Life & Culture

'Today I am a woman...': Rewriting our batmitzvah speeches

The speech you give when you're 12 doesn't always reflect the Jewish woman you grow up to be. On International Women's Day we asked four women to reimagine their big day


Rachel Creeger

I celebrated my batmitzvah in 1984 (I’ll take your silence as shock because you thought I was younger). My parents had become more religiously observant in the run-up to this event and I silently found that quite challenging, not least because I’d already bought a dress which was no longer suitable. (As you’re asking, pink-and-white candy-striped, dropped-waist puffball sleeves. It was acceptable in the ’80s.) I remember thinking that, while it was lovely to be centre of attention, I also felt quite disconnected from my Jewish self in the moment.

If I were to revisit that time, my dvar Torah would be something like this:

“My batmitzvah portion is Ha’azinu, described as the final song of Moses. Before he dies, he shares his concerns that the Jewish people will again lose their faith and forget Hashem. The opening language is incredibly beautiful: “Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth! My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass.” It reminds me of a Shakespearean monologue or the sort of romantic poetry that we we’re studying (somewhat inappropriately) in school. My main loves are English, Music and Drama, it seems fitting that my parasha uses words in such a dramatic way.

In Chapter 32, verse 7 we read “Remember the olden days; look back upon the years of previous generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will enlighten you.”

It’s suggesting that memories of the past should still have an influence on the decisions you make. That you allow the lessons from previous generations to influence your choices and how you respond to opportunities when they present themselves. Ha’azinu is about the past informing the future, and accepting that you’ll live your future in a completely different place and lifestyle to your ancestors. When we look at the way the world is changing, this is an idea that is very relevant to us now.

Ha’azinu is written in two columns, with a path in-between. The text doesn’t flow so you have to constantly skip across the gap. I hope that I will always have the courage to make a leap of faith, and use the skills I have inherited to make a calculated jump.

Rachel Creeger is the UK’s only Orthodox Jewish female comedian She’s appearing at A Night of Comedy in aid of Donnie’s Fund on March 24 and touring Israel from March 27

Yehudis Fletcher 

My batmitzvah was a party at home for friends on a Motzei Shabbat. I wore a new outfit and I remember we had candles lit on the dining room table as is traditional at a Melave Malka. My grandmother gave me a sefer tehilim, a book of Psalms, and my parents bought me my first set of machzorim, prayer books for the high holy days and major festivals. My batmitzvah was a confirmation of my place as a woman, an expectation that I would assume my prescribed feminine role with quiet strength and resilience.

At 12, I was a halachic woman. In the eyes of God, I was told, I was an adult. I was obliged to observe mitzvot. The emphasis was on stoicism and responsibility, which today feels like martyrdom rather than strength.

My mother recently quoted Lori Palatnik, the founding director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, who said that "women set the tone". This is exactly what I was expected to do even then and is still expected of many women now.

At the age of 12, it was my voice that couldn’t be heard singing or praying out loud. It was my elbows that had to be covered so as not to be a distraction to men. My Jewish learning had to be focused on practical issues like learning practical halachah so that I could observe it properly, but not to learn Talmud because after all, that was theoretical. There was no need for me to understand what other opinions had been considered or why the rabbis came to the halachic conclusions they came to. I just needed to know what to do and when to do it.

I didn’t give a speech at my batmitzvah, but if I had to give one today, I would start by thanking my mother and my grandmothers for being the strong Jewish women that they are, and then I would ask them to validate and accept me for the Jewish woman I am. I would say, hineni, here I am. Here I am, still forming, still learning, unready to be boxed in or restricted. Hineni, here I am. Thirsty for knowledge and understanding. Not ready or willing to set the tone for anyone else besides myself.

When we tell women that they set the tone, we are allowing them to take credit for what comes next, but with that, we’re also saying that what comes next is their fault.

Yehudis Fletcher is an Ambassador for JOFA

Alissa Symon

I can remember my bat mitzvah distinctly; much fuss was spent on looking for the right dress, shoes, and hairdo. My parents had set just one condition – they would only pay for a party if I gave a drasha. I had to address my guests with a profound idea connected to Jewish texts, which would be entirely my own.

