The first chapter of my new book, “A Passionate Writing Life,” is titled “Modern Orthodoxy.” I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when I was asked at a recent book launch program whether I thought my denomination was moving to the right or the left. I answered “yes,” explaining that it is, somewhat paradoxically, moving in both directions, occasionally even related to the same issue.
Take the topic of the book’s second chapter, “Women and Judaism.” In certain ways there’s still a rightward drift; even my beloved Beit Midrash of Teaneck — one of two anchors that gives important meaning to my retired life — still, inexplicably, does not welcome women to some of its classes. On the other hand, just last week my synagogue, Congregation Rinat Yisrael, sponsored a GPATS Shabbat, where three female students from YU’s Graduate Program in Advanced Talmud Studies addressed our congregation numerous times over the weekend, including at the conclusion of each of our five Shabbat morning minyanim.
This column, though, looks leftward, and concentrates on the bat mitzvah of my oldest granddaughter, Aviva Leah Goldberg, which we recently celebrated in Toronto.
As I wrote in “Bat Mitzvah Celebrations,” a 1981 article in Sh’ma magazine, “the Modern Orthodox community in which I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s was a bat mitzvahless society, where the operative equation was that bat mitzvah equals Conservative or Reform ritual, and was thus taboo.” That thankfully has changed drastically in my community, with bat mitzvah celebrations becoming acceptable, and in some congregations even normative. Indeed, sometimes the young woman and her parents plan a bat mitzvah that grants the celebrant a more active and innovative participatory role, though this can still be controversial. (See Eleff and Butler, “How Bat Mitzvah Became Orthodox,” and especially footnote 79 and its accompanying text.)
That was Aviva’s bat mitzvah. Aviva, a young woman with a mix of deep intellect, strong personality, and a delightful sense of humor, is not one to sit on the sidelines. Long before Mishna became a topic of instruction for her grade, Aviva began studying that ancient text in a Hadar Mishna club, and that was followed by several other Mishna learning programs. Similarly, when Talmud was introduced into her school curriculum for her age group, she began attending a women’s Talmud class, where she is the only attendee who is not eligible to receive a driving license.
So Aviva and her parents, our daughter Raquel and her husband Jason, wanted a bat mitzvah where her major activity would be more than delivering a d’var Torah, doing a chesed project, or even completing the study of one of the 63 tractates of the Mishna. They wanted one that would truly represent her becoming an adult — okay, make that young adult — member of the Jewish community.
They therefore devised — thankfully without controversy — a bat mitzvah weekend where her participation and leadership in Jewish learning and liturgy took many forms. There was, first and foremost, the Torah study part. In addition to all her other Mishna learning, she studied with her father, and completed the 12-tractate long Seder Mo’ed. And at the conclusion of the Shabbat morning services, Aviva made a siyum on that seder, delivering a talk to the entire congregation about Masechet Sukkah and reciting the traditional hadran that follows the completion of significant Torah study. Jason then chanted the siyum kaddish.
But there was more. Her bat mitzvah was being celebrated on Chanukah. That meant that her synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shomayim, was holding its recently instituted women’s Hallel service, which takes place on those Shabbatot when Hallel is said. And so, at 10 a.m., many women left the main sanctuary to attend that special women-only service in the social hall, presided over by Rebbetzin Emma Taylor. Hallel was led by — you guessed it — Aviva, whose selection of many Chanukah tunes added joy to everyone’s davening. Afterward, the women rejoined the main congregation for the remainder of the service.
Although men are not invited, several of Aviva’s immediate male relatives inconspicuously loitered outside the social hall to enjoy Aviva’s skillfully done Hallel. I was not able to join because, as a kohen, I was honored with the first aliyah in the main service, which coincided with the special women’s one. But, as you’ll see below, my kohen status had bat mitzvah benefits too.
