Jeremy Shere: The Shabbat service on March 18, 1922, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism synagogue in Manhattan, started out like any other. The morning prayers were recited, followed by the Torah service, and then the Haftarah. But then something radical happened. Judith Kaplan, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s 12-year-old daughter, stood up from her seat in the pews and walked up to the pulpit.
Deborah Waxman: And she chanted from the chumash and then sat back down and then they had a lovely lunch afterwards.
Jeremy Shere: This is Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the president of Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement. The scene she describes might not sound revolutionary. In fact, when Kaplan recalled the event in her memoir, she wryly observed that when she took to the pulpit, “no thunder sounded, no lightning struck.”
But what Kaplan did that day was a big deal. In fact, this low-key event is typically thought of as the first bat mitzvah ceremony in the United States. It paved the way for future bat mitzvahs and, eventually, much more inclusion of women and other groups in public Jewish ritual and practice. In this episode, we’ll trace the history of the bat mitzvah ceremony, from its humble beginnings to the present day. Along the way, we’ll note the ways that it’s evolved over time and how it’s both shaped, and been shaped by, American Jewish life.
Jeremy Shere: Before we dive into the history, let’s get our terms straight. The Hebrew phrases “bar mitzvah” and “bat mitzvah” literally mean “son of the commandments” and “daughter of the commandments,” respectively. They refer to the age of adulthood, the point at which Jews are required to fulfill the mitzvot, or Biblical commandments. According to Jewish law, this happens automatically at 13 and a day for boys and 12 and a day for girls.
Today, we usually use the terms “bar mitzvah” and “bat mitzvah” to refer to the ceremony that marks this coming of age. But for most of Jewish history, there’s no record that this rite of passage was marked by any kind of ceremony. Starting in the Middle Ages, there was typically a minor public ceremony for boys, at least in the Ashkenazi world.
Melissa Klapper: Typically they put on phylacteries for the first time and they were called up to the Torah.
Jeremy Shere: This is Melissa Klapper, a professor of history and director of women’s and gender studies at Rowan University. As for girls, there are records of bat mitzvah rituals in 19th century Europe.
Carole Balin: For example, in traditional communities, in Italy — specifically Turin and Milan — girls would dress in white and they wore flower wreaths on their head. And they would gather together at synagogues on a weekday — important that it's a weekday and not Shabbat, the Sabbath— and the girls would take turns. They would be in a group and they would take turns reciting prayers in the presence of the chief rabbi of Italy.
Jeremy Shere: This is Carole Balin, Professor Emerita at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion of New York. She’s currently working on a book about the history of the bat mitzvah ceremony in America, using testimonies of women from across the decades. But decades before the bat mitzvah ceremony took hold in the United States, confirmation was the main way of marking Jewish girls’ coming of age.
Melissa Klapper: So the confirmation ceremonies are first developed in the Reform movement in Western Europe, and they really caught on in the United States too, by the mid to late 19th century, mostly, again, in Reform synagogues. They were typically associated with the holiday of Shavuot in the spring, which, not coincidentally, was around the same time as public school graduations were held. And so this seemed like a graduation, a moment to mark transition in adolescents’ lives in general.
Jeremy Shere: Confirmation ceremonies were held for mixed groups of boys and girls, rather than for an individual, and they usually happened at the age of 15 or 16. The choice of age was intentional.
Melissa Klapper: So they were removed from traditional understandings of when someone became a bar or a bat mitzvah. And it was very different from bar mitzvah. In fact, the Reform movement saw the ceremony of bar mitzvah as “oriental” — in other words, something antiquated and old and something that should be moved away from.
Jeremy Shere: But the decision to have confirmation at an older age was about more than rejecting the bar mitzvah.
Melissa Klapper: The idea of marking religious adulthood at the age of bar mitzvah, let alone bat mitzvah, just seemed silly to people. They were not adults. They were clearly not adults. They weren't getting married. Even child labor laws were starting to be passed. It was beginning to be understood that children should be in school. The age of mandatory school attendance was 14 in almost every state in the United States by this period. And so 13 was just clearly not adulthood. And you can make a stronger argument for 15 or 16.
