- Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World ed. by Barbara Vinick and Shulamith Reinharz
The bat mitzvah ceremony, a modern innovation, has by now become a taken-for-granted marker in the life cycle of young Jewish females in the vast majority of contemporary Jewish communities; even among the ultra-Orthodox, it is valued for its contribution to shaping Jewish and feminine identity. Like the bar mitzvah ceremony for boys, from which it takes its name, it celebrates the girl’s arrival at the age when, according to Jewish law, she becomes a bat mitzvah, responsible for keeping the commandments. The forms it takes, however, tend to be much more varied than those of the bar mitzvah ceremony; reflecting gender ideologies, they may be egalitarian, with the girls marking the occasion in the same way as the boys, or gender differentiated, with the family or community determining how the occasion is to be marked. This explains the great diversity among the bat mitzvah stories that Barbara Vinick and Shulamith Reinharz have collected from the four corners of the earth.
The book opens with a short preface by Shulamith Reinharz explaining the genesis of the book, followed by an introduction by Barbara Vinick presenting the book’s organizing principles as well as a short history of the evolution of the bat mitzvah celebration. The bulk of the book comprises bat mitzvah stories from around the world, arranged in nine chapters by alphabetical order of the larger geographical regions: Africa; Asia; Australia and New Zealand; the Caribbean; Europe; the Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe; Latin America; and the Middle East and North Africa. The book’s uniqueness lies in its coverage of both large and small Jewish communities around the world and in its expansive time-frame, going back to the beginning of the twentieth century. This vast range helps the reader move away from a North-American centered view of the bat mitzvah ceremony, with Judith Kaplan’s 1922 ceremony marked as the first, and puts that ceremony into perspective. Background information is provided on each geographical area—especially pertinent in the case of smaller Jewish communities with which the readers may not be familiar. [End Page 152]
The stories, varying in length, were written by girls had who recently celebrated a bat-mitzvah ceremony and/or their parents, by women remembering the bat mitzvah ceremonies they had celebrated as girls or as adults, and by community leaders. Many of the stories are accompanied by photographs of the bat mitzvah girl, sometimes with her family, other girls or the rabbi. This visual element reinforces the variety of the stories and of the celebrations, as we view girls participating in group bat mitzvah ceremonies and in pageants, or delivering Torah homilies, carrying Torah scrolls and reading from them. Particularly moving is the photograph on p. 164 of thirteen girls who celebrated their bat mitzvah in Serbia in 1944, a few days before they were transported to Auschwitz. All the girls are identified and evidently survived, as their postwar places of residence are listed after their names.
Certain themes run through many of the stories and point to the evolution of the bat mitzvah ceremonies in different communities, such as the desire of some parents and girls in Orthodox synagogues that the ceremony be of equal importance to that of the boys, and the important place of rabbis in shaping the bat mitzvah ceremony, whether it be Marshall Meyer in Argentina encouraging an egalitarian ceremony, Michael Shudrich in Poland supporting the decision of girls to mark the occasion, or Habad rabbis and their wives in various communities organizing bat mitzvah clubs and helping the girls prepare Torah homilies. Of note is the prevalence of group bat mitzvah ceremonies in many countries and the white dresses worn on this occasion, evidence of the influence of the Catholic confirmation. However, in many cases the local context does not explain the variations in the bat-mitzvah ceremony...