Matthew Shaer is the author of Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I did not set out to write a book about Jews.
In fact, I was warned repeatedly against it—by friends, acquaintances, publishing professionals. I remember an early phone call with a well-known editor at a publishing house in Manhattan, who told me, in no uncertain terms, that “people don’t buy Jewish-themed books.” He must have heard me collecting me breath on the other end of the line, because he quickly added: “Even Jews don’t buy books about Jews. And definitely not books about Hasidic Jews. Sorry.” Still, I considered what I stumbled across to be a good story, and I was loathe to take his advice.
In the spring of 2008, I had been dispatched by New York magazine to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, to interview the members of a Hasidic anti-crime patrol called the Shmira (“Watchers,” roughly, in Hebrew). For the most part, the Shmira were considered a relatively benign community presence––responsible for ferrying elderly women to the bus stop, or fixing flat tires, and so on––but that spring, a couple members of the group had allegedly set upon a black college student named Andrew Charles, and beat him around the back and arms with a night stick.
Fewer locales are more sensitive to the specter of racial violence than Crown Heights, the site of three days of deadly rioting in 1991—local Jews continue to call the event a “pogrom”—and within a week of the incident, the neighborhoods had taken on the appearance of what the Times termed a military camp. Police riot vans mobile command posts were stationed on Kingston Avenue, the high street of the Jewish community; packs of uniformed cops worked west to east on Carroll and Empire, flashlights in hand. Local politicians, fearing the worst, issued public pleas for calm.
Accusations were thrown back and forth with increasing alacrity. The large African-American and Caribbean population blamed the Shmira for targeting black men. The leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, meanwhile, which had been headquartered in Crown Heights for decades, pointed to an uptick in violent crime, and claimed that the police had abdicated their duty. In that vacuum, the argument went, the Shmira were bound to act. In late April, I reached out to Yossi Stern, a Lubavitcher Hasid, and the spokesman for the Crown Heights Shmira. Stern was wary of the media attention, but when I asked if I could pay him a visit, he agreed, and invited me to his home on Union Street.
That evening, I walked from my apartment in Park Slope, down Eastern Parkway, and into Crown Heights. My only previous experience with the neighborhood consisted of momentary glimpses out of the window of a cab, as I hurtled out to the airport, in Jamaica, Queens—I remembered packs of black-hatted men, grand old apartment buildings, the sun-dappled and tree-lined footpath which runs down the southern lip of the Parkway. What I found was something very different; something deeply jarring.
I should say here that although I consider myself in many ways to be culturally Jewish, I am not observant nor particularly religious, and I spent much of my childhood attending Unitarian services with my mother, who was born into an old Unitarian family. And yet some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor of my great-grandmother’s apartment building in Newton, and listening to the circuitous clucking of Yiddish. My paternal grandmother spoke Yiddish sometimes, too, usually when she wanted to say something to my grandfather that the kids wouldn’t understand; even now, when reporting on Orthodox communities in New York, I am shocked at how much of the language I must have internalized.
I knew, vaguely, the story of my great-grandmother, Edith Rosenthal, whose father had been murdered by Cossacks before World War I. I knew that she fled Eastern Europe with her mother and brothers, and passed through Ellis Island, before settling outside of Boston, where my grandmother was raised. But I had never been able to visualize the world from which she had come––a Jewish shtetl––until I began the process of reporting the New York magazine article, and then the book.
Here in the midst of bustling Brooklyn was a small enclave––no more than six blocks by ten––that seemed to operate by the codes and customs of a bygone era. Here was a world where Yiddish was the common language, where Hebrew adorned the storefront signage, where one could walk three steps from the haberdasher to the bagel maker and then on to the fishmonger, whose wares––wet, pink, scaly––were displayed on large beds of ice, behind densely-fogged glass. Initially, I found it all to be quite thrilling, and after my interview with Yossi Stern, I returned frequently to Crown Heights, although I had no new assignment in the area.
I read every book on Jewish Brooklyn I could get my hands on––I started with Henry Goldschmidt’s expert Race and Religion Among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights, and worked outward from there. Later, I read Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, Gershom Scholem. I muddled through long religious services, staring at walls of complicated theological text no more discernible to me than kangi; when I grew weary, I’d peek up at the upper reaches of the shul, where the Lubavitch women, separated from the men by a heavy sheet of Plexiglas, davened in a room of their own.
