It was not your traditional bat mitzvah speech. “Thirteen represented a terrible time in my life, in our world,” said Leah Linton, 91, from the bima. “I was forced to leave Vienna at age 13.”
On July 22 she took back the age of 13 from the Holocaust and shared the emotional day with her daughter Leslie, 59, who was confirmed but also never celebrated becoming a bat mizvah.
While adult b’not mitzvah are nothing new, having begun in the 1970s, mother-daughter pairs are less common. This event was even rarer.
Leah fled Austria with her mother in 1939 for the safety of the United States. “I am here today, at my age, for the millions of girls who were killed during those years and were never able to dream even of a bat mitzvah,” she said in her dvar Torah.
Her daughter Leslie acknowledged that having a bat mitzvah was “nothing I ever thought about.” While she feels her Jewish identity strongly and said it impacts many aspects of her life, “I can’t say I ever thought, ‘Oh, I want to have a bat mitzvah.’” But once her mother asked, the Livingston resident and member of Temple Sharey-Tefilo Israel in South Orange couldn’t say no. And just a few days before the big day, she acknowledged being excited. “It’s going to be very emotional,” she said, through tears.
Growing up in Lawrenceville, in the Princeton area, Leslie attended what was then the Herzl Zion Hebrew School in Trenton (later Trenton Hebrew Academy, and today Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, Pa.), where her mother taught for close to 30 years. Although bat mitzvah ceremonies existed at the time, they were not common practice among her friends; instead, she was confirmed at age 15.
Leslie and her mother, who now lives in Southbury, Conn., prepared together for three months with Rabbi Eric Polokoff of the Reform Congregation B’nai Israel in Southbury, where Leah is a member and a regular Torah study attendee, and where the bat mitzvah service took place.
The idea to take on the project of a bat mitzvah first came to Leah after attending the adult bat mitzvah of a friend. “I thought it was kind of cool,” she said, and asked her daughter to do it together with her. After she realized what this entailed, Leah said, “I thought, I should have my head examined.”
If you are picturing a frail woman making her way to the bima, you are partially correct. Linton does use a walker, and she speaks slowly, and Leslie helped her mother move around. But if you’re imagining someone with a receding personality and fading presence, think again.
At some points during an interview with NJJN, Leah was tough and wise-cracking, and at others emotional. On trying to learn Torah trope, she said, “I’m no soprano,” as opposed to her daughter, of whom she said, “Leslie, to my surprise, has a nice voice and did a great job.”
She choked slightly when she described the high point of the day. “It was my great pleasure to do this with my daughter. We are tightly connected. That was the best part,” she said.
Leah said afterward she asked Polokoff to evaluate her performance. The rabbi said it was excellent, and she told him that should he ever need a Torah reader, “I can do it again.”
Having a bat mitzvah ceremony at her age, with her adult daughter, also reveals much about how Leah has lived her life — never shy to claim for herself things others weren’t sure she should have, whether because she was Jewish or because she was a woman.
“I have always had strong views on women’s equality,” she said, noting that as a young woman, “I went way out of my way to prove women can do anything men can do.”
In her speech, Leah claimed many firsts for herself, from being the first woman in an upholstery union to being the first woman hired by the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. (There were women in upholstery unions by the early 1900s before she arrived in the United States, but often only in the role of seamstress.) “I was determined to be spitting tacks with the rest of the guys on the first day,” she said.
Of her job at the Botanical Garden she said, “The men ridiculed my attempt to prove myself equal.” They gave her jobs that she believes they thought she couldn’t do. “Little did they know I had no problem throwing a rope over a tree and hoisting myself into the air to cut off the branches,” she said, noting that ultimately, she gained their respect.
Leslie has internalized her mother’s message. “My mother always said, ‘You can be or do anything. You can accomplish anything a man can do.’”
The vice president of media strategies at MWWPR, a national public relations firm, she described why having the ceremony on Shabbat Matot-Masei was particularly poignant: because it wraps up the story of Zelophechad’s daughters, who claim their land inheritance even though they are not men. “The women’s lib theme feels bashert,” she said. Leslie opened her dvar Torah quoting the feminist anthem, “I am woman,” made famous by singer Helen Reddy.
But there was one man whose absence Leah felt keenly: that of her father, who was murdered at Auschwitz.
“I believe he would have loved to be part of all of this,” she said.