The ProsenPeople

Destination Bat Mitzvahs

Friday, January 13, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick wrote about the history of the bat mizvah and Barbara Vinick shared her own story. Today, Shulamit Reinharz writes about meaningful celebrations away from home.

The other day I had a discussion with a group of girls about their ideal bat mitzvah (the celebration that marks female coming of age at 12 or 13 among Jews and sometimes of adults who missed the opportunity as adolescents). Several of the girls said that that their ideal was to celebrate away from home. A few wanted to go to Israel, specifically the Western Wall or Masada. Other ideas were more surprising: “Germany, because it has great technology,” “Japan, because I love anime,” and “France, so I can see a real fashion runway.” One Massachusetts girl actually had her wish for an overseas bat mitzvah come true. She and her family celebrated in Amsterdam “because it is the midpoint between my relatives in the U.S. and Israel, and because of Anne Frank.” 

We’ve all heard of destination weddings and birthday parties. But what about destination bat mitzvahs? Our book, Today I am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World, includes the amazing example of two American sisters whose joint bat mitzvah took place in a Tunisian desert town, complete with camel rides, drummers, and a religious service under the stars in honor of the father's Tunisian heritage. 

Imagine taking your daughter to Split, Croatia where there is a small Jewish community led by a woman I've met who surely would welcome the idea. Or, if it still exists, imagine a bat mitzvah in the town where a grandparent was born. A few North American boys actually have celebrated a bar mitzvah in Uganda, where a Jewish community has existed for five generations. As far as I know, there have been no bat mitzvah ceremonies for non-Ugandan girls in the modest synagogue. Such a ceremony would be eye-opening for guests and bridge-building with the community there.

Bringing the bat mitzvah girl to a place where the Jewish community is small and out of the mainstream would enhance the part of bat mitzvah that is mitzvah - the religious good deed/obligation, the core element of the event. How wonderful it would be to be able to share the joy with a newfound community someplace else in the world! Now if the stock market would only rise so we could afford it! 

Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick have been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

JLit Links

Thursday, January 12, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter



The Sisterhood of Bat Mitzvah

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 | Permalink

On Monday, Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick wrote about the history of the bat mitzvah for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Today, Barbara Vinick writes about her own experiences. 

I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, the ceremony that marks the coming of age of Jewish girls. When I reached 13 in the 1950s, girls who attended three-day-a-week Hebrew School at our suburban Conservative synagogue north of Boston did not have that option. In those post-World War II years before the second wave of feminism, a public coming of age ceremony at Temple Beth El was strictly the realm of the boys. I didn’t really mind being excluded. After all, who wanted to go to special practice sessions with the cantor all year?

Not me. And the thought of chanting Hebrew and giving a speech in front of an audience of my parents' friends gave me chills. Ditto for a party with boys; I'd rather read a book. So I was relieved, even if I had to forgo the presents.

Fast forward about 50 years. Bat mitzvah has taken hold as a standard life cycle event for Jewish girls not only in the United States, but in every branch of Judaism all over the world. That’s what I discovered when I took on a project to collect stories for a book about bat mitzvah. The majority of the women and girls who wrote the entries had found their bat mitzvah ceremonies extremely meaningful and memorable, representing in some communities hard-won victories for religious freedom and egalitarianism. And some women like me had celebrated a bat mitzvah after studying as an adult many years later.

So now, after so much time has passed, I have begun to rethink my reticence. Why not now? I missed a golden opportunity last year when an adult bat mitzvah class began at my synagogue. Ironically, I thought I was too busy with my work for the impending publication of the bat mitzvah book. I'm still ambivalent. Performing in front of an audience still makes me nervous and, at 65+, my singing voice isn't as clear as it once was. But I'm slowly getting used to the idea. When bat mitzvah has meant so much to women around the world, who am I to resist joining their sisterhood? Stay tuned.

Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz have been blogging here all week.

Book Cover of the Week: HHhH

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Thanks for the tip on this one, Erika! Coming in April from FSG

Today I Am a Woman

Monday, January 09, 2012 | Permalink
Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick are the editors of the recently published Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World. They will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In the few months since our book was published, women of different ages have come up to us with stories of their own experiences of bat mitzvah - the ceremony that marks a Jewish girl's coming of age at 12 or 13. These stories have brought home to us in a personal way the trajectory of Jewish women's experience in the last half-century in the United States.

Grandmothers of today's bat mitzvah girls tell us that bat mitzvah was not available to them when they were girls. Some resented the discrimination against them, as their brothers and male classmates celebrated bar mitzvah as a highlight of the Jewish lifecycle; others didn’t particularly care.  Although the first bat mitzvah in the U.S. took place in 1924 in New York City, it took the women’s movement that re-emerged in the 1960s and '70s to enable women to look at their status anew, to try to create change, and to popularize the concept of a women's coming of age ceremony.

