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.
A writer of short stories, novels, picture books, and nonfiction as well as a teacher and communications expert, author Sidura Ludwig is a force. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know the lovely and talented Ludwig during our journey as candidates for an MFA in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts in beautiful Montpelier. And I cannot wait to get my hands on and devour my preordered copy of her latest published work, You Are Not What We Expected (Astoria), when it launches on May 5, 2020.
The short story collection is described on Ludwig’s website as follows:
Spanning fifteen years in the lives of a multi-generational family and their neighbours, this remarkable collection draws an intimate portrait of a suburban Jewish community and illuminates the unexpected ways we remain connected during times of change.
When Uncle Isaac moves back from L.A. to the quiet suburb of Thornhill, Ontario, to help his sister, Elaine Levine, care for her suddenly motherless grandchildren, he finds himself embroiled in even more neighbourhood drama than he would like. Meanwhile, a nanny miles from her own family in the Philippines, cares for a young boy who doesn’t fit in at school. A woman in mid-life contends with the task of cleaning out the house in which she grew up, while her teenage son struggles with why his dad moved out. And down the street, a mother and her two daughters prepare for a wedding and transitions they didn’t see coming. This stunningly intimate collection of stories, which spans fifteen years in the lives of the Levine family, is an exquisite portrait of a Jewish community, the secular and religious families who inhabit it, and the tensions that exist there.
I had the pleasure of doing an email Q and A with Ludwig about her latest work and life as a writer–especially during a pandemic! Here are highlights from our exchange:
EZ: When did you first know you were a writer?
SL: I have always wanted to BE a writer and I have always taken my writing seriously. Even as a teenager, I made a point of writing every day, at least two pages. I don’t know if I knew then that I was a writer, but I knew I wanted a writing life. So, I’ve been chasing this label for 44 years! For a while now I have been able to call myself a writer without feeling like I’m an imposter. But I can’t say for sure when that first started.
EZ: What drew you to VCFA to pursue an MFA in writing for children and young adults?
SL: I started taking online courses to challenge myself with my writing. I enrolled in an online Intro to Writing for Children class through the University of Toronto. I just fell in love with the material. It was like a wake-up call. I tried writing picture books for the first time, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Same with YA. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to try. At the same time, I attended the AWP conference in Tampa and made a point of going to all the panels on writing for children. Every panel had at least one representative from VCFA, so I figured I should check this place out. Then I met Ann Cardinal (Director of Student Recruitment). And no one can say no to Ann! She suggested I come down to campus for a few days to check it out. I did and I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to become a part of this vibrant, supportive writing community.
EZ: Your new short story collection, You Are Not What We Expected, is likely to resonate with so many—especially as many of us are hunkered down during this pandemic. What inspired you to write this specific collection of stories, and what do you think those who grapple with the meaning and impact of this time of immense change—being sheltered-in-place alone or with family—can glean from the book? What are its key takeaways?
SL: This book started out as a novel, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I had something like 300 pages of rambling nothing. At the time my youngest child was two years old. I suddenly realized if I didn’t have the energy or attention span to read a novel, how did I think I could write one? I shifted to short stories because they are my first love, and I need the satisfaction of starting and finishing what I was saying. I used the same characters from the novel but explored their journeys through short fiction. I then expanded as I wondered about their neighbours and the other people interacting with them. So that’s how the collection came to be.
In terms of what people can glean from this book at this time…this is a book about family and about looking inwards. What’s happening within the homes in a close-knit suburban community. It’s also about characters who each find themselves at a place they didn’t expect to be. But they move forward regardless. I hope that resonates with readers right now. Because really, none of us expected to be here in a pandemic!
EZ: How was the experience writing this work different from writing your debut novel, Holding My Breath?
SL: Just the other day I realized that these two books mirror each other: Holding My Breath started out as a collection of short stories and then became a novel; and this one started out as a novel and then became a collection of short stories!
