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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.