16 October, 2011, Melbourne, Australia
Firstly, thank you to Justine and James for the honour of asking me to speak today, and heart-felt congratulations to Ruby on this very special occasion.
Now, I’m a girly swot from way back, so I took the opportunity to do some research. I’ve been consulting a wonderful book about the Jewish coming-of-age ritual called Putting God on the Guest List. I know how much thought and preparation Justine has put into this event, with not a stone unturned, so I’ve been waiting for God to walk through the door over there. Then I worried that I might not recognize her when she arrived. Or that she’d already arrived before the rest of us, and was lurking somewhere over by the bar. Or that she’d forgotten to check her iPhone calendar and was at home in her tracky daks watching reruns of Seinfeld on Go! But having listened to the rest of today’s speeches, I am now certain that she’s been here all along, safely ensconced where she always is – in our hearts.
Now, back to my research…
You might be interested to know that becoming bar or bat mitzvah happens automatically when a Jewish boy or girl reaches the age of 13. (It used to be 12 for girls, as this was the time she was considered marriageable, but the push for equality has leveled the ages.) The ceremonial aspects of today’s bar mitzvah – learning Torah portions and being publicly called to the Torah - is actually comparatively recent, only being observed from sometime around the 15th century.
For a girl, the coming-of-age rituals were slower to develop (unlike her reproductive organs, presumably). There is evidence of some Jewish families in France and Germany holding special meals for their nubile daughters around 200 years ago, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that Jewish girls began having their entry to womanhood formally consecrated in a synagogue.
Jewish scholars have speculated that because the bat mitzvah is still a relatively new idea, there is huge variation in the way that bat mitzvahs are celebrated around the globe. Young Jewish women, it’s argued, thus have more freedom to express themselves than their brothers. Their public mitzvot tend to be more creative and innovative, more personaland free.
But despite the variety, many bat mitzvah celebrations are characterized by a fundamental element in Jewish tradition: the idea that we deepen our own happiness when we share that which we are privileged enough to enjoy with those who are in need. It’s said that this comes from the custom of chesed, the loving-kindness displayed by the Jewish foremothers who shaped the course of Jewish history. Sharing your blessings and gifts with others is also a mark of accepting adult responsibilities in the world, especially if you believe in using your gifts to make the world a better place.
Ruby, I think, is ideally placed to assume this responsibility of sharing loving-kindness around, as she has so many gifts. She is energetic, high-spirited, compassionate (especially towards those smaller and less powerful than her, like her little sister), optimistic, humble and courageous. She knows her own mind, follows her own dreams and kicks her own goals. You gotta love that in a girl. Ruby, you definitely have what it takes to make a difference in this world.
As the history of the bat mitzvah shows, you don’t need to conform to convention to have meaningful and creative relationships: with your parents, your friends, your community or your god. Because she knows you care and are cared for, beloved Ruby, god will always be at your party.
So on behalf of myself, and my family, MAZEL TOV, and welcome to this wild ride called womanhood.