But bat mitzvah still wasn't analogous to boys' ceremonies. Middle-aged mothers tell us that they had their bat mitzvah ceremonies at the synagogue on Friday night, a time when a boy's bar mitzvah would rarely be held. In this way, the girl could chant the "Haftorah," a reading from the Prophets, and not from the Torah, the holy scroll that contains the five books of Moses, a lesser kind of honor. In fact, sometimes the reading  was known mistakenly as the “half” Torah. 

Nowadays, girls and their mothers in Progressive branches of Judaism take it for granted that the bat mitzvah  will be virtually the same as a boy's bar mitzvah. Girls learn how to read from the Torah - not an easy task - and some wear a prayer shawl (tallit) during the ceremony, until recently a male-only prerogative. Religious transition is rarely so tangibly or so swiftly demonstrated as the generational change in bat mitzvah observance from grandmothers  to mothers to today's bat mitzvah girls.

Check back here all week to read more from Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick.

Generations of the Shoah International Book Discussion

Friday, January 06, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Generations of the Shoah Interational (GSI) is celebrating its 10th year, and to honor the occasion they created a Facebook group to highlight the talents of some of the members of their Holocaust survivor community. The Facebook group will create an ongoing conversation between the readers of books (and viewers of films) and the people who created these works.  Every month they will alternate between books and films. The list of featured guests for 2012 can be found here.

This month's author is Helen Epstein, who wrote Children of the Holocaust. Next month's filmmaker (and author!) is Gerda Weissmann Klein. And, in May lookout for Martin Fletcher (The List).

Read more about the GSI and the Facebook project here.

JLit Links

Friday, January 06, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Second Book Cover of the Week: The Flame Alphabet

Friday, January 06, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Couldn't resist doing two this week...there are flames on this cover. Need I say more? Buy it on January 17th from Knopf and check out Ben Marcus's website here and scroll down to view the book trailer.


Short film based on The Flame Alphabet


Poetry on Demand

Thursday, January 05, 2012 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Jake Marmer wrote about poems as a noisy mediterranean duplex. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Reputedly, Rachmaninoff once said: “There’s no such thing as inspiration. You sit down and do the work.” There’s so much to like about the quote! I think maestro must have seen art– in his case, music – as something of a daily practice; certain anti-climatic quality of his pronouncement is also a promise for consistency. He would probably agree that the intentional seeking or digging isn’t called inspiration – curiosity maybe – so, just start talking. Or humming, whatever.

Working on the last stages of my new book, Jazz Talmud, I was lucky to have the mentorship of Stanley Moss, my editor/publisher, and also a really excellent poet. I’ve never agreed with anyone offering me editorial advice as much as I did with Stanley. Except for this one thing.

As we chatted and told each other stories, he kept prodding me to write down some of the stories I told him as poems. He also pointed out certain significant aspects of my life I’ve never discussed in poetry – and thought it was a mistake to keep avoiding them. He pushed hard for these pieces. In principle, I agreed; for the ten or so pieces he commissioned, I went through numerous drafts, arrived at forms that were new to me, had a lot of fun. Ultimately, it was all garbage, and to the garbage it went.

But, while laboring on the commissioned pieces, between the cracks, I wrote notes – sketches – for other pieces, completely unrelated, more distractions than compositions. Those sketches actually worked and ended up as poems; on-demand stuff probably never will. We all have our little tricks. Mine, turned out, is sitting down to do one thing and getting distracted into something else. There’s more free-associative freedom that way, more potential for play and the unexpected. I don’t know if this congeals with Rachmaninoff’s ethos, but I’d like to think that maybe sitting down to write his orchestra arrangements, he veered into solo piano works. Or vice versa.

Here’s a piece that grew out of a distraction. It’s kind of like having a kid “by mistake”. Kind of… just with a bit less at stake, I guess.

Guided Meditation

All around you
as far as the eye can see
nothing but soup.
Horizon, a dangling zipper
of some deity’s pants.
You’re in a boat on loan
from the demon of Monday mornings.
Questions – birds – it’s the fall
there’re more of them they form v’s
traverse the sky towards a shining yellow bottom
of a pot where much better stuff
is being brewed.

Jake Marmer is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at CUNY and works for Random House. His first book, Jazz Talmud, comes out this week.

Book Cover of the Week: The Quiet Twin

Wednesday, January 04, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Dan Vyleta's The Quiet Twin  (Bloomsbury USA) will be available in February