While several reasons have been given over the years for why I never had a Bat Mitzvah, there’s really only one: my mom was not into being Jewish.
You could, in fact, say that my mom did/does not realize that she’s Jewish. She is, 100%, but these are some of the things I’ve heard her say:
“Jews weren’t allowed in the country club in Minnesota in the 40s and 50s.” (Mom’s family was in the country club.)
“Happy Easter! Do you like your basket?”
“You’re lucky you don’t have my hook nose.”
And yet my mother has always been quite Jewish in other ways. Some other sample dialogue:
“Did I tell you I talked to Mrs. Morris and Marjorie is now CEO of that Fortune 500 company? I can’t imagine how she does that with those two children.”
“Where did he go to school? What was his major?” (This in regards to a man I am dating.)
“Please don’t take this as a guilt-provoking comment the way you usually do but are you coming home for my birthday?”
Dad’s family, on the other hand, was aggressively Jewish. By this I mean not only that they were obsessed with talking about their Judaism and going to temple and guilting family members far and wide into flying in to celebrate the holidays with them but also that they made being Jewish highly unappealing. I’m not entirely certain that they even knew there was meant to be a spiritual component to Judaism. They just did what they thought they were supposed to and they did it (as well as everything else) angrily. But this made Dad into a believer.
I can picture the conversation Mom and Dad probably had when they first discussed having kids.
“We’ll raise the kids Jewish, of course,” said Dad.
“Of course,” said Mom.
“Sunday school, Hebrew school. I definitely want them reading and speaking Hebrew.”
“Oh, me too.”
And then the kids were born and I think they both pretty much pretended the conversation never happened. Judaism was Dad’s thing. Mom stayed away from temple while Dad forced us to go. In my memory, I was the only one he managed to entangle. My brother, who was two-and-a-half years older than me and far craftier, always seemed to escape. An unfortunate added aspect to this: Dad is borderline narcoleptic, or at least he was when it came to temple. He also, despite not being a drug dealer, had a beeper. Most of my temple memories are of me trying to shake him awake as his beeper caused the service to stop.
When it came time for us to discuss learning Hebrew, Dad decided that regular old Hebrew school would not do for his kids. No, he needed us to speak and read it better than anyone and how could a school with all those other kids make us the very best?
So a tutor was hired. It was decided that my brother and I would be tutored together, even though I wouldn’t need to start learning Hebrew for another couple years. In my dad’s mind, that surely meant that I would only be more superior at reading and speaking the language—the best of the best.
In my memory, this is how the tutoring sessions went: a man named Eli came over and wouldn’t really teach us anything because, I remember thinking, he was far more interested in flirting with our mom. I don’t remember learning a thing. And so it made sense to me that, when my brother got to the point where he met with the Rabbi to go over what he would read during his Bar Mitzvah, my dad got a distressing call.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” I was told the Rabbi said. “But your son can’t read a word of Hebrew.” He added there was a solution: my brother could read the Torah phonetically.
Discussions took place. I was not a part of them. The end result was that my brother would not proceed with his Bar Mitzvah. Somehow it was also determined in that conversation that I wouldn’t have a Bat Mitzvah either. I don’t remember how I felt about this; I’d guess, based on my lack of a memory about it, that I was sort of indifferent. A few years later, I went to a lot of Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s but I don’t remember the temple part, only the parties where everyone got the same amazing DJ: a guy who went by the name Mark Spaz. This part I remember perfectly.
I recently shared my memories about our would-be Bar-Bat Mitzvahs with my brother. And I learned a few things: Eli was actually named Elay and he tutored us in a number of subjects, Hebrew only one of them. He was, my brother swore, an excellent tutor. Also apparently he was gay, so the slacking-off-while-he-flirted-with-Mom theory was shredded.
Does this mean that all my other memories of the decision not to move forward with Torah reading and blessing reciting are faulty? And was the choice (or non choice) destined to make me not have much Jewish identification (beyond a love for Philip Roth and the assurance that I was among a group of people that were always smart and funny)? I don’t know about this but I do know that I didn’t really regret my lack of a Bat Mitzvah, not even when my dad had a second Bar Mitzvah (yup) a few years ago. My life took a surprising turn over a decade ago and suddenly spirituality became a significant part of it. That spirituality has crossover with Judaism but nothing to do with reading from the Torah, becoming a woman in some public way or an enormous stack of presents. Yet when looking around my life, I find that most of the people in it are Jewish and that I—despite not having my mother’s hook nose—most decidedly am too, with or without a ceremony.
Still, I’m not going to say I have no regrets. Mark Spaz was a great DJ.
Anna David is the editor of the website AfterPartyMagazine and a NY Times bestselling author of six books. Her adult teeth grew in much straighter than those baby ones.