This Day in Jewish History / American Teen Celebrates Country’s First Bat Mitzvah

David Green
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David Green

On March 18, 1922, Judith Kaplan celebrated what is thought to have been the first bat mitzvah in the United States. It was family connections that made it possible for the event to take place: Her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, was the leader of the synagogue where she celebrated the rite of passage – the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, on New York’s Upper West Side.

Years later, Kaplan noted that “no thunder sounded, no lightning struck” as a result of her bat mitzvah. In fact, she herself seems to have gotten confused about just when her milestone coming-of-age ceremony occurred. In her account in “Eyewitness to Jewish History,” for example, she wrote that “It was a sunny day in early May of 1922.” But in his own journal from the time, Rabbi Kaplan noted, on March 28, 1922: “Last Sabbath (Mch. 18) I inaugurated the ceremony of the bat mitzvah at the S.A.J. Meeting House… My daughter Judith was the first one to have her bat mitzvah celebrated there.” (And in a letter that Kaplan wrote to his colleague Abraham Joshua Heschel decades later, on the occasion of the bat mitzvah of Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, he described Judith’s big day as having occurred in April 1922.)

In his 2013 book “The Jewish Life Cycle,” Ivan G. Marcus unravels at least part of the mystery. Judith Kaplan did read from the Torah that Saturday morning, and the portion from which she read was Parshat Kdoshim (Leviticus 19-20), which contains a number of ethical dictums, including the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The regular reading for Shabbat, March 18, 1922, however, is Ki Tisa (Exodus 30-34), but Judith’s chanting came after the regular Torah service, and was not part of it. Later, when she recounted the event, she must have remembered reading from Kdoshim, checked when that portion was read in 1922 – early May -- and, writes Marcus, “inferred, incorrectly, that that was when she herself had celebrated her ‘bat mitzvah.’”

Judith Kaplan was born on September 10, 1909, the oldest of the four daughters of Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) and the former Lena Rubin. Mordecai was a Lithuanian-born, Orthodox-ordained rabbi who taught for many years at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. There he earned himself many opponents for the religious ideology he developed, which called for redefining Judaism as a “civilization,” rather than a divinely inspired, fixed set of commandments. This worldview served as the basis for Reconstructionism, which was founded as a movement by Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, Kaplan’s younger disciple at JTS and his deputy at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.

In 1934, Judith Kaplan married the same Ira Eisenstein (a brief first marriage had ended after slightly more than a year, with a Reno divorce), who in 1968 founded the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Kaplan Eisenstein was herself a composer and music educator who had begun studying at what became the Juilliard School at the age of 7. She composed seven cantatas on Jewish themes (five of them with her husband), and wrote the first children’s book of Jewish-American songs, “Gateway to Jewish Song.” She died on February 14, 1996.

Although Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah was of great symbolic significance -- both then and now -- it was many years before the rite became standard in non-Orthodox American denominations. Ivan Marcus quotes Rabbi Kaplan, complaining in his journal in May 1933, about how “the institution of the Bas Mitzvah which I introduced into the SAJ … had fallen into desuetude of late.” In the Conservative and Reform movements, it did not become the norm for girls until the 1960s and later. And it was much after that that women were given the right to say the blessings over the Torah, which is the most basic element of a boy’s bar mitzvah ceremony.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen   

Judith Kaplan Eisenstein is seen in 1992, on the 70th anniversary of her 1922 bat mitzvah.Credit: Courtesy of The Ira and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein Reconstructionist Archives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

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