Give girls a real batmitzvah experience

By Sarah Ebner, January 11, 2014
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In two weeks’ time, on her batmitzvah, my daughter will read from the Torah. Jessica will be taking part in her first public act as an adult Jew, a week after her 12th birthday.

I am genuinely happy my daughter has this chance to leyn in front of our community. It’s all very different from my own experience.

Back in the 1980s I had a bat chayil at Kenton Synagogue (I’m not sure anyone has these any more. It’s all about batmitzvahs now). Every girl of the appropriate age read a few lines, some in English, some in Hebrew, before being presented with a siddur. The siddur itself is a statement, inscribed with the words “presented on the occasion of the annual Bat Chayil ceremony” — not presented to me. I was just a cog in the “I guess our girls should get to do something” machine.

The ceremony was on a Sunday — girls simply could not be the centre of attention on a Shabbat — and they rattled through 10 of us in the morning and 11 in the afternoon. It didn’t matter when your birthday was: your bat chayil fitted in with the shul.

I was not impressed by my bat chayil

If I don’t sound as if I was overly impressed, I wasn’t, even then. Three years before my bat chayil, I had seen my brother celebrate his barmitzvah so knew that my experience was not on the same level. I wish it had been, not for the party or presents, but for the religious experience.

However, mine was still better than my mother’s. She didn’t get any recognition at all when she turned 12. Her father, who had two daughters and was a founder member of Edgware Synagogue, tried his best to persuade the shul to bring in a ceremony. That was in the 1950s and he didn’t succeed.

My husband and I, and our daughter, are passionate about girls having the same opportunities as their male counterparts, and this led us to the Hakol Olin service at our Masorti synagogue, New North London.

Here, there are choices. Girls can have their batmitzvah in the traditional service, which means they give a dvar Torah and contribute via singing prayers, but don’t leyn. In the egalitarian service, the girls do the same as the boys. It was obvious which would suit us.

Some of my friends, strong, independent women, have told me they would have liked their daughter to leyn, but have decided against it. They say the grandparents (usually their husband’s parents, funnily enough) wouldn’t be able to “cope.” What does this mean, that they have been parents for 12 years, but can’t tell their own parents what they would like for their daughters? And are they sure about the coping?

Perhaps the grandparents would, instead, be proud. My parents, have, so far, happily survived, and enjoyed, their granddaughters being batmitzvahed in both United and Reform synagogues.

A few months ago, Angela Epstein wrote an article on these pages suggesting that her daughter would not get a lavish batmitzvah party due to her sex. Girls, she said, don’t have to “do” anything to become a Jewish adult, whereas boys have to be called up in shul. Hence they deserve a huge celebration.

This is rubbish. You don’t have to do anything to have a bar or batmitzvah: it happens automatically. According to the Mishnah, girls reach the age of majority at 12 and boys at 13. After this they are responsible for their own ethical behaviour, and assume the responsibility of mitzvot: they are bar or batmitzvah by virtue of breathing.

Not all children want to leyn or give a sermon, but those decisions shouldn’t be made on account of gender. My daughter is excited about her batmitzvah. It’s not about the party, it’s about a real sense of achievement.

Sarah Ebner is a journalist on The Times

Last updated: 7:45am, January 11 2014