The experience of writing this book was totally different because I’m in a completely different place in my life. I have three kids and I write full-time. My first book I wrote while living overseas before we had any children. I wrote it over three years of Sundays while I worked full-time in communications. I suppose in both cases I had to make a point of carving out writing time and being strict about getting my butt in the chair, no excuses. Butt in the chair is really key for me. I may not know what I’m going to write, but I’m halfway there if I sit down when I say I’m going to sit down, instead of waiting to feel inspired.
EZ: How has your writing life changed since the pandemic, both in terms of practice and your ability to focus?
SL: SO MUCH!! Oh, where do I start? First, I’m used to having the house to myself during the day while I work. Now everyone is home (three kids and a husband) and there’s just so much activity. And expectation. I’ll try to write an email and I’ll get interrupted seven times. Mostly, I miss having the time and space to be alone with my thoughts. I’ve taken to waking up early so that I can have at least an hour when everyone else is still sleeping. I journal. Stare out the window. Drink a cup of tea. I just need some quiet time to settle myself.
The other major change is having to administer my youngest child’s distance learning. His school has been amazing at adapting to using Zoom, etc. But he’s only in Grade 2 and he’s not yet an independent learner. That means I’m his teacher once the Zoom meetings end. I’m not good at multi-tasking. So, when I have one ear on his work, it’s not like I can be writing away. We’ve worked it out that my husband takes over from 3 to 6pm and looks after supper time. At least I can get a chunk of concentrated work time each day, even if it’s not as much as I had before.
EZ: Where do you typically like to write, and what are must-haves in your workspace?
SL: I have a writing office in our bedroom. There’s an L-shaped desk with a standing desk, a kneeling chair (for when I want to sit) and then—my favourite—a bean bag chair. A few years ago, I rearranged my office so that I could have a more dynamic working space and I wasn’t sitting so much. This set up is much better for my back and hips.
In terms of what I need: a journal, a good flowing pen (preferably blue), a cup of tea and a full water bottle. My dog, Ella, usually joins me. She’s the only one who can be in the room and not distract me. Of course, she’s mostly sleeping on the floor…
EZ: Given the uncertainties of in-person book promotion, how can readers learn from and support your work and that of other writers until in-person appearances are possible?
SL: I’m making a point of buying books that are launching right now. It’s really hard for writers to not be able to book in-person events. So, buying their books now is even more important than ever in terms of supporting writers. I’m trying hard to connect with my audience through social media. Following up-and-coming writers on social media is also a great way of showing support. Writers, like everyone else, are having to be creative in terms of how they get their work out there during this time. I’m hosting a weekly Thursday night challah bake on Facebook Live called Kneading and Reading. I walk people through how to make and braid challah, and I read a short passage from my book. I take questions. It’s a lot of fun and it feels like an authentic way for me to put myself out there.
EZ: What are your post-graduation writing plans? (What are you working on?)
SL: You mean I have to graduate?
I’m just finishing my third semester and then I’m taking a semester off to focus on book promotion. So, I’m still a year away from post-graduation writing plans. When I do graduate, I hope to have a body of work that I’m excited about so I’ll be motivated to keep revising until I feel I’ve said what I need to.
EZ: Any advice for new/aspiring writers?
SL: Just get your butt in the chair every day. Even if you stare at the wall while your journal and pen lie on the table in front of you. Getting into a writing routine is key if you want to live a writing life. Treat your writing self seriously. Even if you find it hard to call yourself a writer right now, act like one by always making time for your writing. The inspiration will follow.
EZ: Where can people find and support your work?
SL: Anywhere books are sold! I love independent bookstores, so please consider ordering from your local bookseller. If you don’t have a local bookseller, you can find my book on Amazon or any other online bookselling platform.
Visit Sidura’s website here. You can also find her on Twitter at @SiduraLudwig, and on Facebook. (And don’t forget: you can also bake challah with her as she reads from her work on Facebook Live on Thursdays.)