Wish I’d Had a Bat Mitzvah, Bet You Do Too

Several years ago, when we moved from Ohio to Massachusetts, we became friends with the Jewish family who lived across the street, and they invited us to their daughter Hilary’s bat mitzvah. I had never been to a Jewish ceremony, and was looking forward to seeing how they worked in general, and in particular, how Jews celebrate their children’s coming of age as adults.

My neighbor explained that her daughter had been taking Hebrew classes for a couple of years to prepare, because part of the ceremony required her to speak. Somehow, I didn’t absorb what my neighbor was telling me. I assumed Jewish rituals worked like Catholic rituals, and I thought the temple would be full of teenagers getting their bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs the way Catholic teenagers got group-confirmed when I was a kid. And so I expected that Hilary would speak along with all the rest of that group of teenagers, as a group in the pews, being prompted by the rabbi to repeat the lines they had all learned. Just like the Catholics did it, only with the prayers in Hebrew, not English. 

And so I was fascinated when we arrived at temple and there wasn’t a group of teenagers. There was just Hilary, and the pews held only family members and friends. The rabbi called her up to the front and yielded the altar to her, and she stood there alone at the altar with the Torah, the Jewish holy book, and she read from it in Hebrew. Not just a sentence or two, but for what seemed like 20 minutes. Then she gave a speech about her family and her community, and how she felt to belong to both, and how she was determined to live her life.

After that Hilary’s mother and father came up, separately, each as an individual, to speak to their community about the person Hilary was and how proud she made them.

I remember my eyes filling with tears. There was Hilary, being formally welcomed into her community not only as an individual, but as an individual who had a voice, and a right to stand in front of her community at the altar, the most respected place a person could stand, and speak her thoughts. She had been practicing for this for a long time, getting used to believing this was right, her standing at the altar in a leadership position, her speaking as an equal to her community. Her community expected her to stand in front of them, and speak to them as an equal. And her community made it clear that when she spoke, they would listen.

Why did I feel like weeping? Because my Catholic upbringing had been the exact opposite. My religious ceremonies had been about my identity as an anonymous member of a large group of children my age. For First Communion I was a little girl along with a couple hundred other little girls and boys, all dressed exactly the same, the girls in white dresses and white veils, the boys in white shirts and dark jackets. The message to us wasn’t You are an individual. It was You are a flock, and you have no individual identity. All of you are the same. The message couldn’t have been more clear if the priest had said to us, “Your identity doesn’t matter. You are not individuals. You are sheep.”

The same happened at my Confirmation, the Catholic coming-of-age ceremony. On the big day, like all the other children being confirmed, I wore a white robe and a little red hat. The ceremony mostly involved us sitting in pews, listening to the bishop, and saying the correct prayer responses together, out loud. The actual sacrament, the moment of confirmation, happened when the bishop made the sign of the cross on my forehead with his thumb dipped in holy oil and said the holy words – the same words he said to each of the other children who were confirmed.  He mumbled the words to me, because my last name started with an S, and so I was toward the end of the line. By the time I had my moment with the bishop, he was mumbling because he was exhausted by saying the same words and making the same sign of the cross, over and over and over, for that endless sea of children.

The entire ceremony went off without a hitch, because we knew exactly what to do. Line up, move forward, pause in front of the bishop, move on. The thought of one of us standing in front of the altar to speak to the congregation, at Confirmation or any other time, was beyond ridiculous. We’d been trained since first grade to know our place, to know that we were sheep. We knew that our job was to be silent and compliant. Our job was not to stand in front of family and community say what we thought. Our job was not to think. our job was certainly not to believe for one single second that we had any right to speak our mind, or to lead. That was unimaginable.

And so, sitting in temple during Hilary’s bat mitzvah, I loved that Hilary was being educated by her religion and her community to know and believe that she was a valued member of that community as an individual, with the right and the obligation to speak her mind. And at the same time, I grieved for the child I used to be, and the adult I had become as a result, because my training, my belief system, had been so very different.

Are things different now? Do Catholics conduct First Communion and Confirmation like the Jews do bat mitzvahs, to demonstrate to each child how individual she is, how important her voice is? Is each ceremony about one child, because each child deserves to know that her community sees her and values her as a unique individual? Have Catholic ceremonies changed, so that now they teach children to be leaders who think for themselves? Or are they still about reinforcing the belief that the priest is the leader, and the congregation is the flock, and just like sheep with a shepherd, the members of the flock must wait to be guided by the priest instead of thinking for themselves?

I don’t know. I haven’t been to church for a very long time. What I do know is that there are so many women like me, who were indoctrinated with the same Catholic belief system about ourselves. It’s very hard for us to believe that what we think matters. It’s hard for us to believe that we matter.

Sitting in temple during Hilary’s bat mitzvah, I wanted to weep because I recognized the great gift her religion and community were giving her, the gift of knowing and believing that she was an individual, equal to all in her community (and by extension anyone in the world), with a voice that was important, and respected. At the same time, I felt such deep sorrow for myself and all my Catholic sisters, because the message we received was so very different: You are sheep, you are all the same, and your voice doesn’t matter.