The Surprising Truth About Judith


Although the first bat mitzvah in the United States was highly controversial, it was actually a pretty casual experience.

Judith Kaplan, eldest daughter of Jewish theologian Mordecai Kaplan, was the first girl to have a Bat Mitzvah, an event that took place in 1922. The ceremony proved revolutionary for it made possible for countless numbers of Jewish women to play a larger role in Judaism and set in motion a chain of events that enabled Jewish women to become rabbis within Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.

Judith Kaplan had a strong commitment to Judaism. Born September 10, 1909, she was the oldest of the four daughters of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism.

He encouraged freethinking, even when Judith questioned and challenged traditional Jewish views. “When I was eleven I told my father I didn’t believe in God,” she said in 1994. She recalled that within her home, “There was a sense of freedom and freedom to change. There was a constant opening up of possibilities and enrichment.” Because of her father’s strong views about Judaism, “It made my being Jewish a great joy for me rather than a burden.”

When she was twelve years old, under her father’s guidance at the newly founded Society for the Advancement of Judaism in Manhattan, Judith had the first Bat Mitzvah. Only the day before, her father had thought of the idea. “It came up very casually,” she recalled. “Dad said, ‘One of these Sabbaths, I’d like you to become a Bat Mitzvah,’ and I said, ‘sure, why not?'” Kaplan suggested that the ceremony take place at his place of worship the very next day. But immediately he ran into opposition from Judith’s two grandmothers. “My mother’s mother said, ‘Talk to your son. Tell him not to do this!'” Grandma Kaplan shot back from her rocking chair: “You know a son doesn’t listen to his mother. Get your daughter to stop him from doing this terrible thing.” But no one could budge Rabbi Kaplan—or Judith.

That night Judith practiced reading the Torah portion with her father. “I didn’t work on it the way kids work on it now, for half a year with lessons every week,” she said in 1992, just before her achievement was celebrated on its seventieth anniversary. “All I did was read through with him Friday night and Saturday morning I went into the synagogue and did it.” Her father was the rabbi for his daughter’s ceremony.

She said of the event: “It all passed very peacefully. No thunder sounded, no lightning struck.” That was a slight overstatement. In fact, the Orthodox Jewish press bitterly condemned Judith’s act at the time. And there were her grandmothers with whom to contend.

Despite the criticisms, Judith Kaplan’s Bat Mitzvah lead to other Bat Mitzvahs, all helping to expand the role of women in Judaism, including their eventual ordination as rabbis in the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements. Judith’s ceremony also has been credited with leading to improvements for Jewish women, including new naming ceremonies for baby girls.

The Bat Mitzvah came to mark a Jewish girl’s ceremonial introduction into the life of the synagogue and Judaism in general. The ceremony is held when girls are twelve. Jewish boys celebrate their Bar Mitzvahs at age thirteen. Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist girls are usually called to the Torah during synagogue services, although the practice was not permitted to Judith Kaplan at her ceremony, they sometimes present a sermon as well. Even some Orthodox girls mark the day by addressing the congregation about the Torah portion of the week, with a party following.

Of the greatest significance was that Judith Kaplan’s Bat Mitzvah marked the first time a female had stood before the congregation as a leader.

Judith Kaplan went on to earn her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in music from Columbia University. From 1949 to 1954 she taught music education and the history of Jewish music at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She published a book of children’s music called Gateway to Jewish Song which was widely used by teachers in Jewish nursery schools.

In 1934, Judith married Ira Eisenstein, who was her father’s closest disciple. He had been working as Kaplan’s assistant rabbi at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. She started to write cantatas rooted in Judaism in 1942. She published seven of them, some in conjunction with her husband.

When she was in her fifties, she obtained a doctorate from the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred music. She taught music there and at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (founded by her husband in Pennsylvania in 1968). Her book on the history of Jewish music, Heritage of Music: The Music of the Jewish People is still in print. She helped to make Jewish music a respectable discipline, one deserving of serious study.

At age eighty-two, Judith had a second Bat Mitzvah at her home in Woodstock, New York, during which feminist and Jewish leaders paid tribute to her. On that occasion, she expressed her disappointment that the Bat Mitzvah ceremony had, like Bar Mitzvahs, become overshadowed by expensive parties. “Bat Mitzvah began not just as a statement of feminism,” she said, “but as a statement of dedication to something larger than oneself.”

In February 1996 Judith Kaplan Eisenstein died at the age of eighty-six.

Excerpted from Elinor and Robert Slater’s Great Moments in Jewish History (1998) by special arrangement with Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., Middle Village, New York 11379.

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