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Jan 29

Bat Mitzvah

I get weekly emails from my synagogue, and, a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a little paragraph tucked in between notices from the Sisterhood and requests for coat donations. A bar/bat mitzvah meeting for parents of kids fourth thru sixth grade. It took me a minute, but I realized quickly that it meant me. My daughter is in fourth grade. It’s actually time to start thinking about her bat mitzvah.

Wasn’t it a week ago that I was pregnant with her and couldn’t fathom how she’d be able to have any kind of clear religious identity with a Jewish father and me? I agonized over it, who would she be? Wouldn’t she feel torn between her Jewish father and my own cobbled together, doesn’t really follow any organized religion but still incredibly spiritual belief system? She was the springboard for me to learn about Judaism in the first place – I couldn’t have a child self identifying as something that I didn’t understand. And it feels like it was just the other day that I realized that she was self identifying as Jewish the way she considered herself Irish. But because I hadn’t converted and hadn’t had her converted, according to our Conservative synagogue, technically, she wasn’t Jewish.

I didn’t think she’d really remember the mikvah, she was only five or six, but I remember it so vividly. The mikvah with two small water phobic children is not an experience I’ll ever forget.  While I’m sure that there is enormous emotional and religious significance for most converts, going to the mikvah, for me, was incredibly challenging, strictly in a “I have to dunk my kids three times and they have to go completely under without being held” kind of way.  We were living a completely Jewish life, we were Jewish, this was made it official.  Kind of like getting married – by the time we got around to doing it, we had already joined our lives together in such a real sense.  I didn’t feel any more married after the wedding ceremony, and I didn’t feel any more Jewish after the conversion.

But suddenly – we’re here.  A bat mitzvah.  And I have a feeling that it’s going to be a lot more significant that the mikveh was.

And the more I thought about it, the more emotional I got. Which isn’t surprising, I cry at pretty much every milestone. Dance recitals, preschool graduations, her first real report card. But a bat mitzvah seems like it’s so important. Not only because she’s the first in my husband’s family, of her generation, to read from the Torah. Not only because my family will come, of course they’ll come, but won’t have the foggiest idea what we’ll be doing. But also because the bat mitzvah has so much meaning attached to it. It’s coming right when I’m starting to realize that this baby girl, this tiny little baby of mine isn’t always going to be mine. She’s her own person – and that’s terrifying and wonderful and, yeah, I’m welling up with tears as I’m writing. I’m going to be in so much trouble with this…

That’s what the bat mitzvah is – it’s a public acknowledgement that we’re Jewish, and that Jessica is Jewish. That she’s responsible for herself now, that she’s going to take ownership of her own religious identity in a way that I’ve been worrying about since before she was born. I’ve spent more than ten years now, thinking about her spiritual identity.  Worrying about how she’ll blend two very different traditions into her life.  What will her religious identity be? She’s Jewish, yes, but not only Jewish. She’s inherited a rich family tradition dating back thousands of years. She’s also the product of my side of the family, a family filled with people who have no strong tie to any organized religion but a very strong and heartfelt connection to God.

She’s all intellectual questioning, rules and ritual on the one hand, and on the other, she’s got a sincere and absolute relationship with God that, as far as I can see, she’s never doubted. She loves the ritual and traditions of Judaism, she dances around the synagogue like she’s grown up there, because she has.  But she’s got a “Believe in Magic” sign above her bed, and a conviction that fairies do exist.  She blends both of us, the Jewish side from her father, and the spiritual intensity from me. She’s got an extra dash of drama and wonder and intensity that’s all her own. And it makes me cry. I’m not sure if I’m crying because I’m grieving the loss of the little girl who’s growing up so fast, or if I’m crying because I’m so incredibly proud of the woman she’ll be.

When she was born, my husband picked out her Hebrew name. It means “beautiful celebration.” That’s what she’s always been for us, a celebration of love and life and so much joy. And on her bat mitzvah, she’ll stand in front of our friends and family, and she’ll read from the Torah. She’ll be exactly who she is. And that’s amazing to me.

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