What’s a bat mitzvah? I’m so glad you asked. I’m quickly turning into an expert on the subject. Or rather, I’m happy to find someone who knows less than I do!

A bat mitzvah is the “coming of age” ceremony for a Jewish girl, around her 13th birthday. (“bat” for “daughter”–a boy’s would be “bar mitzvah”.) This weekend Helen’s cousin’s daughter Jillian is having her bat mitzvah, and since she is the eldest of the cousins’ kids, it is a huge deal and family from around the country (make that “around the world” with us Canadians) are here to celebrate. As the resident non-Jew I want to write down my impressions of the festivities before they all blur into a big mess in my memory.

To my Jewish readers, please excuse my comparisons to Christianity and to church–it’s what I and most of my readers have as a common reference point.

The Sabbath (Shabbat) is Saturday but to Jews the day starts at sundown, so Shabbat begins Friday night. There are Shabbat services Friday evening and again Saturday morning every week, though most families would pick one or the other to attend regularly. This week’s Friday services were unusually full at Congregation Beth Am, every seat was taken, and Jillian was everywhere, welcoming her friends and family, the perfect hostess. Every guest was given a special yarmulke with Jillian’s name on the inside, and women family members received a beautiful head covering as well. When the service started promptly at eight, Jillian stood on the platform with the rabbi and the cantor, looking very poised and comfortable.

This synagogue looks very much like a small church. The “auditorium” could seat 150 or so on your typical semi-comfortable stackable seats, and looked much like a church sanctuary. At the front is a stage. Instead of a pulpit, however, there is a large sturdy and ornate “table” that the Torah is laid on when it is read (it wasn’t taken out tonight though). Jillian stood behind this most of the service when she was reading. To the side is a smaller “pulpit” of sorts the cantor used. Behind the main table is the ark of the covenant, which holds the Torah scrolls. Over the table hangs an ornate lamp. I don’t remember what that represents but I remember from highschool World Religions class that it’s a light that never goes out. The rabbi had a wireless lapel mic and walked around wherever he pleased.

I believe that the service was a pretty typical one, the only change from the ordinary being that Jillian read (sang? chanted? it sounds like singing to me but I’m not sure how it’s referred to) much of the text. The cantor leads most of the service, with the congregation joining him for some parts, and the rabbi interjecting to keep us all on the right page. I tried for a while to follow along in the text, but it took so much concentration to read the Hebrew (transliterated of course) that I was missing everything else going on so eventually I stopped reading and just enjoyed watching. The rabbi was very relaxed, waving at Kenan or other kids periodically, gesturing to some to clap louder for some songs, joking with Jillian.

After a while the cantor’s part is over and the rabbi gives what we’d call a sermon. I’m not sure what he’d call it. Today he spoke about Martin Luther King Jr since Monday is Martin Luther King Day, and tied it in loosely with a Jew’s responsibility to make the world a better place by doing good deeds, which in Hebrew is called a “mitzvah“, so it also ties in nicely with the bat mitzvah. Someone commented to me later that this was a very typical “sermon” in that it was timely and inspiring but not actually “biblical”, never mentioning the Bible at all, though Rabbi Nathan was quoted once and a quote of Martin Luther King’s mentioned another rabbi.

Throughout the Friday and Saturday services, Jillian’s extended family members are honoured by letting them take part in the service. Our part was to close the doors of the ark. That came right at the end of the service, we were called up by name and all four of us got to go up while everyone else was singing and close the doors.

After the service we all went into the multi-purpose room next door where everyone was given a small plastic glass of wine or grape juice (about 3 or 4 times the size of the typical communion cup), we all blessed it (much longer blessings than Helen and I do at home) and blessed the challah, and then had time to mingle and help ourselves to tables full of sweets.

Saturday morning at 10 am we’ll be back at the same synagogue for the Saturday services. The Saturday services are generally longer, and apparently this congregation is unusual in how late it starts. Most would start at 8 or 9 and can still go until noon. And no childcare or kids’ programme! Helen’s cousins say it’s no wonder they can’t seem to get young families to keep going, though it is considered quite appropriate to come late or to leave partway through the service and come back later. (It is NOT appropriate for the kids to be given pencils and paper to amuse themselves with, as that is “creating something”, which is “work”, and not allowed on the Sabbath. Toys are the kosher alternative.)

Anyway, I’m looking forward to Saturday! And since I’ve now downloaded this experience from my brain I can reboot overnight and deliver the next installment to you tomorrow afternoon.

If any of you my dear readers know more than I do on these subjects and can correct any misinformation, give me the right words to replace my Christianese descriptions, or otherwise expand on my experience, I’d love to hear your comments.