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Daughters of the Commandment and Their Mothers

An Ethnographic Exploration of Bat Mitzvahs in Metro Atlanta

An excerpt of the introduction to my Senior Project in Anthropology, submitted to the Division of Social Studies at Bard College. This paper was the culmination of a year of research and writing, and incorporated interviews that I conducted and engaged with literature across many disciplines. 

December 2022.

When I was in the seventh grade, I attended around half a dozen bat mitzvahs. Seventh grade is the year for it. It’s the year that kids typically turn thirteen—the age at which they become responsible for their actions and observing commandments—a bat mitzvah. I don’t think I fully understood that significance when I was a seventh grader. I understood that some of my friends were having fancy and important birthday parties that had something to do with the fact that they were Jewish. My memories of each bat mitzvah I attended that year have emerged at different points throughout researching and writing this project, but there is one that feels particularly emblematic of that time. It must have been early spring, in the middle of second semester. I remember it that way because it seemed that most people knew what to expect from a bat mitzvah by that point—I had already been to three or four—and that certainly wasn’t true at the beginning of the year. But the girl whose bat mitzvah it was, was undeniably popular. She invited a lot of people. So for several of my classmates, it was a new experience. I remember getting to the temple in the late morning, like I did on each of those days. My mom would drop me off. I would wear the same dress to every bat mitzvah. It was teal and white chevron. It was sleeveless, so I would wear a cream colored cardigan over it, and if it was cold, I would wear tights. I sat in a pew with one of my friends and we watched as a group of girls who were nice but cooler than us walked into the synagogue. They giggled and not-so-discreetly took selfies and tugged on each other’s arms. A few heads turned. A few people whispered. There were a few pointed looks. One of the girls was wearing a short, tight, spaghetti-strap dress with a repeating pattern of crosses all over it. Like, the Christian kind of crosses. To be fair, it was trendy and I remember thinking she looked great, but not for this. It was the wrong thing to wear to a bat mitzvah. But she didn’t know any better. A mom went out to the parking lot to get her a sweater from her car. I don’t remember much from the ceremony itself. I imagine that to be because it was much like all of the other bat mitzvahs I went to that year. The bat mitzvah girl and her family stood in front of everyone in the temple and spoke. Some of it was in English and some of it was in Hebrew. There were some moments when we were asked to stand and join in prayer. I didn’t know what the prayers were, they were the Hebrew parts, but at some point I had been to enough bat mitzvahs that I knew to chant baruch atah adonai eloheinu malech ha-olem at the start of the prayer. I had no idea what I was saying, and I honestly wasn’t really saying anything, just parroting sounds. That night was the party, which I remember much more clearly. My mom dropped me off again. If I remember correctly, it was one of the first times I was allowed to sit in the front seat of her car—she was big on that rule. I remember wearing a black dress and shiny nude heels. I straightened my hair and I did my makeup. I wanted to look hot. The party was “VIP” themed and was in a hotel ballroom decorated to look like a tween nightclub dedicated to the bat mitzvah girl. Bat mitzvah parties were one of those things that were always much more fun in theory than in practice for me. I liked to get dressed up but hated to be seen dressed up. I liked the idea of dancing with my friends but the music was too loud. I loved the rituals and traditions but having people light candles or lifted up in a chair made me nervous. I ended up spending much of the party sitting on the floor, away from the action, with a friend from Girl Scouts. Bat mitzvahs are often talked about as the day a girl becomes a woman. It’s not unusual for speeches on the big day to be full of jokes about it. “Today she's a woman, but…” At thirteen, I felt right on the precipice of adulthood, and it made so much sense that my friends would be having ceremonies recognizing their coming of age. Little did I know I would still feel that way almost a decade later. And now, I can look back on that time and understand that so much of what was important—sitting in the front seat of the car, having lots of friends, wearing high heels—the things that made us feel grown up, were our attempts to mimic an image of adulthood, like saying a prayer in a language you don’t understand.

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