I have lifted the following excerpt from a journal I kept during that time, when I was first beginning my research. I think the date was February of 2010––I had been invited by a Lubavitcher rabbi friend to attend services at his shul. At the end of services, the congregants, all young men, began to dance. I watched them for a moment, doing my best to make it clear that I did not particularly want to join, but eventually, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder, and I was quite forcibly dragged into the midst of the melee:
Outward we whirled, in faster in faster circles, my yarmulke at one point slipping off my head. It was the closest I have been to pure joy in Crown Heights—the closest I got to understanding the neighborhood. It was also the closest I came to understanding the faith of the Hasidim. For if I had remained outside the circle, taciturn and grudging, I would never have allowed myself the emotional space to become involved. I would have shrugged it off. Inside the circle, though, pressed elbow to elbow with these grinning, happy men, I understood finally the importance of comradery—us against the outside world. It was a warm place to be.
A few weeks later, I walked out of a private residence and into the purple twilight, and caught a glimpse of a trio of Yeshiva students, skipping down Kingston, hand-in-hand. In the windows of the nearby apartment buildings, candles glowed. A line of men filtered through the front door of 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of the Lubavitch movement, their heads hung, their eyes on the leather-bound books which they held out in front of them like beacons.
Not for the last time, I felt that some part of Crown Heights belonged to me. It was my history, the history that I shared with my grandmother, and my great-grandmother, and her father, who had died without ever setting foot in America. Or perhaps it is more accurate, in the end, to say that some part of that place was me, in a profound way that I did not yet understand.
I keep a collection in my head of the names of stories, movies, pictures that seem perfect to me. They all have a certain feel to them.
“The Artist of the Beautiful,” a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Black Monk,” a story by Anton Chekhov
Charulata, a movie by by Satyajit Ray
The Rules of the Game, a movie by Jean Renoir
The Deleuge at Norderny, a story by Isak Dinesen
The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare
The Enchanted Castle, a novel for children by Edith Nesbit
Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Ponyo, an animated movie by Hayao Miyazaki
Aladdin and other stories from the Arabian Nights
A lot of Japanese prints, Chinese scrolls, Islamic pictures
What do these things have in common? A certain magic. I think it’s that they are all miniatures, stories glimpsed through a keyhole. I think comics are miniatures, too.
For this story about Nasye Frug, I borrowed the butterfly (not introduced in this page) from The Artist of the Beautiful, aspects of the garden from The Black Monk, the marriage from Charulata, the observant girl character from Alice in Wonderland.
I think Nasye was the most ambitious of the stories I made for this project. I’ve had to do it over a few times to simplify it. I do my first drafts painstakingly, with a lot of different types of pens and white-out. Then I scan the pictures into the computer and change them around a lot in photoshop. I make later drafts by printing out the first draft drawings, and tracing them quickly on a light table. These later drafts are a lot of fun because I know what I’m doing and am confident enough to improvise. The first drafts are stressful.
This is a page from the tenth and last story. A girl, much like Nasye, is wrestling with the angel of death, a cartoon, after having lost her fiance in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. This story was influenced by a comic I looked at but didn’t read by Racheli Rottner called The Other Side of the World. I like when more or less realistic characters interact with imaginary ones. I think comics are the best medium for treating fantasy as reality. Because they’re so simple, and drawing in different styles on one page is like having a conversation in your head with imaginary friends, different versions of yourself.
People I’ve spoken to about the Bintel Brief agree that Abraham Cahan wrote some of the letters himself. The connective tissue of my comic, the part of the book I’m still working on, will revolve around this mystery. It will be very loose and light and I’m nervous about making it come out just right, which is why I’ve saved this part of the book for last. I hope it will leaven the stories somehow. Anyway, fun fact about this narrative: whenever any character sets out to do something (Abraham Cahan sets out to help the woman whose watch was stolen, I set out to learn about my culture and heritage) he or she will wake up, disoriented, in his or her bed.
Liana Finck is adapting old Yiddish press self-help columns into a book. This week, she’s letting us peek behind the curtain at her source material.
