It’s Not Supposed to Be Theater


Coauthor of the JGirl’s Guide explains why she is determined to make the bat mitzvah a more fulfilling experience.

by Ali Feldman Gutfreund

On September 23, 1989, in front of an enormous Conservative congregation in Toronto, I rose from my seat, ascended the bimah (stage) and “performed” a theatrical piece I had been working on for months. I use the term “theatrical piece” because that is what my bat mitzvah represented to me: a performance of how well I could memorize my haftarah, how well I could sing it, and how confident I was upon recital. I believed that bat mitzvahs were theatrical presentations. After all, the majority of my friends who had their bat mitzvahs did the same thing. They practiced, had stage fright, and got their makeup applied. Does this not sound like a Broadway production?

While chanting my portion, I glanced at the crowd of people to find the person most important to me—the cute boy from my math class. He was chatting away with other friends at the back of the sanctuary, not at all interested or attentive to my performance. My parents sat closely by holding their breaths, praying that I didn’t make a mistake. My grandparents (in their typical grandparent fashion) had sheer nachas (joy) from simply seeing me stand next to a rabbi. Having memorized my portion from an audio tape, I sang it in front of the crowd and felt like taking a bow once I finished. My performance was excellent. “No mistakes!,” “What a beautiful voice,” the audience murmured! What a remarkable performance… a performance having very little meaning.

The most memorable day… not all that memorable

I also understood that following your “performance,” you were entitled to an elaborate celebration, requiring your parents to spend every last penny to make your party more ostentatious than your best friend’s. Months of planning, arguing, and neuroticism preceded one of the most “memorable days of my life.” In the evening, my parents rented a tent for our backyard and hired a band, a caterer, and spent an exorbitant amount of money on our clothing. We had speeches and toasts; friends and family came from all over to celebrate my coming of age. Yet, what I remember most from my coming-of-age ceremony is being kissed and hugged by a million people, saying “thank you” to everyone who wished me mazel tov and tallying the total of my bat mitzvah gifts at the end of the night. It was not that I was a materialistic child. On the contrary, I enjoyed holidays, family, and Jewish rituals. However, my attention was directed to a material world because that is what surrounded the ritual.

The night was dedicated to celebrating my bat mitzvah. However, the whole time I felt like a showcase mannequin. People were commenting on my dress, my hair, the good food and company… what about the mitzvah?! Why didn’t anyone ask me what kind of mitzvot I had done to prepare for my special day? Why was no one concerned with whether this meant anything to me as a young Jewish woman? Where was the spirituality? Where was the Judaism in this very significant Jewish lifecycle event?

The entire experience left me dumbfounded for many years. I struggled through high school and through my sisters’ bat mitzvahs to understand why the ritual didn’t seem meaningful to me. I excused it by saying that, since I was a girl, perhaps I missed out on whatever it meant for boys. After all, the ritual was originally intended for boys. I excused it again by saying that perhaps my family didn’t focus enough on the spiritual aspect of it. I eventually became tired of making excuses and decided to create a program for bat mitzvah girls so that they would not share the same feelings I had.

Along with the motivation I got from my own experience, I also spoke with several girls about what their bat mitzvahs meant to them. Their experiences were the same: there was an intense focus on the materialism and glamour, and very little attention paid to what it meant for a Jewish girl to come of age. It further confused me that girls specifically at this age were desperate for something deeper than what the pages of teen magazines were offering. As adolescent girls are often plagued with low self-esteem and identity crises, I was frustrated by how such an important lifecycle event was clouded with color schemes and party themes! After all, the bat mitzvah experience was a perfect opportunity to draw young women closer to Judaism, to offer them a guiding path; yet most of them are simply left thinking about the best present they received.

From confusion to inspiration

My confusion and disappointment lead me to create a book and a program that strives to enhance Jewish girls’ experiences in coming of age. I was fortunate enough to have been hired as an intern at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, where I worked closely with Dr. Shulamit Reinharz and Penina Adelman to create this refreshing and engaging project, known today as The JGirl’s Guide. The book and its accompanying curriculum attempt to present Judaism in an invigorating and relevant light to Jewish girls. It presents different topics relevant to girls’ lives, including body image, eating, friendships, sexuality, and appearances, all through a Jewish lens. Young women are encouraged to turn away from teen magazines and look towards Jewish tradition for meaningful, practical, and insightful advice on the topics most pressing in their minds.

We worked tirelessly on the book because we all wanted young Jewish women to have a radically different experience with their bat mitzvahs than we had. During an age in which Jewish girls have every resource under the sun to help educate themselves, and so many opportunities for growth, our hope is that by taking a deeper look at the potential of the experience, girls today can emerge with more passion and excitement for Judaism and with greater guidance and direction as they grow into womanhood.

Adolescence is typically a journey filled with turmoil, social pressure, and internal confusion. By using the bat mitzvah as a vehicle through which to equip girls to deal with these challenges, we hope to ease the rollercoaster ride through this trying stage of life. Further, there is a rich opportunity throughout the year preceding one’s bat mitzvah, and the bat mitzvah experience itself, to empower and inspire young women and to show them the many “jewels” Judaism has to offer. It is my greatest hope that young women embrace the freedom and privilege they have today of being a Jewish girl and allow Judaism to enter their lives and guide them through the tumultuous years to come.

About the Author

author_feldmanAli Feldman Gutfreund
Ali Feldman Gutfreund, MA, MS, is a trained Judaic studies teacher and family therapist. She is the coauthor of The JGirl’s Guide (Jewish Lights, 2006). She specializes in teenage girls and women’s issues in her private practice and currently lives in Miami Beach with her husband and three daughters.

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