My Foray Into Womanhood: The Big Bat Mitzvah

“Why have you not been yourself? Why have you not been true to the best in you?”

“Have I made any progress at all in this, the greatest of all arts, the art of living?”

These are the questions my Yom Kippur prayer book asked of me in temple yesterday morning. “Hey, Fro-girl, how do you measure up!?” While I’m just now starting to kind of get it, in 1997, the concept of “being myself” or “the art of living” were things I couldn’t even fathom.

It was my once-a-year jaunt to the synagogue, Beth AM Temple, where I spent my Jewish years growing up in New Jersey. I became a Bat Mitzvah here, right here on that bima. Little Michelle ages eight to thirteen used to come to Shabbat nearly ever week in preparation for the big day; after all, on November 22nd, 1997, I’d be leading this service on my own. Weekly Hebrew School became bi-weekly Hebrew Boot Camp as I ripened for my epic Jewish Woman coming out party. Thirteen and ready, baby.

The planning process blurred together into one big matzoh ball: The prayers! The trial hair appointments! The Torah portion! The hours poring over invitation color swatches! Then of course, the Haftorah, the chanting lessons with the cantor, the designing of the custom “Michelle Joni” yarmulke (pink suede with a shiny gold trim to match the invitations, thank you for asking).

And oh my G-d, the dress shopping!

My mom and I literally went to every Bat Mitzvah-endorsing dress shop in the state of New Jersey, so much so that we tapped out Jerz and had to start scouring Long Island. Do you have any idea how hard it is for an awkward 13 year old with no boobs and bad tummy-esteem to find a dress she loves? I didn’t even know what loving a dress felt like! I had no clue about fashion at thirteen. Why do all these dresses make me feel bad about myself?

After months and months of trying on dresses, putting dresses on hold, coming back to try on the same dresses – up and down the tri-state area – I settled upon an ivory dress made of a thick silky crepe at a very fancy store in Roslyn. A beaded bolero to match. “It’s beautiful!” “Perfect for a 13-year-old becoming a woman!” A strip of delicate beading ran across the front under my non-existent bust. We scheduled a second fitting two weeks before the Bat Mitzvah… if for some reason I should sprout breasts in between now and then.

I did not.

My mom and sister followed suit in their dress choices:

The custom-dyed shoes were a similar adventure.

Of course, any Bat Mizvah girl worth her weight in tzedaka wouldn’t be caught dead on the dance floor without a pair of perfectly-matching frilly socks for when her feet start to hurt. One day after school my mom had brought home a grand selection of delicate ivory sock options. Oh, decisions! One pair at a time I slipped them on for a test run and danced around the house. There is a rigorous system used to decide which should appear as Best Supporting Footwear at Michelle Joni’s Bat Mitzvah extravaganza. It goes as follows:

The Bat Mitzvah Dancing Sock Rating Index

Category One | Fabric Comfort: Is the sock fabric suitable to the sensitivity level of my feet? Is there anything itchy about them? Are they soft and cozy yet still durable enough for dancing The Hora?
Category Two | Overall Aesthetic: How close in color and visual texture are the socks to the fabric swatch of the dress? Which frills were to my liking? Which would be most amenable to having beads hand-sewn on?
Category Three | Slipperyness: When gliding across our living room floor, do I, at any point, feel like I might fall down and smash my head open on the corner of a table?

There was of course, the option of custom-dyed socks, which sounded a bit extreme. A pair was decided upon based upon ratings, exit-polls and a general sense of democracy. Here was the result:

And the planning had just begun. There was picking the place! Hotel or reception hall? Garden view or dark ballroom? Daytime or evening? Small or large balloon canopy over the dance floor? And the DJ! Bat Mitzvah dance lessons (OMG, this “Cotton Eyed Joe” thing sounds like it might be big.) How many dancers should we get? Should we do a magician for the cocktail party? Should the kids be at tables or do I want a dais? With a dais I wouldn’t have to make people feel bad by not picking them for my table… so yes, the dais was the best way to go. Who would sit on either side of me? Would Laura be offended if it wasn’t her? Should I put Nicole across from me because maybe then we’d be better friends in school? Would Jackie be mad if I didn’t sit her with Jenna? Camp friends on one end, weirdos that I was obligated to invite at the other end, my crush Kevin somewhere in the the vague middle so he wouldn’t realize I had a crush on him… and this 75-guest table setting of adolescents was finally looking somewhat cohesive, my primitive social mapping at its best.

Then there was the writing of the Candle Lighting Ceremony. Thirteen candles, thirteen heartfelt poems about the people in my life… who ever shall I choose to honor! There’s obviously family. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, my sister. Then there was my best friend, my other best friend, my camp friends, my school friends… there was one candle particularly hard to decide upon: The “sort of my best friends” candle. One of the driving social forces of teen and pre-teen girls is the fear of other girls getting mad at you. For not taking their side. For saying the wrong thing to the wrong person by accident. For not including them in your Candle Lighting Ceremony.

Being thirteen is a nightmare.

Whoah now, so this blog post took a little turn for it, ay? I was originally just going to share my little meaningful quotes from temple, and lookee there. You just got a nice big chuck of unnecessary knowledge about my adolescence.

Have I made “progress in this great art of living?” I’d sure freakin’ hope so.

There’s more Bat Mitzvah where that came from… I haven’t even told you the THEME of the party yet! Does anyone reading this remember? (Besides you, Mom.) Comment below if you know it and I will kiss your punim! Bat Mitzvah to be continued.

In the meantime, here’s that Silent Confession I mentioned, thought some of you might like to read it.


13 thoughts on “My Foray Into Womanhood: The Big Bat Mitzvah

  1. I just read the Silent Confession….and my soul, my heart is so moved by those two pages. I applied it to myself, my life and I realized I don’t have to be Jewish to have a need for a Day of Atonement. My tears rolled down my cheeks as the words, the questions, hit my soul like a bullet…and the pain of my answers; the clear awareness of my own faults and failures……..
    I bowed my head and asked for God’s forgiveness and His blessing; and I thanked Him for bringing you into my life for THIS moment of teaching. Thank you Michelle; I love you.

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  4. Hello Michelle, well, please allow me to first say that we dont know each other nor have we ever met. To say I came across this great blog about your Bat Mitzva by accident, well, is a total understatement!
    I Googled in something and this came up.
    How very glad I am I read it!
    I am from Bethesda MD, born and raised and knew many jewish folks as friends, neighbors and teachers.
    I want to say it was fun reading about all the preparation for the big day. I loved that part!

    • Hi Gary, I’m so thrilled that the Google gods pointed your search query to tales of my awkward adolescence! Thanks for reading. More wild and crazy Jew stories where that came from. Shalom!

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