Midway through the midlife Bat Mitzvah

I’ve posted here recently on childhood memories, movies, online political contributions, Abraham and Isaac… but not a word on my Bat Mitzvah. 

Some of you may be wondering: Is she still becoming a Bat Mitzvah? Did she forget about all this, somewhere on the fifth beer of her Czech bike trip? What’s with the title of this blog anyway? 

Well, yes. I’m still moving forward to my Bat Mitzvah date of Feb. 26, 2011. I took a break in July but in August got back to work, learning my chanting. I’ve now completely mastered the Hebrew chanting for my Torah portion and my Haftarah (Prophets) portion. Yeah!  I met with Rabbi Chester two weeks ago about starting work on my D’var Torah, the talk I’ll give based on the content of my week’s portion. You’ll be hearing more about that in the future. 

Quite honestly, though, the Bat Mitzvah preparation has been the easiest part of my life recently. The past couple of months have offered up far more challenges around “midlife” than around “Bat Mitzvah”. 

I’ve been piling up rejection note after rejection note for my novel, and having to consider whether my aspirations as a fiction writer are a total bust. And I’m starting to look for a new job — actually for an entirely new career  that does not involve newspapers.

So writing a speech and memorizing about ten minutes’ worth of Hebrew chanting feels relatively manageable and comforting! 

This is, in fact, part of why I decided to become a Bat Mitzvah this year, as opposed to five or ten years from now. With all the other uncertainty in my life, I figured I might benefit from  a project that is finite, doable, and plays to familiar skills. I thought it might be helpful to have one achievable goal amidst all the less certain ones. Smart me!! 

When I started this blog last November, some people asked if I were going to turn it into a book. (Understandably: The movie Julie and Julia had just come out.) I unequivocally said no. 

To write a good memoir-style book, you need a narrative arc with tension and drama. You need obstacles to confront. I didn’t see that kind of drama in my Bat Mitzvah process. I didn’t have a love-hate relationship with Judaism. I wasn’t returning to a long-lost heritage. I wasn’t wrestling any angels over whether I believed in God. 

I pretty much knew what I believed and was comfortable being Jewish. But I wanted to learn more, deepen my understanding of and competence in Judaism, and articulate my beliefs. I’m certainly doing all that. But it isn’t exactly gripping drama. To steal some terms from other areas of religious life, for me this process is a confirmation rather than a conversion. 

But the book idea popped back into my head the other day. 

The message I keep getting from literary agents is: It’s a terrible time to be selling fiction. But… do you have a non-fiction book-proposal?  

And I keep running into other women who say “Oh, I became a Bat Mitzvah two years ago!” Or “I’ve always thought of doing that!” This is clearly a trend among boomer-age Jewish women – who grew up before it became common for girls to become B’not Mitzvah, who reclaimed a Jewish identity as adults, and who have a reached a point in their lives where they have time to put into their own personal spiritual development. 

So there might be book potential here – not a memoir, but more of a trend-type book. We’ve got a social phenomenon that no one has really written about yet. And a clear target audience who would be interested in reading such a book.

But… where’s the drama? 

I  come back to the same roadblock as the blog-memoir idea. A book needs conflict, drama, a narrative arc that takes you from Place A to Place B. I’m not sure where to find that with the topic of adult B’not Mitzvah. 

I can envision lots of interviews. Lots of interesting women telling me stories about how for decades, they felt marginalized in Judaism and realized they needed to become a Bat Mitzvah to feel fully engaged. Or how they coached their kid through a Bar Mitzvah and realized they wanted one too. Or how they started out atheist, and through the Bat Mitzvah process, came to a personal understanding of God. Lots of stories – many of them far more dramatic than mine. 

But that still doesn’t make a narrative arc for a book. Where’s the conflict? The impact? The story? 

With my prior book,  Where Girls Come First, I saw a clear dramatic question even before I started my research: Girls schools were on the brink of extinction 20 years ago, but have staged an unexpected comeback. Why? 

That book was more than a compilation of personal anecdotes – there was movement, opposition, broad societal impact, and a “plot” that was reflected in the subtitle, The Rise, Fall and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools. 

Maybe I need to figure out a similar kind of thesis or plot for this topic. Are all these adult B’not Mitzvah having any kind of impact on the nature of the Jewish community?

Or are they just individual events, with only a minor ripple effect beyond the Bat Mitzvah herself? (That doesn’t make for much of a plot.)

For now, I’m having trouble envisioning a narrative arc for a book about adult B’not Mitzvah. 

Can you see one?

