Bat Mitzvah / Bar Mitzvah

Every family's rite of passage: some feminist wisdom from the reigning expert

LILITH here interviews Judy Davis, Ed.D., an expert in the field of the psychology of bat and bar mitzvah. Davis, a family therapist working and teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, has explored the therapeutic potential of cultural ritual—specifically bat and bar mitzvah—since 1980, the year of her first son’s bar mitzvah. Her scholarly publications include a chapter in Rituals in Families and Family Therapy, edited by E. Imber Black, J. Roberts and R. Whiting (Norton, 1988), and a chapter on “The Bar Mitzvah Balabusta: Mother’s Role in the Family’s Rite of Passage, ” which will appear in Women in Jewish Culture, edited by M. Sachs (U. of Illinois Press), scheduled for 1995.

Judy is currently at work on a book entirely about bat and bar mitzvah that speaks directly to parents about how we might make this particular lifecycle ritual most useful for our children, ourselves and our own parents.

LILITH: Judy, a good number of our readers have been, will be or are currently mothers of bat/bar mitzvah children. Can we understand our role from a feminist angle?

DAVIS: Given the cultural messages we’ve all grown up with, most of us take for granted that it is the mother who will be in charge of the planning details, who worries about the food, who gets “hysterical.” My research counters the derogatory stereotypes by explicitly demonstrating how much the mother’s efforts contribute positively to the family’s rite of passage, and, as importantly, to her own growth as well.

A first child’s bat/bar mitzvah is as much a developmental milestone for the mother as for the child. For the mother, the “ritual ordeal” comes not in the form of a public performance, but in the form of a private one—one that begins months before the first guest arrives. Mother is being tested (by herself as well as by others) in her capacity as “balabusta,” her capacity—in the most sacred sense of the word—as preparer of food, provider of comfort, and protector of harmony. Without getting embroiled in the politics (both secular and religious) of gendered role expectations, one could understand this in feminist terms as a test of her capacity to protect connections.

With varying degrees of collaboration and/or assistance from her partner or other relatives, she is implicitly expected to manage the logistics of the event, an event that, in most families, is larger, more complicated, more costly, more emotionally laden than any in the nuclear family’s previous experience. The bat/bar mitzvah is the first occasion in which the parents—as adults— present themselves publicly in relation to their religious tradition, their child’s development, their family’s evolution, and to everyone most important to them, all at the same time. In her capacity to organize this communal celebration of her child’s coming of age, she herself, at some level, comes of age. A job well done results not only in a successful celebration, but also in a sense of enhanced self-confidence and elevated standing in the extended family and community.

LILITH: And we get so involved with the food.

DAVIS: Food! Prior to the event, no matter what mothers were planning to provide, it was somehow not going to be enough. Afterwards, no matter how successful the meal(s) had been, every mother I interviewed in my research wished she had done yet one more thing (another kugel, another hospitality basket, another dessert). Obviously, this is not a concern about nutrition! Maury Sacks, anthropologist and folklorist, describes such details of preparation as containing an “embedded love message”—a message that implicitly binds mother, family, and community.

And of course the bat/bar mitzvah is, at its core, all about articulating bonds: it’s a ritual that bonds the child to her family and its tradition while paradoxically enabling and celebrating separation and differentiation from it. Bat mitzvah also constructs a kind of emotional echo chamber: the bonding effect reverberates throughout the family system.

LILITH: So the mother in the bat mitzvah drama is doing something positive with all this worrying?

DAVIS: Look, to the extent that feminist psychology understands women’s emotional development in terms of our capacity to connect, the developmental value of being a bat/bar mitzvah mother takes on additional meaning. Self-development for women occurs not through a progressive series of separations but through the experience of evolving empathetic relationships. It is precisely our sense of continuity with the past that allows us to “differentiate.”

The bat/bar mitzvah is a perfect emotional vehicle: for the child, it is an episode of individuation in the context of connection. That is, the child symbolically declares her separation from her parents—but through a ceremony that binds her to those parents fundamentally. For the mother, it is an inverse drama: it’s all about connections, but in the context of differentiating. Everything she does, from deciding on the guest list to “getting” her child to write thank you notes, is about connections. But everything she’s doing, she does as an adult, in charge, differentiated. For most first-time bat/bar mitzvah mothers, the last major life cycle ceremony of this magnitude and importance was our own weddings, and at that time—for most of us—we shared management of the event with our mothers. On this occasion though, grandma is a guest, and adult daughter is in charge. The event reflects her values, her standards, her accomplishments, her growth—her rite of passage.

