Torah portions or catering or themes. It was assumed, I think, that I had always belonged to a community in that specific way.
By the time I was actually working as an organizer for Jewish life on a college campus, it was clear that many of my students shared some common Jewish narratives: camp, Israel, and bar and bat mitzvahs. I didn’t miss an experience I hadn’t had, but I did feel left out of an experience (I also hadn’t gone to camp and didn’t go to Israel until I was in my early 20s) that seemed to lend legitimacy to Judaism. I operated with a certain degree of paranoia for a while during my Jewish professional life. When was I going to be exposed for forgoing this thing that was supposed to have made me a Jewish adult?
Of course, I’m not the only Jew who opted out of the bat mitzvah experience, or the only one who reflects on the omission of that so called “rite of passage.” T is a doctor who grew up in a small town in the Midwest in the 1970s. Her parents were one of the first couples she knew who got divorced, which happened when she was supposed to be having her bat mitzvah. She was so stressed out, she told me, that her rabbi actually suggested that she call off the bat mitzvah as an act of self-care. “I was so happy I didn’t have to go through my parents’ dumb drama. As it was I wore the scarlet D for divorce and I couldn’t bear more ostracizing from my anti-Semitic gentile community I grew up in.” She has no desire to get one now, she said. “For me, Judaism is what is in your heart and how you behave and conduct yourself to you, others, and a higher power. I don’t have to sit in a temple any time anywhere or get a bat mitzvah to prove I am a good Jew.”
“My family has a pretty complicated relationship to Judaism,” says K, a Jewish woman of color I spoke with. Her grandmother was raised Jewish, but later converted to Christianity before giving birth to K’s mother and other children. K describes herself as “dabbling” in Judaism as she grew up, but “I don’t think there was ever truly a sense that I needed a bat mitzvah because I don’t think my mom ever saw herself as Jewish.”
K practices Judaism now as an adult. While she thinks about having a bat mitzvah, she still feels “very much like an outsider,” because she grew up without a Jewish community, which she attributes largely to the fact of being a Jew of Color. “I think most of us feel like we don’t fit,” she told me. Even though recently she’s been realizing that she can take ownership over her Judaism, she says it still feels like a bat mitzvah is something that’s not for her. “I guess to me it feels like something that only someone ‘born’ into Judaism can access.”
I also spoke with A, who was born and raised in Indiana and now lives in Boston, where she practices Judaism in what she describes as a “conservadox/independent minyan bubble.” A bat mitzvah, she says, is an example of a Jewish educational experience that people associate with affecting their confidence, or lack thereof, in Jewish spaces.
“I know a lot of people who are worried about being seen as ‘not Jewish enough’ or not the ‘right” kind of Jewish. It makes perfect sense to me that for some people it could manifest around whether or not they had a bar/bat mitzvah.” A’s husband was raised Modern Orthodox and had what could be considered a kind of “ultimate” Jewish education that allows for being able to glide seamlessly through many Jewish circles. “It’s the definition of social capital,” A says. “Coming from an assimilated unaffiliated family in Indiana, I will never have [that] but now I know how to ‘fake’ it.”
(Reader, I faked it. I faked it hard. I faked it to the point where someone asked me over the phone in a job interview if I had spent a year in Israel because I had somehow manifested “Yeshiva girl” speak. I faked it because I wanted so badly to be on the inside, and because I was so afraid that in spite of that determination, someone would see through me.)
“For me, it’s less about not having had a bat mitzvah and more about reminding myself that I and others like me belong,” says A. “I was very fortunate that I’ve learned to be a competent Jewish adult in inclusive spaces where people only cared that I showed up and I wanted to learn. That is what makes me feel like a competent Jewish adult: being able to read Hebrew out loud by myself and not have to ask my husband to do it for me.”
After this interrogation — my foray into the fellow non-bat mitzvahed — the conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t regret my decision to skip out on that experience, even if it was made out of a hectic, sweaty determination to get away from my classmates. In my case, it would not have instilled religious confidence, only a very specific sense of belonging, which, while valuable, is not the same thing. I could get that by faking it, but the first thing, I had to desire in order for it to actually matter.