Dr. Ada Anbar recently celebrated her first bat mitzvah at age 83. When her son Ran, a pediatrician living in La Jolla, CA, first suggested it last spring, the thought had never occurred to her, nor did she have any friends who had done so who could advise her. At the time she thought, “Why not?” and now admits, “I would recommend it to any other Jewish woman.”
In Ada’s youth, her parents held a bar mitzvah for her younger brother when he turned 13. However, the practice of a bat mitzvah for young women was still relatively new and had not yet spread to Israel where she was born and grew up.
The tradition of a bar mitzvah as a “coming of age” ceremony for young Jewish men dates back centuries. In the patriarchal Jewish culture of the times, women were not permitted to go to the bimah and read the Torah. This changed in 1922. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, had no sons and four daughters. He decided to hold a small variation of the bar mitzvah for his 12-year-old daughter and named it a bat mitzvah, for daughter of the commandments. Though shocking at the time, the practice slowly spread to Jewish communities worldwide.
Fast forward to 2018. When Ran suggested the bat mitzvah to Ada, he had already spoken with his rabbi, Rabbi Shulman of the Beth El Congregation in La Jolla. The rabbi had agreed to prepare Ada and hold the bat mitzvah. In Judaism, there is a belief that a lifespan is 70 years, so age 70 represents a time of rebirth and renewal. Add 13 years, and 83 becomes the figurative age for a new bar or bat mitzvah. For an increasing number of men and women, 83 has become the new 13.
Most younger children prepare for up to a year for their mitzvah ceremony, part of which is learning Hebrew. However, Ada holds an MA in Hebrew literature, so language was not an issue. “I knew Hebrew, but I had not learned to chant the traditional blessings or trop. I practiced a few minutes every day. Ran not only recorded the singing of the blessings, he called me every evening to check on my progress. It was far less stressful as an adult,” she says.
Ran planned everything, including a catered luncheon for the family following the ceremony. Ran’s definition of family extended to an invitation for the entire congregation to help celebrate and honor Ada. The bat mitzvah was truly a family affair – each of her six grandchildren read prayers during the ceremony as both of her sons and their spouses sat nearby.
Always a trendsetter, age never stopped Ada from pursuing her dreams. She went back to school at age 42 to pursue a Ph.D. in early childhood education and insisted she pay for the degree herself. She published her first book at age 46. After her retirement from a 40-year teaching career, she published her second book at age 64, and a third book at age 69. Her fourth and latest book is set for release in December 2018. Titled When Love Meets Dementia, the book addresses the issues she encountered with her husband’s dementia in his last four years of life. Michael passed away four years ago after 61 years of marriage, due to complications from frontotemporal degeneration or FTD.
In her bat mitzvah speech to the congregation, Ada explained “I am submitting my fourth book for my bat mitzvah project. The information in this book will be very helpful to many people. …. The purpose of this book is to shed light on this brain disease. This will be my small contribution to make our world a better place.”
Ada advises other women considering an adult bat mitzvah first to contact their rabbi. Even better, have a family member contact the rabbi on your behalf. The ceremony is both a symbolic renewal and a public rededication to the Jewish faith. For Ada, her bat mitzvah was both and she says, “The best birthday party of my life.”
Locally, Ada is a member of The New Shul in Scottsdale. For more information on her books, visit adaanbar.com.
Katrina Shawver is a freelance writer and author of HENRY – A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America.