My sister’s bat mitzvah dress hangs in the closet of my college dorm room. It’s mid-2000s chic: strapless, poofy, purple and freckled, with big, black polka-dots. A satin sash cinches the waist, stitched into a loopy, oversized bow. It’s awful, but also perfect. At least, I’ve always thought it so.
I was just 5 years old at the time of my sister’s bat mitzvah, so I don’t remember much. (Other than a hazy memory of running around the synagogue’s playground after a Saturday morning service, I’ve got nothing. My brother’s bar mitzvah, which took place two years earlier, is even more unreachable).
I am certain, however, that I was delighted by the sight of my too-cool-for-school older sister dressed up like a princess. Likewise, my brother, towering over gathered loved ones on the bimah, was like a superhero ready to launch into flight. More than anything, I sought to emulate my siblings. All to say, the dream of achieving this rite of passage myself predates my earliest memories.
But the best-laid plans of would-be bat mitzvah girls often go awry.
When I was 13, my paternal grandmother passed away. A Holocaust survivor from Warsaw, she was the strong-willed matriarch who held my family together. Her sudden absence brought us collectively to a halt. Preparations for my long-awaited bat mitzvah were put on a “temporary” hold.
“Temporary” stretched into weeks, months and years. My long dreamt-of bat mitzvah remained at the bottom of a winding family to-do list.
Missing out is always disappointing. But over time, the loss of my bat mitzvah felt different — and deeper. While continuing to grieve my grandmother, I also mourned the confidence I had once enjoyed in my Jewish identity. As peers undertook their own ceremonies, I battled an internal sense of uncertainty. Moreover, I became wary of how others in Jewish spaces perceived me.
Questions and doubts bubbled up: Am I Jewish enough? Do others think so? These insecurities are old friends now, but in my adolescence, they were fresh and daunting foes.
It didn’t help that, among Jewish teens, tales of stumbling first dances and cringe-worthy party themes were collected and traded like baseball cards or Sillybandz. Having missed my own event, I couldn’t take part; sidelined, I would often remain silent. Other times, I’d appropriate my sisters’ bat mitzvah, passing off her portion and purple dress as my own.
But they weren’t. Even if I fooled others, I knew the truth.
For a long time, I thought the window of opportunity for a bat mitzvah was firmly shut. Looking back, I’m not sure why. The practice of becoming bar or bat mitzvah traces back to Genesis, in which Abraham holds a feast after Isaac is weaned. Accordingly, the celebrations commemorate the transition to adulthood. But the convention of celebrating at 12 or 13 has no such biblical grounding. Rather, it derives from a 13th-century convention — one that, in my opinion, is in dire need of an update.
At 18 years old, for the first time, I felt like Isaac: thrust into a new independence and deprived of long-held support systems. That year, I moved away from my childhood home in Washington, D.C., to a college in New Jersey. None of my high school friends accompanied me. Navigating conflict with my roommates, the burden of doing my own laundry and a college-level workload, I found solace and community in Jewish spaces on campus.
This was a clumsy start to adulthood, and (according to those around me) an apt time for a bat mitzvah. At the encouragement of friends and with the blessing of our Hillel’s beloved Reform rabbi, I launched into study.
My belated bat mitzvah was scheduled for fall of my sophomore year. November 5, 2022, in the lull between the High Holiday rush and first-semester finals, seemed the perfect date. The applicable portion, “Lech Lecha,” recounts God’s promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah, despite their advanced age. The narrative resonated, as I, too, understood the wonder of coming to a rite of passage later in life than originally expected.
It articulated a lesson that I had learned first at age 13: Our futures are unknown, and timelines are subject to disruption. Still, things happen for a reason and, over time, often turn out for the best. It’s a message I was eager to share with guests then and am eager to reiterate now.
Last summer, I read my portion over and again; I listened to recordings of service prayers so often that the “V’ahavta” (a continuation of the “Shema” that expresses ultimate love for God) was my most-listened-to song of the year on Spotify.
I prepared a speech and my own service supplement, and I sent out invitations to loved ones. I begged my sister to ship me the dress I had coveted throughout childhood. (It was a little dated, to be sure, but friends assured me that 2000s fashion was back in.)
She would be unable to attend the service, and I felt that if I wore her hand-me-down, she would be with me in spirit.
But when it arrived, stuffed into a too-small UPS box, something felt off. When I tried it on, it was too short, too poofy — ill-fitting not in size, but in spirit. The truth is that it was a dress made for a girl. I, however, would take the bimah as a young woman, not as a matter of tradition alone, but out of considered choice. The day was my own, and everything, down to my fashion choices, had to reflect the uniqueness of my journey.
I’m not suggesting an upheaval of Jewish tradition. On the contrary, though I was a college student, my ceremony resembled any other: My parents gifted me my own tallit and Shabbat candlesticks, my peers showered me with fruit jellies, and the entire congregation danced the Hora around me as I bobbed about on a shoulder-borne chair.
By the same token, I believe questioning and challenging to be integral to Jewish tradition. As a practicing Reform Jew, I feel that seemingly immoveable conventions can be adapted to the benefit of meaning and inclusivity.
I write all this to say, if there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, take a page from my still unfolding book (or “Lech Lecha” for that matter) and forget about the “expected.” It’s better to do things on your own terms, and in your own time, then not to do them at all.
Conventional wisdom says that late is better than never. That’s true sometimes. But sometimes “late” is simply “better.” Now my dorm closet boasts two bat mitzvah dresses: the poofy and purple now joined by its sister, mint-green and satin with long, tulle sleeves.