Coming Down from the Balcony


How a 47-year old woman from California ended up celebrating her bat mitzvah in Valencia, Spain.

by Alba Toscano

The excerpt below is reprinted with permission from Today I Am a Woman: Bat Mitzvah Around the World (Indiana University Press, forthcoming).

I was born in 1950 into a Conservative Jewish family in California. We frequented a kind of Orthodox “light” synagogue because the only other option was a Reform synagogue, and my father flatly refused to have anything to do with Reform synagogues. Therefore, I never had a bat mitzvah, proper or otherwise, because in 1962, when I would have participated in one in a Reform synagogue, my mother, sister, and I were still making the hike up to the balcony on Saturday mornings.

My sister hated it up there—not for philosophical reasons, but because she suffered terribly from vertigo, and even to this day will not go to the second floor of a building unless there are enclosed stairs or an elevator. Unlike her, I have been known to stand precariously on the edge of precipitous cliffs in national parks.

As a girl, I felt an uncontrollable urge to rappel off the synagogue balcony. I once commented to my father, “As a Jewish girl, I can populate the world with Jewish babies, but according to the Jewish Mother Rule, a Jewish boy cannot make anything. The bottom line is that Jewish boys are utterly useless creatures.” To which my father retorted, “Alba, shut up. The things you say!”

Today, less than half of the Jewish world’s population is male. Those who stand by the Jewish Mother Rule (that children must have a Jewish mother to be counted as Jews) have effectively converted Jewish men into breeding stock, negating any role Jewish men might play in the future physical growth of Judaism, an unacceptable concept. Just because guys suffer from a minor (though delightful) physical defect doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the same rights and responsibilities in the formation of our future as we girls do. At the time that I considered these ideas, I never dreamed that one day I would found a synagogue built upon those very principles.

When I came to Valencia, Spain in 1988, about 99% of the active Jewish population was comprised of people from Morocco who had arrived in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The other Jewish populations were the time-share condo, three-times-a-year-we-go-to-the-coast visitors; the junior-year-abroad university students; the Ashquenaci temporary residents from Germany and England; and the retired, waiting for their first major illness before they skedaddled back home. They all fell into the category of “tourists.” Jews, yes. But were they ever to seek out a synagogue, it would not be to pay fees and become active members. No, they had all that waiting for them back home. For them, the purpose of a synagogue in Spain was to provide social diversion to help them pass the idle hours.

So, unable to find a synagogue in Valencia, I would go to Madrid from time to time to the Moroccan Sefardic Orthodox synagogue, and climb up to the balcony. One day I got the brass ring: a Sefardic Moroccan-style bar mitzvah. Up in the galleries, the ladies tossed random handfuls of hard cellophane-wrapped candy over the railings, which bounced like hail off the bima, chairs, and bar mitzvah boy below. This was like lighting a powder keg under the tots, who went flying down the stairs, negotiating legs and seats, and sliding into home like the pennant was at stake. They gathered up all they could, crinkle-crackling the plastic wrappers, and, after a preliminary sucking, leaving the candy on the seats for Dad to sit on.

The dads themselves were hopping about like a bunch of wild men, trying to signal their wives, who were utterly engrossed in conversation, which to all intents and purposes drowned out the noise from the street, to say nothing of the jazan (cantor) chanting down below. Meanwhile, the sexton wandered about, pulling numbers out of a leather bag to sell people the honor of ascending the bima, a tradition that takes the place of paying yearly synagogue dues.

By accident, I also stumbled upon the collective girls’ bat mitzvah one weekend when I was in Madrid. The young ladies, gathered on the steps leading up to the aron kodesh under a large flower-decorated jupa (canopy), formed a pretty tableau, and nobody threw anything off the balconies. The girls sang a couple of songs, recited a little poetry, and gave short speeches: “What coming-of-age means to me.” The presentation was followed by a massive bash laid on by proud parents, several of whom had evidently mortgaged off the family homestead.

I was eventually tipped off as to the whereabouts of an itty-bitty converted apartment rented by the clergy-less Sefardic Orthodox in Valencia. Over the subsequent five years, I adapted myself to sitting on a broken kitchen chair in a crowded corner with the rest of the girls. Afterwards, everybody went straight home, dinner being at 10 p.m. in Spain. That was it. Week after week.

Every synagogue has its sublime as well as its absurd aspects. My inevitable day of spiritual crisis had little, if anything, to do with colourful sweets whizzing over railings, or sitting on trash-bin furniture. In 1996, there were no Conservative or Reform synagogues in Spain. As nice as the Orthodox Sefardic Moroccan synagogues were, they just weren’t my cup of tea.

At the rate things were going, I would be looking down from a balcony the rest of my religious life. My options were clear and evident. Either I could give it up—stop being Jewish, close the door, get on with life, go save some sea otters or Amazon tree frogs or some other embattled beast—or I could found my own synagogue.

It took me a little more than a year to decide whether I was going to open or close the door. And then one day, time was up, and the thinking was over. There was no party with twinkling fairy lights, no fancy dress, no strawberries and whipped cream, or garlands of flowers. My grandparents did not send lacy greeting cards with “To our grand-daughter on her bat mitzvah.”

Bat mitzvah means you have been instructed, and are ready to take your place amongst the up-and-coming generation of a Jewish community. It is time to accept a lifetime of working for the greater good.

At high noon on January 24, 1997, the Sunday closest to Tu b’Shvat, along with four other people, I planted a maple tree in the University of Valencia Botanical Gardens. On that day, we founded the Sinagoga Conservador/Masorti “La Javura.” At the time, I felt neither prepared nor ready. But a beginning is a beginning, at twelve or at forty-six. And, as in all formal beginnings, there must be a formal public ceremony. Unbeknownst to the others, I celebrated my bat mitzvah as I planted that tree. It grows there still.

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