This is the text from the second story (translation by the excellent Jordan Kutzik):
Honorable Mr. Forvertz Editor,
Allow me a little space in your distinguished newspaper to tell your esteemed readers about what transpired at my house in the month before my wedding. As you probably know the bride whom God has blessed with many good friends receives various gifts for her wedding. I too have many friends as well as many acquaintances from the old country. A week before my wedding they all gathered at my mother’s. They brought a whole wagon full of wedding gifts to my room.
Among my countrymen, however, there was also a man who was considered to be somewhat of a “crank.” (I didn’t consider him as such, just my countrymen.) When he saw the presents that they had brought, the spirit took him and he began to scream. “Fools! What exactly have you all brought here? Four muslins, ten lamps, three sets of beddings for a couple…Come, it would be better if we all came into this room here and had a meeting to decide what every individual should bring based on what the couple needs to have, and what not to bring if they don’t need it.” But as my clever countryman is of course a “crank,” nobody paid much attention to his proposal.
Therefore I turn to you Mr. Editor. Tell me who’s right, the “crank” with his proposal to give me one coordinated set of wedding gifts or the rest of my fellow countrymen, who’ve brought me four sets of beddings?
And here is a page from my version of the story. This is the one I was least faithful to, and the first one I made.
This is the first page of a comic book I’m working on. It’s based on the Bintel Brief, a popular Yiddish advice column published in the Forvertz Newspaper beginning in 1906. It was the brainchild of Abraham Cahan, the man behind the huge success and sophistication of the Forvertz newspaper and the mastermind of the Bintel Brief.
About this page: Jacob Zemsner is a fictional character, and this myth about the tears is fictional too, but Abraham Cahan is one of my favorite real characters ever, a self-made American. His face really was vaguely heart-shaped, and he was cross-eyed and terribly embarrassed about that. More facts: he loved Charles Dickens. He was a humanist from a distance, a misanthropist close-up. He was an anarchist (he had to flee Eastern Europe at twenty-two because he was involved with the group that had assassinated the Czar), then a socialist, but not enough of a purist to satisfy any die-hard idealogues. He kept remaking himself. I completely recommend his autobiography, the Education of Abraham Cahan. A page-turner. Also his novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which is slightly dated but no less wonderful because of that. And easier to find in a library than the autobiography is.
Seven of the ten stories I made are adapted from Bintel Brief letters that hadn’t been translated into English yet, and lifted the other three stories from the collection of Bintel Brief letters in English, owned by most grandparents.The book is not finished yet, and I’m often asked why I chose to make it. I’m not sure. I was raised in Jewish circles but never could kindle much of a feeling of belonging to any group. And why comics? I had to start forcing myself to learn about comics a couple of years after deciding (late) that comics would be the easiest artform for me to squeeze my interests (drawing, telling stories) into. So I’m not a Jew in the traditional sense, and not a comics artist either, but the one thing I feel strongly about is that honesty is not something you can aim for.
In art you have to painstakingly build a story (first you have to painstakingly build a self to tell it). Once your house is complete, down to the artificial windows, real light will shine through. I hope something will shine through these stories, in the lines and letters. Whatever the outcome, I’ll make comics for the rest of my life. Time is a good tool for art.
Here’s the first page of the first story. This story is based on the actual first letter that was written to Cahan. Cahan wrote about the letter in his autobiography.
One of the influences of Kafka over later writers is not so much in the content of his work as in its form. The conventional Aristotelian plot proceeds by means of a protagonist, an antagonist, and a series of events comprising a rising action, climax and denouement. It involves identification of the reader with the protagonist and vicarious engagement with his or her predicament (even when, as in say, Macbeth, the protagonist is the villain). One event causes the next event, and so on, like a row of falling dominoes. This structure has stood storytellers in good stead for a few thousand years.
But Kafka’s stories do not fall easily into this pattern—The Trial at least seems to begin in this way, though it never fulfills it. Perhaps that is one reason why Kafka had so much difficulty finishing his novels—a novel demands some structure of this type, and Kafka was not able to produce such a structure. In Kafka’s universe, cause and effect are not so sure as other forces.
Rather, what Kafka gives us— and if he is not the originator of it, he brings it to a remarkable perfection— is the story that begins with a premise, often a bald assertion of a fact in contradiction to reality (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”). The story then progresses not as a series of cause-and-effect links, but as elaboration/qualification/evolution from that assertion. We can see this in “The Great Wall of China,” in “A Hunger Artist,” in the long description of the execution machine that comprises most of “In the Penal Colony,” in “The Burrow.” These stories are not so much narratives as explanations of the world, a world that is fundamentally inexplicable.
