by Maureen Rubin (Los Angeles, CA)
My family endlessly obsessed over my brother’s bar mitzvah. Guest list, menu, music, clothes. Were burgundy velvet tuxedos too much? When it was over, I was only ten, but started counting the days until my own bat mitzvah.
Not going to happen. In my hometown shul in 1960, girls could not get bat mitzvahed. Instead, we would take part in a group confirmation. Fifty Jewish girls in white dresses–without blue satin sashes.
Spurred on by the injustice of bat mitzvah prohibition, I drifted away from Jewish studies after my dull confirmation. In college, my Jewish connection was limited to attending Rosh Hashanah services at Hillel so I could meet Jewish boys from ZBT.
But the one event I looked forward to each year was the Passover seder where we reconnected with our huge, loving family. Our seder was the Reader’s Digest condensed version. No haggadahs and we completed the story of Passover in record time. Jews, slaves, Moses, plagues, burning bush, Red Sea, freedom. Done. Then we ate. And ate.
My freshman year I went home for Pesach with a friend whose family finished the entire haggadah with a discussion on each part. The in-depth dialogues around the table set off brain sparks. I could suddenly relate the history of Pharonic oppression to what was then happening to American women. I don’t want to be sacrilegious, but clearly there were parallels. OK, we weren’t building pyramids and eating dirt, but we could legitimately protest how women’s futures were being sculpted by everyone but them. Women in America were living our own form of Egyptian slavery!
Years later, I married a wonderful man who was proud of my career and life choices. We had two daughters. When our eldest was 13, we decided to give her the bat mitzvah I never had, but would have loved. She would be bat mitzvahed on Mount Masada, where King Herod had built a complex that sheltered the last survivors of the Jewish revolt. Masada remains a symbol of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.
The ceremonies were unforgettable. We sat in a stone amphitheater and looked down on our beautiful children. Ten 13-year olds, five girls and five boys, all wearing white, took turns reading from the Torah on the very spot where our ancestors chose mass suicide instead of Roman oppression. There wasn’t a dry eye in the dessert.
When the ceremony was over, the “new adults” received gifts. The boys received beautiful hand embroidered tallitot and the girls received–challah covers! Suddenly, we saw movement below us, we heard buzzing from the girls. A voice rang out, demanding “fairness of gifts.” It was our daughter.
“We girls do not want challah covers,” she said. “These gifts are not fair. We are being treated differently. Why did the boys get things they can wear to synagogue while we got things that keep us in the kitchen? We want to be treated the same. We want tallitot.”
How proud we were. Her act of civil disobedience reminded us of Biblical midwives who defied the Pharaoh’s orders to kill all the newborn baby boys. In this sacred setting, it became clear that my daughter and her generation did not have to be told to remember that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt, nor that their foremothers were allowed few life choices.
The girls got their tallitot. My daughter’s tallit became the chupah at her wedding and she will pass it on to her beautiful Jewish feminist eight-year old when the time is right.
Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge. In her 30 years on campus, she taught writing and media law , served in a variety of administrative positions, published widely and received numerous teaching and public service awards. Prior to joining the university, Rubin was Director of Public Information for President Carter’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs in the White House, and held similar positions for a U.S. Congresswoman and several non-profits. She has a JD from Catholic University School of Law In Washington, D.C., an MA in Public Relations from University of Southern California and a BS in Journalism from Boston University.