Jeremy Shere: Confirmation also remedied the gender inequality that the bar mitzvah ceremony presented, Waxman adds.
Deborah Waxman: The ritual of confirmation rose up in the Reform movement in the 19th century because of the egalitarian opportunities there, because it was a ceremony of parity.
And so even as it wasn't focused on one individual, but rather a cohort, that meant that that group of girls and boys would together come of age.
Jeremy Shere: By the late 19th century, confirmation ceremonies were very popular, especially in Reform congregations, and especially for girls. In fact, Klapper says, far more American girls had confirmation ceremonies than boys.
Melissa Klapper: Possibly because parents were more open to non-traditional educations and customs for girls than boys, but more likely because more boys left school and went to work earlier than girls in many American Jewish families, and the period of education, whether secular or religious, was over earlier for many boys than for girls.
Jeremy Shere: The ceremonies were often entertaining, even theatrical.
Deborah Waxman: It was incredible in terms of its performance. It was a great — and even to this day, it still can be — a great pageant. It's often done on Shavuot and there were white gowns or white robes, there were flowers...
Jeremy Shere: They were also quite stately affairs.
Melissa Klapper: The young people being confirmed would walk down the aisle of the synagogue in a very formal procession and they would line up, typically with a rabbi or any other clergy, like a cantor, who might be on the pulpit. They would face the audience. They would be asked questions about religious life. Sometimes they would perform musical numbers. They would sing hymns. Many confirmation ceremonies involved absolutely no Hebrew. Some did, but many did not. It sort of resembled an old Catholic catechism, in that the questions were very routine and ritualized and formalized.
Jeremy Shere: Although the confirmation ceremony caught on in a big way, some felt it wasn’t the best way to mark the Jewish coming of age. Mordecai Kaplan was one of those people. Kaplan is best known as the founder of Reconstructionism, a Jewish movement that sees Judaism as a constantly evolving civilization. When Reconstructionism started in the 1920s, it was a stream within the Conservative movement. So in 1922, when Kaplan founded the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the site of his daughter’s bat mitzvah, he was most strongly identified with Conservative Judaism.
Kaplan objected to the confirmation ceremony on the grounds that it wasn’t based in Jewish tradition. What’s more, he and many Conservative leaders didn’t share their Reform peers’ antipathy toward the bar mitzvah. What Kaplan wanted was a ceremony for girls.
Deborah Waxman: Kaplan himself at the time talked about the impact of the 19th amendment, of women’s suffrage. Seeing women gain the vote in the American context, he thought that was compelling. He saw that as more and more opportunities were being created for women in the secular world, that unless the Jewish community overtly affirmed equal status for women as a positive thing and made more space for women to participate, then it was likely they would just exit completely. And he wanted to capture the creativity and the participation and the leadership possibilities of women within the Jewish realm.
Jeremy Shere: Kaplan first brought up the idea of a bat mitzvah ceremony at a synagogue board meeting on February 5, 1922.
Deborah Waxman: He said, “I think we should institute this new ritual. I think we should be creating a ceremony of parity for girls. And I would like to propose that my eldest daughter, Judith, who turned 12 a few months ago, become the first.
Jeremy Shere: The board heartily approved Kaplan’s proposal. And just six weeks later, his daughter Judith took to the pulpit to mark her entry into Jewish adulthood. Judith was particularly well positioned to pull off a bat mitzvah on such short notice.
