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Finding meaning in the bat mitzvah in a materialistic society

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Artist Zoe Penina Baker poses beside bat mitzvah dresses in her Miss Mitzvah installation. JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

The North American bar mitzvah has been widely glorified, analyzed and frequently satirized, while the rite of passage for Jewish girls has been more of an afterthought.

New York-based artist Zoe Penina Baker wants to change that, through her installation, Miss Mitzvah: Coming of Age Rituals in a Consumer-Driven Culture, which is being shown at the Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM) until Jan. 20.

It includes artifacts from bat mitzvahs in New York and Montreal from the late 1990s, to the middle of this century’s first decade, which were loaned or donated by almost 30 women, as well as videos of interviews about personal reminiscences.

This is a work-in-progress, as Baker continues to look for suitable “ephemera” and “totems” to include, and testimonies to record.

The bat mitzvah, which only became customary in the mid-20th century, is still far from universal and takes many forms. Baker is eager to hear the different ways that Jewish women of varying backgrounds came of age.

“I come with no agenda, I make no assumptions,” she said. “This is not a critique. It’s just important that we tell our stories.”

READ: TORONTONIAN GIVES GIFT OF BAR/BAT MITZVAH TO AT-RISK ISRAELI YOUTH

The exhibit includes dresses, shoes, photographs, invitations, wristlets (small purses with straps) and kippot. The frocks range from a smart two-piece to a wedding gown-like confection.

Some items are from Baker’s own bat mitzvah in 2005, including a Tiffany sterling silver Magen David necklace – an uncharacteristic luxury.

Baker’s experience of growing up in a middle-class family in Queens and going to a Jewish day school that was largely populated with kids from the wealthier counties of Long Island, inspired this project.

She remembers her pre-teen years as an endless round of “over-the-top affairs and keeping up with the Joneses,” her simcha being far more modest than most of her peers’ lavish celebrations.

The search for a meaningful adult Jewish life that the bat mitzvah is supposed to represent, clashed with the “materialistic, mall-driven secular culture” she knew. Mix in the usual angst of growing up and Baker says the “tweenage” years can be “a beautiful nightmare” for girls.

During the exhibition’s run, she plans on holding workshops for girls who are preparing for their bat mitzvahs with local Jewish scholars, where they can discuss what they are going through.

‘There’s a tremendous sense of insecurity.’

A companion Miss Mitzvah podcast on Soundcloud has also been launched, which includes more information on each of the objects on display.

“For most of us, our bat mitzvah was the first time someone told us we were truly women, and that we had responsibilities as a Jew,” she said. “At the same time, there’s a tremendous sense of insecurity, of a life and a body in flux that is part of this experience.”

She began working on the project two years ago, after graduating with a bachelor of fine arts from the State University of New York at New Paltz and starting her first professional job. She was embarking on adulthood in a more practical sense than as a 12 year old a decade earlier.

“I began to reflect on that, and talk with other women, and this project was born,” she said.

This is Miss Mitzvah’s premiere and Baker is slated to show it in New York this spring.

MJM executive director Zev Moses said that Baker “captures a fragment of North American Jewish culture that blends love, family and friends with the social anxiety, embarrassment and confusion (of) revealing ourselves to the world – sometimes before we are ready.”