Pioneering Jewish woman marks 70-year milestone Judith Eisenstein had first bat mitzvah

March 23, 1992|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Judith Kaplan Eisenstein read the Torah just as she did 70 years ago when she broke centuries of Jewish tradition as the first girl to have a bat mitzvah, yet so much else had changed.

"Let's not fool ourselves, this isn't my party," Mrs. Eisenstein said during her second bat mitzvah Saturday.

"It's a celebration of women's move into the heart of Jewish life."

The bat mitzvah that once shocked people has become as common for many 12-year-old girls as the bar mitzvah is for 13-year-old boys.

This time, Mrs. Eisenstein wore a prayer shawl, the tallit, but 70 years ago she did not.

Back then, the tallit was so exclusively male that not even her father, who conceived the bat mitzvah for girls, could imagine a female wearing one.

As with Mrs. Eisenstein's first bat mitzvah, many Jewish women are likely to follow her latest precedent.

Now 82, she became the first woman to celebrate the 70th anniversary of her bat mitzvah before a crowd gathered in the catering hall at the site of the 1964 World's Fair in Queens.

After 70 years, the biblical life span, some Jews mark the beginning of the new span with a second ceremony.

Mitzvah means commandment -- prefixed by bar for son of, or bat for daughter of -- in a ritual that marks the religious coming of age of a boy at 13 and a girl at 12.

The bat mitzvah is offered to girls within the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism.

Among the Orthodox, where men and women are still separated in the synagogue, a few congregations call girls to the Torah, but in services that are for women only.

Mrs. Eisenstein's 1922 bat mitzvah was held in a synagogue on New York's Upper West Side that her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, had started earlier that year.

He was the founder of the Reconstructionist movement.

The bat mitzvah followed logically from his vision of Judaism as an evolving religion that could include aspects of modern democratic society within the spirit of its tradition.

Two years before the bat mitzvah, the U.S. Constitution was amended to give women the right to vote.

Rabbi Kaplan's liberalizing thought influenced other branches of Judaism as well as the upbringing of his daughters.

Mrs. Eisenstein, who went on to become a scholar of Jewish music, grew up a feminist, aware that "in Jewish life there was a great deal of inequality," she said.

This became apparent as her childhood studies of Hebrew carried her past what was offered to girls and into the more advanced classes for boys.

Many of her friends were also precocious feminists, Jewish girls from non-religious homes whom she would join in regular debates on such topics as "Resolved: Palestine Should Be Socialist."

They named their club after the Yarmuk River, which powered a hydroelectric project in what has since become the independent state of Israel, Mrs. Eisenstein said, "and we were going to be the great power."

Her father, who startled Jewish thinking in many ways, was a difficult man to shock.

Mrs. Eisenstein had tried to do so when she was 11 by telling him, "I don't believe in God."

After she described this God as an oppressive, autocratic male figure, her father said he didn't believe in that kind of God either.

They talked instead about what kind of God they did believe in.

In this atmosphere, the prospect of becoming the first girl to have a bat mitzvah was less than daunting. "I believed in the idea," Mrs. Eisenstein recalled. "But I was very self-conscious."

Her mother, a traditional homemaker, supported her.

But she overheard her grandmothers telling each other that "this was outrageous." Some of the Jewish press in New York denounced the ritual, too.

Mrs. Eisenstein's place in modern Jewish history was secure.

Over the last 20 years, she has received telephone calls from girls, and a few boys, preparing for their religious coming of age.

Interviewing her is part of the curriculum in some congregations.

"Today young girls simply believe that everything is equal and always was so. It's very important for them to realize that equal rights in Judaism is less than a century old," said Rabbi Joy Levitt, who hands out such assignments to girls at her synagogue on Long Island.

Many female Jewish leaders who never heard of Mrs. Eisenstein while growing up have since come to appreciate her.

"I am Conservative, but I recognize her as a pioneer, definitely," said Shoshana Cardin of Baltimore, chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Mrs. Cardin, who had no bat mitzvah, was determined that her two daughters would when they came of age in the 1960s. She believes that having a bat mitzvah contributed to the fact that one of her daughters became a rabbi.

Making similar connections, many women clutched at Mrs. Eisenstein's hand Saturday as the second bat mitzvah concluded.

From her place at the forefront of change, Mrs. Eisenstein surveys new trends and worries over some of them.

Lavish parties for bar and bat mitzvah obscure the significance of the occasion, she says.

She also criticizes the recent feminist emphasis on God as Goddess, calling it "a lapse into idolatry."

Although she has always believed God to be without form or sex, Mrs. Eisenstein has no objection to masculine pronouns in "poetic" reference to God.

"They're [part of] the ancient prayers, and I want to feel linked with the past as well as the present," she said.

With her two bat mitzvahs, Mrs. Eisenstein believes, she was taking firm hold of both.

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