Com­ing of Age: 13 B’nai Mitz­vah Stories

Jonathan Rosen and Hen­ry Herz (Edi­tors)

  • Review
By – March 3, 2022

In Jonathan Rosen’s con­tri­bu­tion to this short sto­ry col­lec­tion, which he edit­ed with Hen­ry Herz, the young nar­ra­tor express­es a thought cen­tral to the anthology’s theme: I’m not sure when the tra­di­tion start­ed to make Bar and Bat Mitz­vahs as big a spec­ta­cle as wed­dings, but I want­ed in.” The authors of this col­lec­tion appeal to teens who want to share in the cul­ture of their peers, and who often resent the oblig­a­tions imposed by adults. Sev­er­al selec­tions in this vol­ume inter­ro­gate the mate­ri­al­is­tic mea­sures of b’nai mitz­vah suc­cess and delve into the true mean­ing of the event.

Gen­der plays a role in many of the pieces,such as in an intro­duc­to­ry poem by Jane Yolen. Adopt­ing the per­spec­tive of age, she address­es those on the verge of adult­hood, and ends with a truth com­mon to old­er Jew­ish women, that a bat mitz­vah cer­e­mo­ny hadn’t been invent­ed yet” when she came of age.

In a refresh­ing­ly spe­cif­ic sto­ry, The Assign­ment,” Sarah Aron­son rem­i­nisces about meet­ing with her rab­bi to dis­cuss her Torah por­tion, with Richard Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion in the back­ground of cur­rent events. Aronson’s nar­ra­tor is frus­trat­ed at a class assign­ment that excludes either women or Jews as sub­jects; she decides to write about polit­i­cal activist Abbie Hoff­man, mis­tak­en­ly believ­ing him to be a Jew­ish woman. This sto­ry is humor­ous, unex­pect­ed, and insightful.

Anoth­er dis­tinc­tive selec­tion, Bar­bara Bottner’s The Sec­ond Ever Bat Mitz­vah of New York City,” takes place in 1924 and uses Yid­dish the­ater as a set­ting for the brand-new rit­u­al of bat mitz­vah. Hannah’s grand­fa­ther, an act­ing pro­fes­sion­al, encour­ages her in the per­for­ma­tive aspects of read­ing the haf­tarah. With authen­tic ref­er­ences to Sec­ond Avenue as the Jew­ish Rial­to,” and admi­ra­tion for actors Paul Muni and Mol­ly Picon, Bot­tner expects a bit more con­text from her readers.

Oth­er sto­ries, which focus on pre­teen inse­cu­ri­ties and mild­ly rebel­lious behav­ior, have the advan­tage of appeal­ing to a broad base. The title of Nan­cy Krulik’s The Con­test” refers to an intense com­pe­ti­tion over which stu­dent will be thrown out of reli­gious ser­vices first for tru­ly obnox­ious behav­ior. When a girl’s great-grand­moth­er is called to the bimah to enlight­en her audi­ence about Jew­ish life in the for­mer Sovi­et Union, even the most com­mit­ted chal­lenger of adult stan­dards begins to reflect on what it means to be Jewish.

The b’nai mitz­vah expe­ri­ence may not be uni­ver­sal, but it is one of the few remain­ing cul­tur­al touch­stones com­mon to Jew­ish teens along the entire reli­gious spec­trum. Rosen and Herz try to reach every­one, from the kid with shpilkes who just can’t sit still in a syn­a­gogue to one whose fem­i­nist aware­ness caus­es her to ques­tion tra­di­tion­al expec­ta­tions. Par­ents and edu­ca­tors will want to use this col­lec­tion as the begin­ning of a con­ver­sa­tion about Jew­ish adult­hood. An explana­to­ry intro­duc­tion and a glos­sary are included.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions