Cat­bird: The Bal­lad of Bar­bi Prim

January 1, 2013

In Cat­bird: The Bal­lad of Bar­bi Prim, the world meets an insight­ful, opin­ion­at­ed 8‑year-old who’s already tak­en a few steps toward becom­ing a pio­neer — but also a shad­ow of her quirky self. Although she’s cor­rod­ed — some­times lit­er­al­ly — by a tox­ic, but famil­iar social atmos­phere, her love of singing pro­pels her to become the first ordained woman can­tor in 3,000 years of Jew­ish his­to­ry. A fam­i­ly cri­sis expos­es old and endur­ing wounds, but she begins to res­cue her­self — by dili­gent­ly going to ther­a­py — and embarks on an imper­fect but per­pet­u­al meta­mor­pho­sis becom­ing the well-coiffed hero­ine of her own sto­ry. Bar­bara Ost­feld shows us that we are all brave pio­neers — at becom­ing our true selves.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Bar­bara Ostfeld

  1. What Jew­ish rit­u­als and obser­vances cap­ture Barbara’s imag­i­na­tion in childhood?

  2. How did Bar­bara devel­op a feel­ing for the sacred as a child?

  3. In what ways are Barbara’s par­ents sim­i­lar to or dif­fer­ent from typ­i­cal first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can Jews of their generation?

  4. Why do you think Bar­bara learns to asso­ciate unat­trac­tive­ness with Jewishness?

  5. What are the sources of her defi­ance? Her compassion?

  6. What does Cat­bird tell us about grow­ing up Jew­ish in the 1950s and 60s?

  7. What has changed for Jew­ish kids, espe­cial­ly girls, since then? What hasn’t?

  8. Bar­bara feels awk­ward dur­ing a num­ber of her first expe­ri­ences at HUC. Have you ever found your­self feel­ing awk­ward in group set­tings because of your per­ceived differences?

  9. How do the fol­low­ing themes play out in Cat­bird? • Repen­tance • Hair (Is this a Jew­ish theme?) • Mod­esty/­make-up/­clothes/­cos­tumes

  10. What role does ther­a­py play in Barbara’s growth? How do you think her life would be dif­fer­ent with­out the good men­tal health care she received and still pursues?

  11. Would Bar­bara have become the first ordained woman can­tor if she hadn’t been raised in the Reform movement?

  12. How do you relate to your can­tor? Your rab­bi? Do you hold them to dif­fer­ent stan­dards with regard to reli­gious obser­vance? Par­ent­ing? Good works? Appearance?

  13. What changes in syn­a­gogue life and in prayer did Bar­bara wit­ness dur­ing her career? What changes have you observed?

  14. Is there a specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish mes­sage in Cat­bird?

  15. Has Cat­bird influ­enced your Jew­ish identity?