Thursday, May 13, 2010
Elena Kagan, Bat Mitzvah Girl
This Shavuos, the talk of the town will likely be the delicious fact that, thirty-seven years ago, Elena Kagan celebrated her bat mitzvah at Manhattan's famous Lincoln Square Synagogue by reading from the Book of Ruth on a Friday night, marking the shul's very first female rite of religious passage.
If you haven't seen the New York Times article, it is accessible here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/13/nyregion/13synagogue.html.
For contemporaries of Kagan such as myself, the details of her long-ago bat mitzvah are delectable...and maddening, for all the obvious reasons having to do with Orthodoxy's halakhic restrictions on women. For residents of Manhattan's Upper West Side Jewish community, the article also provides a clubby, insider feeling. It is always fun to know every single person quoted in a Times article, in this case -- Rabbis Shlomo Riskin and Ephraim (Effie) Buchwald, Cantor Sherwood Goffin and Shuly Rubin Schwartz, dean of List College at JTS and an assistant professor of Jewish History.
Elena Kagan had her bat mitzvah at Lincoln Square Synagogue on May 18, 1973.
That November 18th, I also turned 12, the age of bat mitzvah.
But the ironic fact is that I -- the daughter of a Conservative rabbi with a pulpit in Douglaston, NY -- did not have a bat mitzvah. The reasons for this have to do less with halakha and more with my parents' lower-case c conservative tendencies, their discomfort at staging a ritual that was seen as daringly feminist and decidedly un-feminine. While my younger brother had a blow-out bar mitzvah three years later -- and while scores of girls were indeed bat mitzvahed by my dad during his 21 years as the spiritual leader of Marathon Jewish Community Center -- neither my sister nor I had that religious rite of passage.
Which leaves me pondering the power of this ritual in directing one's life journey, feeling at once a sense of communal kinship with Elena Kagan and subdued sadness for the bat mitzvah girl that I never was.