Jessica Kirkpatrick's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk
June 29, 2019
When I was 9 years old, my 3rd-grade classroom was learning about winter holiday traditions, and the teacher asked for volunteers to light the Hanukkah candles and say the prayers. I was excited to share my culture, but in the middle of saying the prayer, an Israeli boy in my class exclaimed: "Your Hebrew is horrible, you are saying that all wrong."
I was mortified. I remember saying, "Well then you come up and do it," sitting down red faced and ashamed.
This was the start of a pattern of feeling like an outsider within the Jewish community.
"You aren’t really Jewish, only half."
"You don’t look Jewish."
"Kirkpatrick isn’t a Jewish name."
These are all things I’ve been told many times in my life, by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Growing up we were raised Jewish, celebrated Jewish holidays, went to services, and regularly had a family Shabbat dinner. I would fast for Yom Kippur and keep Passover. Yet somehow I always had severe imposter syndrome when I attended Jewish events or spent time in Jewish spaces. It seemed like everyone else was part of this club but I was on the outside. Never being bat mitzvahed felt like the most concrete and indicative thing I could point to as to why I felt like an outsider.
It didn’t help that I have a learning disability and find reading English to be incredibly difficult, so I have always been completely intimidated by Hebrew. I was under the impression (I now know to be false) that everyone who is “really Jewish” is also fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t realize that most people knew the Jewish prayers and songs because they simply had more exposure to them than did.
So while I have always been interested in being bat mitzvahed, the fact that I have never been able to learn a foreign language made the process seem completely intimidating and unattainable.
It has been amazing to find a community that is as welcoming and inclusive as Jewish Gateways and a spiritual leader like Rabbi Bridget who put me at ease before starting this process. She helped me understand that there is not a right or wrong way to have a bat mitzvah. It is about engaging with the words of the Torah, learning about Jewish traditions and teachings, and how to incorporate prayer and spirituality into my life, and that she and I could work together to find a way to make my bat mitzvah and the Hebrew elements feel right to me. With her encouragement, I decided to face my fear and start this process ... however, I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to complete it that I didn’t even tell my parents. They actually found out I was having a bat mitzvah by reading about it in the Jewish Gateways newsletter.
While Hebrew was something that scared me, the spiritual and religious elements of Judaism were not something that felt uncomfortable.
I’ve always been a spiritual person. My maternal grandfather died when I was 4 years old, and one of the ways I coped with his death was that I started to talk to him regularly as a child. At first I would mostly say that I missed him, but after a few years, I started to think of him as a benevolent being that looked over me and wanted the best for me. I don’t think I ever believed that he had the power to change the outcome of my day to day (although I was known to sometimes engage in foxhole prayers), but I found talking to him helpful. And I believed that talking to him could help me connect with my true self and guide me in the right direction.
As I got older, my belief in a higher power solidified, and engagement with prayer and meditation became a regular part of my life. However, my spirituality always felt disconnected from my Jewish identity. I realize now that a large part of this was because of the discomfort I felt with praying in Hebrew. It was a relief to learn that there really isn’t a right or wrong way to pray, that personal prayer is a completely valid form of Jewish prayer, and that many people think about Hebrew prayers as a meditative chant versus something that you must understand and connect with linguistically.
I think the biggest turning point for me through this process was when I came to understand the reason many Jewish services and prayers are in Hebrew. Because of the persecution and displacement of the Jewish people throughout history, we have been scattered to many segmented communities all over the globe. And so by having services in Hebrew, it allows Jews to connect regardless of their native language. Welcoming the stranger and inclusion of all people is an important tenet of Judaism and a value I resonate with. So realizing that Hebrew, the element of Judaism that continually made me feel excluded, was, in fact, a mechanism of inclusion, connecting Jews regardless of where they are from, was a profound shift in perspective for me. This was incredibly healing and allowed me to start feeling good about the process of learning the Hebrew prayers and chanting. I’m now at the point where I actually enjoy it!
Thank you to everyone who has supported me through this journey, I’m so grateful to be here today and share this moment with you.