Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR


Nomi Kline Solmeson prepares for her bat mitzvah, reading Torah in her bedroom with her grandfather, Rabbi David Kline, and aunt Shira Kline.

Sarah Blesener for NPR


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Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

Nomi Kline Solmeson prepares for her bat mitzvah, reading Torah in her bedroom with her grandfather, Rabbi David Kline, and aunt Shira Kline.

Sarah Blesener for NPR

For 12-year-old Nomi Kline Solmeson, preparing for her next bat mitzvah is a family affair. Her grandfather, a rabbi, helps her learn to recite the words of the Torah. Her aunt, also a religious leader, works with her to translate the Hebrew and come up with her own interpretation of the words.

“Because the Torah was meant to be discussed,” Nomi says. “I can be part of this discussion. I can have my own voice.”

For children like Nomi, who view this rite of passage as a basic human right, it may come as a surprise to realize how recent the history of the bat mitzvah really is.

This weekend, Jewish communities across the country will celebrate the 100th anniversary of that first American bat mitzvah. There will be talks, podcasts and celebrations of this coming-of-age ritual – stories of the past and plans for the future.

Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

A young woman prepares to celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Village Temple in Manhattan on a recent Saturday morning.

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Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

A young woman prepares to celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Village Temple in Manhattan on a recent Saturday morning.

Sarah Blesener for NPR

Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

A young woman greets her friends and holds the Torah next to her rabbi before celebrating her bat mitzvah.

Sarah Blesener for NPR


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Sarah Blesener for NPR

Since around the 14th century, boys have had bar mitzvah services, but the first American bat mitzvah for girls was not held until 1922.

Since at least the 14th century, boys have had bar mitzvah services, adding their voices to the Jewish community, says Rabbi Carole Balin, professor emeritus of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College who is working on a book about early bats. mitzvah. But the girls had no equivalent rite of passage.

Balin says there were early rituals for girls in the Ottoman and Hungarian empires. And Confirmation, an alternative coming-of-age ceremony, was adopted by Jews in Prussia in the 19th century and later used by Reform temples for boys and girls.

But the first American Bat Mitzvah didn’t happen until 1922. It was then that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan performed the bat mitzvah for his daughter, Judith, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York, a temple that still exists today. As Balin notes, it was personal.

“He always joked that he initiated the rite for four reasons – Judith being the first and his youngest daughters being the second, third and fourth,” Balin explains.

Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

Judith Kaplan, the eldest daughter of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, became the first American girl to have a bat mitzvah ceremony on March 18, 1922 in New York, NY A clipping from the temple bulletin of the bat mitzvah announcement of Rhoda Shapiro.

Archives of Jewish Women; Rhoda Shapiro


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Archives of Jewish Women; Rhoda Shapiro

America’s first bat mitzvah omitted important coming-of-age practices

The actual details of this first bat mitzvah may surprise congregations today. Unlike girls today, Judith Kaplan didn’t actually read the Torah. She was only called to the bimah, the stage where the Torah is read, after her father had read the weekly portion.

Judith also did not climb to the top of the bimah, but instead stood at the bottom, reading a separate book. This difference, as Balin explains, was in some way the purpose of the ceremony created by his father. “He never intended it as a gateway to full and regular involvement in religious life as is the case for boys,” she says.

In the decades following Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah, the ritual spread slowly, often through followers of Mordecai Kaplan or at summer camps where they were unlikely to offend an established congregation. In other temples, rabbis also pushed on behalf of their daughters.

In 1950, Rhoda Shapiro had one of the first bat mitzvahs at her Cleveland temple – as part of a small cohort that included the rabbi’s daughter. Shapiro did not read the Torah. And his bat mitzvah was Friday night instead of the big Saturday morning service the boys had. But it was still revolutionary.

“Oh my God, my knees were shaking, that’s all I can tell you,” laughs Shapiro.

Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

Adena Greenberg, with her father, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, at her bat mitzvah ceremony on May 15, 1964. The ceremony was held at her congregation, Temple Sinai, in Dresher, Penn.

Jewish Women Archives


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Jewish Women Archives

Over time, girls push for more equal rituals and more equal roles in Jewish life

In the late 1950s, Rabbi Carole Balin says half of Conservative temples and a third of Reform congregations reported holding some sort of bat mitzvah. As the ceremony spread, the girls wanted it to be more than symbolic.

“Girls are kind of starting to take the bull by the horns and not just asking, but in some cases demanding to be given full rights like their male counterparts,” Balin Balin. “And that’s what’s happening.”

With the increase in bat mitzvahs in the 1960s and with the help of second-wave feminism, girls argued that they should read Torah and be counted in a minyan, the required quorum of adults. for community prayer. Their mothers began to join temple councils or seek their own bat mitzvahs that were unavailable when they were younger.

Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

Preparing for Nomi Kline Solmeson’s bat mitzvah involves translating the Hebrew text she will sing at the service and crafting her own interpretation of its message for modern life.

Sarah Blesener for NPR


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Sarah Blesener for NPR

Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

Preparing for Nomi Kline Solmeson’s bat mitzvah involves translating the Hebrew text she will sing at the service and crafting her own interpretation of its message for modern life.

Sarah Blesener for NPR

Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

Nomi prepares her bat mitzvah with her grandfather and aunt and also alone on her computer, mastering both the melody and the meaning of her portion of Torah.

Sarah Blesener for NPR


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Sarah Blesener for NPR

“These girls, at the age of 12 or 13, are stepping into the spotlight and transforming Jewish life,” Balin says. “While by the time the first woman was ordained a rabbi in this country in 1972, she has daughters half her age to thank for leading the way.”

Over the past 100 years, the bat mitzvah has evolved from radical innovation to mainstream expectation. And now congregations are expanding the ritual, adapting it for trans and non-binary people or people with disabilities.

There is a temptation to view all rituals as ancient, handed down from God on Mount Sinai. But the bat mitzvah is young. The ceremony is the embodiment of how religions change and adapt. It’s a testament to the perseverance of 12-year-old girls.

It’s a legacy that Nomi Kline Solmeson is proud of.

“I feel a bit stronger, because I add it and make it more powerful,” says Nomi. “It’s almost like a gift, and I’m really happy to receive it.”

Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

In early bat mitzvahs, girls were not allowed to read Torah. Today, it is an integral part of the ceremony.

Sarah Blesener for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Sarah Blesener for NPR

Bat mitzvahs for Jewish girls mark 100 years and now more than a coming of age: NPR

In early bat mitzvahs, girls were not allowed to read Torah. Today, it is an integral part of the ceremony.

Sarah Blesener for NPR


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