Deborah Waxman: He literally decided the night before what she should do. And it was because she was both very well educated, very musically adept and very game that she was able to step up and into what he asked her to do
Jeremy Shere: Now, it’s important to point out that the ceremony Judith had, while trailblazing, was not exactly like a typical bar mitzvah of the day. She stood just below the bimah, the podium at which the Torah is read. And she didn’t read from a Torah scroll, but instead from her personal chumash, or prayer book. The Torah, as she says in her memoir, was “a respectable distance away.” But by marking her bat mitzvah, Kaplan did open the door for other girls to have similar ceremonies, which they did, albeit in modest numbers. At first, these were mostly girls in Kaplan’s congregation or daughters of Kaplan’s disciples. But there were other notable exceptions. For example, bat mitzvah ceremonies became popular at two Jewish summer camps created in the ‘20s, both of which Kaplan’s daughters attended.
Carole Balin: In those great outdoor spaces were informality reigned, bat mitzvah came alive. So, for example, at Camp Cejwin in 1935, a woman named Gladys Salpeter Kraft, who was born in 1923, became bat mitzvah. She's a 97-year-old woman and she recalled Mordecai Kaplan making frequent visits to Camp Cejwin, and she remembered Judith Kaplan heading up the music program. And when I asked Gladys what portion she read, she burst out in Haftarah trope, “nachamu nachamu.” She knew it at 97.
Jeremy Shere: Another exception was girls who had a twin brother, such as Alice Pritzker,
Carole Balin: Alice Ruth Pritzker was allowed to become bat mitzvah in 1932 at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota, a Conservative synagogue, really on the bar mitzvah coattails of her brother, Edward. Their father Leo would always say, according to Alice's daughter, whom I spoke to — he used the nicknames for Alice and Edward — he said, “If Sonny can be bar mitzvahed, Sissy can become bat mitzvahed.
Jeremy Shere: Still, bat mitzvah ceremonies weren’t exactly taking American synagogues by storm. In 1931, a survey of Conservative rabbis found that of the 110 respondents, only 6 had adopted the ceremony in their congregations. Some said they’d never even heard of it. It was only after World War II that the bat mitzvah ceremony started to gain traction, Waxman says.
Deborah Waxman: The Rabbinical Assembly conducted a survey in 1948. That revealed that one-third of all Conservative congregations celebrated some form of bat mitzvah.
Jeremy Shere: By the mid-50s, that figure had jumped to about half of Conservative congregations and one-third of Reform congregations. Here’s a clip of Judy Darsky at her bat mitzvah in 1955 at what was playfully known as the “mother church” of the Reform Judaism, the Plum Street synagogue in Cincinnati:
Jeremy Shere: The increased popularity of these ceremonies was likely related to other changes in American Jewish life at the time.
Melissa Klapper: I think some of it does have to do with the standard narrative of American Jewish history about suburbanization and congregations moving outside of city centers and needing to attract Jews who were moving away. So synagogues that really promoted bar mitzvahs, and then eventually bat mitzvahs, that was a way to keep people coming in. If there's a celebration — and not just from within the congregation, but from outside the congregation — maybe those people would be interested in what they saw at the synagogue.
Jeremy Shere: Waxman thinks the rising popularity of Jewish summer camps in the post-war years, which we discussed in our camp episode last season, also played a role.
Deborah Waxman: That's where it really took hold. Ramah really promoted education, really promoted skills acquisition, Hebrew acquisition, and a lot of girls became bat mitzvah and then they brought it home and started to advocate for it more.
Jeremy Shere: Bat mitzvah ceremonies even started to happen in some Orthodox congregations.
Carole Balin: There's an Orthodox congregation, Anshei Emet, in Brooklyn, led by Rabbi Jerome Tov Feinstein. And in 1944, after a bar mitzvah service, a mother came over to him and she says, “Rabbi, why don't you do something for the girls?” This is in 1944, a really important date, in terms of understanding the impact of World War II and the beginnings of understanding what was happening in Europe and the murder of millions of Jews. And he said, “You know — I'm going to do it.” And the following spring, he implemented a bat mitzvah class. So it was a group of girls who would study together, and then they had a ceremony together as a group. And he said — these are his words, Rabbi Jerome Feinstein, an Orthodox rabbi — “Girls should be given the opportunities to eliminate the feeling that in the Orthodox synagogue, they do not count.”
