Last month my mother celebrated her bat mitzvah — at age 60.
There was no blowout party full of 13-year-olds doing the electric slide. But, hey, we did bounce my little momma in a chair while she waved her hands in the air.
Amid this big celebration, an unexpected yet meaningful blessing surfaced: She had helped me prepare for my bat mitzvah in 1995 and now, while I didn’t plan the lunch menu or pay the band, I did get to (partially) return the favor by helping with her big day. In completing a ritual for which she’s helped both her children prepare, this lifecycle event came full circle for both of us.
And in getting to pass a tradition up to my mother, I realized it might be time to update the prevailing narrative that religious traditions are primarily passed down from older to younger generations.
For many of my mother’s generation, the bat mitzvah coming-of-age ritual wasn’t available to them when they were teens in the 1960s. Besides, at that age, my mom says, she felt more injustice at not being allowed to play baseball with the boys. Had a bat mitzvah been expected of her, it might have been little more than that — more obligation than privilege.
Rather, my mother noted in her sermon to our Northern California congregation last month, that she was celebrating the fact that she feels “60 years young” and marking her transition to becoming an elder in the community.
“Well, little momma,” I said, addressing my 5-foot-1 mini-mom after she’d led nearly 200 people in a two-hour prayer service, “you’re a woman now.”
The congregation erupted in laughter. There is something a little funny about an adult child pronouncing her parent “grown-up.”
She certainly is the more mature one in our mother-daughter duo, but in a small way our parent-child relationship flipped for a moment. And while we expect these roles to reverse with illness and old age, this kind of swap is joyous rather than depressing — a celebration of a loved one’s life and liveliness rather than decline.
My mother’s journey toward this milestone has also caused me to revisit some memories from my own path through this rite of passage 16 years ago. As she learned her Torah reading, from the first five books of the Hebrew bible, with the help of a fancy computer program, I felt like the dinosaur reminiscing about the days when I practiced with a cassette tape that was so difficult to rewind and fast-forward in order to repeat a word or run through the tape again. And again. And again.
In cross-country phone conversations, we discussed her Torah portion and the implications of the blessings and curses it contained — and how they related to her own triumph over debilitating injuries that at times have made the simple act of walking around the block seem like a miracle. As we talked, I may have been on my Adams Morgan couch or walking through Washington city streets, but I felt as if we were back in our California home in 1995, when she was helping me make sense of my own Torah portion.
This spring we “shopped” for dresses together, with her sending me photos on her cellphone from the Macy’s dressing room, and I voted for my favorite. I bought something simple to complement her colors. No drama, no drawn-out shopping trips like those we’d had when I was a self-conscious 13-year-old stuck in no-woman’s-land between children’s and grown-up sizes and styles. We shopped for months for my dress back then — only to end up buying the first one I’d tried on. (She’d liked it immediately; I of course thought I could do better.)
As the first woman in our interfaith family to go through the bat mitzvah ritual, my own celebration was made bittersweet by my maternal grandmother’s death four years earlier. This loss was especially felt at the moment in the bat mitzvah service when the heavy Torah scrolls are passed l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation — mirroring the child’s inheritance of his or her faith. So, while my grandfather passed the Torah down to my mother and then to me, I had only one Jewish matriarch to look up to: my mother.
I was again looking up to her last month as she lead the congregation and our extended family and friends in prayer and contemplation, beaming with a huge grin in the front row in awe of her mastery of the Hebrew she used to stumble over.
The night before her ceremony, I told her how I wished I could stand up there with her and whisper the words in her ear if she tripped up. (She didn’t need my help.) And isn’t the point that the child — or adult — stand up and lead the congregation on her own? Nervous and proud parents, I know how you feel!
With all of my grandparents now gone, and my brother and I both single and childless, our family could feel smaller than ever. But seeing my mother affirm her commitment to our heritage, it’s clear that our connection is just getting stronger.
Now that she and I have been on both sides of this ritual — as bat mitzvah and as a guiding and calming presence — it’s become obvious that l’dor v’dor flows in both directions.
This concept isn’t revolutionary, and my mother’s bat mitzvah surely wasn’t the first instance of “passing up” a tradition in my family, but somehow it took a big event to make me recognize the ubiquity of such small blessings. If we continue to view religious traditions primarily as heirlooms that are passed down, we’re missing half the story. Every day, they’re watered from the grass roots as well.
The writer is an editor on The Post’s editorial desk.