My Jewish Armchair Trip

jewisharmchairtrip

How I traveled to Jewish communities in 78 countries without ever getting on a plane.

by Barbara Vinick

For the past several years, I have collected stories from around the world about bat mitzvah, the ceremony that marks the coming-of-age of Jewish girls. When I tell people about this collection, the question I hear most often is “So, did you go to those places?” No, in the digital age, I didn’t have to. I was a virtual traveler on a tour that took me around the globe to Jewish communities in 78 countries. From my home computer, I journeyed to places near and far, from Jewish congregations in neighboring towns to remote locations where I never knew Jews had made their homes. I met bat mitzvah girls past and present, their mothers and grandmothers, and even a few fathers. What they wrote opened my eyes to the meaning of Judaism and the milestone that bat mitzvah represents to women around the world.

One of them is Luba Ioffe, whose daughter Emma celebrated her bat mitzvah at the Congregation for Progressive Judaism in Moscow. “What was so special about Emma’s bat mitzvah? I will tell you,” she wrote. “In the history of our family, it was the first celebration of its kind over the past three, or even four, generations. The last coming-of-age ceremony was held about 100 years ago… Going back to one’s roots, reviving long-lost traditions. To tell the truth, I hate pompous wording like that. But what other terms can I use here?”

Schulamith Halevy wrote from Israel about her stunned banishment from the men’s section of the synagogue and how she taught herself to chant, alone in the ladies’ balcony. Her bat mitzvah took place at a Hillel service in Illinois when she was 36. “(W)hen I went up there before the ark, my heart was racing, and my knees were shaking. I had had no idea I would become so emotional, no idea how deeply I still longed for this closure.”

Esther, who requested that I publish only her first name, wrote about the support her family received from their synagogue prior to her daughter’s bat mitzvah in Vienna. This was especially welcome because “(a)s the daughter of a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother who survived the Nazi regime in Vienna as a child, I am provided only with broken traditions and non-existent family advice.”

Gina Malaka Waldman grew up in Libya, where Jews had to practice their religion in a semi-secret way. She describes her request to observe her brother’s bar mitzvah lesson from a corner of the room. “‘No, no,’ my mother answers. ‘You know that it is haram—a sin for girls to have a bar mitzvah or touch the Torah.'” Her coming-of-age is a harrowing self-constructed escape from the confinement of Tripoli to religious and educational freedom in Switzerland at age 14.

Our interchange of emails has provided glimpses into family histories and dynamics and the workings of Jewish communities that I could not have obtained as a “real” tourist. I feel connected in a new way to Jewish women around the world. As the world has shrunk, my place in it has grown larger.

I never had a bat mitzvah; it was not an option in the mid-1950s for girls at my synagogue. As I write in the introduction to Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World (Indiana University Press, 2011), I did not feel the need to have one. My virtual journey around the world has opened my eyes to the impact of bat mitzvah personally and religiously for so many Jewish women and girls everywhere—not bat mitzvah as a performance, as I thought of it before, but as a milestone of female Jewish life, often delayed and hard won.

While people in countries of the Former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the former Yugoslavia, and other places decimated by the Holocaust and politics, are still struggling to institute bat mitzvah celebrations in their communities, how could I have dismissed my own as less than a meaningful experience? I hope one day to have another opportunity to study and publicly to celebrate membership in my local Jewish community, my American Jewish community, and the community of Jews worldwide.

About the Author

Barbara Vinick
Barbara Vinick is coeditor with Shulamit Reinharz of Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World (2011, Indiana University Press).

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