When she’s called to the Torah as part of her bat mitzvah, not only will Naomi Hochman of Winnipeg become the first girl in her family to have the traditional coming-of-age ceremony, she’ll also be marking the 100th anniversary of North America’s first one ever.
March 18, 1922, was when the daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan read from a printed copy of the Torah in the New York City synagogue run by her father, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. The event marked a turning point for women’s participation in religious life.
But it took until 1949 for the first girl in Canada to follow suit.
And much like Judith Kaplan’s initial honour, Miriam Lieff’s milestone was due to the forward thinking of her father—because she didn’t even know what a bat mitzvah was.
Her father, the late Mr. Justice Abraham Lieff, was president of the Agudath Israel Synagogue in Ottawa. When the Conservative congregation dedicated its new west-end premises, Miriam was on the cusp of age 14.
And on Feb. 25, 1949, she led Friday night services and delivered a sermon.
“I was quite well-educated. I wasn’t in any way afraid of what I was going to do,” says Lieff, who’s now 86. “My father wanted me to do it for his synagogue, which was very important to him, and I did it.”
But while she was at the top of her class in Jewish afternoon school, Lieff was still uneasy about what her friends would think as she took her place on the bimah to usher in the Sabbath.
“When all the kids were sitting in the back row looking at me in my long white dress, I was totally embarrassed. I thought they were looking at me like I was some queer person doing this,” she says.
“But after the reception, they told me how amazing they thought that the whole thing was. And then I felt a lot better!”
Two Lieff sisters in Ottawa
Lieff’s younger sister, Lois, would’ve been the second girl to have a bat mitzvah in the city, in 1950, but her father decided to let someone else go first—so as not to discourage other girls and their families.
As a result, Lois Lieff, now 84, had to wait until she was nearly 14. (She remembers that the second girl was Dorothy Wexler, now Dorothy Tonchin.)
“I think my father felt that if it was going to be Miriam and then me, it might be the two Lieff sisters and over and out. And he really wanted to establish this as a feature of Agudath Israel,” says Lois, a longtime resident of Montreal.
Her ceremony was also held on a Friday night, in April 1951 at the shul, which has since amalgamated into Kehillat Beth Israel. Saturday morning events were out of the question for girls in the synagogue at the time.
Other trailblazers in Toronto, Sudbury and Montreal
By the early 1950s, a few more Canadian girls were able to break the barrier to wider participation in services. Elaine Shapiro (Glassman) had a Saturday morning service in Toronto at Goel Tzedec—a Conservative congregation that was later amalgamated into Beth Tzedec.
Judy Feld Carr, the Canadian human rights activist, recalls her own decidedly groundbreaking bat mitzvah in Sudbury on Jan. 12, 1952.
She read from the Torah, recited the blessings, and chanted the haftarah. Plus, she led the entire service at the Shaar Hashomayim Congregation, as the Orthodox synagogue became Conservative on that day.
Rabbi William Rosenthal, a Shoah survivor, apparently needed to be persuaded about the idea—as did some members of the congregation. But the bat mitzvah girl’s father, Jack Leve, was very persuasive.
And, around the same time, Donnie (Becker) Frank was led to believe that she was the first Canadian girl to have one on a Saturday morning.
Her father was Rabbi Lavy Becker, the founder of Dorshei Emet, the Reconstructionist congregation in Montreal. Frank’s bat mitzvah was held at the town hall in the suburb of the Town of Mount Royal.
Rabbi Becker taught her the haftarah, although Frank’s brother read the blessings before and after, which she took as a sign that her father only wanted to go so far without rocking the boat.
“He wasn’t rocking the boat so much that we all fell out of it,” she says.
Frank still finds it ironic that her service was held in a part of the city where Jewish people couldn’t own property.
“And here we were having what we thought was Canada’s first bat mitzvah.”
Shirley Segev of Toronto never had a bat mitzvah, because she still can’t bring herself to go through with it. But not for reasons you might think.
The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Segev was born after the war and raised in Romania, where her father was jailed for years by the Communist regime—accused of being a “Zionist enemy of the people”.
