The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah

Nora Raleigh Baskin
  • Review
By – March 14, 2012
The death of her beloved grand­moth­er pro­pels twelve-year-old Car­o­line into a few months of soul-search­ing and con­fu­sion over her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. She also grap­ples with many age appro­pri­ate issues besides her nana’s death: her friend­ship with BFF Rachel, peer pres­sure from a mean, pop­u­lar girl, and a chang­ing body. But the emo­tion­al core of her sto­ry comes from her strug­gle with her spir­i­tu­al iden­ti­ty. Car­o­line isn’t sure who she is or who she wants to be. The sto­ry begins at her nana’s funer­al. Her pop­py gives her a spe­cial gift— her nana’s Star of David neck­lace. Car­o­line takes the neck­lace, but is uncom­fort­able wear­ing it because her fam­i­ly is inter­faith and sec­u­lar. She fears hurt­ing her par­ents, and is rather embar­rassed to admit to her busy physi­cian moth­er that she sud­den­ly has an inter­est in being Jew­ish. The nov­el pro­gress­es quite real­is­ti­cal­ly, from the day Car­o­line decides to stay home from school on Yom Kip­pur (feel­ing fool­ish, since she doesn’t know what the hol­i­day means), through some yearn­ings for a bat mitz­vah like her best friend is plan­ning, to stick­ing up for that friend when anoth­er girl makes a snide com­ment about Jews. Like an old­er ver­sion of Con­fes­sions of a Clos­et Catholic, the author has cre­at­ed a sin­cere, emo­tion­al nov­el about a con­fused girl (6th grad­er this time) who ques­tions her place in the world. Baskin has cho­sen to keep all of Caroline’s ques­tion­ing inter­nal, which is rea­son­able since the char­ac­ter has such a com­pli­ant per­son­al­i­ty. How­ev­er, read­ers may become frus­trat­ed as Car­o­line asks no ques­tions out loud, nor does she con­front her par­ents with her con­fu­sion about how it is that her grand­par­ents are so Jew­ish while her own fam­i­ly ignores all aspects of the reli­gion. Her inter­nal dia­logue is delin­eat­ed by ital­i­cized type. At one point she silent­ly states, Mom, I want to be Jew­ish too. Like you. I want to know fun­ny lit­tle Yid­dish words. Like Nana and Pap­py. I want to know what you do on Yom Kip­pur. Like Rachel. I need a bat mitz­vah.” Caroline’s dec­la­ra­tion is full of heart and ten­der pas­sion. The real strength of its heart comes through the novel’s inter­mit­tent flash­backs, where we see Nana and Car­o­line togeth­er. This rela­tion­ship is much more sat­is­fy­ing than Caroline’s bond with her busy moth­er with whom she choos­es not to share her deep­est feel­ings. By the end of the nov­el she voic­es her true feel­ings and says that she is indeed Jew­ish. Because my moth­er is Jew­ish, I become a bat mitz­vah when I turn twelve. Auto­mat­i­cal­ly. I don’t have to do any­thing. Just be me. My aunt Gert told me that.” This procla­ma­tion will like­ly moti­vate live­ly dis­cus­sion! All in all, the strength of this book is in the jour­ney that many young peo­ple will iden­ti­fy with as they ask them­selves these same ques­tions. As Car­o­line so elo­quent­ly says about her her­itage, It was mine if I want­ed, like a gift that some­one gave me a long time ago that I for­got to open.”
Lisa Sil­ver­man is direc­tor of Sinai Tem­ple’s Blu­men­thal Library in Los Ange­les and a for­mer day school librar­i­an. She is the for­mer chil­dren’s book review edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World.

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