Senior development officer Jewish Federation of Cleveland
Had there been a son in the family, Hedy Milgrom probably wouldn’t have had the rite of passage that gave her the confidence and foundation to participate in the Jewish world.
Milgrom, 65, is the elder of two daughters. She grew up in Joliet, Ill., a small town 30 miles southwest of Chicago, at a time and place when it was rare for girls to have bat mitzvahs.
Long after her ceremony, her father told her that had she had an older brother, she would not have had one.
“When I was in Hebrew school, which was an afternoon Hebrew school in Joliet, I was the only girl in the Hebrew school class,” the Beachwood resident says. “There were certainly girls in Sunday school, but there were no other girls in Hebrew school. And it just wasn’t something that the girls were doing back in the late ’50s, early ’60s.”
Still, Milgrom was not the first girl to become bat mitzvah at her temple, Joliet Jewish Congregation.
“My mother was a self-taught cake decorator and baker,” Milgrom recalls, adding she baked cakes for fellow congregants’ b’nai mitvah. “And, so, I have pictures. Our family albums were really pictures of cakes, occasionally there might be pictures of a person.”
Whereas bar mitzvahs were held on Saturdays at her synagogue, “Bat mitzvahs were always on Friday night,” she says. “We did a Haftorah, and we did a speech – and that was a bat mitzvah. And then there was a kiddush afterwards.”
Long before she was 12, Milgrom learned to read Hebrew. Her father taught her using an “aleph bais book” when she was just 4 or 5 years old. His educating her did not stop there. Each Friday night, he held a Kabbalat Shabbat service prior to dinner, so Milgrom became familiar with the prayers and service. After dinner, she regularly accompanied her father to 8 p.m. services.
Milgrom remembers fondly going to the rabbi’s study weekly to prepare. She enjoyed learning trope and looked forward to the day, she says, because she liked singing and performing. For the student of violin, learning the trope came easily.
A month before her bat mitzvah, her mother landed in the hospital with a kidney stone and underwent surgery.
“With great pains, she made all the pastries,” Milgrom recalls. “She was the one person who could bake for the synagogue. We had a kosher kitchen, and the rabbi allowed her goods to come into the synagogue. So, she made all of the pastries for the kiddush and she made me a magnificent bat mitzvah cake.”
On the afternoon of her bat mitzvah, Milgrom’s mother was having her hair done and her father picked up Milgrom and her younger sister from school with the cake in the trunk of the car.
“We were stopped at a stop sign a block from the synagogue, and some young kid came to a stop sign, did a 270-degree skid and slammed into our car, and the cake got smashed all over the trunk,” she says.
The crash required an emergency room visit for her sister’s bloody nose.
“It was all just a mish mosh,” she remembers. “My parents both had to be on tranquilizers that night because they were so upset about the accident, but more upset about the cake being ruined.
“The rabbi made a joke about it from the bimah, something about the fact that, if you want a piece of Hedy’s bat mitzvah cake, you need to go down to Supreme Auto Body with a spoon and dig it out of the trunk,” she recalls. “So, the only person ever, in all of the thousands of cakes my mother made, that never had a cake was me. And that’s what a lot of people remember about my bat mitzvah in my family.”
Despite the mishap, Milgrom remembers her bat mitzvah fondly, and over time, the story of the ruined cake has become part of family lore.
“I can still see myself standing on the bimah in our old synagogue in Joliet,” she says.
When she was in high school, she tutored girls in preparation for their bat mitzvah. While she is deeply moved when she sees adult women becoming bat mitzvah, Milgrom considers herself fortunate to have had an age-appropriate ceremony. Today, she often leads services at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike.
“For me, that’s part of the reason I love to participate in services,” she said. “I’m a regular at the 7 a.m. Friday morning minyan at B’nai Jeshurun, and I always help lead the service. I substituted for our cantor on occasion when he’s on vacation. I have plenty of opportunities to use my synagogue skills, and to me, that’s really, really meaningful.
“My parents gave me the opportunity to become a knowledgeable Jew, and then we sent our children to day school at (Gross) Schechter (Day School in Pepper Pike), and now I have a granddaughter at Schechter. It is the most wonderful circle of life,” she says. “When we talk about Jewish continuity, I feel very blessed that we’re living it.” BM