The Jewish coming-of-age ceremony stretches to accommodate the new gender fluidity.
Published by Alyson Krueger on March 27, 2019 in the New York Times. (Read this article online)
Lion is a 13-year-old who lives in Brooklyn. The middle school student identifies as pangender, a term for feeling like you are every gender at once, and likes to go by “they” because it’s an inclusive pronoun. “I can identify with male and female and others in between,” they said. “I don’t really feel masculine, and I don’t really feel feminine.”
They are also of the Jewish faith, and on Sept. 1, 2018, when they turned 13, they participated in a traditional coming-of-age ceremony: the one in which children become adults and mature members of their religious community.
Traditionally 13-year-old boys celebrate becoming bar mitzvahs (meaning “sons of commandment”) and 12- or 13-year-old girls celebrate becoming bat mitzvahs (“daughters of commandment”). But Lion went an alternative route: a “they” mitzvah, if you will.
Their family got the idea from a set of twins who celebrated a b’nai mitzvah. “‘B’nai’ is just the plural form of the word ‘bar’ or ‘bat,’ so we thought maybe we can use that,” said Hilda Cohen, Lion’s mother. “We didn’t make a big deal out of it. We just sort of did it.”
Like other Jewish teens, Lion led the Saturday morning service, read from the Torah and gave a Dvar Torah, a speech about the Torah portion that focused on gratitude. After the kiddush, or celebratory meal, where the venue was covered in flowers of many hues, there was an ice-cream party in the garden of the family’s Fort Greene townhouse.
The only difference was that in the invitation, the rabbi’s speech and every blessing, in Hebrew and in English, “they” was used in place of “he” or “she.”
This was a significant alteration. “If someone uses the wrong pronoun it can feel like a weight is added to your back,” said Lion. “I have a friend who is nonbinary, gender-fluid, and their parents weren’t as accepting. They still had a bar mitzvah even though they doesn’t identify as a gender. It wasn’t comfortable.”
In recent years, more people have been questioning or exploring their gender expression, including teenagers. In Jewish circles this process can coincide with the time for bar and bat mitzvahs. To make space for transgender and nonbinary teenagers, more synagogues and Jewish communities have adopted they mitzvahs (b’nai mitzvahs or b mitzvahs, as other congregations call them.)