Jeremy Shere: You might be wondering: Is this when the bat mitzvah ceremony started to look more like a bar mitzvah ceremony? Well...not exactly. At the SAJ, the progressive synagogue Kaplan founded, girls did start to read from the Torah sometime in the 1940s. But in most congregations, bat mitzvah ceremonies were still decidedly different. For one thing, Balin says, they were usually held on Friday night.
Carole Balin: Why Friday night? Friday night is on Shabbat, of course, it's part of the Jewish Sabbath, but it's considered inferior to Saturday morning, of course, when the Torah is read. So, it was sort of like, we'll allow the girls to have this, but we're going to do it on a Friday night, because in most cases, girls aren't going to read the Torah anyway. So we're going to relegate it to a Friday night.
Jeremy Shere: But perhaps the biggest difference was what a bat mitzvah led to — which was, namely, nothing. For boys, the ceremony was, or at least could be, the beginning of their participation in public Jewish ritual. But for girls, it was a one-off. Some people were not happy with this double-standard.
Melissa Klapper: When girls could be called to the Torah for a bat mitzvah, then the question is, well then why can't women, right? Why is this the last time that girls ever have the opportunity to do this?
Jeremy Shere: At the SAJ, the girls themselves raised the issue at a congregational meeting in 1945.
Deborah Waxman: They were not only looking for the bat mitzvah. They were looking at things like carrying the Torah on Simchat Torah, which girls were not doing at that point. They said, “If we can read from the scroll on our bat mitzvah, so that taboo has been set aside, surely we can carry it as well as some of the scrawny old men.” There was definitely adolescent attitude in it as well.
Jeremy Shere: A lively debate ensued, but no decision was made until 1950, when the SAJ voted to allow women to be called to the Torah after their bat mitzvah. They also decided to count women in a minyan, the ten people required for Jewish public prayer. This was a significant break with the rest of the Conservative movement and arguably marked the beginning of Reconstructionism as a separate branch of Judaism.
Jeremy Shere: Despite the gains of the 40s and 50s, it would take a couple more decades until women started to gain true equality in American Jewish ritual and practice. In 1972, for example, Sally Priesand became the first woman in the US to be ordained as a rabbi. A year later, the Conservative movement officially allowed women to be counted in a minyan.
Waxman, Klapper, and Balin all agree that the rise of second-wave feminism in the 60s and 70s, led by women like Gloria Steinem, had a lot to do with these changes. For one thing, it made girls and women feel empowered to advocate for equal rights — and that’s exactly what many did. In 1975, for example, Sally Gottesman wrote a letter to her Conservative synagogue asking to be the first girl in the congregation to have her bat mitzvah on a Saturday. Here’s Gottesman as an adult reading her letter:
Sally Gottesman: Dear ladies and gentlemen of the ritual committee: Next year, I will have reached the age of my bat mitzvah and would like to have it on a Saturday morning. This means a great deal to me, because women play an important part of every role in Jewish life. Why is my part in our temple not equal to a boy’s my age? This service may be strange to tradition for a little while, but my question is “Im lo achshav eimatai?” My education is as complete as a boy’s my age, and knowing that I am an equal makes me want to continue my studies. Knowing I can't fully participate in any activity, when can I hope to achieve a first-class status? I would greatly appreciate if the ritual committee would change this practice and let girls be called to the Torah. Very truly yours, Sally Gottesman.
Jeremy Shere: The feminist movement raised other interesting questions about gender equality.
Deborah Waxman: Must women's religious practice and must women's religious spirituality mirror men's? One of the reasons I ended up at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College instead of the Jewish Theological Seminary is because I didn't want to become a halachic male. I wanted to explore deeply what it meant to be a woman rabbi embodying my body and exploring what religious leadership looks like in this way.
Jeremy Shere: Inspired by the women’s movement, many women in the 70s and especially in the 80s decided to have an adult bat mitzvah ceremony, Klapper says.
