Interview: Bat Mitzvahs Are Usually At 13, But Not For Author Debbie Reed Fischer

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Many Jewish kids become a b’nai mitzvah at 13, but Debbie Reed Fischer had to wait until she was 18. That’s because at the time she was supposed to have her bat mitvah, she was living in Greece and there were constant death threats and terrorism surrounding the synagogue. When she finally had her ceremony, it was in Israel with three other women who also didn’t have one when they were younger.

Fischer is an award-winning author for both teen and tween novels. Her entry, This is What I’ll Tell You is part of the anthology Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories which debuts April 19. (A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to organizations that fight antisemitism.)

Fischer has an intersting background. She is Cuban Jewish and has lived in a variety of countries. Learn more about her below:

Question: In your entry for Coming of Age, the character Libby is very embarrassed about being Jewish. Have you ever felt that way?

Answer: I’ve never felt embarrassed, and I don’t think Libby is embarrassed, exactly. Trying to hide it surfaces as a survival tactic sometimes, when you think hiding your identity will keep you out of harm’s way because you’ve been attacked for being Jewish in the past. That is something that is a part of my history, but I discovered that you cannot hide it for long. The truth will come out. This is a truth that shows up in my short story for Coming of Age (This is What I’ll Tell You). In my case, I learned to reveal my Jewishness as soon as possible after meeting someone. However, there are situations where it is dangerous to advertise that you are Jewish, and I grew up with the knowledge that I could not wear a shirt with Hebrew letters or my Star of David necklace in certain places because it’s dangerous. That is still true today, unfortunately. I have Jewish pride, but I’m also very realistic about safety, and that comes from how my experiences with antisemitism have informed my behavior now.

Q: What was your bat mitzvah experience like? 

A: I was living in Greece at bat mitzvah age, and there were constant death threats and terrorism surrounding the synagogue in Athens (Beth Shalom). A bat mitzvah would have been putting people in harm’s way (This was in 1980). It was dangerous. For that reason, I waited until I was eighteen to have my bat mitzvah in Israel. It was in Jerusalem and I had it with three other young women who had never had a bat mitzvah. One had managed to get out of the Soviet Union.

Q: What is your favorite book by a Jewish author?

A: Oh, I can’t answer that! I have a new favorite book every week. This week I’m reading Sydney A. Frankel’s Summer Mix-Up by Danielle Joseph. It’s really funny and I love Switcheroo plots. I also really enjoyed Ruth Behar’s Letters to Cuba because I’m also a Cuban Jew. It’s a really beautiful book about the “Jewban” experience.

Q: How has being a teacher helped you with you teen and tween novels?

A: Being a teacher is the best job in the world! I love talking to kids of all ages, and it has informed my novels because it kept me in touch with what teens and tweens care about, what they think is funny, and what challenges they have. I think this generation is fantastic, and I’m honored that so many of students still keep in touch with me. Some of them have children of their own now. I still love teaching, but now it’s at local universities and colleges, or for writing organziations.

Q: Of all of the novels you’ve written, which one is your favorite?

A: This is not the Abby Show is my favorite novel I’ve written. I regularly receive reader mail from students, teachers and parents letting me know how much my book opened their eyes, or how much my book meant to them. I know that I really made a difference writing that book, as well as made readers laugh a lot too. It means the world to me. Just this week, an author reached out to let me know that she used my book as research for her character with ADHD because she wanted to “get it right.” She also sent me an advance copy of her book.

Q: Do you have any tips for young writers? 

A: I have a whole page of tips for writers on my website. My top three tips are: 1) Surround yourself with friends and acquaintances that are different from you, 2) Find a mentor who will be honest with you about your work, and 3), Be fearless!

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