Anthropologist Mary Katherine Bateson notes women’s extraordinary capacity to manage logistically and emotionally complex tasks. This ability— developed over millennia—needs to be named and valued. To the extent that it continues to be ignored and invisible, we contribute to women’s continued sense of inferiority.

If we continue to overlook the systemic implications of the bat/bar mitzvah and continue to image the bat/bar mitzvah mother as stereotypically overbearing and controlling, we contribute to a view that not only devalues the mother’s role in these rites but, indeed, supports a long psychological tradition of blaming her for most of what goes wrong.

LILITH: And what about Dad’s role?

DAVIS: Father’s role is definitely (at least in his son’s rite of passage) much clearer, certainly more public, and dramatically less ridiculed. Whereas, traditionally, the mother has no public presence (publicly she is consigned to the role of spectator), the father is publicly central. Within the patriarchal tradition. Father is implicitly the representative elder whose ranks his son is joining. It is he who implicitly passes on the secrets of the tribe and it is he who publicly recites the “prayer of riddance,” declaring that his son is now responsible for his own actions. Symbolically, Father embodies the sense of loss, the sense of the changing of the generational guards. “Just yesterday” it was he standing in the place where his son now stands, and “overnight” he has become his father. In all my research. Grandfather’s shadow (living or dead) is palpable as father and son stand together on the bimah.

The child’s bat or bar mitzvah is also a statement about the father’s achievement in the secular world of work. No matter the size of the mother’s salary, it is still generally assumed that the amplitude of the event is a result of the father’s economic success.

LILITH: How is the bat mitzvah significant for a girl’s development?

DAVIS: According to Carol Gilligan, middle-class girls, beginning around age 11 or 12, seem to move away from the confident, morally articulate pre-adolescents they had been and towards the more confused, apologetic, hesitant teenagers with which we are all familiar. She says that between the ages of 11 and 16, the young woman’s “moment of resistance,” her “clarity of vision,” goes “underground.” She becomes “disconnected” from herself (in a misguided attempt to stay connected to others), loses her “voice,” her right to take care of herself if she perceives that caring for herself is in opposition to caring for others. What could be more timely than a bat mitzvah? At precisely the point in her development when her self-confidence is in danger, the young woman is given this opportunity to take center stage, to push herself through the ordeal, to demonstrate her competence, and to speak—indeed to sing— out loud. It’s a perfect counterweight— an implicit message that this young woman deserves to be the focus of attention, to be listened to, respected, admired and honored, and that she deserves to be held accountable to the same degree as her brother. What a gift.

LILITH: If you ask families a year later what was most significant to them about the event, what do you hear?

DAVIS: Most parents will talk (with as much amazement as pride) about the changes they witnessed in their child throughout the preparation and the performance.

In one family the parents had divorced bitterly. What was most important was that the event be “harmonious” and that the child—as the mother put it—”not be pulled apart” between his parents and their respective families. In retrospect, everyone in this family agreed that their commitment to this goal had paid off, that the adults’ relationship with each other was significantly altered by virtue of this bar mitzvah, that lots of healing had occurred. The mother told me, “I felt good about myself for having created the space in which that warmth could have happened.”

In this same family, there was also a dramatic reconnection between the mother and her aunts through her son’s bar mitzvah. As a young adult she had rebelliously cut herself off from them. So this event was a repairing of extended family. I think that this latter reconnection will ultimately be what is most significant for the mother.

LILITH: When we think about a bat mitzvah, we mean a one-day event. But that’s not what you have in mind.

DAVIS: Right. I’m talking about a protracted private process that takes place all through the year. It’s one of those “hinges of time.” A time when a family is most open to change. As the family prepares for a child’s bat mitzvah, it enters a kind of “sacred space.” It begins to think of itself as special and to be treated by others as special: “The Bat Mitzvah Family.” In this “space” the process of dealing with logistical details can be therapeutic. Emotional issues in the family “heat up,” come to the surface and get dealt with. Should the extended families of a divorced couple be housed in the same hotel? Where should an ex-husband’s new wife and baby sit in the synagogue’? How much of the haftorah will a child be expected to learn? How the family deals with these details can make a difference. They are opportunities for family members to think in new and different ways about themselves. The months of preparation for the ritual are part of the ritual process itself; the very changes the ceremony is meant to celebrate are enabled by the process of preparation.

