December 17, 2018

Read all about it

While there are many excellent young adult novels with Jewish characters, some of which mention a bar or bat mitzvah, there are probably fewer than a dozen that tackle the subject directly. Those that do usually take the young protagonist on a journey of personal growth that mirrors his or her newfound knowledge

 of what it is to be a young adult with a Jewish identity. Here are five worth picking up.

The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah

by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Simon and Schuster, 2008

Middle school angst meets intermarriage in this short but engaging book for kids ages 10-12. Caroline is a preteen who hasn’t really thought of herself as any religion because her parents — Jewish mother, Christian father — did not raise her with one. But when her best friend prepares for her bat mitzvah and Caroline’s Jewish grandma dies, Caroline takes a closer look at her Jewish side. 

The author sensitively and humorously handles identity issues that can arise when a child’s parents have different religious backgrounds, and astutely portrays a young girl wanting to embrace her Jewish identity without rejecting her parents’ values. Caroline eventually discovers that because her mother is Jewish, she automatically becomes a bat mitzvah on her 12th birthday, which ties up loose ends nicely. Fans of Judy Blume’s novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” will not be disappointed with this enjoyable book.

13: Thirteen Stories that Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of Being Thirteen 

edited by James Howe 

Atheneum, 2006 

Many well-known authors of young-adult fiction have contributed to this anthology of short stories that are true to the collection’s title. It includes stories by Bruce Coville, Meg Cabot, Todd Strasser, Ann Martin and Ron Koertge, and other authors — all popular writers with strong teen followings. These well-developed stories focus on issues such as changes in friendships, innocent early sexual awakening (gay and straight), gang experiences, general teen idealism and fears, among others. 

Among the selections is the standout Jewish-themed story by editor and respected author James Howe, titled “Jeremy Goldblatt Is So Not Moses.” Told from a variety of perspectives, the story is about how a bar mitzvah gets hilariously out of control when the bar mitzvah boy decides to focus on meaning rather than spectacle (read: actually doing real-world mitzvahs instead of a pressured performance and party). He prevails, earns the rabbi’s respect and even wins the girl. The story should be required reading among bar and bat mitzvah planners — especially parents. An audiobook of this story is available, and is short enough to play in the car while driving your preteen to a soccer game. The family discussion that is sure to ensue is well worth the modest audio price.

About the B’nai Bagels

by E.L. Konigsburg

Atheneum, 2008 (re-issue)

It’s New York, circa 1970, and Mark Setzer is studying for his bar mitzvah. He is also having typical relationship problems involving his best friend, who recently moved away and has started hanging out with snotty rich kids. What’s worse is that his mother (eventually known as “Mother Bagel”) becomes manager of his B’nai Brith-sponsored Little League team, and his older brother is essentially blackmailed into being the team’s coach. When the team improves because of their help, the B’nai Bagels actually have a chance at the championship. 

Although on one level this story is about baseball, the focus is really on one boy’s growth as he learns to negotiate family obligations and figure out what is fair and right. Although Mark and his family attend synagogue on Saturdays, he feels pressured to miss services in order to practice with the team. When an anti-Semitic slur is invoked by a teammate, Mark realizes that his sessions with the rabbi have given him the confidence to respond, thereby bringing more meaning to his bar mitzvah. Newbery award-winning author E. L. Konigsburg is a master of this type of preteen novel, which hits all the right notes about young people learning to navigate their changing worldview while staying true to themselves.

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

by Paula J. Freedman

Abrams, 2013

“Hin-Jew” is an unusual term that readers of this book will soon discover means “half-Hindi, half-Jewish,” and it characterizes 12-year-old Tara Feinstein’s co-mingled identity. Although her mom is Hindu and her dad is Jewish, it never bothered her much. But as she begins planning her bat mitzvah, Tara begins to think more about God: whether he exists, and if so, what her relationship with him should be. Ben-o, her good friend (and possible boyfriend), is Catholic and can’t help her, and there’s too much going on in her life, anyway — lessons with the rabbi, working on the class robotics project, and the unfortunate accident regarding an important family heirloom. Should she go through with the bat mitzvah even if she doesn’t quite believe in it all? Leave it to middle school enemy Sheila Rosenberg to seal the deal by telling Tara that technically she’s not Jewish. Tara is a delightful, strong-willed, authentic and questioning tween. Her growth and eventual understanding of her place in our multicultural world proves she can honor both cultures and still be herself. 


Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: The Ceremony, the Party, and How the Day Came to Be

by Bert Metter, 

illustrated by Joan Reilly

Clarion, 2007

This short book (68 pages of text) is packed with everything a bar or bat mitzvah needs to know. Children will find answers to a wide range of questions, with chapters such as “How the Ceremony Came to Be” and “Party Time” containing child-appropriate information in a breezy, affable style. Another chapter, “Judith Steps Up,” tells the story of Mordecai Kaplan’s 12-year-old daughter Judith, who in 1922 had the first bat mitzvah in the United States. Another chapter includes reminiscences from actors and sports figures, including deaf actress Marlee Matlin, about their bar or bat mitzvahs. With a chapter on ceremonies in other places around the world — such as North Africa — source notes and a bibliography of books and websites, this book provides a thorough guide for children and their families. 

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.