July 13, 2008

Different Cultures Have Different Rites of Passage

By William Loeffler, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 13--When Neil Diamond sang "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" he was trying to fog up a few windows.

Yet, this sentiment constitutes the raison d'etre for the debutante ball, bat mitzvah and the Hispanic quinceanera.

Different though they may be, all three are rites of passage that celebrate a young girl's transition to womanhood. And their value goes beyond social cachet and a big payday for the caterer.

"I think they're really important," says Maureen Porter, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. "There are very, very few of them. We have altogether too few as a civil society."

Religious or secular, symbolic or social, these rituals in and of themselves don't confer adulthood and responsibility, of course. But they herald its onset. They can instill a sense of self-worth and belonging in young women and compel them to assess their future.

"You're recognized as having made progress toward a more-responsible role that society deems as necessary," says Porter, who is also in the women's studies program at Pitt. "They celebrate you as a valuable member who has something to contribute."

A Jewish girl automatically becomes a bat mitzvah -- or daughter of the commandment -- when she turns 12. The occasion is often celebrated with a party. It could also include the girl reading from the Torah.

"At age 12, the girl is responsible for her own actions," says Stanley Savage, Rabbi at Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob synagogue, Uptown. "She does good deeds, she gets rewarded. Sins, wrong doing, are on her ledger now."

In many Hispanic cultures, a girl celebrates her 15th birthday with a quinceanera, where she wears a white dress and may receive a last doll to symbolize the end of childhood.

The tradition of a debutante being introduced to society dates to 18th-century Britain, when aristocratic young ladies were formally presented at the royal court in the hopes they would find a husband from their own class.

Suzanne Bernard of Squirrel Hill made her debut at the Cinderella Ball on Feb. 4, 2006, at the Omni William Penn. There was no shortage of pageantry at this, the second oldest debutante ball in the United States. The 31 debutantes wore shimmering white dresses and elbow-length gloves and walked a red carpet.

"There was a part where we dance with our fathers that we'd have to let go of their hand and step in front of them," says Bernard, 21. "It was kind of a realization that we weren't little girls anymore."

But the experience involved more than learning to curtsy and to waltz. Prior to their debut, Bernard and her fellow debutantes logged a total of 726 volunteer hours at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum.

She says the experience helped her overcome her natural shyness. She developed enough confidence to decide to major in broadcast journalism in college.

She says she might not have done so otherwise.

"I'm a pretty shy person, but because I was dealing with children ... I had to be more outgoing. It really helped me communicate more."

Rites of passage traditionally served a practical purpose, says Abigail Brenner, psychiatrist and author of "Women's Rites of Passage: How to Embrace Change and Celebrate Life" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). By spelling out what was expected of them, villages and tribes maintained cohesion.

"The only way these people really got along was to make sure that everybody understood what their role was, moving people along the life cycle," she says.

The quinceanera, which translates as "15th year," is observed in Mexico and in many South and Latin American cultures. A girl who turns 15 often is considered old enough to wear makeup or to date.

As in debutante ceremonies, the girl usually wears a white dress and dances with her father. They often have a court consisting of seven boys and seven girls -- one for each of the first 14 years of her life. Madrinas, or godmothers, may present them with a tiara, ring, Bible or other gifts.

Flavia Silvia Bessonart, of Pitcairn, received a ring from her aunt during her quinceanera at the Garden City Fire Hall in Monroeville last year. Flavia, now 16, moved to the United States from Uruguay when she was 10.

She says she's expected to help out around the house now.

"I don't think it changes anybody other than just adding on a year," she says. "But that's just my opinion."

A quinceanera often includes a Catholic mass. Susan Blaze of North Strabane threw a quinceanera for daughter, Danae, in December 2004.

Blaze, who is from Baja California, Mexico, impressed the importance of the occasion on her daughters.

"I said, 'Well, honey, you're growing up. You're going to have a boyfriend. Someday you're going to have a job.' The way I see them changing more is through their studies," she says.

During the quinceanera, Danae's father changed her shoes from flats to heels. Danae also took her "last doll" and gave it to the youngest girl in her court, her sister Aimee, then 10.

"They were sad that they were letting go of their dolls and now they have to start thinking more on their own and making decisions," Blaze says.

Aimee's quinceanera will be held next June at Holy Rosary Church in Muse, followed by a reception in the Grand Ballroom at the Holiday Inn at the Meadowlands.


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