Nora Raleigh Baskin is the author of several books for young readers. Her newest book, THE TRUTH ABOUT MY BAT MITZVAH (Simon and Schuster) is a touching story of a young girl’s journey to discover her own heritage after the death of her grandmother. I first heard about the book from Nora’s editor, Alexandra Cooper. I met Alexandra at an SCBWI retreat. Coincidentally, about a week later I received a copy of THE TRUTH ABOUT MY BAT MITZVAH to review for the AJL (Association of Jewish Libraries) newsletter. I was immediately drawn to the story, especially Nora’s ability to create such a believable, authentic character. By the end of the book I felt like I had been at Caroline’s side as she triumphantly navigated her way to a meaningful resolution. Interviewing Nora was a joy and I’m thrilled she was able to share her thoughts about her writing journey.
I’m happy to announce that THE TRUTH ABOUT MY BAT MITZVAH just received a ***Starred*** review in Jewish Book World!
Tell me a little bit about your latest book, The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah. What inspired you to write a book with this theme?
Short answer, my life. A little longer answer: This book is very much my story, although in my case it wasn’t that my Jewish mother was unobservant, but that she had died when I was three years old. But like Caroline in the book, I grew up without any understanding of my Jewish heritage- at all. But around the age of twelve, just like most girls and boys, I began questioning my identity and searching for who I wanted to be, what I wanted to be. And while I wanted to believe in a connection to my mother, who I couldn’t even remember, and to my Judaism, there was a lot standing in my way. Mainly, that I had no idea what being Jewish meant.
In seventh grade, I actually did pretend to be sick on Yom Kippur so that I would be absent from school just like the two “really” Jewish kids in my class Debbie Nemerofsky and Rob Schiff, I decided to have Caroline do the same thing. I remember it very clearly.
But a long time I felt like a faker, a pretender, until I was and realized “I am Jewish” because I chose to be. And that holds true even for people who grew up learning Hebrew, having Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and knowing what Yom Kippur is. At some point in your life, you still have to choose.
What type of research was involved?
I didn’t have to do much research because for the past twenty years, since my first son was born, I have been learning everything I can about Judaism. I even teach Hebrew school, for nearly as long. So I knew that having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah isn’t a “requirement ” for being Jewish. I knew that having a Jewish parent, especially a mother (for the conservative and orthodox) was technically enough.
But I also learned that being Jewish is about being part of an incredible history and that passing that history on, learning about it, writing about it, teaching it, remembering its beauty.. I was proud of the things I learned about.
When writing the book, I also used what I knew from teaching Hebrew school– how difficult it is to give things up, deal with missing games or trips because its Passover or Rosh Hashanna. Going to Hebrew school itself, every week.
And while you may not “have to ” have a B’nei Mitzvah, it is a wonderful thing — to stand in front of the whole world and proclaim who and what you are. I have beautiful memories of my boys’ Bar Mitzvah services. I used those memories, too, while writing the book.
But mostly I used my true “lived” experiences for this story. I really did break my Nana’s Star of David necklace. But I still found a way to wear in my school photo by pulling a leather shoelace from my work boot and using that (we all wore workboots in those days!) And I really did ask my grandfather for my Nana’sr perfume when she died. It’s all I wanted and I still have it.So in a way this book is my way of connecting, not only to my mother, but to my Nana. I think she would be very happy to see how far I’ve come. Or rather, how close I am now.
How did you become a children’s writer?
I have been writing for children for fifteen years. My first book was published in 2001 but I had been writing and trying to publish for a long time before that. In fact, some of my earliest attempts were short stories with Jewish themes. But they were too didactic. I didn’t realize all I needed to do was look within myself to find the real story I needed to tell. But live and learn, right? Nothing is ever really wasted.
What are you working on now?
I have my first YA novel coming out in August (ALL WE KNOW OF LOVE) and then a book with an autistic first person narrator coming out next spring,’09 (ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL).
And, by the way, if you look back at my work, you will find all my characters are Jewish, even if in name only. You will never find a casual Christmas celebration or gratuitous Easter unless it specifically fits the needs of the story.
What are a few fun facts about you?
Hmm…facts about me? I hate zucchini and cilantro. (you can check out http://www.ihatecilantro.com/member.php?user=norabaskin) I love egg creams (just like Caroline!) chocolate or vanilla. I swim or run just about every day, or at least every other day. Or at least as often as I can.
What is your favorite holiday?
Easy one! Passover. I make the most amazing Seder..with toy frogs all over my table, Baby Moses in little baskets. I cook the best kosher chicken with onion. And my matzah ball soup is really, really good, so they tell me. None of my dishes match, or my napkins or glasses, but the table is so full and so beautiful it doesn’t matter.
I love the Jewish holidays because they are all about “story”–every one, except maybe Tu B’shevat, right? Every holiday is based on some amazing piece of history and telling these stories over and over keeps them from disappearing. I think for all people, throughout all time, stories are what make us real, make us exist. They help us to understand ourselves and the world. They make us feel we belong and that makes us less lonely.
I hope with my story, I did that– in some small way.
Nora, it’s been a delight getting to know you! Wishing you continued success with The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah!
If you would like to know more abour Nora, please visit her web site at www.norabaskin.com