Melissa Klapper: It was often women who were really involved in the Jewish community, but had not had the chance to have bat mitzvahs themselves who were most interested, in that a lot of those women were people who wished they had had a bat mitzvah.
Jeremy Shere: For women who had marked their coming of age, but then had been barred from participating in other public rituals, Jewish feminism fulfilled an important need.
Melissa Klapper: Many of the people who got involved in Jewish feminism in the 1970s were people who had had a bat mitzvah, found that moment of their religious lives really significant, and then didn't have anything that they could do after that. And so Jewish feminism for them was intensely personal. These are really educated, committed, devout — regardless of denomination, but devout in their own way, whatever that was, to being Jewish — and they were stymied in their ability to show that in any kind of public forum. So it was very meaningful to them, but also a source of frustration.
Jeremy Shere: Orthodox congregations also felt the impact of the feminist movement, with bat mitzvah ceremonies becoming more common around this time, Balin says. Because of Orthodox Judaism’s strict adherence to halacha, or Jewish law, these ceremonies usually looked different from those in more liberal movements.
Carole Balin: Bat mitzvah ceremonies happen outside of regular Shabbat worship in either one of two venues. One, in a women's tefilla group, in a women's prayer group. A women's prayer group is a group of women that gathers, that is not counted as a minyan. A second venue where girls are allowed to speak before a mixed congregation, men and women, would be outside of Shabbat services, but maybe in the synagogue. So for example, on a Shabbat afternoon, during the melave malka, which is the third ritual meal of Shabbat, a girl might be able to give a d’var Torah, which is what began to happen.
Jeremy Shere: Moving into the 1990s, Balin says, even some ultra-Orthodox communities started to mark girls’ coming of age.
Carole Balin: In 1993, Chabad Lubavitch creates bat mitzvah clubs. They meet monthly, they are designed — and this is according to their website — designed to empower — and notice they use that word, very ‘90s word, about empowering men and women, it comes 15 years or so after the rise of second-wave feminism — these clubs are designed to empower every 11- to 13-year-old girl “to become strong spot smart and spiritual.”
Jeremy Shere: In the last 20 years or so, with the issue of whether girls should be allowed to have a bat mitzvah long settled, communities have moved on to new questions. For example, how can these ceremonies be more inclusive of Jews from diverse backgrounds? In 2019, the parents of Batya Sperling-Milner convinced their Orthodox congregation in Washington, DC to take up this challenge. Their daughter wanted to chant from the Torah for her bat mitzvah, just like anyone else. There was just one problem: Batya is blind, and there was no Braille translation of the Torah trope, the musical notation used for chanting. Batya’s parents solved that problem, recruiting an engineer friend to develop the first Braille translation of trope. But there was another wrinkle. Here’s Batya explaining in an interview with the Washington Post:
Batya Sperling-Milner: Technically you're supposed to see the Torah and you're supposed to read from the Torah. So that was a problem.
Jeremy Shere: Her mother Aliza pored over Jewish legal sources and was able to find an argument for allowing a blind person to read from the Torah. The result was a ceremony that made history and allowed Batya to do exactly what she wanted: have a bat mitzvah like any other girl.
For others, the ceremony is a way to bolster their sense of belonging. Balin gives the example of Gina Drangel and her daughter Anna, who had their bat mitzvah ceremonies just five months apart at their Reform temple in Queens, New York.
Carole Balin: So Anna, the daughter of a black mother and a white father, born and raised a Jew, had a straight path to the bimah by the age of 13. She went to religious school. She’s just like all the other kids in her Hebrew school class. She becomes bat mitzvah as a 13-year-old.
Jeremy Shere: For her mother Gina, the path to the bimah wasn’t quite as direct. As a black girl raised in the Catholic church, Gina nevertheless felt drawn to Judaism. She ended up converting as an adult, marrying a Jewish man, and becoming active in her synagogue. At the age of 48, she decided she wanted to have a bat mitzvah ceremony.
