100 years ago, the first bat mitzvah changed Jewish history forever
Sometimes history doesn’t happen with a bang. There is no great conflict. No big fight. Sometimes history is made through a casual exchange between a father and his teen daughter.
That’s what happened to Judith Kaplan. One day, her father, Mordechai Kaplan, one of the founders of Reconstructionist Judaism, told her he wanted her to have a “bas mitzvah” at his newly founded synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, or SAJ, in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Rabbi Kaplan “always said, there are four reasons why I wanted to have bat mitzvahs and those are my four daughters”, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, who wrote a children’s book about Judith Kaplan’s life called Judy Led the Way, recounts.
A few weeks later, on March 19, 1922, Kaplan stood in front of the congregation, chanting blessings and reading verses from her Chumash.
As Kaplan herself famously recounted, the moment itself was fairly uneventful: “No thunder sounded. No lightning struck.”
Yet, it was one of those moments that changed the very fabric of Judaism.
A century later, Kaplan’s story is getting retold in an inventive Instagram account celebrating the 100th anniversary. A collaboration between the Jewish Women’s Archive and SAJ, the content for the Instagram account was created by Mik Moore, who runs a creative agency in New York, in collaboration with the Jewish organisation Moving Traditions. Kaplan is played by actress Dylan Tanzer – one of 400 girls who auditioned.
“The idea was that you can use a platform like Instagram to tell the story of a young girl – who might have been using Instagram if it had existed at this historical moment,” Moore, whose family are members of SAJ and whose grandparents were friends of Kaplan’s, told the New York Jewish Week. Moore also consulted a group of 12-year-olds about what would make the account most impactful.
The project was inspired by the Instagram account @eva.stories, which retells the story of a teen going through the Holocaust. But Kaplan’s story, at least to me, feels so much more made for the medium – positive, bright, joyful.
The entire series of videos was filmed over one day at Moore’s grandparents’ apartment in Chelsea – a place that Kaplan frequented in her lifetime.
In the videos, Tanzer speaks emphatically to the camera, her legs rocking a little bit with nerves as she talks with great passion about her love for music (later in life, Kaplan would go on to create incredible Jewish music), her fluency in Hebrew and her devotion to her father. A student at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, Tanzer even chants the same Jewish prayers Kaplan recited at her bat mitzvah.
In 2022, it sometimes feels like we don’t have much to celebrate. But watching Kaplan’s story, and reading about her exuberance and passion for Judaism, I can’t help but think how rare it is for us to widely share these stories that celebrate Jewish joy – something that mattered deeply to Kaplan herself.
Rabbi Sasso – who, over 50 years after Kaplan’s bat mitzvah, became the Reconstructionist movement’s first female rabbi (Kaplan’s husband, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, was a founder of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) – remembers Kaplan speaking at her daughter’s bat mitzvah: “She said, ‘today you are the youngest bat mitzvah and I am the oldest. Always remember to find joy in your Judaism,’” Rabbi Sasso recalls.
“This is such a privilege to translate this history into terms that young people can experience and relate to and make that history come alive, especially at such a difficult moment,” Rabbi Lauren Hermann, the spiritual leader of SAJ, told Kveller. She called the anniversary “a beautiful moment of ‘kol Israel’” – something that can be celebrated across all spectrums of Judaism, where bat mitzvahs are now celebrated in some form or another, from secular circles to Orthodoxy.
What’s so wonderful about this account is also how it ties in Kaplan’s story with current events of her times that feel relevant now – stories about immigration, the fight for women’s rights and anti-racism.
“A lot of the things that were in the air at that time were not so different,” Judith Rosenbaum, the CEO of the Jewish Women’s Archive, told Kveller. “People were thinking about voting rights. They had recently been out of the pandemic.”
Rabbi Carole Balin, who is writing a book about the history of bat mitzvahs, also reminds us that Kaplan’s bat mitzvah “took place two years after women got the vote in this country [the US]. It did not happen in a vacuum”.
Rosenbaum stresses that many of the young people she works with are surprised to find out that the bat mitzvah is so young. And it’s true, the bat mitzvah is such a ubiquitous part of Judaism (in America especially), featured in TV shows and movie episodes, and celebrated with lavish parties, that even if you are not Jewish or grew up with few Jews, you still probably know about it.
Yet even Kaplan’s history-making bat mitzvah doesn’t look much like the celebrations of our day. It took many years until women were allowed to read from the actual Torah scroll and for a bat mitzvah to carry the same significance of a bar mitzvah – the initiation into Jewish communal life.
“For girls, it was a dead end – one and done after the bat mitzvah,” Rabbi Balin says of those early ceremonies. “And so everything would snap back to the way it was.”
Rabbi Balin recounts the story of Judith Paul Aronson, who had her bat mitzvah in the ’40s, but was so frustrated that she couldn’t touch the Torah that she snuck into her synagogue two years later to do so. There’s also the story of Kinereth Dushkin Gensler, who was devastated after she wasn’t allowed to touch the Torah at her bat mitzvah – what was meant to be the first bat mitzvah at her parents’ Jewish summer camp, Camp Modin – because she got her period that week.
But the story of Kaplan is also a reminder that it’s never too late to have a bat mitzvah. Earlier this year, Frieda Thompson celebrated her bat mitzvah and her 92nd birthday in LA during the 100th anniversary of Kaplan’s ceremony.
“People often think of Judaism as something that’s handed down from the older generation to the younger generation,” Rosenbaum says, but through Kaplan’s story, “we see the ways that young people also hand things up.”
“These girls of 12, or 13, this terribly cringy age, in the beginning, middle or end of puberty, come into the spotlight. They literally ascend the stage of Jewish life, the bimah in synagogues, and they spark a gender revolution in Jewish communal life,” Rabbi Balin says. “It starts to incentivise and spur women double, triple their age to demand access to roles in ritual life, and they succeed.
“By the time Rabbi Sally Priesand becomes the first female rabbi [in 1972], she has these girls half her age to thank,” Rabbi Balin adds.
Today, the bat mitzvah is 100 years young. But the coming-of-age ritual still has so many places left to grow – and so much new Jewish joy to be found. Let’s see where it gets to at 120.