Nora Feder-Johnson, an eighth-grader at Madison’s Hamilton Middle School, had never used a video camera when she focused one on 12 Jewish residents of Capitol Lakes, a Downtown retirement community.
As Nora filmed them, the men recounted their bar mitzvahs, the ceremonies in which Jewish boys formally mark their obligation to follow the faith’s commandments. The women explained how the modern-day counterpart for girls, the bat mitzvah, wasn’t available to them back then, and how they feel about that now.
The resulting hour-long film, which Nora undertook as her own bat mitzvah project, offers a touching, insightful look at the coming-of-age ritual.
“I loved her project because she brought to life the stories of older Jews who had very different experiences around having a bar mitzvah,” said Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, where Nora’s family attends. “Bar mitzvahs were very different 60-plus years ago, and I think it’s a glimpse into a culture that really changed as Jews have assimilated in this country.”
Nora, 13, said she came up with the idea after talking with her grandfather, Bernie Feder, 89, about his bar mitzvah experience. “I thought it was pretty funny, and it made me want to hear other people’s stories,” Nora said.
Bernie and Judy Feder, residents of Capitol Lakes, both appear in the film, and Bernie pretty much steals the show with his humorous, frank stories of playing stick-ball instead of studying Hebrew and of not really buying into the concept of a bar mitzvah at all.
“I had to be coerced, in a sense, to do it,” he says in the film. “It didn’t seem to have any meaning to me later, either.”
As it happens, several other men in the film share equally non-sentimental memories, with one man saying his bar mitzvah was “a puzzle” and another calling it “not rewarding” because the rabbi wouldn’t straightforwardly answer his questions. The women in the film, paradoxically, seem more favorably inclined toward the ritual, even though none of them went through it as a girl. Bat mitzvahs were extremely rare back then, gaining traction only after World War II and then achieving greater prominence alongside the women’s movement in the 1960s.
“I think it had everything to do with feminism, which had a huge influence on the Jewish community,” Zimmerman said. “Girls and women began to question why their congregations discriminated against them. At a time when women were gaining more equality in the larger society, why shouldn’t their religious communities also allow them to do things like read from the Torah, rituals that in the past were reserved only for men?”
The women in the film do not seem bitter.
“It didn’t dawn on me I was missing anything,” one says. “Now, in retrospect, I do feel it would have been a wonderful experience.”
In one moving scene, a woman recounts how she had a bat mitzvah in her late 60s, along with 23 other women her age.
“For them, it was an experience of restoration, almost of healing — a feeling that I, too, am a member of God’s family and can do this now,” said the Rev. Guta Cvetkovic, director of pastoral services at Capitol Lakes.
Nora recently showed the film at the retirement community, drawing nearly 50 audience members. After the showing, Cvetkovic said a woman not in the film approached him and said she felt a need to embrace her Jewish identity and explore the possibility of her own late-in-life bat mitzvah.
Nora, the daughter of Mark Johnson and Liz Feder, said the project gave her a deeper appreciation for her own bat mitzvah. She donated 10 percent of the money people gave her at her bat mitzvah to the national Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Mass., which is devoted to making known the stories, struggles and achievements of Jewish women in North America. She also plans to donate a copy of the film to the archives.