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Growing Faith How to Mark a Child’s Religious Milestones
Shoshana and Saadia discuss milestones and coming-of-age ceremonies in their respective faith traditions.
This is Growing Faith, a column about parenting and faith coauthored by Saadia Faruqi and Shoshana Kordova.
Shoshana: My oldest daughter recently turned ten, and it’s probably too early for me to start thinking about her bat mitzvah—we’ve still got two years to go. On the other hand, a lot of people start figuring things out about a year in advance, so even though part of me says “It’s too early, don’t think about it!” the other part has already started worrying.
Saadia: Our kids celebrated their religious milestones when they were younger. Muslim children are encouraged to read the Quran in Arabic and complete a full reading of the text at least once by the time they reach adulthood. I taught my son the Arabic alphabet when he was four, and he finished the entire first reading just after he turned five.
This completion of the Quran from cover to cover for the first time is called Ameen, meaning Amen. When I became a parent, I decided to make my son’s Ameen the biggest celebration our family had ever seen. We invited friends from our mosque, non-Muslims we knew through work or other avenues, and relatives from out of town. It was doubly special because he was so young; most children have their Ameen closer to ten or twelve years old. A few years later, we marked our daughter’s Ameen at the age of seven.
The fact is that mainstream Islam doesn’t really offer coming-of-age ceremonies that are significant or widespread, although some sects may hold smaller, lesser-known events. As a child I found this difficult to accept, though we did celebrate birthdays and graduations. Now that I’m an adult in the United States, I’ve seen the dissatisfaction in my own children’s eyes as they search for (and fail to find) ceremonies in their childhood that celebrate who they are and what their promise to the world is. It’s come full circle, and I want to do a better job than my own parents did of providing those precious moments for them.
Shoshana: I can definitely relate to the importance of reading the Quran. The significance of a foundational text can’t be overemphasized. It is often not part of Orthodox Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies for girls, but that is starting to change.
Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah means reaching the age when you’re responsible for your own observance of the mitzvot, or commandments. Even though that might seem pretty straightforward, the ceremony or party or other celebration of that milestone can vary a lot. Reading the Torah is a big part of the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony, but instead of reading it cover to cover like your kids did for their Ameen, bar mitzvah boys typically chant out loud the portion of the Torah that’s read in synagogue on the Shabbat after they turn thirteen.
I have four daughters, and the gamut of how people celebrate a bat mitzvah is so wide that this bit of not-quite-ritualized ritual space, something of a rarity in Judaism, leaves us with more freedom, as well as more constraints, than bar mitzvah boys and their families have. Unlike many other religious rituals, bat mitzvahs are too new for there to be a single accepted rite of passage.
Bar mitzvahs are also relatively recent rituals, in the sense that they were reportedly first recorded as synagogue ceremonies in thirteenth-century France and slowly evolved to gain greater significance. Ceremonies for girls are far newer than that; the first bat mitzvah to be celebrated in a synagogue took place in 1922. By the time I was twelve, I don’t think I knew anyone in my modern Orthodox circles who didn’t have a bat mitzvah of some sort. The synagogue was not considered the place for such things, though, unless you’re talking about the banquet hall outside the sanctuary.
Saadia: I am sure my parents held my own Ameen, but I don’t remember much about it except for the fact that it was a somber event full of grown-ups eating spicy food!
Shoshana: It always comes back to food, doesn’t it? My bat mitzvah, in 1990, involved a kiddush in shul after Shabbat morning prayers—basically a crowded buffet to communally mark an event, that may well require exercising one’s elbows. If it was your bat mitzvah, you could expect to get one of the frosting flowers on the cake, for which we kids always vied. I also had a bat mitzvah meal with the girls in my class at a kosher Chinese restaurant (I’m pretty sure there was a magician involved), and a catered buffet at our New Jersey home for relatives.
Saadia: Yes, the cake! My son still talks about his giant sheet cake with Transformers on it, and also about his very first Nintendo and his brand-new shoes. Once my son and daughter soldiered through their Ameen, the reward was many presents, food, cake, and money. My daughter, who was more nervous and made a few mistakes in her recitation, remembers her Ameen with less fond memories than my son. Still, she loves the multitude of fake plastic jewelry she got from so many aunties.
