A Unique Anniversary of Gender Equality / by marilyn salenger

Religions have not always been known for equal opportunity practices. They remain the focus of an evolutionary process of defining the growing roles for women in each faith. As a Jewish woman born to parents who believed that girls should have the same opportunities as boys long before it was fashionable, today is an important marker in my personal and spiritual life that creates unique historic perspective. Sixty years ago on May 3, 1957, I became one of the early girls in the country to have a Bas Mitzvah.

It was the first Bas Mitzvah in our small Jewish community in northern Indiana. Don't get carried away thinking it was about the party. In fact there really wasn't one, but instead a very special small reception with four generations of our family surrounded by friends in the downstairs hall of our synagogue. I vivdly recall my cake being like something I had never seen. A beautiful opened Bible. The entire event was considered almost radical at the time with my parents forging brave new terriority as a young couple. I remember them asking me how I felt about having a Bas (spelling eventually changed to Bat) Mitzvah and obviously saying "Yes, I'll study". They then set about having to convince the Rabbi, my father's father who was a founding member of the B'Nai Israel synagogue, the Board (all men), and the Board of Education over which my father presided. My mother pulled in her own clout as head of the synagogue women's organization.

My mother and father were quite a team. They worked hard to assure the traditionalists that tradition would be upheld which meant that it wouldn't be like a traditional boy's Bar Mitzvah that was held on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and I wouldn't read from the sacred Torah in Hebrew as only the men in those years could do. They carefully crafted a scenario that allowed me to have a Bas Mitzvah at the age of 13 to be held on Friday night (the beginning of the Sabbath), read a separate portion of Hebrew scripture, lead some responsive reading and give a speech addressing the entire congregation. For a young girl to be allowed to stand on the Pulpit and lead and participate with such responsibility was indeed standing where no young girl in my hometown had stood before and where few across the country were standing. I was simply very nervous.  

Marking the right of passage into Jewish adulthood had long been a ceremony reserved only for boys. A Bar Mitvazh culminated a period of study after which a 13 year old boy came to the Synagogue and fully participated in the service. He then officially would be counted as part of the adult community and considered a man. Girls received no such community recognition and for many years were segregated into the women's gallery where they could listen and pray, separate from the men. The tradition of a Bar Mitzvah has come down through the ages. Until the 'ages' caught up with tradition.

On this day so many years ago I officially became a woman in the eyes of my religion just like the boys who took on their role. They may have gotten to wear their first suits, but I got to shop for a new dress with my mom. It was appropriately conservative and very pretty. The really big deal was the service.

My parents were smart. They made religion fun for my brother and I as well as an important part of our lives. They led by example fighting for what they believed in, and knowing that equality for everybody is an important part of life. Today I treasure it all as part of my living heritage.  

Have an extra glass of wine tonight and think of me.