My bat mitzvah was to take place between Yom Kippur and Succot, making my options countless. Indeed, my Jewish background had undoubtedly prepared me for the mission; I was studying in Chorev, one of Jerusalem’s top schools for religious girls, and my parents were always pushing us to think creatively.

After numerous hours of typing and deleting (and nagging my parents for help, which they were reluctant to give) I opened Sefer Ha’chinuch, or The Book of Education, which discusses the 613 mitzvot, and inserted some passages about Succot. I chose a large font and inserted a very long passage of thank-yous to fill in space. Essentially, I produced something between a copy and a translation of the texts I had used. There wasn’t much thought or personal reflection involved in the process.

Today, I split my time as an MPhil student in the University of Cambridge, and as a Jewish Chaplain in Nottingham. These two experiences have taught me the great value of critical thinking and personal engagement – both with a given text, and with my personal religious identity. Indeed, if I were to give my batmitzvah speech now, I would weave together these two concepts to compose my drasha. I would talk about how one must take responsibility for one’s Judaism. A batmitzvah is a point where you are no longer a consumer of your Jewish home and your parents’ religious work, but a productive individual in the Jewish community.

In truth, while this process is initiated in this Jewish coming of age event, it continues to be relevant and important. One can lead an entire Jewish life as a consumer; attend communal events, participate in Kaballat Shabbat, enjoy a good Friday night dinner. But for me, the essence of crossing the threshold between a child-like approach to Judaism and an adult approach is grounded in the ability to engage with one’s Jewish identity and build a critical concept of what that identity means – when looking inwards, outwards and toward the wider Jewish community.

Alissa is currently serving as the Jewish Chaplain for Nottingham and the East Midlands, together with her husband Rabbi Elazar Symon, through University Jewish Chaplaincy. She is studying for an MPhil in Muslim-Jewish Relations at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. She previously completed her B.A. at Shalem College and worked with young professionals on leadership development. Alissa is originally from Jerusalem.

Zelda Leon

I never thought I’d be entitled to have a batmitzvah as I’m only half-Jewish. I wondered if maybe I could have a half-mitzvah – just read half a Torah portion (which would probably be more than enough for most people, especially with my singing, which needs at least a couple of strong mojitos to get into its stride), invite half my friends, have a party with a starter and dessert but no main course. And now, here I am, delivering half a speech. My dad’s advice, regarding any kind of speech was very simple: “Keep it short. Leave them wanting more. No-one ever complained that a speech was too short.” Very true.

My non-Jewish mother (but not Christian either – she eschewed any kind of label, but atheist/artist/writer/nature-worshipper comes close) – had two best friends, both German and half-Jewish. Both had survived the war in Germany, one in Berlin, living with false papers. I knew that they ‘counted’ as proper Jews, at least as far as the Nazis were concerned. By the Nazis’ own test, I would – at 13 – count as a ‘Mischling of the first degree’ (two Jewish grandparents, two non-Jewish grandparents). However, becoming part of a Jewish community, and presumably having a batmitzvah, elevates me to full Jew status. Mazeltov to me! (But not such good news if I were writing this in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1941).

I have not felt entitled because sometimes it seems as if people are desperate to prove that they have some intriguing ethnicity as if that alone would make them a more interesting person. I myself find my semi-shiksa status interesting, but more because it seems emblematic of my general sense of ambiguity – a feeling of belonging and not belonging at the same time. Perhaps it is a good fit because, like most writers, often one part of me is standing at the edge, observing instead of wholly joining in?

As we know, being Jewish brings burdens as well as blessings. Every Jewish woman I know has a store cupboard packed to bursting. My guess is that we are all following the same subconscious logic: If we have to board up the doors and windows and lie low, at least we’re not going to run out of rigatoni….

 I keep some cash in an envelope so that if ever I have to leave in a hurry, I can. Is that a conscious, common-sense decision, or seeded by some strange race memory, from my grandparents who fled Russia and Lithuania?

Zelda Leon is a JC columnist. Zelda Leon is a pseudonym 

 On Sunday March 10, JW3 has a Back to Bat event, where four more women will reimagine their batmitzvah speeches. Detials 

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