For many years, I contemplated the idea of an adult Bat Mitzvah. My maternal grandmother, Beile Kotler, came from the Russian village of Kopojgorod, Russia on April 13, 1913, after a month-long ship ride lasting from Purim to Passover. Beile and her four siblings, and their parents came through Ellis Island with little more than a pair of silver Shabbat candlesticks and a love for their Judaism.
Though my grandmother was fiercely proud of her, she did not provide a more formal religious education for her daughter–my mother, Millie–and, as a result, those traditions and testaments were not passed down to me.
I grew up eating the kugels and schnecken from my grandmother’s galley kitchen, put pennies in the pishka, and loved listening to my grandmother speak in Yiddish and talk about the hardships of starting over in America. I grew up breaking Yom Kippur fasts we never kept and spinning dreidels with Hebrew letters I couldn’t discern, but we came together as family, and this was our version of Judaism.
Still, I have always felt a deep, inexpressible connection to my Judaism but secretly ashamed that I was not comfortable in a synagogue. At the time, I believed that to be “fully Jewish” meant knowing the customs and the language. My shame was heightened even more when, on a trip to Israel two decades ago, I was called shiska by native Israelis who laughed at my ignorance and whose words were so stinging, I can still feel the humiliation.
When my 13-year-old son, Alex, was Bar Mitzvahed last year, he questioned why we were “forcing” him to become a Bar Mitzvah, especially when I did not attend Hebrew School. I decided the time had come for me to learn more, and I enrolled in an adult B’nai Mitzvah class at our local Reform temple in Baltimore.
After two years of study, my Jewish Journey and my participation in learning to sing in Hebrew and chant Torah have made me realize that becoming a B’Nai Mitzah has not made me any more Jewish. I believe that all of my values and belief systems about myself and the world–my questioning, my curiosity, my idealism, my quest for knowledge, even my angst–are all inherently Jewish traits. Who I am fundamentally is a byproduct of my Judaism.
My Judaism has shaped me and continues to shape me, and I am proud to be part of a cycle that is so much bigger than myself. Jews around the world have been reading and studying Torah for thousands of years, and the same portions are read in synagogues around the world every week. As the millions of Jews who came before me, I am now a torchbearer of our traditions and testaments, and my adult Bat Mitvah hasn’t changed anything other than my perspective. My formal study has helped me see what was there all along.
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