Bat Mitzvah: Background information when reading November Storm

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November Storm

Iowa Short Fiction Award

by Robert Oldshue

November Storm by Robert Oldshue X
November Storm by Robert Oldshue
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  • Paperback:
    Oct 2016, 140 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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About this Book

Bat Mitzvah

This article relates to November Storm

Print Review

One of the stories in Robert Oldshue's November Storm is about a 12-year old girl who is about to become a Bat Mitzvah. Most people have heard of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah – a Jewish rite of passage; a time when boys and girls are formally welcomed into the adult community. The word mitzvah means commandment or law, as well as good deed; the word bar and bat mean son and daughter. The combination of these words literally tells us that this is when a son or daughter becomes obliged to keep the Jewish commandments/laws, or to carry out good deeds for the community; figuratively, this is when a child becomes an adult. For boys, this takes place around their 13th birthday; for girls, it is when they turn 12.

Davida Chazan at her Bat MitzvahWhen brought to practice, this can mean all or any combination of the following things:

  • Calling the young person up to the pulpit in synagogue to recite blessings and then read (or chant) a section from the weekly portion of the Torah – the scroll that contains the five books of Moses.
  • Reciting blessings and reading (or chanting) a Haphtarah – which are scriptures from one of the books of the Prophets deemed connected to that week's Torah reading.
  • Giving a speech to the congregation – usually one that discusses either the Torah or the Haphtarah portion the young person just read, or the significance of becoming an adult, or any topic that he or she feels is important.
  • Holding a celebratory meal in honor of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

Much like Oldshue describes in his story, some congregations have other obligations such as taking on some kind of research or volunteering project. More often than not, the celebratory meal becomes a big party – either just for the congregation or for all the young adults' family and friends where, of course, the young adult usually receives many presents.

Davida Chazan and Dr. Mordecai KaplanThat this seems to be something for both sexes sounds very progressive and egalitarian, looking at a religion that's nearly 5,800 years old. However, that isn't the case. The first Bat Mitzvah took place in 1922; and the first woman to become a Bat Mitzvah was Judith Kaplan, the daughter of an orthodox ordained American rabbi, Dr. Mordechai Kaplan, who broke away from the orthodox and conservative movements to found the Jewish Reconstructionist movement. It did take time for the other streams of Judaism to adopt this practice, but today most non-orthodox Jews view their daughters becoming a Bat Mitzvah as equally important as having their sons become a Bar Mitzvah.

In fact, the practice has even started to spread into some orthodox Jewish communities, with an increasing number of synagogues willing to mark their girls becoming women with some kind of religious ceremony – although not yet as full equals with the men. Still, time will tell if that changes, and 95 years is a blink of the eye compared to the thousands of years of ever-evolving Jewish tradition.

Davida Chazan at her Bat Mitzvah
Davida Chazan and Dr. Mordechai Kaplan, both photos courtesy of Davida

Article by Davida Chazan

This "beyond the book article" relates to November Storm. It first ran in the November 2, 2016 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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