Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz, editors

image: Panama: Katie receives a blessing from Rabbi Zlotovitz (Photo by Roslyn Zelenka)

Panama: Katie receives a blessing from Rabbi Zlotovitz
(Photo by Roslyn Zelenka)

This special book on the bat mitzvah ceremony (ritual celebration for girls reaching maturity within Judaism) is engaging and highly readable and a must read for girls and women of all ages. Its individual testimonies by women from around the world showcase how the bat mitzvah is practiced in diverse cultures and societies and represents the highly complex and rich facets of Jewish life in the 20th and 21st centuries. The stories bespeak the importance of bat mitzvah in a community struggling with issues of tradition and change, in a world of feminism, in an age of intermarriage, and inside contemporary cultures that are porous and nonporous. These stories are also living proof that expectations matter, as girls, even shy ones, rise to meet them as never before in our history.

As the stories unfold throughout the book, the reader experiences the meaning and relevance of the bat mitzvah as it has and is being practiced around the world. Its themes include its transformative power as Jewish girls become women through the magic of ritual, the importance of Torah (five books of Moses) as a covenant between the generations and the novel phenomenon of Jewish women coming of age in a communal space. The book also covers the new responsibility of girls in learning and davening (praying), and offers descriptions of the interplay between Diaspora richness and isolation.

Every encounter touches the heart. Why am I so moved by a bat mitzvah in St. Thomas, where a 12-year-old delivers her speech standing in shul (synagogue) on a floor of sand, a carry-over from the Inquisition, to muffle sounds of Jewish prayer? What emotion envelops me as I read of the bat mitzvah of a lonely Libyan girl, shouting her new Jewish freedom to all passersby in the Geneva airport, and almost risking deportation for it? Did I ever imagine when I heard the word Azerbaijan that there were Mountain Jews there who, until recently, married off their daughters at age 12 instead of marking the day of Jewish maturity in a protective ceremony? And what is that poignant combination of triumph and longing I feel as I look in on bat mitzvah ceremonies in post Holocaust communities? The stories in this book testify to the variety of Jewish life and the miracle of our survival in so many places despite our relatively small numbers. Yet, the cumulative effect of the testimonies also points up the amazing capacity of Judaism and Jews for self-renewal. Here is the story a twin bat mitzvah between American and Ukrainian girls, a powerful expression of kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all Israel is responsible for one another, in all of its mutuality.

Here is a story of fathers teaching their daughters to read Torah, opening a Yemenite’s father’s eyes as well as the eyes of his very traditional friends and family. And for the first time in history, here are also stories of mothers teaching their daughters to layn (chant) Torah, a feat unimaginable when I was growing up, far less than a century ago. Here, too, are the soul filling anecdotes of the love between parent and child, grandparents and their generations, G-d and community, with Jewishness as the thick thread that binds. Here is an acknowledgement of the central role rabbis play in the continuity of our people, rabbis in far flung places – with a special nod to Chabad – who totally dedicate their lives to nurturing the faith and spirit of their congregants. These stories remind us that we should not take our rabbis for granted.

You will surely read this book, as I did, through laughter and tears and the sweep of emotions about your own Jewish identity, the joy and pride and vulnerability of being a Jew. You will probably reread it, as I did, to be reminded of how fortunate we are to live at this time in human history – a time of growing gender equality -- as inheritors of and partners to a covenantal faith 4,000 years old.