Midlife bat mitzvah reflects lifelong spiritual journey

Two weeks before my bat mitzvah, I had a dream. I was praying at the Western Wall with my tallit draped over my head, when two men approached me angrily for praying in a manner they considered inappropriate.

Rallying all of my Janet of the Ark chutzpah, I looked them straight in the eye and repeated the Hebrew National slogan, "I answer to a higher authority. My prayer is between me and HaShem."

In my dream, I triumphed. And on March 28, when I joined three other women at the ark at Alameda's Temple Israel, I again triumphed. But four weeks before my bat mitzvah, I stood on the women's side of the Wall, where I muffled my voice and didn't dare wear a tallit.

I felt like a frightened black teen in the '50s attempting to integrate a Southern high school. But this time, it wasn't the Orval Faubuses or the George Wallaces who were the keepers of the gate. It was my own people. I returned from the Wall radicalized as a Jew and a feminist. It was the culmination of a long journey.

Once, it would have been easy for me to turn my back on the Wall.

Third generation American-born on one side and fourth on another, I was raised in a secular home in which we prided ourselves on being assimilated. My father, the son of a Shakespearean actor who forbade the use of Yiddish, never had a bar mitzvah.

My mother was sent to Christian Science Sunday school until my grandmother gave up the faith and returned to her birth religion — hypochondria. Shortly before she died, I asked my maternal grandmother's youngest sister if her mother lit the Shabbos candles. "Oh no," she said. "She was very advanced."

Like many women of my generation, I had no Jewish education; like my great-aunt, I equated religious observance with superstition. I never attended a Passover seder during my youth, never lit Sabbath candles and never learned the meaning of such holidays as Sukkot, Shavuot or Simchat Torah.

My parents used to joke that the kids in our predominantly Jewish neighborhood made up those holidays so they could stay home from school.

Growing up in the Rego Park-Forest Hills area of Queens, N.Y., I delighted in the taste of matzah balls and pastrami on rye, and the joy of dancing the hora. But I had no taste for Shabbat, had little feeling for Israel and found scant joy in Judaism, which I somehow saw as dour, filled with prohibitions and dry.

Yet, in a way, I envied my friends who went to Sunday and Hebrew school, those who had learned the history and knew the meaning of the prayers.

For a while, during my adolescent rebellion, I started going to Saturday morning services. I remember the European-born men in the Rego Park Jewish Center singing "Yismechu" with passion, pointing to the proper place in the prayerbook so I could theoretically read along, and telling me to pull off my white gloves before touching the Torah. While I didn't know the word kavanah (spiritual focus) then, I experienced theirs.

However, the secular forces in my background won out. I became engaged to a non-Jewish atheist during my first month in graduate school. It took a divorce nearly 24 years later to bring me back to Judaism and I discovered a community that was ready to welcome me back, without judging where I had been.

Shortly before my marriage ended, I was interviewing noted Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel for the Oakland Tribune, where I worked as a feature writer. In the course of the conversation, I said, "I happen to be Jewish."

He looked me right in the eye, cutting through years of semi-denial. "Don't happen to be Jewish," he said. "Be Jewish."

Three weeks after my marriage ended, I was back at services. Six months later, I was attempting to learn Hebrew. A year after that, an Israeli friend helped me pick out a Hebrew name, Natanela, which means "gift of God."

What brought me to the bimah for my bat mitzvah?

Jews are a people with a long memory, and I had never forgotten the fervor of the men in my old neighborhood, welcoming the Sabbath and chanting uninhibitedly. But when I returned as an adult, the harmonies had grown richer. Women were not only part of the choir. We were also in the pulpit, as rabbis and cantors, soloists and synagogue presidents.

The Judaism I returned to had opened up, while retaining the ancient spiritual chords that had drawn me home.

Yet while I sang with my soul — perhaps understanding the words on a spiritual, intuitive level — my Shabbat literacy was at a preschool level. Last year I began preparing for my bat mitzvah because I wanted to expand my understanding, to know the meaning of the prayers on several levels so that my participation could be fuller.

Learning to read what I knew mainly by ear and by heart required arduous work. But with the help of my rabbi, the encouragement of my three classmates, and the support of family, friends and congregants, I was able to come of age as a Jew — albeit at midlife. It was a joy to have not only my parents and my brother kvelling at the service, but my grown children.

After my bat mitzvah, I received two memorable notes. One was an e-mail from a poet and teacher at Tel Aviv University, my seatmate on my flight home from Israel. She had grown up in an Orthodox home in Rochester, N.Y.:

"Congratulations on your bat mitzvah," she wrote. "I've never been bat mitzvahed — my family was too religious."

The other was a card from a Bulletin reader who had never met me but had read about the event. "Maybe, if enough adult women-of-valor also become daughters of the commandments," she wrote, "my husband will see that it's pointless to continue to forbid me to become a religiously adult Jew. Maybe…"

Maybe, indeed. And maybe, if enough adult women reclaim their voices as Jews, our sisters at the Wall will be able to sing, dance and worship publicly with the kavanah of their brothers.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].