Un-Bat Mitzvah By Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Growing up in the Five Towns of Long Island, Shabbat passed by the house I grew up in every Friday night, waiting for me to join her, as a parade of men in dark suits and children in colorful dresses accompanied her to Young Israel of Woodmere.  In 1985, the year that would have been my Bat Mitzvah, I was still eight years shy from the time I would join any Shabbat procession. 

My un-Bat Mitzvah happened during SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) for 18 minutes every morning at Woodmere Middle School.  As a child actor, I usually used this time memorizing lines for auditions that would take me out of school early by LIRR-chariot to the Big City 23 miles away.  On days that I had no sides, I would take a random book off of the shelf of coverless and torn books, and see what would stick.  One grey morning in late autumn, I touched the peach skin pages of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen.”  I remember the sensual fuzz of the front page as my fingers touched it.  Opening the book, I settled into my chair.

I read the book with a heart longing, hiding my tears behind its slight paperback, and consuming its every word with wonder, curiosity and shame.  Reuven and Danny’s world of Jewish meaning was filled with intellectual rigor, passion and a drive for truth.  “I want to know this,” a voice deep inside me whispered, “I want to learn Talmud.” 

The thought was an absurdity.  How could I ever?  Judaism seemed a locked door; every particle of its being an unknowable entity, hidden in multiple foreign languages I would never learn.  My father grew up on the border of Bed-Sty and Williamsburg, where the book took place; yet, a world away, as my father was the son of an intermarriage that ended in divorce before 1950.  The discontinuity extended to my mother’s side of the family as well, as my grandmother grew up in a Catholic home where she was placed by the foster care system after her mother died.  I was a latchkey kid, raised in a house without Judaism for no sexy ideological reason. My working class parents were not children of Bund members, socialists, atheists, or Holocaust survivors. They were just uneducated Jews from broken families who lost their connection. How could I ever own this part of me when I felt like such an imposter to my own heritage?

Today, I am a rabbi.  I speak Hebrew.  I read Torah.  I am still no Reuven or Danny in Aramaic and Talmud, but I can hold my own.  And I never had a Bat Mitzvah.

What moves me towards Judaism is what moved me towards theatre and acting as a child – the heightened awareness and experience of the sacred in a moment through language and ritual.  Except, as someone of Jewish heritage, the script is Torah and the play is your life. The Open Temple, the community I founded in Venice, CA, is a creative community to explore this interplay, and where all people – unaffiliated, disaffiliated, lapsed, alienated or seeking – can embrace and awaken their Jewish curiosity and choose to return.  With or without a Bat Mitzvah. 

Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder of The Open Temple centered in Venice, CA, Lori seeks to take her experience from her broad background in the arts and academia, and serve unaffiliated and disaffiliated seekers. Prior to founding Open Temple, Lori was the Director of Jewish Life at USC Hillel. Lori spent time living and studying in communities of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Non-Denominational Judaism. A current fellow with CLAL/Rabbis Without Borders Clergy Leadership Incubator, Lori is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA and Barnard College. Lori and her husband, Dr. Joel Shapiro, live in the Venice (CA) canals with their daughter Harel.