Sophie’s Bag Mitzvah

Sophie and I met at summer camp. She had a colon-shaped pillow on her bed and wore a shirt that read “Love Your Guts.” Most summers, we slept in bottom bunks less than two feet away from each other. I needed a bottom bunk in case I sleepwalked, and Sophie needed a bottom bunk so that she could get to the bathroom quickly.

Often, Sophie and I would tell a counselor that I just had to take her to the infirmary. She couldn’t go by herself! She had to see the doctor and if I didn’t take her she would be so scared and lonely! What we really wanted to do was do puzzles, read in the air conditioning and get out of tennis lessons. The nurses were our best friends. When we’d walk in they’d get out the clipboard like they were going to check us in and then quickly remember that we just wanted to hang out with them. Maybe Sophie would go change her ileostomy bag, but that was only ten minutes out of the hours we would spend there.

Sophie is no stranger to the medical system. As a child, she was hospitalized for weeks at a time due to severe bouts of Crohn’s Disease. This past February marked the twelfth year that she’s been out of the hospital, and the twelfth year that she has had her ileostomy bag.

Each year Sophie celebrates the anniversary of her ileostomy surgery, or rather her ‘bag-iversary.’ Friends and family gather with her to celebrate another year of good health and another year out of the hospital. Not only is Sophie’s “bag-iversary” a celebration of her wellbeing, it’s a celebration of being able to celebrate. Sophie’s bag-iversary is always a big event with a ritual cookie cake and games like pin-the-bag-on-Sophie, and an ileostomy bag decorating activity. Usually there’s a theme like the surprise waffle party or the afternoon tea, but this year was extra special. It is not just Sophie’s bag-iversary, it is her ‘bag mitzvah.’ As per Jewish tradition, the twelfth year of Sophie’s ileostomy bag deserves a simcha. As Sophie explained to me, her actual bat mitzvah welcomed her into Jewish adulthood. But, her bag mitzvah marks what she describes as the rebirth she experienced after getting her surgery twelve years ago. After getting her ileostomy, Sophie grew into her present herself, the most caring and witty person I know. Now this version of Sophie becomes a Jewish adult too.

When Sophie started college, she struggled to find a Jewish community that was right for her. Reminiscing on her summer camp and youth group days, she was disappointed that she couldn’t find a place to observe Shabbat with such joy and excitement as she did at camp or a youth group convention.

Until she realized she could make one herself. In any down time that she had, Sophie would plan her bag mitzvah, assigning all of her friends roles in the services, making mockup invitations, writing her d’var Torah.

Sophie’s official bag mitzvah celebration is scheduled for this spring. Her friends will fly into her hometown and she’ll wear a dress covered in sequins, real bat mitzvah style.

When she was a young child, coming in and out of the hospital, Sophie didn’t know what her future would look like. She often held herself back, for fear that her ileostomy would get in the way. She felt left out or different from everyone else, but after this past bag-iversary, Sophie told me that celebrating her bag-iversary every year doesn’t just make her feel accepted—it makes her feel appreciated.

Ramona Saft, an undergraduate at The New School, is writing her thesis on queer ancestry in the Book of Ruth.