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Jewish Journal

Bat mitzvahs in Israel run gamut from fancy to frum

by Melody Amsel-Arieli

January 10, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Naama (left) performs  at her bat mitzvah

Naama (left) performs at her bat mitzvah

Aren't all bat mitzvahs alike?

A couple years of Hebrew school, at best, followed by a gathering of the clan on the big day, a smattering of Hebrew blessings, the haftarah, a festive Oneg Shabbat and, finally, a party to beat all get out? To American Jews, it may seem that way. But in Israel, where people follow varying degrees of observance and hail from more than 80 countries, each bat mitzvah is a world unto itself.

In ultra-Orthodox girls schools, the entire sixth grade may celebrate their bat mitzvah together. Under the watchful eyes of their female teachers, the 12-year-olds devote considerable time and effort to preparing elaborate bat mitzvah shows for their mothers, sisters and friends.

Naturally, the performance is prefaced with sage words from respected religious leaders. Then, contrary to what some may imagine, these youngsters, garbed in fetching, yet modest, costumes, take to the stage, dancing and singing their hearts out.

While communal school performances are deemed kosher, ultra-Orthodox schools tend to discourage private celebrations, probably to blur the distinction between the haves and the have-nots. But not everyone complies. Some bat mitzvah girls host friends and family -- even brothers and fathers -- in restaurants, while others invite female relatives to their homes. After the festive meal, a bit of religious commentary is often par for the course, to underscore the gravity of the occasion.

National religious girls, those who live in settlements like Beit El, Maaleh Adumim or Kiriat Arba, often plan entirely different sorts of celebrations. Some treat their guests to a lecture and movie on the history of Hebron or Jerusalem's Old City. Others arrange nature treks through the Judean Desert. And those who spend their bat mitzvah year distributing food to the needy or adopting a nursing home may, in lieu of a party, simply invite their friends to join them in their charitable activities.

Finally, some religious girls become bat mitzvahs without fanfare, with no celebrations at all. After all, they have been groomed for this adulthood all their lives, keeping fast days, observing the Ten Commandments and reciting the appropriate blessings for as long as they can remember. Except perhaps for a heightened awareness of their religious responsibility and a moment in the spotlight, for them, nothing really changes.

In Israel, while Orthodox synagogues are full, few families join Conservative or Reform congregations. But those who do can, like their American counterparts, offer their daughters bat mitzvahs.

Because the girls already know Hebrew, preparation is a snap. After all, beyond reading and writing the holy tongue, all Israeli secular schoolchildren also study the Bible in the original. And of course, all are familiar with Jewish history and tradition. So introduce the musical tropes, teach the appropriate blessings, review their haftarahs, and these girls are all set.

Now, draped in their prayer shawls, they can lead services and chant their haftarahs. They can even read directly from the Torah. Their parties, like their bat mitzvahs, may also follow traditional lines. A Saturday afternoon catered affair or a color-coordinated evening gala may follow on the heels of the traditional Oneg Shabbats.

Secular schools often devote the entire bat/bar mitzvah year -- the sixth or seventh grade -- to special projects designed to foster personal growth and communal responsibility. Within this framework, students may visit hospitals, tutor youngsters, tour national parks, clean beaches, study Zionism, visit museums, attend court sessions, explore Jerusalem, tour Safed, ascend Masada and more.

In some schools, boys and girls both spend their bat/bar mitzvah year preparing extensive genealogical projects.

Dorin, who lives in Beersheva, crafted a family tree spanning six generations and five countries: Israel, the United States, Hungary, Slovakia and Russia. Through interviews and research, she enriched it with an overwhelming amount of detail, including historical overviews, maps, relatives' personal memoirs, family portraits, childhood songs and even recipes.

When she and her classmates, whose families hail from nearly every corner of the earth, shared their projects, they discovered their own United Nations. And they personally affirmed their place in Jewish history.

So bat mitzvahs are a big deal for secular girls, too. Because they have no religious significance, however, their celebrations are simply bat mitzvah parties. But what imaginative ones. Some girls host elaborate picnics in parks, forests or moshavim, like Yad HaShmonah, tucked in the Jerusalem Hills. Others invite classmates to poolside bat mitzvah bashes.

Naama hosted a brunch at a restaurant in Jerusalem's Botanical Garden, overlooking a pond stocked with black swans. She charmed her guests, mostly adults, with a display of her best sketches, as well as her menagerie of handmade ceramic creations. But when she performed excerpts from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" on her flute, she brought the house down.

She is not alone. To delight and entertain their guests, bat mitzvah girls may display childhood photos, pets or their origami creations. They may recite original poetry, display family trees or present humorous skits. Some even present dance mini-recitals or strut their karate or tae kwon do moves.

When home-grown talent doesn't do the trick, parents often hire professional entertainers. Magicians or stand-up comics are popular, along with cartoonists who churn out amusing, real-time caricatures of their guests, then leave the family with a one-of-a-kind bat mitzvah album.

Dance clubs are popular, too. Michal invited everyone she knew to Jerusalem's dB Club, which caters especially to the bat/bar mitzvah crowd. For a tidy sum, she was queen for a day, handing out green nightglow bracelets, judging the limbo and dance contests and distributing snacks and look-alike cocktails of soda or juice to one and all.

Sometimes a trip is the trick. Dafna, for example, settled for a modest family celebration in exchange for a family fling in Italy. Lihi got both, a swinging party plus a swing through France and Switzerland.

But guests at Maayan's bat mitzvah party got the world. Well, almost. Her father, who is a travel agent, issued an "airline ticket" to each guest, directing them to one of four themed ballrooms, done up like a Hawaiian luau, a Japanese tea room, an Italian trattoria or a Moroccan shouk. Each "country" featured its local cuisine.

Extravagant or modest, conventional or imaginative, religious or secular, each Israeli bat mitzvah celebration, then, is a world unto itself. Together, they reflect Israeli society's rich variety of people and traditions.

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