Carole Balin: The daughter summed it up in this way. She said, “My bat mitzvah meant that I was on my way to becoming a Jewish woman. But for my mom, her bat mitzvah validated her as a Jewish woman.”
Jeremy Shere: Some communities are also considering how Jewish coming of age ceremonies can be more gender inclusive. The terms bar and bat mitzvah, after all, are inherently gendered. Which raises a question:
Carole Balin: So what do you do if you straddle the xxfbim, so to speak, and you don't fit into either one of these categories?
Jeremy Shere: That was the case for Ruby Marx, of Brookline, Massachusetts.
Carole Balin: Ruby Marx wanted to do something in the middle for their rite of passage, Ruby said, Judaism is a big part of my family. We keep kosher. My older sister had a bat mitzvah, and I knew I'd have to have one too, but I didn't want to be called a girl. And I didn't want a bar mitzvah either. So what did they do? Ruby became Temple Beth Zion’s first B mitzvah. And b’ in Hebrew means “in,” — “in the mitzvah,” “on the mitzvah,” “with the mitzvah,” “by the mitzvah.” The name says a lot and the ceremony said a lot.
Jeremy Shere: Ruby is not alone. In the past couple of years, interest has grown in marking the Jewish coming of age in a gender neutral way. In 2019, the website Keshet, which provides resources for queer Jewish youth, even published a guide to the B mitzvah.
Jeremy Shere: Today, as we approach the one-hundredth anniversary of Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah, perhaps what’s most remarkable about the ceremony is how unremarkable it’s become.
Melissa Klapper: It's really just taken for granted almost across the board. I mean, Orthodox girls have bar mitzvahs, even the most right wing girls’ schools, Orthodox girls’ schools, for instance, typically have a kind of group bat mitzvah celebration. That would not have been the case a hundred years ago. It has become an accepted thing to not just, you know, “Okay, now you've had this birthday and you are legally obligated, and so now you have to fast on all the fast days,” and that kind of thing. But really marking it in some way. And that's really significant.
Jeremy Shere: When you consider the entire sweep of Jewish history, this major shift happened rather quickly. And it was the bat mitzvah girls themselves who got the ball rolling.
Carole Balin: These 12- and 13-year old girls are coming into the Jewish limelight, coming onto the bimah, and they themselves begin to chisel away at the gender divide between men and women in Jewish life. I mean, it's remarkable. Before adult women, these girls begin to pave the way, they begin to change the attitudes around what a Jew can do, or what kind of Jew can do and be.
Jeremy Shere: The result has been something much bigger than even Kaplan himself could have imagined.
Carole Balin: Bat mitzvah was originally conceived as a corrective, right? A corrective to girls' exclusion from Jewish study and practice. It was instituted as an add-on — it was a complement to bar mitzvah. It was never, in the beginning, conceived as a gateway to girls’ and women's regular — and I use the word “regular” very emphatically, regular and equal participation in worship. But with each successive bat mitzvah, with each generation of girls who come up to the bimah, the Jewish public becomes accustomed to seeing girls front and center in prayer life.
Jeremy Shere: Normalizing the participation of girls and women in Jewish ritual and practice helped blaze a trail for other groups who may have felt marginalized.
Carole Balin: Girls were the first minority — and I use that in quotes — to ascend the bimah, but they're not the last. They open the door for Jews of all backgrounds, all stripes — colors, conversion, non-conversion, secular, observant — to come onto the bimah, to come into Jewish life in an authentic way that becomes accepted and acceptable and even embraced by the Jewish community at large.
Jeremy Shere: As a rabbi, Waxman is inspired by the ways the bat mitzvah ceremony has evolved over time. All this progress makes her wonder:
Deborah Waxman: What other creative and vital acts do we want to take to continue this glorious evolution of the Jewish civilization, this exciting and enlivening engagement with the Jewish people?
Carole Balin, PhD
Melissa R. Klapper, PhD
Deborah Waxman, PhD
Jeremy Shere, PhD
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD