Bat mitzvah book connects Jewish girls to foremothers

When Barbara Diamond Goldin was 13, she wanted to become a bat mitzvah. But it was 1959 and her Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia didn't offer that opportunity to girls. But, she was told patronizingly, she could have "something."

"I didn't want 'something,' I wanted the real thing — to read out of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to chant the haftorah, the reading from the Prophets and to lead services on Saturday morning," she writes in "Bat Mitzvah: A Jewish Girl's Coming of Age" (Viking, $14.99). So she wrote the book to give contemporary Jewish girls a sense of connection with their foremothers, whose struggles paved the way for the rights and privileges that are sometimes taken for granted today.

Simply written yet informative and often inspiring, "Bat Mitzvah" is really two books in one. The first part, called "The Women's Story," is a glance at various Jewish women throughout history; the second part, called "Ceremony and Celebration," discusses the bat (and bar) mitzvah ceremonies from practical and historical viewpoints. Both sections are beautifully illustrated with black-and-white scratchboard drawings by Erika Weihs. The 139-page book also contains a useful glossary and a superfluous index.

The first part begins with a mention of Judith Kaplan, who had the first bat mitzvah ceremony in North America in 1922. In five subsequent short chapters, Goldin briefly traces the stories of important Jewish women, starting with the Matriarchs and moving through women in talmudic times and late antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and up to the present, ending with such contemporary female exemplars as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, whose first pulpit was with a deaf community in New York in 1973.

Sometimes Goldin's authorial voice in the biblical anecdotes sounds as if she was trying to rouse a sleepy Sunday-school flock: "How do you think Miriam felt as she crouched hidden in the reeds by the Nile River…?"

But in the first section, the author refreshingly avoids the trap of refracting her stories through the prism of political awareness, and she refrains from binding these women in the corset of contemporary feminist consciousness.

Goldin provides no more than a gloss on the lives of her historical women — as little as two paragraphs on Queen Salome, described in the Talmud as the last independent ruler of Judea; and no more than a page and a half on Glueckel of Hameln, the first known female Jewish autobiographer, who began to recount the story of her life circa 1690. But in an appendix called "Notes on Sources," she includes a list of books and articles for those who want to read about these women further.

Further reading will be sparked by the interesting facts Goldin sprinkles through many of the anecdotes, particularly ones that contradict current stereotypes: Kids whose television-fed image of Islamic women is that of the subservient servant in a chador might be surprised to learn that in Islamic weddings a millennium ago, the groom who gave his bride a dowry — to protect her in case of widowhood or divorce.

Particularly inspiring are Jewish women who led heroic, adventurous lives, such as Benvenida Abrabanel (1490-1560), a female Jewish Oskar Schindler who bought the freedom of more than a thousand Jews during the Spanish Inquisition; and Doña Gracia Nasi (1510-69), an international banker who established a secret organization to help Jews escape the Inquisition's horrors in Spain and Portugal.

Part Two of the book also employs anecdotes in the form of long quotes drawn from interviews Goldin conducted with rabbis, artists, educators and children on the subject of bat mitzvah. This section is less interesting than the first, as many of these excerpts are in essence more filler than enlightenment. But Goldin does provide practical knowledge and advice, especially a range of helpful suggestions for parents and kids who seek good ideas for bat mitzvah speeches.

One amusing example was of a shy child who came out of her shell at her bat mitzvah ceremony with a standup comedy routine of her own design. The girl researched Jewish humor at the library and incorporated themes from her parashah (weekly Torah portion) in her monologue, which told what it was like for "Zetch the Kvetch," a fictional character, to leave Egypt with Moses. Zetch's little brother kept asking "Are we there yet?" every hour of every day for 40 years.

But overall, after the first half of the book covering the dramatic lives of historical Jewish women, the second half is a bit of a letdown — much like the feeling described by some contemporary girls after their bat mitzvah is over. Goldin acknowledges that even though bat mitzvah has come a long way, many girls find that once the ceremony is over their newly won adult status affords them only marginal privileges: For instance, one girl's main achievement is that now, post-bat mitzvah, she gets to eat ice cream in the living room with the adults.