Jorge Luis Borges said that Kafka’s stories “presuppose a religious conscience, specifically a Jewish conscience; formal imitation of Kafka in another context would be unintelligible.” But in another time and place, Borges also said that, “I felt that I owed so much to Kafka that I really didn’t need to exist.” Whether or not formal imitation of Kafka was his intent, in fact we can see precisely the Kafkaesque structure put to use in many of Borges’ greatest stories, such as “The Library of Babel,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” or “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”
Through Borges, Kafka’s influence has spread to several generations of later writers. And it does seem to me that many late modernist and postmodernist stories owe their structure, if not their very existence, to this tradition.
- John Kessel
“For years I could not read Kafka. I would get to the bottom of the first page of The Castle and my brain would seize. Then something clicked inside me and I became obsessed with him. I believe reading Kafka to be a deeply personal experience. You can accept what others tell you Kafka means or you can interpret him for yourself. His enigmatic work lends itself to almost infinite interpretation.”
So too does Yellin’s marvelous story. In the opening paragraph, her narrator announces her intention to throw her past – including her Jewishness – onto the heap of forgotten things so she can start anew. She moves to the English countryside where the Bronte sisters lived — and where she tell us there are no other Jews. She hires a builder to renovate an ancient cottage and encounters, but never speaks to, a mysterious old man the villagers in her new home call Mr. Kafka. Meanwhile she becomes obsessed with the real Kafka, and especially with his relationship to Judaism. The narrator reads from her Introduction to Kafka:
“More than any other writer, Kafka describes the predicament of the secular alienated Jew. Yet his work, so personal on one level, remains anonymously universal. He has no Jewish axe to grind. Nowhere in any of his fictions does Kafka mention the words Jewish, or Jew.”
She finds this remarkable and resolves to determine whether it is true. But when she goes to the village library to begin her search, she gets a surprise. Its copy of The Trial has “a forest of date-stamps, repeated and regular, going back years.” The Castle has also been in heavy circulation. This suggests to her that there is a “profound need for Kafka in Bronteland.” Or is it just one borrower, obsessively checking the books out? Perhaps the local “Mr. Kafka?”
What does all of this mean? Is the mysterious old man really Franz Kafka, somehow miraculously transported from Prague to Yorkshire? And where does this obsession with Kafka’s problematic relationship to Judaism come from, if the narrator is really intent on leaving her past behind? Yellin presents the reader with puzzle pieces but does not insist on a final arrangement. What is clear, however is that the past refuses to stay forgotten. It is everywhere in this story, suffusing the present. It has settled in a dark corner of the local pub and pokes through the plaster ceiling of the narrator’s cottage. Even as she tries to begin her new life, the narrator “rattles the cans of the past behind me willy-nilly.”
- James Patrick Kelly
Since my first encounter with Kafka‘s writing, I’ve been interested in a quality that, while he was alive, stood in the way of his achieving a large reputation: his allegory. Kafka’s inevitable tropism for the allegorical puts him in marked opposition to the realism that dominated the literary world of the first half of the twentieth century.
Though a realist writer might acknowledge that his story set in the mundane world might have allegorical readings, the trend in the first half of the twentieth century was to flee allegory for either the documentation of the external world, or of individual psychology. Even experimentalists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, despite streams of consciousness or wild flights of imagery, assume that fiction is about what is, the surface of events and things and people. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, de Maupassant and Flaubert, Hardy and Dickens before him, Anton Chekhov and Joseph Conrad while he was alive and writing, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner after him, no matter how elaborate their rhetoric or symbolisms, insist upon the reality of their worlds.
Kafka is not interested in documenting the manners and mores of any particular place; he is not interested in probing the psyche of individual characters. Joyce spent his life after leaving Ireland creating Dublin and its inhabitants in their specificity and individuality, their language, places, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. A person may precisely follow the path that Leopold Bloom walked in the course of a day in Ulysses, and every June 16th, numerous people do.
In contrast, Kafka’s people and settings are generic. For the most part Kafka’s characters don’t even have names, and the worlds they inhabit are iconic rather than documentary. Though he spent most of his life in Prague, there is for instance little sense of Prague, or any other specific place, in his work.
