Today I Am a Woman: Sto­ries of Bat Mitz­vah around the World

Bar­bara Vinick and Shu­lamit Rein­harz, eds.
  • Review
By – January 5, 2012

Today I am a Woman: Sto­ries of Bat Mitz­vah around the World is filled with lyri­cal accounts of being a bat mitz­vah in such exot­ic places as Cochabam­ba, Bolivia and Tegu­ci­gal­pa, Hon­duras. As co-edi­tor Bar­bara Vinick reports in her intro­duc­tion, bat mitz­vah and female com­ing of age cer­e­monies, unlike bar mitz­vahs, are less enshrined in tra­di­tion­al rit­u­als and come in a dizzy­ing array of forms,” which may make them more per­son­al and mean­ing­ful.” Accord­ing to Bran­deis Jew­ish his­to­ri­an Jonathan Sar­na, the first indis­putable” men­tion of girl’s com­ing-of-age rit­u­al appears in the writ­ings of the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry sage Joseph Hay­im ben Eli­jah al-Hakam of Bagh­dad. His book Ben Ish Chai advised a sim­cha (cel­e­bra­tion) when girls assumed their wom­an­ly oblig­a­tions at age twelve.” (Pub­lic reli­gious cer­e­monies for boys date back to the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry.)

This pub­li­ca­tion is an out­growth of the work of the Hadas­sah-Bran­deis Insti­tute (HBI) whose mis­sion is to study Jew­ish life world­wide. Read­ing this book will take you on a fas­ci­nat­ing Jew­ish jour­ney into Africa, Asia, Aus­tralia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, Europe includ­ing East­ern Europe, the For­mer Sovi­et Union, Latin Amer­i­ca, the Mid­dle East, North Africa, and North Amer­i­ca. It is heart­en­ing to read about how many Jews across the globe have a com­mit­ment to retain­ing Jew­ish prac­tices while at the same time ensur­ing that women are includ­ed. One par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing account was pre­sent­ed by Remy Ilona, who described Jew­ish life among the Igbo (Igbo is prob­a­bly a deriv­a­tive of Ivri) in Nige­ria. His­to­ri­ans spec­u­late that Igbos are most like­ly descen­dents of the Israelites who sep­a­rat­ed from their fel­low Israelites in their escape from Egypt and are part of the Hebrew stream” that also set­tled in Ethiopia. Ilona, an Igbo lawyer, describes the cul­tur­al­ly Hebra­ic” aspects of Igbo life. Boys are cir­cum­cised on the eighth day of birth. Bur­ial prac­tices are unmis­tak­ably Hebra­ic in form and con­tent.” About 20,000 have ful­ly returned to rab­binic Judaism.” In some parts of the Igbo com­mu­ni­ty, there is a com­ing-of-age rit­u­al for girls. It is con­sid­ered a Juda­ic pas­sage” called isi migha.” It sig­ni­fies a young girl’s entry into adult­hood and her readi­ness to accept mar­i­tal suit­ors. It is a fes­tive com­mu­ni­ty event cel­e­brat­ed by group danc­ing and gift giv­ing. Ilona’s niece, Uchennna Ezim­madu is an Ibo-Benei Yis­rael activist” at her uni­ver­si­ty and stress­es the impor­tance of an Ibo rela­tion­ship with Israel and the impor­tance of going back to our roots of Torah.” All the vignettes are accom­pa­nied by a well-researched his­to­ry of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the area. Bib­li­og­ra­phy of fur­ther read­ing, end­notes, glos­sary: illustrations. 

Read Bar­bara Vinick and Shu­lamit Rein­harz’s posts on the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Today I am a Woman

The Sis­ter­hood of Bat Mitzvah

Des­ti­na­tion Bat Mitzvahs

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

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