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Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World

Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World

by Barbara Vinick (Editor), Shulamit Reinharz (Editor)

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Recollections of the first bat mitzvah at the only synagogue in Indonesia, a poignant bat mitzvah memory of World War II Italy, and an American bat mitzvah shared with girls in a Ukrainian orphanage—these are a few of the resonant testimonies about the transition from Jewish girl to Jewish woman collected in Today I Am a Woman. Introduced by brief biographical


Recollections of the first bat mitzvah at the only synagogue in Indonesia, a poignant bat mitzvah memory of World War II Italy, and an American bat mitzvah shared with girls in a Ukrainian orphanage—these are a few of the resonant testimonies about the transition from Jewish girl to Jewish woman collected in Today I Am a Woman. Introduced by brief biographical notes and descriptions of Jewish communities around the world, these stories reveal how Judaism defines this important rite of passage in a girl's life in widely disparate settings. The contributions are from bat mitzvah girls of the past and present, their parents, communities, and religious leaders. Including evocative family photos—some recent, some from decades past—this rich compilation is an ideal gift for bat mitzvah celebrants, their families, and friends.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"These testimonies constitute the incredible story of our people: the vast richness of Diaspora Jewry; the importance of family, community, and rabbis everywhere... ; the value of new expectations, as girls, even shy ones, rise to meet them. The book tells about the importance of bat mitzvah in an age of intermarriage, in a world of feminism, tradition, and change.... You will surely read this book as I did, through laughter and tears and the sweep of emotions about your own Jewish identity, the joy and pride and vulnerability of being a Jew." —Blu Greenberg, author of On Women and Judaism

The Jewish Journal

"[Vinick and Reinharz] capture the amazing tales of Jewish girls on six different continents who celebrate the Jewish ritual of becoming a woman. Illustrated with over 100 black and white family photographs, readers will enjoy the accompanying narratives of each woman's unique journey and celebration into womanhood." —The Jewish Journal

Jewish Book Council

"Today I Am a Woman is filled with lyrical accounts of being a bat mitzvah in such exotic places as Cochabamba, Bolivia, and Tegucigalpa, Honduras.... All the vignettes are accompanied by a well-researched history of the Jewish community in the area." —Jewish Book Council

The Jewish Standard

"[Today I Am a Woman] is a worthy and inspiring read, regardless of which stream of Judaism one adheres to." —The Jewish Standard

USCJ Bookshelf

The narratives may center around the bat mitzvah itself, but in the process we learn about Jewish life in widely different Jewish communities around the world, about what it means to become an adult woman, and most important, about the power of a ritual that far too many American Jewish families understand as simply an opportunity to have a party. The photos scattered throughout are endearing.USCJ Bookshelf

coeditor of Remembering the Lower East Side (IUP, 2000) - Hasia R. Diner

"The stories speak for themselves, putting Jewish girls and women on the center of the stage, into the limelight, and at the pulpit. By showcasing ritual innovation, they make a point about Judaism's elasticity and women's agency." —Hasia R. Diner, coeditor of Remembering the Lower East Side (IUP, 2000)

Rabbi David Ellenson

"A vital book that documents the revolution that has transformed the role that Jewish women play in the public life of the Jewish people in our day.... It is a joy to turn its pages." —Rabbi David Ellenson, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Blu Greenberg

"These testimonies constitute the incredible story of our people: the vast richness of Diaspora Jewry; the importance of family, community, and rabbis everywhere... ; the value of new expectations, as girls, even shy ones, rise to meet them. The book tells about the importance of bat mitzvah in an age of intermarriage, in a world of feminism, tradition, and change.... You will surely read this book as I did, through laughter and tears and the sweep of emotions about your own Jewish identity, the joy and pride and vulnerability of being a Jew." —Blu Greenberg, author of On Women and Judaism

co-editor of Women and Gender in Jewish History (IUP, 2010) - Deborah Dash Moore

"Americans undoubtedly think they know what a bat mitzvah is. Today I Am a Woman will surprise them with its fascinating array of compelling accounts of what it meant for Jewish girls to come of age. The editors scoured the globe to find powerful, varied, and moving depictions of bat mitzvah in the contemporary Jewish world. This is a rich resource for anyone interested in understanding religious diversity, folk practices, and cultural creativity through the lens of gender." —Deborah Dash Moore, University of Michigan, co-editor of Women and Gender in Jewish History (IUP, 2010)

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Today I Am a Woman

Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around The World

By Barbara Vinick, Shulamit Reinharz

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Barbara Vinick, Shulamit Reinharz, and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35693-2



This section includes entries from six sub-Saharan African nations—Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. There are Jews in many other African countries as well. Besides long-term residents, Jews are Peace Corps volunteers, doctors helping with the AIDS crisis, and businesspeople. There are also communities of indigenous peoples (in Ghana and Cameroon, for example) who have adopted Jewish identities and practices.

