New Book Alert: Coming of Age: 13 B’nai Mitzvah Stories
The moment I read about Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Co., April 19, 2022), an anthology edited by Jonathan Rosen and Henry Herz, I knew it would be a must-read—and not just for its intended audience of 8 to 12-year-olds. Maybe the idea of the book made me nostalgic for my own bat mitzvah celebration that featured sparkly rainbow/unicorn centerpieces. Maybe it reminded me of the feeling of accomplishment after performing on the bimah after several months of practice alongside my friend Melissa. Maybe it was about remembering the party following my service, especially the rush of a slow dance with a cute boy to some early 80s ballad, or the fun of playing games like Coke and Pepsi and musical chairs with my school, camp, and family friends.
As I think about the trajectory of my own Judaism, I realize that all the rituals and practices from my childhood I had probably taken for granted took on so much more meaning as an adult as my husband and I tried to pass those on to our sons. And as we watched our boys read from the Torah and recite their d’var Torahs on the bimah in front of all four of their grandparents, and our family and friends, we could not be more proud.
Jewish or not, I hope you’ll check out this anthology, a great window into this rite of passage, and share it with your middle grade children and students.
I asked contributors of the anthology why they wanted to share their story, and what their bar or bat mitzvah taught them about Judaism or humanity. Here are some of their responses:
Melissa Roske, author of Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge, 2017):
I’ve always felt that Jewish kids would benefit from an anthology like this one, so when Jonathan asked me to contribute a story to COMING OF AGE it was a no-brainer for me to to say YES!
In terms of what my bat mitzvah taught me about Judaism, well… that’s more complicated. I was extremely shy as a child, and speaking in public terrified me. Because of this, I focused on the actual reading of the Torah—of getting the words right, of not embarrassing myself in front of the congregation, or disappointing my parents—rather than on what the text actually meant. In many ways, I took Judaism for granted. Only later, after I’d had a chance to reflect on the experience, did I realize it was a privilege for me to become a bat mitzvah. To come of age as a Jew. It’s a shame I didn’t realize it at the time.
Nancy Krulik, author of more than 200 books for children and young adults, including three New York times bestsellers:
I actually did not have a traditional bat mitzvah. My synagogue called it a “Bat Torah,” although we girls were not brought up to the bimah on Saturday to read from the actual Torah. Instead, we read a selection from the Book of Proverbs during the Friday night service. I was only the third girl in our congregation to have the ceremony. The “Bat Torah” was a compromise with our old-school rabbi, who did not feel women had any place on the bimah at all. It was a hard-fought battle, led by many girls in the Hebrew school, and our equally fierce parents. Today, young women in that same congregation have full-fledged b’not mitzvah, and the cantor is a woman. So, I guess what I learned is that change is hard, and it may take a lot of time, but it does come. Never give up fighting for equality in all aspects of life.
I am a strong believer in the importance of people seeing themselves represented in books. For Jewish kids, particularly those who don’t live in predominantly Jewish communities, reading the stories in this collection can help validate who they are, and show them that there are plenty of other soon-to-be 13-year-olds with the same questions and struggles. I wanted to be a part of a project that would provide Jewish kids with a mirror to look into with pride. But I also hope non-Jewish readers will pick up the collection and learn more about our faith. I truly believe the more we all learn about one another, the better the world will be.
Laura Shovan, award winning poet and author of several books for children including A Place at the Table (Clarion Books, 2020), co-written with Saadia Faruqui:
There was a lot of family drama around my bat mitzvah. I wanted to write a story that captured that anxious feeling, but put a funny spin on it. To write “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bimah,” I studied farce, including the Stephen Sondheim musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
My bat mitzvah was one of those times when I saw how important sharing the traditions of Judaism was to my family, especially my grandmother, Joy.
Barbara Bottner, author of over 40 books for children and young adults:
I’ve been wanting to do a Jewish-oriented story for a long time, so when I was invited to contribute to the anthology Coming of Age, it was an immediate yes. It was important for me to write something authentic, which is why I often write close to my own experiences. But my bat mitzvah was a by the book affair; there was nothing to draw on. So, I turned to history. I was fascinated to learn the first bat mitzvah in the country was in 1922 by Judith Kaplan, the daughter of a prominent New York City rabbi. That awakened my feminist leanings—why did it take so long, what kind of event was it? So, I investigated.
I learned that Kaplan’s bat mitzvah has already been covered. Bat mitzvahs took a while to take hold in the USA, so I wondered, what was the second such service like? Writing fiction, this was a delicious arena for a story. I set mine in the Lower East Side where I’d lived and also had acted in the Off-Broadway theater. I always felt kinship to the culture there, including the Jewish rialto, pulsing with the life of Yiddish humor, music and drama. I knew the blintzes from Ratner’s, and was familiar with the many family-owned businesses, and late-night spots. So, I invented almost thirteen-year-old Hannah, who’s the lone member of her outgoing, offbeat Yiddish theater family of actors. But Hannah is terrified to being onstage, due to extreme shyness. Not having been bathed in Sunday school, now she has questions about God’s treatment of females. She’s full of curiosity, loves her family, but has no rabbi to answer to; rabbi’s were busy with young men during this period. Luckily Hannah has her grandfather, a man of substance and a big heart, and he tutors her.
Wanting to deliver a relevant precedent for her Haftorah where females played an important part, I sleuthed through many to find one where two females, Jael and Deborah, act heroically to defeat Sisera and his armies. Then, I was ready to write. I tried to make it humorous. Jewish people are naturally good at humor and it connects to our resilience. Writing this was a great experience for me, so I hope it touches our readers.
Jonathan Rosen, co-editor of Coming of Age: 13 B’nai Mitzvah Stories and author of several middle grade books:
Well, since I helped put the anthology together, I figured contributing a short story was the right thing to do. But, seriously, I am very proud to be a part of Coming of Age. I thought it was important to have a place featuring Jewish stories, where Jewish kids could see themselves represented. I’m happy it’s out in the world.
I was fortunate enough to be living in Israel as a child, and had my bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. I remember even then of feeling the history and thinking about how many other Jewish kids had been at that spot for thousands of years. It just really resonated with me about the long line of history of the Jewish people, and the want to continue traditions and be a link in that chain.
Elisa Zied a writer for young people. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an advanced Graduate Certificate in Children’s Literature from Stony Brook Southampton. She also earned a BA in psychology from University of Pennsylvania and an MS in clinical nutrition from New York University. Before embarking on a fiction writing career, she garnered millions of media impressions as a nutrition expert, spokesperson, and freelance health and nutrition writer. She also authored four award-winning nutrition titles including YOUNGER NEXT WEEK (Harlequin Nonfiction, 2014). She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons and is an avid walker, music lover, and amateur photographer.