I went through great changes when I was 13 and they had nothing to do with my Bat Mitzvah. In fact, I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. Nobody I knew was having Bat Mitzvahs. The only Bar Mitzvah I ever attended was my cousin Jeffrey’s when I was 4 years old. I remember it being very special and very important that we attend. Even as my own family was unraveling.
Cousin Jeffrey’s Bar Mitzvah took place in a greener part of New York State than I’d ever seen before called Bear Mountain. All I remember was that everyone was really tall, wearing suits and there was this wiggly plate of green jello on the dessert table at about the same height as my head. I was smitten. Probably more for the form than the taste. Hey, I was 4.
This one and only Bar Mitzvah happened right before my freshly radicalized 33-year-old mother left my dad and took me and the dog and moved us from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Frederick Street. It was 1974 and we matriculated into the heart of Haight street bohemia. And there were not many Bat Mitzvah’s in bohemia.
Part of my coming of age transformation had to do with bussing, actually. I could go to a new school with funding for magnet classes. My mom and I soon moved to San Jose and joined an urban commune. We had the odd distinction of living in a zip code with the worst schools in San Jose. Somehow thanks to this distinction, it meant I was eligible to go to the best school in the city.
So I was going to get to go to school with real middle class white people. The kind with sharp hair cuts to go with their sharp features. The kinds of kids that were dropped off to school in NEW cars! Who had coca-cola in their refrigerators, that had MTV, where nobody tried to tell you that carob was just as good as chocolate.
This was so distant from what I was used to. I grew up going with my mom to her most feminist consciousness raising group – The Agnes Smedley Brigade. This was the 70’s and early 80’s in downtown San Jose – and beyond that, these hippies, feminists and former black panthers and raza movement leaders were looking at the environmental affects of a nascent silicon valley – from how they made their microchips, to whose contracts they were fulfilling. They tried to defeat proposition 13, they went out on strike WITH the teachers. They supported my local schools’ bilingual program, eventually enrolling me in it. But they were also long-winded & there were no good snacks. But there were plenty of felt markers and computer paper – & so I curled up and drew. I drew AMAZONS. Lots and lots and lots of Amazons. Strong women dancing, working, and gasp, even meeting.
I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah to mark this transition. My Jewish life was simple and home-based. My mom’s last name was Perlmutter. We were agnostic, strike that, atheist ethnic Jews. But we celebrated Hannukah, and we celebrated Passover – especially how it resonates with the stories of all oppressed peoples. As the Coup eloquently puts it, “We got love for the underdog.” AND see the connections that link all of us. If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night. This is still very true today. More about this at another time.
We had Shabbat candle sticks, but never lit them ceremoniously on Friday nights. But we ate matzoh brie as a frequent weekend breakfast treat. We were very, very close to my grandparents, my mom’s folks. I knew I was Jewish because Lenard and Dena Perlmutter would arrive each summer from Fla-ri-da with two coolers along with their luggage. One would be filled with smoked fish delights, lox, nova, whole whitefish, and pickled herring – and because my grandfather Lenard had a vaudevillian sense of humor – it would be labeled “human blood” in his not-educated beyond-8th-grade script. The other had plenty of bagels and cream cheese – they were never too sure cream cheese could be purchased in the Bay Area in 1983. We ate them slowly, trying to make them last the entire six weeks of their visit. My grandparents spoke Yiddish and fondly taught me phrases and words and wrote them out in Hebrew. My grandfather wore a mezuzah amulet necklace. He was a Cohen and was given some special treatment and responsibilities back in the old country of Brooklyn. But, this did not amount to much when he could no longer afford to belong to a Synagogue. And then the line was lost because he had two daughters, no sons. Or was it?
When I was 12, I was allowed to throw a pretty big birthday party and at some point it was casually mentioned to me that if we were really Jewish, this year would be the year of my Bat Mitzvah. Girls get to have theirs when they are 12 and boys when they are 13. Ha! My mom remarked, once again evidence that girls mature faster than boys. And she continued, but Bat Mitzvah is really just a 20th century American invention. Usually this ceremony only happens for boys – SEE HOW SEXIST RELIGION IS?!
But my mom warmly (embarrassingly) gave me this big mortifying book called PERIOD. Emblazoned on the front was a period in the title after the word period. And it was red. I was devastated. And coming home from play practice one afternoon soon thereafter, I sheepishly told my mom, I had actually gotten my period. She yelled “Mazel Tov” and promptly coiled back and like something from a Marx Brother’s movie, pantomimed a slap in the face, hardly brushing my cheek. But energetically, I felt a dizzying blow. And she said “now you know what it feels like to be a woman.” Wait WHAT?
She told me that is what they used to do, that her mother had done the same pantomime routine. But in shtetl times, it was a real slap and that this gesture was passed down from Jewish mother to Jewish daughter and so on….
Although I didn’t have a traditionally religious Jewish upbringing, my Jewish life feels pretty rich and sustained, if not deepened. We celebrate all the high holidays, with my parents and my extended family of choice. My partner speaks Swiss German and I think it’s totally hot when he understands the root words and pronunciation in Yiddish better than I do. It becomes a conversation. My closest friends are Jewish, Chicana, Filipina, Black, Korean, Chinese, Iranian and a myriad of mixes therein. Along with a friend Stacy, I share Shabbat dinners and throw what we are told is one of the best Hannukah parties around, Latkepalooza. Traditional vs. Root down. And yes, we always use the Cell Phone Sleeping Bag I designed for The National Day of Unplugging a few years back, now in it’s 5th reprinting. Us and 20,000 others around the world.
But as I consider my Jewish past and my path moving forward, I still wouldn’t have a traditional Bat Mitzvah, nor do I welcome the ritual slap. I think that something more powerful for me would be emersion in the mikvah as a coming of age ceremony. For our young women, just starting their cycles, what other ritual could help reframe coming of age? I suggest drawing a soothing bath for our young women. And saying, “Welcome to the sisterhood, may your life as a woman be filled with blessing!” Let's do a little ritual that you can do every month to honor the return of your body cycle, to ensure you well being, and to welcome the restoration of your energy. And asking “What is it that has lost potential this month, what are you letting go of? What is developing in fascinating ways that you wish to nurture? What blessings and strengths do you hope to draw upon, as a new cycle of days begins?”
Rivkah Slonim, director of education at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University in New York said: “Mikvah is about the immersion of the soul”.
For Jewish women (and some men) immersion in a ritual bath to spiritually purify oneself has been practiced for four thousand years. Though monthly use of a ritual bath is less prevalent today than in other times, a broad range of Jewish women, from feminist to ultra-otharodox, participate in the ritual.
My reBar would offer a group or community a unique opening to deepen our spiritual and community ritual practices in a group. From traditional mikvehs to salt water pools, to hot springs.
For my close-knit family, the Torah was never studied and Hebrew was never spoken. Currently, with almost all traces of my mother tongue/s lost, one place of deep spiritual connection that remains with me is a love of the water. My maternal grandmother did not teach my mother nor I our language but she did teach us water was a joyous pure thing to dive fully into whenever possible. So when I do finally dive in, you are all invited! Thank you for coming on this journey with me.
Jessica Tully is an award-winning artist and organizer working primarily in video and participatory practices. Her site-specific rock operas, civic engagement strategies and performance videos take place underwater, on football fields, at State Capitols, major museums, unionized cultural institutions, the Bay Bridge and the ballot box.