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10 Responses to “Midway through the midlife Bat Mitzvah”

  1. susiew Says:

    ilana, you recently posted about parents dying. (mine among them). This is also a “symptom” of middle age (as we are lucky enough to live it). Maybe something about being middle age and needing the comfort of the old ways, whether spiritual, ritual, or just familiar, especially facing changing status in the life cycle? I think there might be something in that for many.

    Whats the narrative arc: having taken care of so many for so long, the middle aged woman finds a way to take care of herself? transition from one phase of life to another?

    its a rich vein there, i think.

  2. susie m Says:

    After recently attending the adult b’not mitzvah of 9 women in our congregation, I have to agree with the susie above (!)…taking back Judaism for our own fulfillment after years of doing it our parents’ way, and then shuttling our kids through the process…It is rich. You’re definitely onto something here.

  3. Rachel F Says:

    Hmmm…I’ve been going through my own struggle with Jewish identity and the far right. I don’t want to be associated with the gay-haters or the Muslim-haters or the woman-haters. You may not be aware of some of the local stuff we have going on here, but you’ve probably heard about Carl Paladino’s hateful speech to a Chassidic community here. We also had our local Jewish paper promise not to publish announcements of gay Jewish weddings. It’s all got me questioning what *I* mean when I say I’m Jewish and why the Reform movement seems to be moving to the right these days–isn’t that exactly where we don’t want to be?

    So I wonder if there might be a relationship. Are you (and these other women) coming back to the fold, or making a statement about feminism (or both)? To what extent are you doing something traditional, and to what extent is it revolutionary? And does it have anything to do with the national (perhaps international?) rise in fundamentalism? Obviously, you’re not doing this in fundamentalist congregations, as that would not be permitted. But why, at this point in your life, are you choosing to connect more fully to religion? And what, exactly, are you connecting to?

    Just spitballing…hope it helps.

  4. Elizabeth Stark Says:

    Ilana, This is intriguing, as it does seem such a promising topic. A few thoughts. The first thing that occurred to me is the whole, “Forty is the new thirty,” thang. Maybe middle-age is the new 12? But seriously, as life expectancy grows, there are opportunities for later rites of passage, even coming of age journeys, chances to, in a sense, live more than one life. I remember reading a funny piece about how life would make so much more sense if we started off old and got younger and younger, ending in an orgasmic moment of transcendence . . . So maybe there’s something about doing rites of passage out of order or when you are older that may be more fitting.

    I know, too, that although I am a converted half-Jew on my father’s side who lived among a community of tattoed and pierced (and queer) people, I never got a tattoo because . . . what if I became an Orthodox housewife? So there’s something about how we understand our identities and when we commit to them that could be dramatic, perhaps. (Once I had two kids, four months apart and was legally married to my spouse, another woman, I thought, “Maybe I should get a tattoo!”)

    Finally, maybe you could write a narrative, thought-provoking (as are your blog posts) “How To” Book on the topic, sort of a memoir/ essay masquerading as a How To, with a provocative title that would universalize the rite of passage.

  5. Judy Pace Says:

    Ilana–I think this is a wonderful idea and the comments/ideas are all interesting. Perhaps you could explore by interviewing a handful of people asking the why/so what questions, and more ideas will emerge. Maybe it’s about the plurality of reasons women are doing it. This is exciting! Will think of you as I attend an old friend’s son’s bar mitzvah today ( -:

  6. mark m Says:

    Forget non-fiction and go straight to a screen play. A 44 year old woman with jewish roots that she is far removed from gets a letter stating that here estranged father has died and is leaving his entire fortune to her BUT only if she can be Bat Mitzvahed before her 45th birthday: three weeks away. Hilarity ensues as she plans the affair and learns a particularly difficult parsha.
    Or turn it into a horror movie: same premise but she goes to a full immersion bat mitzvah training retreat where her fellow students keep turning up missing. DON’T LOOK IN THE ARK!!!!!
    Tie ins: signature tallitot, action figures, and more!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Hmmm…. shall it be Zombie Bat Mitzvah or Vampire Bat Mitzvah?

      Let’s see. They come out to kill at night, but not on Shabbat. The only way to stop them is to drive a yad (Torah pointer) through their heart. Gives a whole new meaning to the debate over that line in the liturgy that praises God for “giving life to the dead.” :-)

  7. rachel Says:

    Well, MY bat mitzvah is in early December and the closer it gets, the more I really think deeply about the whys and wherefores of what I am doing. Initially, it was all about achievement – leading an entire service, reading the unpointed Hebrew and so on. Now, there is far, far more to it than that, and I’m still unravelling it all. I have writing ideas too… but it’s all up in the air at the moment!

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