Sunday was a day of liturgy and partying. After an early morning gathering for family photographs, about 50 women and 30 men assembled in a nearby school for a partnership minyan where men and women, separated by a mechitzah, partook in a traditional Orthodox service, with the women taking on ritual leadership roles to the fullest extent permissible under Jewish law. Thus, in this Chanukah davening, women actively participated in all liturgical roles except leading shacharit. Aviva not only led Hallel again but also layned, and other female family members took on tasks such as leading pesukei dezimrah, opening the ark, calling up people for aliyot, reciting the prayers for the government, State of Israel, Israeli soldiers, and the hostages, and chanting a chapter of Psalms.
I once again received the kohen aliyah, and in the absence of a levi, the second one as well. Aviva received the third. While my honor was sweet, even sweeter was that I was still standing by the Torah when Aviva completed her layning and aliyah, giving me the rare opportunity to kiss my granddaughter at the bimah as she concluded her bracha. My grandparents never could have imagined such a thing, but I like to believe that they, as well as my parents and in-laws, were looking down from above, appreciating Aviva’s achievements and my kiss.
We then moved on to the shul’s social hall for what my parents would have called a balabatish bat mitzvah dance party. There were, of course, speeches, which were emceed by a delicious 8-year-old younger sister Liora with a poise and presence that would put many adults to shame. Rabbi Elliot Diamond, representing the rabbinate — the Goldbergs’ synagogue rabbi, Rabbi Sam Taylor, spoke to and about Aviva in shul on Shabbat — surpassed even the high bar he always sets for himself, Raquel and Jason were eloquent and loving, and Aviva, in an entirely new speech, sparkled almost as much as her custom designed glitzy Converse high tops that she wore throughout the day. (I’m not quite sure what her great-grandparents would have thought about those sneakers.)
There was separate simcha dancing, family simcha dancing, girls’ dancing, and karaoke (which the adults thankfully were allowed to sit out), a picture booth with dress-up clothing, a fantastic looped slideshow of pictures of Aviva assiduously prepared by older brother Ezra (who spoke as well), delicious food, and soft serve ice cream with numerous toppings — my favorite — for dessert. Yum.
Nothing, of course, surpassed Aviva’s many accomplishments at her bat mitzvah — not even the grammen I wrote and sang at our Friday evening family meal, as I traditionally do at major family events. But one thing that stood out to me was family participation. Aviva is blessed to live in Toronto, her father’s hometown, so Jason’s local family were there. Sharon and I gladly endured the eight-plus-hour drive to attend as well. (We wisely made a mini-vacation out of it, with stops on the way home at Niagara-on-the-Lake, where we saw “Brigadoon” yet again, and at the spectacular Corning Museum of Glass.)
Our attendance and the attendance of the Torontonians, though meaningful, was de rigueur. What was truly significant, however, was the out-of-town response. Aviva’s three aunts and uncle, two first cousins, two great-aunts, two great-uncles, other cousins, and even one friend who is like family put everything aside and flew from New York or drove from Montreal to celebrate with Aviva. And our Israeli family, who understandably are consumed with other vital issues and concerns, and some New York relatives who could not attend in person, made sure to Zoom in. I could write an entire column or two about the importance of family and not make the point as sharply and clearly as did our family’s active support of Aviva in her moment in the limelight.
With no hotels in the Goldbergs’ neighborhood, this weekend would have been impossible without the gracious hospitality of Raquel’s friends and neighbors, who opened their homes and hearts to the out-of-town attendees. And a special thank you to our personal hostess, Iris, who, together with her 15-year-old daughter, Lily, and her 2-year-old cavapoo, Sunny, could not have been more warm and welcoming.
Some might think a bat mitzvah celebration is merely a 12-year-old’s birthday party. But we know better; we understand it’s a serious and significant rite of passage that has deep meaning to both the celebrant and those celebrating with her. And when that bat mitzvah is done in a religiously meaningful way, with flair and together with loving family and friends, it’s a moment in time that, her doting grandfather believes, Aviva will look back on in years to come with appreciation, warmth, and love. Even when her spectacular sequined sneakers don’t fit any longer.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a retired lawyer, longtime Teaneck resident, and regular columnist for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck’s Judaica House). He and his wife, Sharon, have been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.