LILITH: Judy, what about the purpose of ritual?

DAVIS: What’s magical about ritual is that it’s a phenomenon that incorporates both change and no change simultaneously. Throughout the ages, rituals developed to mark change from one clearly defined status to another, and they functioned to maintain the community, to maintain the status quo. In order to stay healthy over the lifecycle, a family must continually readjust the balance between autonomy and cohesion, between change and continuity. Rituals provide us with this opportunity. Ritual is the original form of therapy. The end product of both is the same: change in the context of stability.

In the case of bat/bar mitzvah, I watch for how the family manages the emotional tasks of moving from being a family with a child to being a family with an adolescent, someone “getting ready” to be an adult. By emotional tasks I mean allowing the child increased autonomy, grieving for the loss which that autonomy implies, allowing for the evolution of the parents’ relationship not only with each other, but with their own parents too. It’s a rite of passage for all.

The more I study families, the more I come to see the bat or bar mitzvah as a natural coping mechanism for families facing the normal crisis of adolescent transition. Just as the child, beginning her teen-age years with this affirming public event, gains strength for the struggles ahead, so does the whole family. Through their private performance (of maturity and competence), the parents discover and reinforce new strengths. Through the public ritual, in which they are literally surrounded by the good will and support of family and friends, they discover and reinforce resources both in themselves and in their extended systems. One bat mitzvah mother I talked to described the experience as being “love-bombed.” Every time she took a peek at the sea of friends and family seated behind her in the synagogue, she felt overwhelmed. “They were smiling at me, nodding at me, winking, crying. It filled me with love.”

LILITH: You talk about the bat/bar mitzvah’s “magical” changes, but it seems that after the bat/bar mitzvah weekend, the family returns to normal (except that the kid is richer and the parents poorer).

DAVIS: By definition, ritual works magically, but it doesn’t work magic. After the bat/bar mitzvah, the family is still dealing with the same issues, but it has also now officially “Passed the Test.” It has proclaimed that the family and the child are changing, and that the changes are good. No matter how immature the child acts or is treated after the event, no one can deny the public demonstration of her growing maturity. No matter how disconnected the family is from the larger Jewish community, no one can deny their having participated in its cultural and religious rituals.

LILITH: What about the child who has a learning disability or some other handicap that would prevent her from performing like the prototypical “rabbi’s kid”?

DAVIS: What I tell all kids—with a handicap or not—is that, to some extent, this ritual has to be an ordeal or it won’t work; it won’t feel like an accomplishment. And that’s the key, I think. Preparation for the performance has to push the child beyond where she has previously been, so that when it’s over she feels proud of herself

LILITH: How come there’s been so little written about the psychology and sociology of bat/bar mitzvah?

DAVIS: Until a few years ago most sociologists dismissed the occasion as a nostalgic, if not regressive, remnant of an earlier age. Novelists mocked it; anthropologists ignored it altogether. Even Jewish educators have been conflicted about its value. Psychoanalysts explained the phenomenon simply as Oedipal drama (the son usurping his father’s place in relation to mother). Even the proverbial fountain pen, the quintessential bar mitzvah gift, was sexualized—it became the immigrant family’s version of the phallic sword.

But things are changing. Now there’s considerable bat/bar mitzvah material. We parents are seeking new ways to understand what we’re doing and what we are asking our children to do, ways that do not reject, but complement, the traditional explanations to which we feel, perhaps, less connected. Jewish professionals, rocked by intermarriage demographics, are looking seriously for new ways to describe Jewish rituals that can engage families.

LILITH: You’ve told us how it works for the family as a whole, but can you tell us how the bat/bar mitzvah works developmentally for the child?

DAVIS: The child, the central character, gets to portray her unique version of her evolution, and the parents and grandparents, the other members of the cast, get to enact their versions of support. The invited family and friends, who have gathered as audience, witness the enacted changes. In a highly charged and dramatic way, the bat/bar mitzvah is itself the family’s story of this child’s growing up.