Seeing itself as a partner with other young countries after World War II, the Israeli government sent water technicians and other specialists to assist the newly created African states, and many Africans came to Israeli universities to study. Since the 1980s, Israel has maintained on-again, off-again relationships with many of these African nations because of shifting political circumstances.

Researchers of Jewish demography usually divide the continent into three sections: North Africa (which is included with the Middle East in this volume), South Africa, and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The Jews who live in Africa arrived via diverse routes and have diverse histories. Many African countries, including South Africa, received Jews as immigrants or refugees from Europe after the Holocaust. Ugandan Jews, on the other hand, are relatively recent converts. Today, there are approximately 80,000 Jews in South Africa and about 15,000 in the rest of Africa.


Selma Lipsky tells us that her family emigrated from the island of Rhodes to the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). She calls Rhodes, formerly a part of Italy but now a part of Greece, by its Greek name, Rodos. Selma's extended family, the Israels, was among the first families to settle in the Belgian Congo, her father arriving in 1929 and her mother ten years later. Selma and her family left the Congo in 1959 so that she could attend school in Belgium. In 1960, after independence was declared and violence erupted, her entire extended family, about thirty people, left the Congo to join her family in Belgium. Today, there are no Jews in what was formerly called Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Although there was no bat mitzvah ceremony in the Belgian Congo, a Jewish girl was celebrated in a females-only party after she got her period. Nowadays, the issue of whether or not a girl has begun to menstruate is unrelated to her bat mitzvah. Instead, she becomes a bat mitzvah when she reaches a certain age and has mastered certain material.


Selma Lipsky

There were no bat mitzvahs in the Congo when I was growing up. We had a small community, and bar mitzvahs were for the boys. But there was a custom when a girl became a young woman.

After she got her period, maybe the next week, there would be a tea party. The girl would be given presents, especially jewelry. Women in the family would come—grandmothers, aunts, cousins. It would be only for the family, and only for women.

Your grandmother would look at you and say, "Oh, you are now a woman." The mother would be happy that her daughter could have children in the future. As for the girl, she would be red and green with embarrassment.

I never had to endure this, because my family had already left the Congo, and the relatives weren't around at that time. But I remember my older cousins' parties. My family came from Rodos originally, where the tradition probably came from, maybe related to an Arab custom. I know that it is no longer done.


In this amazing story, Remy Ilona tells not only about the coming-of-age rite for girls in his area, but also suggests that an entire tribe—the Igbo (or Ibo)—has Jewish origins. In 2006, Remy, a lawyer and author of The Igbo: Jews in Africa? (self-published, 2002), accompanied anthropologist Daniel Lis (formerly Swiss, now Israeli) on a tour around southeastern Nigeria. Their goal was to meet various groups of Igbos, some of whom are sincere in their desire to learn more about Judaism and convinced that they originally came from Israel. "It is true that we have over 40 million Igbos, all stating ... that they are 'Jews,' but only a tiny fraction of this 40 million, perhaps only a few thousands, have started teshuvah [repentance]," he has stated. According to Brent Rosen, an Illinois rabbi who spent a month with the Igbos in 2005, "I have no doubt that their feelings of connection to the Jewish people are real and heartfelt—and that they have been kept alive and nurtured by the Igbo people for centuries."


Remy Ilona

The Ibos occupy a major area of the southern part of Nigeria. The tribal name, Ibo or Igbo, is probably a derivative of Ivri. Historians can only guess that the Israelites who begat the Ibo people left their kith and kin during the movement from Egypt to the Promised Land. It is probable that the Ibos are a part of the Hebrew stream that settled in Ethiopia. Their religion is purely the Judaism of the law and prophets. They saw the Bible for the first time in the fifteenth century, yet from immemorial times they have been in strict obedience to the law of God.

My father told me that in 1945, as he was about to leave for the Second World War, when Ibos fought in the British colonial forces, his father, Ezeofido Ilona, summoned him and laid down a set of do's and don'ts. My father said that he realized in later life that illiterate Ezeofido, who never saw, held, or beheld a Torah, actually repeated the Ten Commandments to him in that talk.

The life of the Ibo can be described as culturally Hebraic. Male children are circumcised on the eighth day after birth. Ibos value traditional Hebrew marriage more than Christian marriage, which the colonialists introduced. Burial of Ibos is unmistakably Hebraic in form and content.

Perhaps 20,000 Ibos have returned fully to rabbinical Judaism. A strong minority have stuck to their own religion—Hebrewism. Others have developed a syncretistic Judaic-Christian religion that normally goes by the name Sabbath Church, and a tiny minority are developing a very crude version of rabbinical Judaism, which they have dubbed Traditional Church.

