Book Review: Today I Am a Woman
Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World, (Eds Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz, Indiana University Press, 2011) is at once intellectual and imaginative. What appeals to me most about this book is how the history, written by Vinick and Reiharz, is mixed in with personal bat mitzvah stories written by girls and adults so that I never get bored of reading too much of one or the other. In that same vein, the stories are gathered from people of all ages and backgrounds creating a variable narrative experience. Just as some people are short and to the point while others weave the smallest of stories into elaborate tales, so too do the stories reflect the diversity of personalities within the Jewish community. As I read it, I almost felt that I was sitting in a circle of women sharing the exciting, challenging, terrifying, humbling and thrilling experience of their coming-of-age.
I will admit that I was disappointed, although not surprised, by the number of stories written by Americans living and celebrating bat mitzvah abroad. A part of me wonders how the experiences of ex-pats, business people, military families, and other Americans living in foreign lands compare to the experiences of “native” Jews, and I wish there were more accounts of Jewish life in place that once had thriving Jewish communities. Another part of me mourns the loss that the absence of their stories represents—the loss of life and of a record that says hinei anachnu—we are here! Ultimately however, the brief and varied stories captured in Today I Am a Woman create a snapshot of Jewish girls’ coming-of-age that is both universal and specific.
As Vinick and Reinharz mention in the Introduction, many of the stories tell of similar bat mitzvah ceremonies, experiences, or traditions. Many celebrations involve a festive meal or a dvar Torah—a piece of learning prepared by the bat mitzvah about the weekly Torah portion. Almost all the accounts include some description of dresses worn, food prepared, and gifts given or received. At the same time, each bat mitzvah’s story captures something unique—a piece of history that is her story, and hers alone. My recent work on JWA’s new project, MyBatMitzvahStory.org has forced me to recognize this duality in a way that I had not before by asking: How do we connect to one another through our commonalities as well as our differences and how can these connections make our Jewish lives stronger and more meaningful?
As an educator, a feminist, a Jew, and a woman, what do the stories of Gina Malaka Waldman (Libya), Carole Nathan (New Zealand), Rabbi Steven Greenberg (Tunisia), have to offer me? How can we, three people so disparate across geography, tradition, and time, find ourselves in one another’s stories? Like Malaka, I had a significant coming-of-age experience that may have been unrecognizable as a bat mitzvah to others, but for me, signaled the exact moment at which I became a Jewish adult in faith and in spirit. Carole serves as a role model to me for her commitment to become a bat mitzvah despite immense personal struggle and her story serves as a reminder of my own responsibility to support other Jews as they travel along the path of Jewish learning and exploration. Rabbi Greenberg’s account challenges me to confront the assumptions and labels I place on Jewish practice that looks different from my own reminds me that even the most lavish of celebrations pay homage to a family heritage and tradition that is ages old.
While I don’t think Today I Am a Woman will be a page-turner for many 12 year-old girls, and the title certainly wont drive tweens to rip the book from a bookshelf, I am sure that it offers an interesting read for parents and teachers who would like to learn more about the history and legacy of Jews throughout the Diaspora. I also suggest that adults would gain a lot from choosing specific stories that are particularly resonant and discussing them with the young women in their lives. If my short time at JWA has taught me anything, it has taught me that women often think that their stories are not interesting, compelling, or noteworthy enough to fill a whole book. Today I Am a Woman proves this wrong.
To purchase Today I Am a Woman, visit the Indiana University Press website or call 1-800-842-6796.
Do you live in the Boston area? Join JWA at the November 20th event Today I Am A Woman: Celebrating Bat Mitzvah in Boston and Around the World to discover bat mitzvah stories from around the world, meet other bat mitzvah girls, create a craft project, and explore your own bat mitzvah story with maps, writing, interviews, and art. Also, be sure to check out JWA's most recent project MyBatMitzvahStory.org, a safe and engaging website where girls will explore and express their emerging identities. The site also features free activity guides for eductors and tutors to use in mixed-gender, offline settings.