Letter To My Sister On Her Bat Mitzvah

A more serious reflection on being a middle-schooler & the awesomeness of my kid sis. I read this to my sister in front of a small collection of family members the night before her Bat Mitzvah. Gets a little corny at the end, but I’m entitled.

Dearest A.,

Congratulations on your Bat Mitzvah. Though I hold much ambivalence towards organized religion (and this coming-of-age ceremony in particular), I am so proud of you and so happy to return home to share this day with you. You have thus far maneuvered through puberty with a grace I find remarkable, especially in light of my own memories of that time, and I am confident that you will continue to mature with the same elegance. You are an intelligent, beautiful and loving young woman, not to mention much cooler than a 12 year old has any right to be.

But as much as I, along with the rest of your family and friends, want to celebrate you, the Amazing A. Relkin Rojer, princess of November 3rd, I’d like to pause first, amidst the festivities, and meditate a bit on this notion of “coming-of-age.” First, lets examine the ritual you are just about to complete, and call it out on what it is.

“The modern bar and bat mitzvah,” writes Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, “is a truly dangerous thing. It communicates narcissism instead of obligation. It’s the worship of the child, instead of the child’s worship of God. If thats not a kind of idolatry, what is?”

A., you are incredibly lucky to have been born not just into a society of wealth and plenty, but also into a family which has been relatively uncorrupted by it. For us Relkin-Rojers, b’nai mitzvahs are at least as much of an opportunity for us to celebrate family as they are to conspicuously consume. In some ways, you have gone through all these months of stress and preparation just so that the whole clan has an excuse to get together. You’ve made a sacrifice to your family, and that’s honorable.

But on the other hand, who are we kidding? To ignore the words of Rabbi Wolf would be foolish. Regardless of whether or not you wanted this Bat Mitzvah, you are no martyr. You fulfilled a highly modest amount of responsibility– memorized some ancients phrases, wrote a speech– and in return, you were rewarded with not one, but two huge parties, ample accolades, and I’m sure quite the stockpile of gifts. A., I am incredibly proud of you and love you very much. But I do hope you recognize your privilege.

I do not say this to make you feel guilty. Instead, I hope that by recognizing this you can find a way to still make this ceremony meaningful, to indeed “come-of-age.”

That rather harsh Rabbi Wolf quote is from one of my gifts to you, a book called Gonzo Judaism by Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein. I got you this book because if your Hebrew school experience was anything like mine or your brother’s, you will likely conclude this Bat Mitzvah with little passion for Judaism.

Now, there is a lot about this religion of ours that I take issue with, but that’s not what I want to talk to you about today. Instead, I want to remind you, while you’re still immersed in this archaic ritual, while religion is still vaguely on your consciousness, before its washed away with thoughts of math tests and soccer practice, that there is much more to Judaism than what we were taught in Hebrew School. Even for skeptics like myself, Judaism has many great traditions, from the intellectual to the culinary to the spiritual. Our family’s Seder is a wonderful example of this. Judaism done right is community, family, celebration, reflection, gratefulness, and wisdom. Sure, you do not need Judaism to find these things. But seeing as you’ve already prepared so much for this day, why not take the time to explore some of the richer and more meaningful aspects of our heritage?

Because A., let me assure you, if you wait for secular society to give you that meaning, you will come up empty handed. Instead, as an adolescent female, you are the number one target for manipulation and exploitation by the forces of consumerism. We live in a culture that is empty both morally and spiritually. We are quickly plundering our resources, both natural, cultural, and institutional, in the pursuit of profit. While I personally don’t believe that religion is the answer to our current situation, the texts and rituals of our ancestors, their collective wisdom, certainly make for a worthy starting point.

A., you are coming of age in a society that is not sustainable and in a world that is changing more rapidly than we may realize. Enjoy your party. I know I will. But I hope that in some way you can use this ceremony to recognize that you have responsibilities, both as a citizen and a human being. We all do.

I am telling you this because on this day especially, as you begin your ascent into adulthood, you represent our future. But also because you were born with a charismatic, magnetic personality and a overwhelming sense of love towards the world. In other words, you have the qualities of the type of leader our world needs, one who leads not out of power or greed but out of love.

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