In Ozubulu, in Anambra state, Judaic passage to adulthood is called isi mgba. (The celebration is known by other names in other parts of Iboland.) Young girls are dressed up in jigida (beads).Uri (camwood) and nzu (white chalk) are used to make beautiful patterns on their bodies. On the appointed day, after decorating their bodies, they move singly or in groups, with music and dancing, to the marketplace. When they are gathered there, older women move in and begin to instruct them on the responsibilities of womanhood and motherhood. When the instructions are over, merriment starts. Feasting, music, and dancing take over. The whole clan turns out. People give gifts to the maidens. Afterward, suitors can start moving in.

My niece Uchenna Ezimmadu, who is twenty-one, was orphaned early and grew up in the home of her maternal grandparents. A young woman with great academic promise, she is presently studying English at the Abia State University, one of the Ibo universities in Nigeria. At the time of her entry into puberty, isi mgba had practically died out. Only daughters of Ozubulu whose parents had never left Judaism participated. For those like Uche, whose parents and grandparents were converted by European Christian missionaries, this important Judaic rite was ignored. Now, many Ibos have started to reject cultural colonialism and to free themselves. Uchenna has decided to become an Ibo-Benei Yisrael activist to educate others in the universities about the Ibo relationship with Israel and about the importance of going back to our roots of Torah, the only way prescribed by God, the same God the whole world acknowledges to be the only true God.


Given the relatively large size of the South African Jewish community (80,000 people), we have included two bat mitzvah stories. Eighty percent of South African Jews belong to Orthodox congregations, and both stories take place in them. The Cape Town Hebrew Congregation introduced bat mitzvah ceremonies in 1940. Veronica Belling, the Jewish studies librarian at the University of Cape Town, explains the ups and downs of the ritual and the concern she feels that it has become trivialized.

In photographer Anne Lapedus Brest's account, girls experience the bat mitzvah as a group and the ceremony is not considered to be religious. She, too, is ambivalent about how b'not mitzvah celebrations have evolved to become ostentatious displays. In both South African cases, there are major differences between bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah ceremonies, as is true for Orthodox congregations worldwide.


Veronica Belling

I became a bat mitzvah in 1960 at the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, also known as the Gardens Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox Jewish congregation in South Africa. Established in Cape Town in 1841, the synagogue had introduced bat mitzvahs twenty years before mine. My grandfather had joined the shul when he arrived from Lithuania via London at the turn of the century. My parents were staunch supporters, and my mother ran the children's services for many years. Thus, there was never any doubt that my sister and I would be celebrating our bat mitzvahs there.

The idea of a bat mitzvah, or "girls consecration service," as it was referred to in those days, was first discussed in 1939. It is possible that the advent of Reform Judaism in South Africa in the 1930s could have influenced the decision in favor of its introduction. In 1940, the first four girls completed their "dedication course" and were presented with bat mitzvah certificates during a Sabbath service. By 1945, the girls consecration service had become an annual event associated with the festival of Shavuot, when, according to tradition, Moses received the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai. Both my sister and I celebrated our bat mitzvahs on Shavuot.

Over the years, the ceremony became more and more elaborate. From a simple dedication prayer recited in unison, the ceremony gradually grew into a pageant incorporating the cantor and the choir. The dedication prayer developed into a speech dedicated to a theme, such as "women in the Bible" or "women in Israel."

Originally, the girls bat mitzvah course, covering the Jewish festivals, kashrut, and the maintenance of a Jewish home, was conducted outside regular school hours by the Cape Town Board of Jewish Education, and culminated in a final examination. Both my sister and I prepared for our bat mitzvahs in this way.

However, as the Jewish community prospered, the majority of the school-age population began to attend the Jewish day school. The material required for bat mitzvah was incorporated into the Jewish studies syllabus, and a special examination was no longer required. As the number of girls having bat mitzvahs became larger, they were often held twice a year, in the autumn and in the spring, and no longer on Shavuot, but on a Sunday afternoon, and not necessarily in the synagogue, but in a hall. This was the case in my daughters' time.

The pageant, the parties, and the gifts grew more ostentatious. The Hertz siddur presented by the synagogue to my sister and me became a Soncino Humash and a small pair of silver candlesticks. The customary book or pen presented by family and friends was transformed into a check. On occasion, communal bat mitzvahs even gave way to solo bat mitzvahs.

I have the impression from my daughters and their friends, who remember little of their bat mitzvahs, that when the syllabus was incorporated into the Jewish day school curriculum the content of the bat mitzvah was downplayed at the expense of the ceremony itself. As the ceremony became more elaborate, it became less meaningful.

