Our entire extended family recently gathered at the Corona Horse Ranch in south Phoenix to celebrate my granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah. This is the traditional Jewish coming-of-age ceremony; once the exclusive purview of boys, it is now open to girls.
The setting wasn’t quite typical for this event, although it was the perfect venue for the carnival celebration that followed the traditional ceremony. Hayley read beautifully from the Torah, a long portion that told the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Her paternal grandmother, Iris, prepared her for an entire year; her maternal grandmother, Nainie, (my wife Elaine) made the prayer shawl for her. This garment, called a Tallis, is worn for the first time at this initiation ceremony. Nainie cut out small squares of material and sent them to all the close female relatives asking them to decorate it and return it to her, so she could incorporate them into the Tallis she was making.
The plan was that these women would present the Tallis to Hayley at a women’s circle that would precede the actual Bat Mitzvah service. I desperately wanted to attend but was told, in no uncertain terms, to get lost. The women of her clan wanted to share the power of their sisterhood and create their own entrée-into-womanhood ceremony. I understood this completely but felt left out nevertheless. Having spent my life surrounded by women, I have always marveled that something good always happens when women come together in a circle. They share a soul connection that men have much more trouble getting in touch with. I think it’s because they are all mothers and daughters and know what it feels like to be connected to another life. Feeling a biologic responsibility for another human being is the unique purview of sisterhood. Men get together in groups and the first thing they do is size each other up; they are biologically programmed and culturally reinforced to be more competitive and defensive.
The women’s circle, of course, turned out to be an extraordinarily moving experience that I learned about piecemeal over the next several days and never in its entirety. A friend from Hawaii draped leis on the celebrants, and led the women into the sacred circle while hula-dancing. There, they were smudged with sage and eagle feather and welcomed into the sacred space. There were prayers to the four directions, singing, and commentaries on Torah. They spoke about the secrets of womanhood, and the ceremony culminated in their circling around Hayley as her grandmothers placed the Tallis on her shoulders. Each one spoke to Hayley about their contribution to it and their wishes for her. When they emerged from the ceremony, they all wore a red string on their ankles. It was a story only they knew, and nobody was talking.
I love sacred ceremonies, and we need more of them because, at the soul level, we are all tribal people. Ceremony — its special language of prayer, songs, music, dance, dress, holy objects, a credible story that helps people face their lives better — is a powerful way of connecting to others. All tribal ceremonies, even secret red strings, have symbolic meaning, no matter what your tribe. They are what bind us together in community.