GITA CONN

Long way to go for equal rites of passage...

When I grow up (or old, whichever comes first) I shall have myself a batmitzvah.

While boys have always had 'the full Moshe' for their barmitzvah, my generation of girls were, at best, corralled into a group Eshet Chayil ceremony on a Sunday afternoon.

In my Orthodox childhood, reaching the age of 12 meant I was 'allowed' to fast on Yom Kippur and was thankfully relieved of the task of carrying my father's books to Prestwich Library on Shabbat.

Bnei Akiva was the youth movement of choice for Mizrachi Orthodox.

We had lots of fun there, but I don't remember any significance being placed on a batmitzvah.

Boys and girls mixed freely then, but now they no longer 'indulge' in mixed dancing and I was astonished to see an advert for a Simchat Torah morning specifically for girls this year.

While I may have fought against paternal tyranny, I have never resented the headstart Orthodoxy gave me in Hebrew and Jewish knowledge.

It has enhanced the experience in my adopted Reform community as well as helping to bridge the religious divide with my Charedi grandchildren.

The Charedi boys' rite of passage involves the entire service in shul and, of course, a mega party where the men have a great time dancing, speech-making and schnapps-ing while the women squeeze into the small area behind the mechitza. For the girls, their batmitzvah may be celebrated with a sedate circle of female friends and relatives (even the brothers are barred) enjoying a modest round of games, songs and sticky buns. They will be expected to take on adult mitzvot, but these will not involve the synagogue.

The contrast between the two worlds hit me forcefully last Shabbat at the Reform celebration of a joint bar and batmitzvah.

Twins, a girl and a boy, shared every aspect of the service, the sedra, haftorah, leading parts of the service and each giving their own individual, equally erudite D'var Torah.

How, one wonders, would your average Orthodox synagogue in the UK deal with this situation?

I am sure that every effort would be made to decrease the marginalisation of the batmitzvah, but that all the meaningful mitzvot would be performed by the barmitzvah.

Maybe she would be allowed to read the story of Ruth after Adon Olam; perhaps she could do a D'var Torah after havdalla, but I am certain no United Synagogue shul would allow her to share the bima and read from the Sefer Torah . . . surely the essence of what bnei mitzvah is all about.

And, at the conclusion of whatever ceremony she has been allowed to perform, what will be her presentation?

Some serious learning material for the boy, no doubt.

But she may well be presented with the Kohel Torah Women's Siddur.

If she decides to study that conscientiously, she will see that she is required to produce tears while praying, never ever wear slippers or nightwear while davening and, if her baby cries while she is in the middle of Shemonah Esrei, she must continue with the prayer once the babe is pacified!

The authors of this siddur (all men, of course - but some women are thanked in the preface for doing the typing!) show every understanding for the burdens of home and children on women. They recognise that there is not always time to do as much praying as required. Therefore, they recommend, when you are on holiday . . . recite more prayers!

One frequently hears of efforts to improve the spiritual lot of Orthodox women.

The latest initiative by the Chief Rabbi seems to be to appoint a 'women's officer' to improve women's experience in shul. This officer, would, it is reported, ensure that, if a woman wanted to recite kaddish on a weekday, she would make sure . . . there would be a mechitza in place.

So, big deal. She can recite kaddish. But... she can only do so behind a mechitza. And that, my friends, is progress!


The controlling hand of Orthodoxy is nowhere more prevalent than in Israel.

It rules all of life's significant milestones.

But, at Nofei Yerushalayim, the fully kosher retirement home in which my sister is comfortably settled, a film is screened for residents... on Shabbat morning!

The film is screened again after Shabbat for the benefit of the observant.

Everyone can be accommodated and enjoy life, with a little imagination and compromise.

Perfect!


I was surprised to discover a new restaurant in my area calling itself A Palestinian Kitchen when distributing flyers for the UK Jewish Film Festival.

I popped in to meet Yussuf, the proprietor, and asked him whether he would display the flyers as a sort of inter-ethnic peace gesture.

At the same time, I asked where his recipes came from.

Some, he said, were from his grandmother in Nablus but others, like his cheesecake, were from Jewish New York.

He added, with a grin, "I believe in a two-cake solution"!

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