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

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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 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.

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Africa

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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.

 

Asia

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The first Jews who came to Asia were traders from Iraq and neighboring countries, successful entrepreneurs who created prosperous lifestyles for their descendants. Among the most prominent families were the Sassoons, who built a huge business empire in the Far East in the 1800s and, through their philanthropy, established Jewish institutions that remain to this day. Forced out of Russia by revolution, war, and pogroms, large numbers of Jews emigrated in the 1920s to Asia, notably to the Manchurian city of Harbin (which already had a substantial Jewish population). More arrived from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iran. World War II brought another large wave of immigrants fleeing the Holocaust. The majority of those people later left for Israel and the West when they could.

For the most part, the Jewish communities of Asia have not been the target of governmental repression or violence. With the notable exceptions of those in Pakistan and Burma, the small Jewish communities that remain are generally secure and are expected to survive. But there have been changes. As the younger generations whose parents and grandparents settled in the Far East have moved to Israel, the United States, and Britain, their places have been taken by often-temporary new immigrants seeking economic opportunity.

 

Australia and New Zealand

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Oceania is a somewhat imprecise geographic region that usually refers to Australia and New Zealand as well as New Guinea and the islands of the Malay Archipelago (e.g., the Philippines and Singapore), where Jews constitute a tiny minority far from other Jews. Nevertheless, Jews have attained influence in many spheres of life in these countries and have experienced little anti-Semitism throughout their history of settlement.

Australia may be the only country in the world where Jews first immigrated as convicts. Sixteen men arrived in 1788, when Australia was a prison colony for Britain. The Jews of New Zealand arrived in a more conventional manner, as traders in the 1830s. When gold was discovered in Australia in the 1850s and in New Zealand in the 1860s, both countries experienced an increase in the number of Jews. Jews fleeing the Nazis augmented Jewish populations prior to World War II. But New Zealand admitted relatively few refugees or displaced persons during and after the war, in contrast to Australia. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union and South Africa increased both countries’ Jewish communities significantly at the end of the twentieth century.

 

Caribbean

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Many tourists have marveled at centuries-old synagogues and Jewish headstones in Caribbean cemeteries, which indicate that Jews have a long history in the Caribbean. The first Jews arrived in the 1500s from the Recife area of Brazil, a Portuguese outpost. When Recife was briefly under Dutch rule, the Dutch government allowed Jews to practice their religion freely, in contrast to the Portuguese, who insisted on conversion in accordance with the rules of the Inquisition. When Recife reverted to Portuguese rule, the Jews left for safer locales such as the Netherlands, New Amsterdam (New York), and various Caribbean islands under the flags of Holland (Curaçao), England (Barbados, Jamaica), France (Martinique, Guadeloupe), or Denmark (U. S. Virgin Islands). Typically, the governments of the islands welcomed these original Jewish settlers as skilled traders, often incurring the wrath of the Europeans who had preceded them and resented the competition. Nevertheless, many small communities flourished despite some discriminatory legislation.

 

Europe

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Jews have lived in Europe since the time of the Roman Empire, when they were expelled from Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, depending on the authorities and the prevailing attitudes of the people in the regions where they resided (usually in segregated areas), Jews either were tolerated because some had useful skills in business or served as money lenders, or they were reviled, persecuted, murdered, forced to convert to Christianity, or expelled. In the 1200s, violence against Ashkenazi Jews drove them from Germany and northern France to Poland and Lithuania. Sephardic Jews were forced to leave Spain in 1492 and then established communities around the world. Many descendants of Sephardim are only now discovering their Jewish roots.

In the twentieth century, 6 million innocent Jewish individuals were killed in the attempted genocide referred to as the Holocaust. The Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe were decimated. In most of these countries, Jewish populations have never rebounded because of postwar assimilation, emigration, and intermarriage. The few countries where the Jewish population has increased in size have done so because of immigration, mostly from the former Soviet Union.

 

Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, and Eastern Europe

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In 1991, with the breakup of the former Soviet Union (FSU), fifteen new countries were formed: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Many of these countries had vibrant, populous Jewish communities before the Russian Revolution in 1917. During the seventy-four-year period of the Soviet system, religion was suppressed in favor of atheism or secularism. This attitude toward religion in general, in combination with a long history of Russian anti-Semitism, made it nearly impossible to practice or study Judaism in any form in the Soviet Union.