Because it has no basis in Jewish ritual, the bat mitzvah has become more of a social than a religious event and thus lends itself to abuse. Negative elements, such as competition relating to dresses, parties, and gifts, unavoidably creep in. A young girl from a poor family might have to bear the stigma of not being able to afford a bat mitzvah at all.

Thus, I must confess to being ambivalent on the subject of bat mitzvahs. As a feminist, I believe that girls deserve greater recognition in Orthodox Judaism. On the other hand, I believe that the bat mitzvah should be made more meaningful religiously to the girls who participate.


Anne Lapedus Brest

I came to South Africa in 1961 from Dublin, Ireland. It was common practice for South African girls, Orthodox and Reform, to have a bat mitzvah. My daughter, Angela Shannon Brest, had one at our Orthodox shul in 1987. The shul is known as the Sandton shul, but the correct name is the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, Sandton. There are 1,200 members. My information about bat mitzvahs applies to Orthodox shuls. I imagine Reform bat mitzvahs are similar, except that Reform women sing in the choir, and Orthodox women do not.

As long as the girl is of a Jewish mother, she is entitled to have a bat mitzvah in the Orthodox shul. At Jewish day schools, classes do the bat mitzvah together, although the very religious kids do it on their own. If they go to a non-Jewish school, Jewish girls are taught at cheder, usually before school starts in the morning, and they get together for the bat mitzvah, from about a dozen to almost thirty of them. It varies.

Mothers form a committee (I'd hate to be part of it) to choose material for the girls' dresses. They are usually white with a contrasting color. My daughter's was white with turquoise. Mothers can have the outfit made by their own dressmaker to suit their child. The dresses are supposed to be tzneeus (modest), and not a mini or sleeveless. Some of the girls push it a bit, and the dress is on the short side! But it is supposed to be on the knee, not higher. If the girl wants a strapless dress, then she wears a bolero or a shawl in chiffon or any material of her choice, as long as her shoulders are well covered.

Orthodox bat mitzvahs are not officially religious ceremonies. The word God is pronounced Hashem, and not the normal way we pronounce God's name when reading from the Torah. The ceremony is on Sunday, not Shabos. The girls are not on the bima like bar mitzvah boys. They stand with their backs to the Aron Hakodesh and face the front. Families are allocated seats in the shul downstairs. Men and women can sit together, like at a wedding—not like at a shul service, where they can't.

The girls take turns reading in English and then in Hebrew, both collectively and separately. They have learned to project their voices, so it sounds very good. They read from a booklet, but they usually know the readings by heart. (Sometimes, in the excitement of it all, a kid can faint. It has happened.)The pieces relate to the theme of the bat mitzvah—something meaningful about a character in Jewish history, or something from the prophets, or they elaborate on something from the Torah.

The choir's songs depend on the readings. They always start with Boroch Haboh as the girls walk in, the same as when a bride enters. (The mothers are usually crying at this point.) If the theme is "Israel," the choir sings songs like Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) and other Israeli songs, old or modern. If the theme is "women," they include in their repertoire songs like Ayshes Chayil (Woman of Valor). After the girls have finished, the rabbi blesses them and makes a speech. There is more singing from the choir, and the ceremony ends with Hatikvah.

After that, the girls have their own parties. We had a catered tea and savories in the garden. Some have it in a hall with a band. Some take the child to Israel instead. Bat mitzvahs are getting more and more over the top.


Rachel Namudosi Keki was born and raised in the Abayudaya community of eastern Uganda. (Abayudaya means "people of Judah" in the Luganda language.) A member of a family singing group that has made award-winning recordings of Abayudaya Jewish music, Rachel, who graduated from Makerere University in Kampala, has returned to the community and teaches in the high school. In 2003, she made a successful lecture tour of the United States, telling audiences about her community.

Semei Kakungulu, a Ugandan governor and military leader, founded the Abayudaya community in 1919. He declared himself a Jew and attracted 3,000 followers, who formed the original community. During the 1970s, there was heavy religious persecution by dictator Idi Amin, who outlawed the practice of Judaism. Many Jews were lost to other religions during this period. The community has also struggled with problems common to Africa, including poverty, limited educational opportunities, and lack of access to health care.


Excerpted from Today I Am a Woman by Barbara Vinick, Shulamit Reinharz. Copyright © 2012 Barbara Vinick, Shulamit Reinharz, and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Barbara Vinick is affiliated with the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, where she has studied gendered rituals in Jewish communities worldwide.

Shulamit Reinharz is the Jacob S. Potofsky Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University, where she is Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her publications include American Jewish Women and the Zionist Enterprise, Jewish Intermarriage around the World, and The JGirls' Guide.

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