The Almost Bat Mitzvah

Please share in our joy as Robin Maltz becomes a bat mitz— um, nevermind

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I almost had a bat mitzvah. An adult bat mitzvah that is, which isn't exactly a coming of age ritual, as I was 50 at the time, but on second thought, maybe it is.

Until I started bat mitzvah prep, I knew nothing about Judaism as a religion. My upbringing in the San Fernando Valley of the 1960s was as a cultural Jew. We lived surrounded by Jews, we celebrated major Jewish holidays (along with non-Jewish fun holidays like Easter) and my grandmother sprinkled Yiddish into her conversations and schmaltz in her latkes.

Even though I went to my share of bar mitvahs as a 13-year-old, got married to a Jewish man by a rabbi, and had a moyle perform a bris on my poor little baby son's penis — I didn't know Passover from Purim. That is, until my in-laws asked what I was doing about a bar mitzvah for Theo.

By this time, I was divorced and the kids and I had just moved to a new town. Conveniently, there was a conservative synagogue right up the street ("conservative" means conserving tradition, not politics). Theo was 11, late for starting Hebrew school, but they accepted him on one condition — we join the synagogue.

I reluctantly started going to services to support Theo, because otherwise I was an "avowed atheist against institutionalized religion." But soon after we joined, I was surprised to see a feminist-infused sermon and a lesbian commitment service performed by the rabbi. This conservative congregation, as it turned out, was very liberal.

Theo picked up Hebrew quickly. He had a tutor and aced his bar mitzvah. The ceremony was small and wonderful — no Vegas dancers or magicians.

His involvement in the synagogue ended like a lot of distracted 13-year-olds do, after their b'nai mitzvah, while mine sort of hung in there.

Several years passed and I had a spiritual crisis — I wasn't getting any closer to believing in God. I became more involved, going to special services, joining the Sisterhood, even becoming the Board secretary. I want to say I became an observant Jew, but I didn't. It was because my children left for college and I needed a diversion, a community. It was an empty-nest solution and I was a hypocrite and it was on my conscience.

Then I spotted an ad in the synagogue bulletin for an Adult B'nai Mitzvah class. I joined immediately.

There were eight women in the class. We met on Sundays and had four teachers: the rabbi with whom we did Torah study; a woman scholar who taught us Jewish ritual; another taught Hebrew; and another, trope, which is the intricate chanting system that is used to read Hebrew from the Torah.

Of the eight women, four were lesbians and four were straight. This would not be noteworthy, especially in this area, home to two Ivy League women's colleges and a higher than usual population of lesbians, except for the way things broke down at the end.

By our second year, the four straight women were meeting during the week to review what we went over in class. It wasn't an "us vs. them" thing; they had similar schedules and lived near one another. That left the four of us lesbians.

Now let me digress for a moment: I am a femme, a feminine lesbian who typically is attracted to butches, or masculine lesbians. Butch/femme is what it's called and it's an old dynamic in the lesbian world, dating back to 1940s, working-class communities. I've published about butch/femme and coincidentally, so had another woman in the group — more famously so — also a femme. In our writing, we both portrayed femmes as willful, independent and often outspoken women, countering the stereotypes of femininity as passive, doormat-ish, and femmes as straight women who made a wrong turn on the streets of desire.

We were both stereotype-breakers in heels and lipstick, so you'd think we'd be "sisters," not rivals. But when our teacher put down eight small plastic cases each containing a cassette of trope sounds and markers to differentiate the trope sounds on written Hebrew, the other femme and I both went for the pink case. We locked eyes. Then she jokingly pulled harder and I lifted my hands. We laughed, nervously. She won.

The last six months of classes were bat mitzvah prep. The eight of us were to conduct the entire service, which was our bat mitzvah, including reading from the Torah. The straight women offered to take the first half of the service, the opening prayers leading up to the Torah recitation. That left the last half of the service, the more dramatic half — with the mourner's prayer, the Torah paraded around the room with upbeat singing, the sermon — all thanking or acknowledging God.

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Of the four lesbians, there was a blind woman who chose to memorize her part, and a woman raised in an Orthodox family who by tradition was not allowed a bat mitzvah as a child but who knew the service forward and back and only wanted a small prayer. That left the juicy parts to me and the other femme. Right away, she assigned me the parts that would be mine and which would be hers.

I said, "Are you kidding me? You want to give me the Amidah — a long silent prayer — and Adon Olam [a sing-a-long with kids] and you've just decided that you alone will write and give a D'var Torah [sermon]!"

Her reasoning was that two years prior, I said the ceremony didn't matter to me as much as the learning. That was true but when push came to shove, I wanted my bat mitzvah glory, too.

I stewed over her for a week and then came to class and announced that I would not be part of the bat mitzvah service. My reasoning was, "Yes, my focus was to learn rather than be part of a ceremony, and fighting over who says which prayer seems to be against the humanitarian and inclusive nature of Judaism." I could see her sink in her chair.

The other women, the teachers, the rabbi tried to get me to change my mind. The femme dug in her (high) heels and I did not change my stance. The following year, she called on Yom Kippur to offer her forgiveness and I accepted.

Even if she and I had split up the parts more equally, I am relieved I did not have the bat mitzvah. It would have bonded me to a community but would not be honest in my heart. I am a Jew but also a skeptic and nonbeliever, and I still grapple with the concept of God. So unfortunately, there will be no reception to follow.