We are not interested in the hunger artist’s biography. To ask this question is to reveal its absurdity. Neither do we ask the biography of Melville’s Bartleby or Jesus’s Good Samaritan or the characters in the numerous parables of the Talmud and Midrash. We don’t wonder about the hunger artist’s childhood, his ethnic background, the place where he lives, the names of the towns and cities where he performs, the political climate, his interpersonal relationships, his sex life, what year it is, and what language is being spoken. Kafka spends little time evoking persons or places, does not give us individual gestures or idiosyncrasies, does not appeal to our senses, does not make us feel and live in the worlds he creates. Though he may give us objects and actions that appear in the real world, he is not documenting reality. A cage, an impresario, some straw, a circus. Or an apartment, a traveling salesman, a sister Grete, an unnamed mother and father, a narrow bed, the picture of a woman wearing a muff, an apple. Or a penal colony, an explorer, a prisoner, an officer, a bizarre execution machine.
This is not a criticism. The stories are not divorced from the world—in fact they are cogently relevant, even political, as radically political in their universality as Jesus’s parables. A powerful intellect works behind every sentence. One is challenged to interpret every image, every action, to read through the surface of a Kafka story to the meanings behind. There are layers upon layers, prismatic reflections of abstract meanings.
However, it would be a mistake to say that the meanings of Kafka’s parables are clear. As the critic Walter Benjamin wrote: “Kafka had a rare ability for creating parables for himself. Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously and warily.”
- John Kessel
Franz Kafka was a man who struggled with his many contradictions. Although his writing has come to be intensively studied, as a man he is hard to know, even given all the scrutiny of recent years. He was born in 1883 into an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the third largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had five siblings, two younger brothers who died in infancy and three sisters who survived him, only to perish in Hitler’s camps during the Second World War. He was a member of the dominant German-speaking minority, just three percent of the population of Prague at the time, but he was also fluent in Czech. As a young man, he was athletic, taller than average, fond of swimming, rowing, and bicycling. Yet for much of his life he was also a hypochondriac: it was not until 1917 that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him seven years later at the age of forty.
Of all the contradictions in Kafka’s life, two stand out for the modern readers. Kafka was a student of Yiddish literature, and in his youth championed Yiddish theatre, much to the puzzlement of some of his literary friends. He was sympathetic to Zionism and yet there are no overt allusions to Jews or Jewishness in his fiction. “What have I in common with the Jews?” he wrote. “I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
But there are many things “missing” in Kafka’s fiction—often a sense of place, or of time or of historicity—because these did nothing to advance his artistic goals. Kafka was not a realist and we ought not look to the work to understand his problematic relationship to Judaism. Of course, contemporary questions about Kafka’s Jewishness are informed by tragedies that occurred after his death. Not only did his sisters perish in concentration camps, but his translator and mistress Milena Jesenská did as well. The approach of the Nazis forced his friend and literary executor Max Brod to flee Prague for Jerusalem with a huge collection of Kafka’s papers. Do the terrible realities of the Holocaust affect how we read the work?
Undoubtedly, but this is a problem for us, and not for Kafka. Similarly, there are those who interpret The Trial and The Castle as predictions of the rise of totalitarian states like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Russia. Kafka, however, was not trying to prophesy some future world order but rather was attempting to engage imaginatively with a society he knew all too well.
Then there is the puzzle of Kafka’s instructions to Max Brod, which was to destroy his unpublished work. Brod claims that he told his friend plainly that he would do no such thing. After Kafka’s death, Brod found two notes which explicitly stated that all his papers were to be burned unread. How was Brod then to have executed these requests if he was to burn them unread? And why didn’t Kafka burn the papers himself, especially since he knew Brod was unlikely to do the deed? While we have no way to know his thinking in this matter, we do know that this was the request of a sick man whose financial fortunes had taken a radical turn for the worse.
His modest pension, taken when he retired after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, was nearly worthless in the hyperinflation that plagued the defeated and disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of World War I. It is clear that Kafka was a depressed and often anxious man. Never a risk taker, he suffered from feelings of inferiority that arose from the high standards to which he held himself as a writer. Frustrated that his reach continued to exceed his grasp, at the end of his life he struggled with despair.
