Bat mitzvah – unlike bar mitzvah – was not always a traditional rite. It began in the United States in 1922 with a young girl questioning God, belief, and gender inequality. She chafed at customs separating women from men, especially in the synagogue where her father was the rabbi. Who was this very first bat mitzvah?
Meet Judith Kaplan. Judy is fluent in Hebrew and outstandingly talented at music. She wants to read the Torah in front of her congregation the way the boys do, and she must flout the rules in order to change them. Like any young girl, she fears scorn or laughter for publicly doing what has never been done before. But she wants to; her father wants her to: she dares. She ends the accepted prohibition about women publicly reading the Torah, opening the way for countless other girls to follow in her footsteps.
This picture biography, set two years after women won the right to vote, does not deliver a hot revolution. It is a gentle volume about lovely people. Judy is a role model who perseveres with the help of understanding parents, supportive younger siblings (three, also girls), and meddling, amusing grandmothers. Her achievement of equality in the synagogue leads to a life of creativity and leadership; she becomes a talented musician and writer who produces the first Jewish songbook for children. Charming illustrations in creative layouts enhance the text: the characters’ faces are expressive; the composition of the family scenes is dynamic; and the rich, jewel-toned palette reflects the warmth of the story.
Ellen G. Cole, a retired librarian of the Levine Library of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, is a past judge of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards and a past chairperson of that committee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excellence in Jewish Children’s Literature. Ellen is the recipient of two major awards for contribution to Judaic Librarianship, the Fanny Goldstein Merit Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroeder Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries of Southern California. She is on the board of AJLSC.