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Review of The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah by Nora Raleigh Baskin (Simon and Schuster, 2008).
"Nana, how can you be too Jewish when I am barely Jewish at all?" asks 12-year-old Caroline Weeks, the interfaith child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father who is the title character in Nora Raleigh Baskin's poignant young adult novel, The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah. The question that Caroline ponders following the death of her grandmother is one of religious identity and authenticity, challenge and choice, as seen through the eyes of a contemporary suburban pre-teen.
Caroline, like most 12-year-olds, is balanced between craving the safety of childhood and exploring her future. Her home life affords her a certain amount of independence from her mother, who is a doctor, and her father, who designs promotions for a successful company. She is a kind big sister to her brother Sam, and like most pre-teens, she is smart, tech-savvy, and clever, but still at heart an obedient child grieving the loss of a beloved grandmother.
It is this significant lifecycle moment of her grandmother' s death and subsequent funeral which provide the starting point for Caroline' s Jewish journey. Following the funeral, her grandfather gives Caroline her grandmother' s Star of David pendant on a gold chain, with the words, "She wanted you to have it."
The necklace is a catalyst for the questions that Caroline has been considering since she began helping her best friend, Rachel Miller, to plan her Bat Mitzvah. Having been raised in a mainly secular home by her interfaith parents, Caroline seems to possess an unsophisticated set of ideas about religion. The sole differences between Christians and Jews, she thinks, are what holiday each group celebrates in December. Despite having attended a Jewish nursery school and despite the fact that her best friend is Jewish and about to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, Caroline is ignorant of Jewish traditions, holy days, and theology.
Caroline' s parents don' t seem to be of much help. In religious matters, while they seem to be approachable, Caroline' s natural shyness--as well as her desire to avoid hurting either one of her parents by appearing to choose one religion over the other--take precedence over her need to talk about her emerging questions about her identity.
In a series of poignant flashbacks, Caroline re-evaluates her relationship with her beloved grandmother in hindsight. She recalls her grandmother calling her "shayne maideleh," trips to Gold' s Deli, egg creams and their heart-to-heart talks about her grandmother' s immigrant childhood and the initial opposition to her marriage from Caroline's grandfather's assimilated Jewish family.
The stories of the past are contrasted with the social pressures of Caroline's middle-school life. Rachel' s impending bat mitzvah allows Caroline' s parents to express themselves on the subject of religion. Caroline' s mother is opposed to the idea of a bat mitzvah ceremony for Caroline because she believes that such celebrations have no meaning--"It would be hypocritical at this point," Caroline overhears her mother say during a conversation with Rachel' s mother. "Besides, bar and bat mitzvahs have become so Americanized. Commercialized. With all the theme parties, the DJ' s and dancers." With characteristic sensitivity, Caroline notes, "I remember my mom had to call Rachel's mom that night and apologize."
Questions about Judaism and Jewish identity are not only present in Caroline's family. Having been invited to an "A-List" slumber party along with Rachel, Caroline confronts her mildly anti-Semitic hostess who has questioned Rachel' s religious authenticity by claiming that she does not "look Jewish." When this confrontation brings Caroline to a frightening awareness of the potential impact of this conflict on her rising social status, Rachel demonstrates her loyalty and friendship, while also affirming that Caroline' s defense of her was as much about her own heritage as it was about Rachel' s.
As Caroline moves on from her grandmother' s death toward a new understanding of her family' s dynamics, including those of her parents' decision to marry, she moves ever closer to claiming her Jewish heritage. The question is symbolized by the metaphoric relationship to her grandmother' s necklace: to wear it, or not to wear it? And once she has decided that it is important enough to wear, she must face another level of decision: should she wear it hidden, or to let the world--and her family and classmates--witness this statement about her identity?
The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah is an entertaining book. Caroline' s voice rings true; her sensitive and observant eye on her family dynamics and her classmates--their needs and conflicts, loyalties and friendships--is both authentic and engaging. The one main idea that seems to be missing from the story, however, is a look at the actual content of Jewish religion. Caroline never learns what makes Jews and Christians different, and therefore her choice rings slightly hollow. She embraces Judaism on her own terms, certainly, in both a cultural and perhaps a spiritual sense, but from the perspective of even the simplest Hebrew school curriculum, she has a long way to go.
This book is highly recommended to interfaith families and children who are confronting questions of religious identity and difference, as a starting point for conversations about choices and how families can love and respect one another regardless of faith tradition. While exploring issues that every teen faces, author Nora Raleigh Baskin has written a truly sensitive and enlightening novel that will undoubtedly affect her readers in both a positive and empowering way.