There is an odd and, yes, Kafkaesque postscript to Brod’s denial of Kafka’s request. Brod brought many of Kafka’s papers with him to Jerusalem in 1939. No one knows exactly what this cache contained, although reputedly there were letters, diaries, and manuscripts. On his death in 1968, Brod left these papers to his secretary and presumed mistress, Esther Hoffe.
But was she intended to be the executor or the beneficiary? Brod’s will is ambiguous, since it also provides that his literary estate be given to a “public archive in Israel or abroad.” In any event, Hoffe retained possession of the Kafka papers until her death in 2007, at which time they passed to her daughters in accordance with her will. Possession of these papers is the subject of a lawsuit in Israel, unresolved as we write this. It is likely, however, that in the near future, Kafka readers and scholars will have access to a trove of Kafka’s previously unseen writing.
Perhaps they will help us unravel some of the contradictions that still puzzle readers of
this literary genius.
- James Patrick Kelly
The other day I had a discussion with a group of girls about their ideal bat mitzvah (the celebration that marks female coming of age at 12 or 13 among Jews and sometimes of adults who missed the opportunity as adolescents).
Several of the girls said that that their ideal was to celebrate away from home. A few wanted to go to Israel, specifically the Western Wall or Masada. Other ideas were more surprising: “Germany, because it has great technology,” “Japan, because I love anime,” and “France, so I can see a real fashion runway.” One Massachusetts girl actually had her wish for an overseas bat mitzvah come true. She and her family celebrated in Amsterdam “because it is the midpoint between my relatives in the U.S. and Israel, and because of Anne Frank.”
We’ve all heard of destination weddings and birthday parties. But what about destination bat mitzvahs? Our book, Today I am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World, includes the amazing example of two American sisters whose joint bat mitzvah took place in a Tunisian desert town, complete with camel rides, drummers, and a religious service under the stars in honor of the father’s Tunisian heritage.
Imagine taking your daughter to Split, Croatia where there is a small Jewish community led by a woman I’ve met who surely would welcome the idea. Or, if it still exists, imagine a bat mitzvah in the town where a grandparent was born. A few North American boys actually have celebrated a bar mitzvah in Uganda, where a Jewish community has existed for five generations. As far as I know, there have been no bat mitzvah ceremonies for non-Ugandan girls in the modest synagogue. Such a ceremony would be eye-opening for guests and bridge-building with the community there.
Bringing the bat mitzvah girl to a place where the Jewish community is small and out of the mainstream would enhance the part of bat mitzvah that is mitzvah – the religious good deed/obligation, the core element of the event. How wonderful it would be to be able to share the joy with a newfound community someplace else in the world! Now if the stock market would only rise so we could afford it!
- Shulamit Reinharz
I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, the ceremony that marks the coming of age of Jewish girls. When I reached 13 in the 1950s, girls who attended three-day-a-week Hebrew School at our suburban Conservative synagogue north of Boston did not have that option. In those post-World War II years before the second wave of feminism, a public coming of age ceremony at Temple Beth El was strictly the realm of the boys. I didn’t really mind being excluded. After all, who wanted to go to special practice sessions with the cantor all year?
Not me. And the thought of chanting Hebrew and giving a speech in front of an audience of my parents’ friends gave me chills. Ditto for a party with boys; I’d rather read a book. So I was relieved, even if I had to forgo the presents.
Fast forward about 50 years. Bat mitzvah has taken hold as a standard life cycle event for Jewish girls not only in the United States, but in every branch of Judaism all over the world. That’s what I discovered when I took on a project to collect stories for a book about bat mitzvah. The majority of the women and girls who wrote the entries had found their bat mitzvah ceremonies extremely meaningful and memorable, representing in some communities hard-won victories for religious freedom and egalitarianism. And some women like me had celebrated a bat mitzvah after studying as an adult many years later.
So now, after so much time has passed, I have begun to rethink my reticence. Why not now? I missed a golden opportunity last year when an adult bat mitzvah class began at my synagogue. Ironically, I thought I was too busy with my work for the impending publication of the bat mitzvah book. I’m still ambivalent. Performing in front of an audience still makes me nervous and, at 65+, my singing voice isn’t as clear as it once was. But I’m slowly getting used to the idea. When bat mitzvah has meant so much to women around the world, who am I to resist joining their sisterhood? Stay tuned.
- Barbara Vinick