Two weekends ago I went to Shabbat services for the first time in a new Jewish community. It was my first time in a Jewish place of worship since transitioning. I was offered an aliyah, the honor of being called up to recite the blessings over the public reading of the Torah. It was my first aliyah in years, and it was the most powerful and beautiful public affirmation of my identity, not just as a trans woman, but as a Jewish woman as well.
When I turned thirteen, I celebrated my bar mitzvah, the ceremony marking a Jewish boy’s adulthood and accession to full membership in the Jewish community. I remember a lot of details about my bar mitzvah: receiving my first aliyah to the Torah, leading the congregation in the entire Shabbat service, studying the weekly Torah portion with the medieval commentary of Rashi, going out of my way to incorporate a Star Trek: Voyager reference into my speech about said Torah portion, the pool party with my friends on the following Sunday. But all the happiness of the celebration, the joy of being surrounded by my family and friends, and the sense of delight at finally being able to participate fully in Jewish life, were overshadowed for me because of one simple, unavoidable fact: my bar mitzvah was not a bat mitzvah.
File this as another regret about my lost girlhood. And yet, in some ways, this one really encompasses the rest. It wasn’t simply that I was wearing a suit and tie rather than a pretty dress, or that I was given a silver kiddush goblet rather than a pair of Sabbath candlesticks, or that my voice was by this point reliably hitting a perfect fifth too low. It was that my participation in my community was then, and would forever be, defined by my coercively assigned gender. You’re either a bar or bat mitzvah: you can’t be both, but you can’t be neither. “Today you become a man,” they told me. Hearing that—and being made to believe it—was unbearably painful.
And that’s where I stayed for a long time: regretful every time I went into a synagogue, resentful of a community that included me wrong, that did not affirm my identity, that didn’t even ask whether I wanted to have a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah, and despairing of hope that I would ever find a community that would affirm me, that would think to ask. So we found ourselves in a new community, surrounded by new people, and suddenly these people were offering me a new chance to stand up, to be included, to be affirmed by their community.
A person who has an aliyah is called up to the Torah by the formula “Arise, [Hebrew name] [son/daughter] of [parents' Hebrew names]“. My Hebrew name is Aviva, which means “springtime”, a symbol of new beginnings. In Hebrew, verbs are explicitly marked for gender, so it’s ya’amod for a man and ta’amod for a woman. And there’s no generic word for “child” either, so it’s either ben or bat (though I’ve seen the suggestion for mi-beit, “from the house of”, as a gender-neutral alternative, which I quite like). So in three words—noun, pronoun, name—a community possesses a tremendous power to affirm an individual’s identity and gender.
Sitting in my seat, I quietly freaked out for a bit, imagining the thousand and one ways that this could screw up somehow, regretting that I’d come back to a Jewish community, foolishly thinking I’d be accepted, desperate to reclaim some part of an identity I’d never possessed. Then I heard the leader’s voice call from the reader’s table:
Ta’amod, Aviva bat…
“Arise, Aviva, daughter of…”
I stood up slowly, walked to the reader’s table, and started to cry. It was all I could do to mumble through the blessings before and after the reading, and go sit down again with A, tears streaming down my face. I knew, in an instant, that we’d found a home here.
Bar mitzvah literally means “son of the commandment(s)”: technically it refers to the person. But these days, a bar mitzvah is an event rather than a person. We talk about “getting bar mitzvahed”, as if it’s something that happens to you. And for me, when I was thirteen, bar mitzvah was a thing I did—a thing that happened to me—and not something I became. I just kept going, really, same as I had done, the only change being to my status under Jewish law. I knew that my bar mitzvah was wrong, but I didn’t know enough then to realize that it wasn’t sufficient to wish it were a bat mitzvah. That would have just been substituting one ceremony for another, albeit probably with more flowers and pretty dresses. I needed to be a bat mitzvah, an accepted and affirmed member of a Jewish community.
So I got to have my bat mitzvah. It wasn’t exactly as I’d envisioned it, but things rarely are. Usually they take months of planning; this one happened by surprise in about ten minutes. But I feel, finally, that I’ve become a bat mitzvah as well.