Grandmother of four relishes her bat mitzvah at age 71

Miriam Goodley of Walnut Creek could not sleep the night before her bat mitzvah.

She worried she had not prepared enough. Then again, at age 71, she says she has been preparing for this event all her life.

Goodley was one of 58 women who participated in a group bat mitzvah on July 13 at Hadassah's 84th National Convention in New York.

"I did the bat mitzvah for myself, to give myself that stamp of approval," said Goodley, a Hadassah member since 1944. "It is like I'm getting a Good Housekeeping approval label on my house."

Goodley approached the bimah for the ceremony as someone who has lived a Jewish life both "internally and externally," she said.

B'not mitzvah were not permitted when Goodley was growing up. For the grandmother of four, having the service at a mature moment marked not a coming of age, but a coming of identity.

"The bat mitzvah is a confirmation of my Judaism, but I am just as much a Jew without it," Goodley said. "But it is a confirmation of what I am and what my values are still being based on."

The services were led by women, with an audience composed mostly of seniors, many wearing silk suits and big hats.

The party afterwards celebrated the rite of passage. But for Goodley, it was important the festivities did not overwhelm the meaning of the ceremony.

"I hear about people reserving bands three years in advance and placing so much importance on the party and dinner," she said. "I wanted to do the ceremony as an adult, for its own sake, and not to collect presents."

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1927, Goodley lived there for six years until one Saturday night the Nazis came to confiscate her passport. Her family moved to Switzerland in 1933 and later to Paris.

Goodley came to New York at the age of 10. Her father worked as an attorney and spent many years filing restitution cases for other survivors.

While in New York, Goodley worked as a secretary at the public library, and remembers well a chance encounter on the job with then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

"People were excited he was there," she said. "I came up to him. He asked me my name and I went completely blank."

Goodley spent the majority of her time raising her two daughters and feels proud today that she does not work anymore.

"I am happy I don't have to meet any more deadlines," she said. "I was not brought up with a Protestant work ethic."

These days, she occupies her time by attending lectures and working on the committee for the Jewish book fair at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center.

Goodley joined the Society for Humanistic Judaism seven years ago, finding the secular organization to be "a voice for those who value Judaism and celebrate Jewish identity but do not pray to a God."

Yet at the time she first joined the society, which hosts Shabbat services and study groups, she found "there was not a tremendous amount of Judaism in the chapter. They were against whatever smacked as religious or too Jewish. `Religious,' to me, is not a word equal to poison."

At the urging of a friend, she applied to Hadassah's special bat mitzvah program. She prepared for the event by studying Hebrew with a CD-ROM on her computer.

As she studied for the ceremony, she found that learning the rituals and Hebrew presented a "challenge and affirmation of my life."

And perhaps the ceremony was, in fact, a coming of age — just at a different age than expected.

"My second childhood is much better than my first," Goodley said. "A bat mitzvah is something you should do whenever you consider yourself an adult."