It is therefore quite remarkable that, beginning in the 1970s, some Jews, feeling a strong sense of identity, risked their livelihoods and safety by requesting permission to emigrate to Israel. More than a million Soviet Jews did so after years of struggle, with assistance from individuals, groups, and governments in the West. Because so many people became refuseniks or demanded permission to leave, many of the countries listed above, which once had sizable Jewish populations, have seen their Jewish communities shrink. Nevertheless, some demographers estimate that as many as a million Jews still remain in the FSU. Many families have no intention of leaving. Some Jewish individuals have intermarried or lost interest in retaining their Jewish identity. Yet others have made contact with Western organizations that are helping to revive Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.

 

Latin America

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Geographers usually include twenty-one countries in Latin America: thirteen in South America, seven in Central America, and one in North America (Mexico). Most of the residents of these countries speak Spanish, with the exceptions of Brazil, where Portuguese is the official language, and Belize, where English is the main language. Sometimes, the island nations of the Caribbean, which have a separate section in this volume, are included in Latin America.

The history of Jewish communities in Latin America is not as thoroughly researched as that of some other areas, but it appears that the first Jews came to Latin America to escape the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal. Most of these immigrants were Conversos who had been converted forcibly to Christianity. Jews were marginalized and stigmatized in their new homes, and through the generations most of these early settlers lost their Jewish identity.1 For the most part, the current communities of Latin American Jews did not arrive until the nineteenth century and early twentieth. There are now about 450,000 Jews in Latin America, with the largest number in Argentina and other large communities in Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay.

 

Middle East and North Africa

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This section includes bat mitzvah descriptions and stories from three Middle Eastern countries—Iran, Israel, and Yemen—from Kurdistan, not a country but an area in the Middle East with a unique culture; and from Turkey, which borders Iraq, Iran, and Syria and is ambiguously located between Europe and Asia.

People from the Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa are often referred to as Mizrahi Jews and are generally of Sephardi origin. Before 1948, approximately 900,000 Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa. The great majority of the Jewish population was persecuted after 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel and subsequently driven out of their homes and countries.1 Now, only a small number remain, estimated as fewer than 8,000 in the entire area.

The Iranian Jewish community is ancient, dating back to the sixth century BCE. The story of Esther, commemorated each year on the holiday of Purim, took place in Persia, current-day Iran. Under Persian and then Muslim rule, the welfare of the Jews waxed and waned. Iran was a monarchy ruled by a shah or emperor from 1501 until the Iranian revolution which began on April 1, 1979, inaugurating Iran officially as an Islamic republic. Before then, for a while, Jews had lived in relative peace in Iran, but with the onset of the Islamic revolution tens of thousands of the 80,000 Jewish inhabitants left the country, leaving behind vast amounts of property. Today, the Jewish population in Iran, estimated to be the second largest in the Middle East after that of Israel, is isolated and suffers from the suspicion of the majority population and restrictions on Jewish education and travel. The current president of Iran is actively hostile to Israel and its Jewish community and denies the existence of the Holocaust. The two Iranian Jewish women who tell stories of b’not mitzvah now live in the United States. Their stories are about the contrast between the life of Iranian Jewish women as they knew it growing up, and the life of Iranian-American Jewish women as they experience and create it now. Soraya Nazarian is part of a large and thriving Iranian Jewish community that has taken root in Los Angeles. Her story concerns her journey to a bat mitzvah celebration for herself and for other women. Farideh Goldin, the author of the second story, believes in the necessity of making personal choices. What is right for her is not necessarily right for her three daughters. Farideh, a member of a Conservative synagogue in Norfolk, Virginia, recognizes that she is part of a transitional generation between the restrictions of the past and the opportunities of the present. In 2004, Farideh’s book, Wedding Song: Memoirs of an Iranian Jewish Woman, was published in the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Series on Jewish Women.

 

North America

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There are approximately 6 million Jews in the United States, making it the country with the largest population of Jews outside Israel. In fact, the United States and Israel are nearly equivalent in the size of their Jewish populations. The population of Canadian Jews is much smaller, about 370,000. In contrast to most of the world, the Jews of both the United States and Canada have been free to practice Judaism without persecution or infringement by the government. While the doors of some professions and institutions have been difficult to open because of a genteel type of anti-Semitism, Jewish women and men have risen to positions of influence in virtually every area of society.

This section contains stories about one bat mitzvah in Toronto, Canada, and seven in the United States. (Mexico, also in North America, is represented in the section on Latin America.) The first U.S. story is, appropriately, about the first bat mitzvah in the United States, which took place in New York City in 1922. Three of the entries—authored by the Cohen and Nemzoff mothers and daughters and by Shula Reinharz, one of the editors of this volume—come from the Boston area. Sara Aftergood wrote from Los Angeles, and Geri Garfinkel-Gershon from North Carolina. The late Brandi Fenton lived in Tucson, Arizona.

 

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