‘Today I am a woman…’: Rewriting our batmitzvah speeches

The speech you give when you’re 12 doesn’t always reflect the Jewish woman you grow up to be. On International Women’s Day we asked four women to reimagine their big day

My batmitzvah was a party at home for friends on a Motzei Shabbat. I wore a new outfit and I remember we had candles lit on the dining room table as is traditional at a Melave Malka. My grandmother gave me a sefer tehilim, a book of Psalms, and my parents bought me my first set of machzorim, prayer books for the high holy days and major festivals. My batmitzvah was a confirmation of my place as a woman, an expectation that I would assume my prescribed feminine role with quiet strength and resilience.

At 12, I was a halachic woman. In the eyes of God, I was told, I was an adult. I was obliged to observe mitzvot. The emphasis was on stoicism and responsibility, which today feels like martyrdom rather than strength.

My mother recently quoted Lori Palatnik, the founding director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, who said that “women set the tone”. This is exactly what I was expected to do even then and is still expected of many women now.

At the age of 12, it was my voice that couldn’t be heard singing or praying out loud. It was my elbows that had to be covered so as not to be a distraction to men. My Jewish learning had to be focused on practical issues like learning practical halachah so that I could observe it properly, but not to learn Talmud because after all, that was theoretical. There was no need for me to understand what other opinions had been considered or why the rabbis came to the halachic conclusions they came to. I just needed to know what to do and when to do it.

I didn’t give a speech at my batmitzvah, but if I had to give one today, I would start by thanking my mother and my grandmothers for being the strong Jewish women that they are, and then I would ask them to validate and accept me for the Jewish woman I am. I would say, hineni, here I am. Here I am, still forming, still learning, unready to be boxed in or restricted. Hineni, here I am. Thirsty for knowledge and understanding. Not ready or willing to set the tone for anyone else besides myself.

When we tell women that they set the tone, we are allowing them to take credit for what comes next, but with that, we’re also saying that what comes next is their fault.

This article was first published in The Jewish Chronicle