May 8, 2008
Books: Identity search comes from a familiar place
Nora Raleigh Baskin's fifth novel for middle-graders is her first "Jewish" book. Her books are the kind that draw young readers with the simple truth all good writers seem to share: Write what you know.|
This is something Nora Baskin's newest heroine, Caroline, knows: Her mom is Jewish, her dad isn't. When her nana dies and leaves her a Star of David necklace, Caroline starts to wonder about her heritage and religion. Her mom doesn't celebrate her own Jewishness, her best friend Rachel is heading toward a bat mitzvah, and Caroline wants to figure out who she is and where she belongs.
Like her other books, "The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah" (Simon & Schuster) is inspired by Baskin's own life, past and present. Her father isn't Jewish, yet she chose to be Jewish. During nearly two decades of teaching Hebrew school, Baskin has met many children growing up in mixed-religion families.
"I've seen firsthand some of the conflict and confusion these children have," she said. "It is my story, too."
She says she doesn't want anyone to think they're not Jewish enough if they didn't have a bar or bat mitzvah or don't speak Hebrew.
"It's about making the choice to be Jewish," Baskin said. "That's what makes me happiest about writing the book."
There's another side to the story, Baskin says: "I also wanted to say in the book that my character doesn't have a bat mitzvah or need to have one, but that a bat mitzvah is a wonderful thing. My two boys' bar mitzvahs ... are the most beautiful memories I have. To stand up and declare your Judaism in front of everyone, you have to be brave. Judaism is about education, learning who you are and if you choose, and you can do so at any time."
Raised by her father in New York, Baskin started exploring Judaism, her late mother's religion, in sixth grade. With no Jewish traditions or typical Jewish rites of passage under her belt, she simply decided one day that she was Jewish.
As a freshman at State University New York Purchase College, that was the first thing she revealed about herself.
"Nobody doubted me, and I realized that other students didn't know a lot about being Jewish either," she said. "I first had to have the guts to say it, then I learned as much as I could."
Nora married a Jewish man, but still felt like a phony, afraid she'd be exposed at any moment. When she started having kids, "that's when I really decided to choose being Jewish," Baskin said. "But that meant turning my back on the only memories and traditions I had from childhood. I thought, 'I'm going to live a Jewish life and raise my kids Jewish, and I'm not any less Jewish than anyone.'"
That's what Baskin hopes her readers take away from "The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah."
"With this book, I thought, if I can put this idea into story form and entertain people, they will listen and I can be heard," she said.
Early reports are looking good, according to feedback Baskin receives. She was recently tapped by the Jewish Book Council to present her book at a members-only conference of the Jewish Book Network at American Jewish University May 27-29.
"The best reaction so far came from a librarian in New Jersey," she says. "She's Jewish, but never had a bat mitzvah or learned Hebrew, and always felt less than. She said the book made her feel OK with her Jewishness."
And, coincidentally, the model chosen for the photograph on the book's cover is half-Jewish. After the photo shoot, she asked to keep the Star of David necklace.
Baskin, of course, said yes.
Learn the truth about Nora Raleigh Baskin at www.norabaskin.com