I grew up in an interfaith household. My dad was Catholic — loosely — and my mom is Jewish — loosely. Neither of them really practiced religion much, and my father passed away when I was 7, so there wasn’t a strong Catholic tradition in my household. My mom, also, has always been much more committed to mysticism and spirituality. When I’d come home from Catholic school (where I was sent because that’s where my parents believed I’d get a better education), and I’d ask why we didn’t go to church like the other families at school, my mom typically gave me a response that was half-Jewish (because shabbat is on Saturday) and half-druid (because you can just celebrate the higher spiritual entity by taking a walk in a park and talking to the trees). In short: I didn’t really know what to think about religion or religious practices when I was a kid. But I knew, from a very early age, that my mother is Jewish, which means that I am Jewish. But my mother always told me that, when I was about to turn 13, I’d go to Hebrew school and learn what it means to actually be Jewish — the history of our people, the traditions, the rituals, the language (although, if she had it her way, I probably would’ve learned about the healing powers of crystals). Then, on my 13th birthday, I’d get: A really. Big. Party.
So, naturally, when I saw 13 on the horizon, I asked about my Bat Mitzvah, which, at this point, for me, was synonymous with party. I knew that, translated into spanish, it meant “hija de la ley” (daughter of the law), but I had no real idea what it meant in the grand scheme of Jewish history: Where the tradition originated, why it came about, how recently women were allowed to partake — nothing. I just thought it was a really big party. And that sounded awesome.
So, when I asked my mom about it sometime between my 12th and 13th birthdays, she gave me a confused look and said, “Well, but, we’re Mexican, so how ‘bout a quinceañera instead?” And, trying to be a good daughter and please my mom, I agreed wholeheartedly. And then 15 rolled around and she suggested we have a sweet 16 instead, because, well, we live in the States. And then at 16 (I’d stopped asking at this point, but she felt obligated to let me know, just in case I was wondering), she suggested that I have a graduation party — or how ‘bout a really big trip to Europe or Israel or wherever? It really seemed like, according to my mom, I couldn’t properly enter adulthood until something momentous happened — some sort of big celebration. She was of the opinion that there needed to be ceremony attached to my coming of age, pomp and circumstance. But, for me, coming of age felt like it should be quieter, more personal. I thought I’d feel like an adult at 18, or after high school graduation, or when I could finally buy my own alcohol. As far as I was concerned, my “coming of age” moment finally came three months after high school graduation, when I packed all my worldly belongings into my brother’s car and he drove me from San Diego to Stanford. It really felt like a separation from my childhood — both physically, leaving my childhood home, and emotionally, facing a brand new world all on my own.
Throughout college, though, I realized the importance of lifecycle milestone markers. The ceremonies that mark significant moments in our lives are an important chance for us to celebrate with our loved ones, our community. Like weddings, and graduations, and new beginnings, certain birthdays are markers of new responsibilities we take on — especially as we grow old enough to take charge of our own beliefs and sustain the traditions and tenets of our communities and religions. As an adult, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bummed that I didn’t get the chance to celebrate my coming of age moment with my loved ones, becoming an “official” part of a community I belong to.
Fast forward to my late 20’s, when I met the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. When he mentioned me to his parents for the first time, he told me his mom said, “She’s Mexican? ...But she’s Jewish?” And he affirmed that I, being born of a Jewish woman who was born and raised in Mexico, was, in fact, Jewish and Mexican, all at once. But I felt like it was a lie. I mean, I never had my Bat Mitzvah. I went to Catholic school. I felt like an imposter. When we got engaged, I reached out to the wonderful (and amazingly patient) Rabbi Mychal of Interfaith Family (formerly Stanford Hillel), desperate for confirmation that I was really Jewish, despite the lack of a Bat Mitzvah. If I never came of age in the Jewish way, did I lose my Jewishness? Was it enough that I could make challah from scratch basically by heart? What did it mean to be Jewish, really? I learned, from Rabbi Mychal, that it was okay. That it wasn’t too late. That women weren’t even allowed a Bat Mitzvah until the 1920s and 30s. That, if I never decided to have a Bat Mitzvah, I could still find my own Jewish way. And, now, as my husband and I are making decisions about our own family, and as I start to affirm my Jewish heritage more deeply, I wish I could rewind and go to Hebrew school, and have a Bat Mitzvah, and celebrate that milestone firmly, instead of feeling it gradually, but I know that I can only look toward the future and shape my own path to living a Jewish life.
Alex Geboff is a Stanford grad (class of 2007) and proof that you can, in fact, get a decent job as an English major. She's a technical writer (which is cooler than it sounds) and lives in Mountain View with her husband and none-eyed dog, Odin (who was named when he was a one-eyed dog). She's originally from San Diego and doesn't believe in Bay Area burritos, but she does believe in the healing powers of challah.