While her father was in prison, her mother spent long stretches of time away from home, lobbying government officials for his release. Segev had to look after her two younger siblings, run the household and keep the family going. The day she turned 12, she received a letter addressed to her from Israel.
Although she was sure it contained the long-awaited news that her family was granted permission to immigrate to Israel, the letter was from an aunt. She congratulated her niece on becoming bat mitzvah, and promised a gift of a wristwatch, which the girl could collect when and if the family made it out of Romania.
Segev burst into tears.
In an excerpt from an unpublished memoir, Segev describes her despair on receiving that letter that day in 1960.
“I stared at it in disbelief. A watch! Did she know that this very morning I had to schlep my crying seven-year-old sister to school? That after school I had to go to order wood for heating the home in preparation for winter, [and get] enough potatoes, cabbages and other provisions for the cellar to last till spring? That on my way home I found my nine year old brother again playing in the streets, in danger of being overrun by a car? That at night, I kept dreaming of my mother and father, out there in distress?”
Later that year, her father was freed, and the family left for Israel.
After moving to Toronto in 1974, Segev joined Congregation Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist congregation, where she learned to read from the Torah and chant haftarahs. She also taught others, and was a lay leader for services. She even held the position of synagogue president. More than once, she was asked to join an adult bat mitzvah group.
“I imagined it many, many times,” Segev admits. But she always said no.
“I was afraid that up there, while doing the blessing, or chanting, I would start to cry without being able to stop, remembering how lost I felt that day. And that’s why I was, and still am, afraid to have a bat mitzvah.”
Watch the Lieff sisters talk bat mitzvahs with the newest member of the club: Naomi Hochman, 12:
Pandemic bat mitzvah
Naomi Hochman is about to turn 13. Her bat mitzvah is scheduled for March 19, 2022. But the journey to get there wasn’t smooth sailing.
Her family was supposed to go to Israel for the ceremony last year, but that trip had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her in-person lessons with Rabbi Anibal Mass were also replaced with studying via Zoom.
And while Manitoba’s mask mandate is newly lifted, with capacity limits having been loosened for large gatherings, the Hochmans couldn’t predict where things would be at when they sent invitations to attend.
But with Congregation Shaarey Zedec still being careful, party guests may still be required to follow COVID-safe guidelines.
“Our invitations said ‘Dancing, hopefully!’ for the evening party,” Naomi’s mother Marisa Hochman says, with a laugh.
For the Grade 8 student at Winnipeg’s Gray Academy, getting to have a bat mitzvah was something she took for granted. Most of the girls in her class are having one. Both her brothers had bar mitzvahs and that raised her anticipation.
When interviewed for The CJN Daily podcast, Naomi was still working on her speech, but she intends to talk about both the weekly Torah portion, Tzav, and the significance of the accompanying haftarah.
But the significance of falling on the centennial of the bat mitzvah itself will also be a big part of her thoughts.
“It really shows how much we’ve grown as a society.”
Miriam Lieff’s bat mitzvah in 1949 wasn’t the last time she would lead services or put her Jewish education to use. She and her sister Lois have led full Jewish lives. They still attend services regularly, and volunteer to read from the Torah or chant haftarahs at their respective synagogues in Canada and Florida. Last year, Lois did a haftarah in honour of their father’s yahrzeit, via Zoom.
The sisters credit his guidance with paving the way for generations of Canadian women to follow in their footsteps—just as their father didn’t hesitate to take them to watch the Ottawa Rough Riders.
But, unlike football games, he knew that women should be easily included in all facets of a synagogue.
Miriam gave Naomi a small bit of advice ahead of her big day: “Speak slowly!”.
“Most kids sound like they’re just trying to get their words over and done with.”
But her dad assures the Lieffs that there’s nothing to worry about.
“Naomi is a fantastic debater,” says Dave Hochman. “So she’s got her cadence down. We know she’s going to knock it out of the park.”
The Lieff sisters will find out for themselves, even if they’re still riding out the last few days of winter in Florida.
Naomi and her family were so thrilled to meet them for the podcast, Lois and Miriam were invited as virtual attendees, to help celebrate the bat mitzvah’s special place in our ongoing history.
Ellin Bessner is host of The CJN Daily. Miriam Lieff is her aunt—which also means Lois Lieff is her mother.