Four Cross Cultural Examples of Adolescent Rites of Passage

To what end bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah? A cross-cultural look at adolescent rites of passage helps us take a look at our own rite with new eyes.

From Clare R. Farrer, "The Mescalero Girls’ Puberty Ceremony", page 240 of Mahdi, Louise Carus. Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, Carus Publishing Company, Chicago, 1996.

The ceremony is conducted by men determined to be holy by the tribe, beyond reproach. Each Holy Man/Singer must be intelligent and able to memorize and interpret songs in a special form of Mescalero Apache. Each must sing 64 different songs on each of the four nights of the Ceremony Additionally, the Singer must memorize long stories of the people, their travels, and accounts of tribal interacts from the beginning to the present. The Ceremony is thus a re-enactment of events from the beginning of cosmological time and a recitation of ethno-history.

The female—the woman of the tribe, when she reaches womanhood, this elaborate Ceremony is held over her. Not, not because she has reached puberty, but because she is a woman. And, then, everything is done–for her that a people might live. That a people will always live. Every year we have this to regenerate ourselves as a people...That we will make her strong and generous, and kind, and proud so that she will bring forth strong warrior child that...will protect the people...This is the way a people perpetuate themselves.

The girls kneel, facing east, on their skin mats while a line forms to the southeast of them. The girls’ mothers stand behind them holding burden baskets filled with food; their fathers and uncles stand to either side, inside the runway and directly in front of the holy lodge. Each Singer applies the yellow cattail pollen to the girl for whom he is singing: Again they sprinkle to the east, south, west, north, thence from the west to the east (from the crown of her head to her forehead), to the south (on her right shoulder), to the north (on her left shoulder), and from south to north (across her nose.) The movements form a cross, linking the four directions with the girl as the center. The Singers step to the front of the line that has formed and are blessed by each of the girls.

The lead Singer motions away those still in line as the Godmothers assist the girls in going from their knees to their abdomens. Each girl lays face down with her head to the east as her Godmother presses and "molds" her into a fine strong woman. The hair is smoothed over the girl’s shoulders and back before molding begins: first the left shoulder, then the right; next the left and right sides of the back; the left hip and the right hip, the left then right thigh and calf, the left and right foot.

The Mescalero girls engage in four lengthy runs with a ritual burden basket, a parallel to the Temple offerings inasmuch as it is filled with food for the party to come. These runs are said to symbolize the four cycles of life: infancy, childhood, adulthood, and as the run nears the Old Age Home in the west, again old age. The girls are reenacting a beloved communal legend, the journey of White Painted Woman who walked to the west as an old woman only to return from the east as a young woman once again.

At the conclusion of the fourth run the girls return to the entranceway of the holy lodge where their uncles or brother’s invert the burden basket, spilling tobacco, candy, pinons, fruit and money over them. While the assembled crowd . . . scampers for the distributed gifts, the girls return to their camp-out homes. There each girl’s Godmother talks to her of sex and her responsibility for mother hood. The Singer gives his "daughter," as he will refer to the girl for the rest of her life, Indian bananas and says, "Be fruitful all the days of your life; obtain food and not be lazy. He repeats this and the feeding twice more. The fourth time, the Godmother feeds the girl, as she does so, she tells her, May you bring forth in this world strong male children so they will protect your people."

The Ndembu Tribe, found in Virginia Hine "Self-Created Ceremonies of Passage" in Madhi, 304-313.

Three trenches are dug in a consecrated site and filled respectively with white, red and black water. These "rivers" are said to "flow from Nzambi," the High God. As the instructors tell the neophytes, partly in riddling songs and partly in direct terms, what each river signifies. Each "river" is a multi vocal symbol with a fan of referents ranging from life values, ethical ideas, and social norms, to grossly physiological processes and phenomena. They seem to be regarded as powers which, in varying combination, underlie or even constitute what Ndembu conceive to be reality . . . whiteness=semen, milk; redness=menstrual blood, the blood of birth, blood shed by a weapon, etc.; blackness=feces, certain products of bodily decay, etc. This use of an aspect of human physiology as a model for social, cosmic and religious ideas and processes is a variant of a widely distributed initiation theme; that the human body is a microcosm of the universe.

The Nootka people of Vancouver Island found in Edith Sullwod, "The Ritual-Maker Within at Adolescence", in Madhi, 114. See also: Mahdi, Louise Carus, Steven Foster & Meredith Little (Eds), Betweixt & Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation, Open Court Books, Chicago, 1987.

And you had to learn or you weren’t a woman. It isn’t easy becomin’ a woman, it’s not somethin’ that just happens because you’ve been stand’ around in one place for a long time, or because your body’s stared doin’ certain things. A woman has to know patience, and a woman has to know how to stick it out, and a woman has to know all kinds of things that don’s just come to you like a gift. There was always a reason for the things we hadda learn, and sometimes you’d been a woman for a long time before you found out for yourself what the reasons was....When you’d learned everythin’ you had to learn, and the time was right and you’d had your first bleedin’ time and been to the waitn’ house, there was a big party. You were a woman. And people would come from other places, uncles and aunts and cousins and friends, and there’d be singin’ and dancin’ and lots of food. Then they’d take you in a special dugout, all decorated up with water-bird down, the finest feathers of the breast of a bird, and you’d stand up there so proud and happy. And they’d chant a special chant, and the old woman would lead them and they’d take you a certain distance.

When the chant ended the old woman would sing a special prayer, and take off all your clothes and you’d dive into the water and the dugout would go home...and you’d be out there in the water all by yourself and you had to swim back to the village.

The people would watch for you, and they’d light fires on the beach and when they finally say you they’d start to sing a victory song about how a girl went for a swim and a woman came home and you’d make it to the beach and your legs would feel they were made of rocks or somethin.’ You’d try to stand up and you’d shake all over, just plain wore out. And then the old woman, she’d come up and put her cape over you and you’d feel just fine. And then, you were a woman...

The SamaritansLearned by internet correspondence with Rabbi Monty Eliasov, Austin, TX

Benyamim Tzedakah, a Samaritan and a great scholar of their history and customs, informed me of a wonderful minhag they observe (so I have no written source on this -- just Torah she-b'al Peh). They teach whole families all together the reading of the Torah in separate houses on
Shabbat... they are in fact small groups that walk to each other's homes according to where they live. As soon as a child is capable of chanting the Torah according to their standards, that child is then given a community-wide ceremony equivalent to our Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In this matter they don't distinguish between boys and girls even though only men can become Cohanim. As a result, Benyamim tells me that children becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah at age 10 is not unheard of.

Copyright 2000 Reclaiming Judaism and Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram, MSW