On Saturday morning, March 18, 1922,
twelve-year old Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi
Mordecai M. Kaplan, stepped forward and stood just below the bimah at her
fathers synagogue -
the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City. With the Torah scroll covered but in sight, Judith recited
the preliminary blessing, read
a portion of the Torah in Hebrew and English from her personal Chumash and then intoned the closing
"That was enough to shock a lot of people,"
she later recalled, "including my own grandparents
and aunts and uncles."
The shocking event they had just witnessed,
according to historian Paula Hyman, was the first bat
mitzvah conducted in the United States. Reflecting
on her historic moment, Kaplan observed, "No thunder
sounded. No lightning struck." Rather, Judith Kaplan
and her father, founder of Reconstructionist
Judaism, set the model for what has now become a
widespread American Jewish practice.
As Hyman notes, "The bat mitzvah
ritual was introduced into American Judaism as both
an ethical and pragmatic response to gender divisions
in traditional Judaism."
In Jewish law, a girl reaches majority at age 12, but
until the invention of bat mitzvah there was no ritual
ceremony to mark this passage. Mordecai Kaplan intended
bat mitzvah to give females equal standing with males
and stimulate Jewish education for women so they would be better able to transmit Jewish knowledge
to their children.
While it started with Reconstructionism,
Hyman attributes the further evolution of bat mitzvah
to the American Conservative movement. In the mid-19th century, American Reform began
moving away from traditional ceremonies such as male
bar mitzvah. Instead, Reform congregations introduced group confirmation ceremonies
when the boys and girls in their religious schools completed
their education, around age 15. Confirmation, then,
was more of a graduation ceremony than a bar mitzvah.
Traditional Orthodoxy did not allow women to read the Torah. Thus, if girls
of 12 or 13 were to have a coming-of-age ceremony equivalent
to bar mitzvah for boys, it fell to the Conservative
Movement to define what that ceremony should be.
Change came gradually. As late as the 1930s, despite Judith Kaplans
pathbreaking example, only a handful of Conservative synagogues had
adopted bat mitzvah. By 1948, however, one-third of Conservative congregations
conducted them and, by the 1960s, the ceremony became the norm within
The earliest American bat mitzvot were, ritually, not quite the same
as bar mitzvot. They were usually held on Friday nights, when the Torah
is not read or, if held on Saturday morning like Judith Kaplans,
the bat mitzvah girl would read from a printed humash, or book containing
the Bible, rather than from the Torah scroll itself.
The first recorded bat mitzvah at a Reform congregation occurred in
1931 but, as with the Conservative movement, the ritual did not catch
on right away. By the 1950s, only one third of Reform congregations
conducted them. Since the 1960s, as Reform has placed increasing emphasis
on traditional rituals, bat mitzvah has grown to near universality in
that movements congregations. A number of modern Orthodox congregations
have now adopted some form of bat mitzvah as well. Bat mitzvah, an innovation
in 1922, is now an American Jewish institution.
The introduction of bat mitzvah, which was originally meant only to
mark the passage from Jewish girlhood to Jewish womanhood, raised a
series of issues. As Paula Hyman puts it, "How could a girl be
called to Torah as a bat mitzvah and then never have such an honor again?"
Both Reform and Conservativism grappled with this problem and, by the
1970s, a majority of congregations in both movements called women
to the Torah.
If no thunder sounded when 12-year old Judith Kaplan read at the bimah
of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, Kaplan herself went on
to make a joyful noise of her own. A brilliant child who learned to
read English at age 2 and Hebrew at age 3, she studied at what is now
the Juilliard School of Music from ages 7 to 18. She received her B.A.
(1928) and M.A. (1932) in music education from Columbia University Teachers
College. In 1934, Kaplan married Ira Eisenstein, then assistant rabbi
in her fathers synagogue.
As Judith Eisenstein, she began a distinguished career as a teacher
of musical pedagogy and the history of Jewish music at the Jewish Theological
Seminary of Americas Teachers Institute. In 1959, at age 50, Eisenstein
entered the School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College, obtained
her Ph.D. and remained as a member of the faculty until 1979. By the
time of her death in 1996, she had composed a significant body of original
liturgical music, created and broadcast a thirteen-hour radio series
on the history of Jewish music and authored a number of books, including
the first American Jewish songbook for children (1937).
Of course, her monumental "first" remains her own bat mitzvah.