Bat Mitzvahs Around the World


Meet Barbara Vinick, who has been collecting bat mitzvah stories from Mumbai, Libya, Croatia, and other surprising areas of the world.

Barbara Vinick, editor of Today I Am a Woman: Bat Mitzvah Around the World (Indiana University Press, forthcoming), became fascinated with the idea of what bat mitzvahs are like around the world and when they may have started. While she says it’s unclear when the earliest bat mitzvahs took place internationally, it is quite evident that they take place in parts of the world totally unexpected and that the differing rituals are fascinating. Her book Today I Am a Woman, which she coedited with HBI Director Shula Reinharz, is a collection of personal stories and anecdotes that women from around the world shared about their own or their daughter’s bat mitzvah ceremony and celebration. Below is an interview with Dr. Vinick.

Sneak Peek: Two of the stories included in Today I Am a Woman: Bat Mitzvah Around the World are included in this issue of 614.

What made you decide to create this book?

I didn’t have a lofty goal… I had enjoyed collecting stories for a book called Esther’s Legacies that I edited about Purim celebrations from women all over the world, so I was happy when Shula Reinharz, the founder of the HBI, asked me to do this project, which is in the same vein. Bat mitzvah was a good topic because, as a “new” ritual for women, bat mitzvah is evolving, individualized, and not cast in stone by religious law. Therefore, there was bound to be a variety of practices from place to place, increasing the interest for readers.

What was your process of gathering all of the stories?

I set myself the goal of collecting stories from every country of the world! I knew it wouldn’t really be possible, but it was a fun challenge to see how great a variety of countries I could contact. I began with many of the people who had contributed to the Purim book. Sometimes they suggested other women. Every time I met a Jewish person with an unusual name or accent I asked them from where their family originated. I contacted friends of friends, relatives of relatives, friends of relatives, relatives of friends—one or two degrees of separation (usually not six) in action. And, of course, I made great use of Google, typing in “Jews in” wherever. I looked for websites that contained names and email addresses and wrote messages requesting participation. The authors generally emailed their contributions, which I edited and sent back for approval. The majority also sent photos.

What was the biggest challenge for you in publishing the book?

Originally, I thought the book would contain just the stories and accompanying photos. When our first editor left Indiana University Press, the new editor requested introductions to each piece with information about the Jewish community’s history and institutions and a few sentences about the author. At this point, Shula came on board as coeditor to help with the research and subsequent revisions.

Do you have a favorite story that has stuck with you? Why that one?

I interviewed Hadassah and Selma, elderly sisters of Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism. Judith had the first bat mitzvah in the United States in 1923. It was fascinating to hear intimate details of that day in New York City more than 80 years ago. The sisters told me that Judith had prepared for less than a week. “I thought it was Judith’s birthday,” remembered Selma, who was six at the time. “I didn’t realize anything special was happening. I remember going up the stoop, and then you turned right, and there was a typical brownstone living room where my father held services. There was a platform at one end. I remember sitting there when she was called up to the platform to read. I didn’t realize anything special was happening. As I understand now, it was the fact that she had an aliyah (honor of going up to the dais) that caused all the fuss.” Recalled Hadassah, “One of my sisters said she overheard the two grandmothers talking, and they couldn’t understand why (my father) wanted to do this!”

Was there a particularly sad story that has stayed with you?

One of the most dramatic is from a woman who survived World War II in Italy. In 1943, her family went into hiding in the country, and she hid her precious bat mitzvah photo album under the hay in the hayloft. When the Germans came looking for fugitives, they poked their bayonets into the hay. Luckily, they didn’t find the album, but Georgina burned it in case it could be a clue that a Jewish family was hiding there. A few years later, her sister Lina got married amid the ruins of the formerly beautiful synagogue where Georgina and Lina had both celebrated their b’not mitzvah a few years apart.

What surprised you most when you put all the stories together?

A few things surprised me: that the celebration of bat mitzvah has gained acceptance around the world, even in remote places like Kazakhstan; that Orthodox girls celebrate b’not mitzvah, especially in the United States; and that the first bat mitzvah did not take place in the United States. The book contains a photo from Croatia that shows girls at a group bat mitzvah in 1918! No one knows for sure when the first bat mitzvah took place, but it must have been several decades earlier. The first reference is found in the writings of a mid-nineteenth century sage from Baghdad, who advocated a celebration for girls when they assumed adult religious duties at age twelve. At about the same time, the idea of bat mitzvah was put forward in Germany, possibly as a rebuke to the upstart Reform movement that disapproved of even boys’ bar mitzvah.

Did you have your own bat mitzvah, and what do you remember of it?

I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. My Conservative temple didn’t begin to celebrate them until the late 1960s. But to be honest, as I say in the introduction, my feminist consciousness was un-raised in the 1950s, and I was happy not to have to learn the trope and perform in front of the congregation.

What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading your book?

Besides learning about how bat mitzvah is celebrated in other countries, I hope the book will acquaint readers with Jewish communities they never knew existed. In Africa, for example, we have stories from Uganda, where the Abayudaya adopted Judaism in 1919, and from Nigeria, where the Ibo believe they are descended from ancient Hebrews. In India, authors are from the Bene Israel group, centered in Mumbai, and from the Cochini group, who originated in the South of India. We have stories from places in the former Soviet Union, such as Moldova and Uzbekistan, from Arab countries, such as Libya and Tunisia, and from communities of expatriates in places like Indonesia and Thailand. In some cases the authors still live in the communities they write about, in others they have emigrated, mainly to the United States or Israel.

Were there one or two particular commonalities among the stories you were told?

I think the most obvious commonality is the stake of the entire family in the bat mitzvah of one of its members. In some places, such as countries of the former Soviet Union, religious leaders’ teams of rabbis and their wives sent by the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the World Union for Progressive Judaism (the Reform branch of Judaism in the United States), or organizations such as the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)—use the occasion specifically to educate and involve parents who grew up knowing little about Judaism. Everywhere, mothers wrote about their worry about how their daughters would do on the important day, and invariably expressed satisfaction and pride in their daughters’ accomplishments.

Is there a question you’d like to be asked? If so, what, and what is the answer?

How many countries are represented? More than 80 from every continent except Antarctica!

About the Author

author_vinickBarbara Vinick
Barbara Vinick, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, received her PhD in sociology from Boston University and conducted postdoctoral research in human development at Harvard University. A gerontologist whose interests have focused on family relations, she has written books and articles concerning lifestyles, attitudes, and experiences of mature Americans. She is a consultant at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, where she edited Esther’s Legacy, a collection of essays about Purim from women around the world, published by the national Hadassah organization.

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