Last Saturday I had the privilege of attending the Batmitzvah ceremony of one of my daughter's schoolfriends.
The candidate was only just twelve, and the ceremony was held in an orthodox synagogue, very much by the book. I was expecting an impenetrable event, something completely foreign to my lapsed Protestant understanding. As I entered the Synagogue with my blonde hair and blue eyes, I felt like an intruder.
Instead I was invited into and witnessed a true rite of passage. The young girl had prepared over many months for this event. For her Mitzvah, she had decided to paint a series of six canvases to represent the six days of Creation, and she spoke eloquently about how each canvas had come about. She had understood early on that, although she had wanted to create something out of nothing, in fact, as a created being herself, she was only capable of creating something out of something — she was not able to create raw materials for her art ex nihilo. Only an ultimate Creator could create something from nothing.
I felt myself palpably relax and a deep sensation of comfort and relief flood through me. Although I don't believe in God, and don't believe in the literal truth of Genesis, one of the hardest edges of writing for me, and for most people, is the fear of having to create something from nothing. We forget, in a secular society, that we are not the fount of all knowledge as individuals. We are always building on, renewing, recreating what has gone before us. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, up on the stilts of our own histories and the history of writing and art that has preceded us. And we shouldn't forget that we are at the top of that history, not crushed under its weight. We are the pencil points.
The ceremony continued, after the girl's brilliant account of Genesis, with wise words from the Rabbi, but also from an old family friend (who looked spookily like the elderly Freud). He stood at the lectern on a podium, she stood down below in the body of the Synagogue, upturned face ready for his words. At first blush it looked like everything I loathe about hierarchical, patriarchal systems: the girl was to receive the wisdom of the male elder, in docile silence, her voice shut down. This would be the beginning of her domestication. And it's true that the Batmitzvah is traditionally linked to the idea of a marriage-ready girl.
Yet nothing could have been further from what actually happened. The older man spoke about her life, welcoming her to her own future, whatever it might be, alluding to possibility, potential, her own blossoming, and the ways she would be supported by her community to achieve, the cyclical nature of life.
True, at one point he told her, "We don't believe in Darwin, we believe in the literal truth of the Torah", which chilled my enthusiasm somewhat. But the girl's own party later served as something of an answer to him: it was themed on Science and Creativity.
I had also recently gone to a First Communion, and in my ignorance had thought that a Batmitzvah was something similar — welcoming a child into the Jewish faith, just as the Communion is intended to enable the child to join the Catholic faith. Absolutely wrong. In the Jewish tradition, the child is always already Jewish, and the Batmitzvah is about opening the door to her future. It's about her signing up to herself, and about her community making a promise to her. Everything about the Batmitzvah refers to commitment — of the community to the young person and back again.
I found myself sad and small by the end of the ceremony. I saw the mother's face, with her four beautiful daughters all now safely through their Batmitzvahs. She was utterly radiant, dancing with her children in the middle of the Synagogue. I crept away.
There is nothing in secular society to initiate a child into the adult world, and into her own future.
When my daughter left primary school and went to secondary, I even missed the one rite of passage that seems to have sprung up in the last few years, like weed to fill the empty space. She didn't get a mobile phone.