But the religious ceremonies I have a particularly strong memory of are actually not Muslim at all. I studied in a Catholic convent as a child in Pakistan, as was the tradition among South Asians with the means to afford a private, world-class education. My friends were Christian as well as Muslim, and I watched the Christian ones with envy as they donned their gorgeous white dresses for First Communion and Confirmation. The pomp and grandeur that these girls experienced on their special day was so beyond my frame of reference that it was impossible to feel completely happy for them without feeling just a tiny bit jealous. While it was an exciting time for these girls and their families, I felt completely, unfairly left out.
Shoshana: My childhood memories are also pretty different from what I see around me today. Even within the Orthodox Jewish world, times have changed a lot in just one generation, but the changes are scattered and uneven.
We belong to a partnership minyan, a liberal Orthodox synagogue in which women read from the Torah, lead some of the prayers, and hold leadership positions. Our bat mitzvah girls generally chant from the Torah. Right up the hill, at the more traditional Orthodox shul we’re also members of, bat mitzvah girls can give a speech in the middle of the kiddush, all but drowned out by the sound of congregants snacking and chatting, or in the sanctuary after services are over and many have streamed out of the room.
Orthodox bat mitzvah girls might also celebrate their study of a section of the Mishna or Gemara, ride into their party on a camel, volunteer at a soup kitchen or go on a family trip to the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. And that’s a sample, not an exhaustive list. Kol ha’emtza’im ksherim, they say in Hebrew: All the means are kosher. This can be a way of expressing that all options are on the table; but when everything is kosher, it’s tough to figure out what to eat.
When it comes to bat mitzvahs, I’m pretty much mapless. I’m not entirely sure what terrain we’re on or where we’re going, and my daughter mostly seems not to want anything to change. So far, my generally outspoken oldest daughter, who has had no problem fighting in judo competitions in front of stadiums full of onlookers, has expressed nothing but aversion to the idea of anything remotely bat mitzvah-related that might take place “in front of people that I don’t know”—by which I assume she means members of the synagogue she sees every week but hasn’t actually met. Dismissing the notion of a shul kiddush, my oldest told me recently: “People just care about the food, they don’t care about the person it’s for.” It’s not clear to me that this is what she’ll be thinking in two months, let alone two years. I tried to talk to her about the concept of community, what we call kehilla.
Saadia: Yeah, my children did not really understand why we needed to hold an Ameen ceremony in front of a couple of hundred people. The Ameen ceremonies of both my children were held during the holy month of Ramadan, a special time for all faithful activities, but also special because that’s when attendance at the mosque is the largest.
The process can definitely be intimidating for a young child, and especially the young age both my children were at the time they completed their first reading of the Quran. The Imam sits with the child, an open Quran in front of them. An anxious parent hovers somewhere close by. The child, using the microphone for possibly the first time in his or her life, reads aloud the first chapter, Surah Fatiha, and then the last three chapters. They are all short and sweet, and he already knows the words because it’s the first few prayers children typically memorize. Immediately, the tendency is to see the familiar words and rush through them without actually pronouncing them the way one would when reading a sacred text. It can be funny for the audience, but stressful for the child.
Shoshana: This won’t be the first time we as a family will have fished around in Jewish tradition to come up with a ritual befitting our daughters. But unlike the simchat bat ceremonies with which we welcomed our baby girls into the world, this time those babies are old enough to want a say.
Saadia: The child’s cooperation is definitely a factor. The Ameen was a difficult task for all of us, involving a year or two of coaxing, threatening, begging, and lots of tears for kids and parents as each letter of the Quran was read carefully and lovingly. My husband and I have nothing but pride, not just for a job well done by our children, but also for the discharge of a big responsibility every Muslim parent has. We all deserved a celebration at the completion of such a monumental task.
Shoshana: I think I’m probably going to hold off on broaching the bat mitzvah issue again with my oldest for a while. I can see it’ll be tough to figure out how much to leave up to her and whether to push in a particular direction (and if so, which direction and how hard).
What I don’t want seems easier to figure out than what I do, and it is fed by the way too many Orthodox congregations seem to think of women as semi-tolerable appendages to men, if they think of us at all. Regardless of which synagogue we attend or what role my daughters play in it, I very much hope that their bat mitzvahs—no matter what shape they end up taking—will make them feel they are being welcomed into the community and not shut out of it.
Saadia: Now that’s a concept I can get behind!