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School Days

An eleven-year-old who’s finding her way

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I’ve talked to a lot of adults over the year and a half that I’ve been doing this column, and they’ve all reminisced about their childhoods and talked about how their youthful experiences informed their present way of seeing things. But I hadn’t talked to a child yet. I’d been hearing about Margaret Olivia Stern Baronian—also known as Maisie—for years from her aunt, the writer Amanda Stern. Recently, I heard from Amanda that Maisie was going to start preparing for her bat mitzvah.

Maisie is in the sixth grade at M.S. 51 in Brooklyn. She lives in that borough’s Cobble Hill neighborhood with her mother, her mother’s partner, and her little sister, Mia. She also spends time at the home of her father, John Baronian, and his wife, Erin McLaughlin. Somehow, between her school, homework, guitar lessons, karate classes, and the back-and-forth between houses, we managed to find time to talk to each other.

What’s your favorite subject in school?

I don’t know if it counts as a subject, but my favorite thing is drama.

You also attend Hebrew school. How long have you been going, and how often are you there?

Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. This is my first year at the Hebrew school I’m going to now, but I went to another one for three years. So this is my fourth year of going to a Hebrew school.

So you started when you were around seven. Did you like it right away?

At first I wasn’t really sure about it, I think, but then I got used to it and I like it.

Did you get interested in going yourself or did one of your parents have the idea first?

One of my parents. My mom.

Why do you think your mom felt it was important for you to go to Hebrew school?

I guess because I’m Jewish and I’m going to have a bat mitzvah.

How much of Hebrew school is spent studying things that are not exactly religious, like history, and then how much do you spend on actual devotion?

Well, I think that they’re connected. Because when we learn about Jewish history, it’s about people who were religious.

Do you feel like you’re religious?

Yeah.

So you believe in God?

Yeah.

How do you picture God?

I’ve asked myself that question before, and I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m not really sure.

Do you picture God as an entity or as more of a sort of energy?

What do you mean by energy?

Some people say they feel that God is everywhere. And some people picture almost a person, a specific being.

I think God’s sort of a mixture, like a person and also everywhere.

Do you think of God as a “he”?

People say “he,” and I’ve never heard anybody say “she.” But I don’t really think of God as a “he.” More sort of an “it.”

How do you feel sure that God exists?

I guess I’ve grown up believing in God, so I just do.

Why do you think you grew up believing in God?

As I talk about it, I think it’s from Hebrew school. And I also go to a Jewish sleepaway camp, Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake. At camp we pray every morning, and we follow every rule of Shabbat.

Does it feel to you as if rituals such as observing all the rules of Shabbat are closely connected to believing in God?

Yeah, because, I mean, that’s one of the Ten Commandments: to observe Shabbat.

Do you think that God is loving?

Sometimes in weird ways, different ways, but yeah.

What’s an example of how God is sometimes loving in a weird way?

Like the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the sacrifice. It’s just to see if Abraham is actually faithful to God. It’s different than normal love.

Have there been any times in your life when you feel like God has been loving in weird ways? Times that you’ve been tested or challenged?

Well, it’s a test when something hard happens to anybody. I mean, not necessarily sacrificing your son—anything hard. When I started at my new school, since I went from a school in Manhattan to a school in Brooklyn, and most people went to school with their friends, I didn’t know anybody that went to my school. So that was sort of hard. But not really, really hard.

Why is it important to you to have a bat mitzvah?

Well, I’ve been studying for it at Hebrew school and I feel like it’s an important part of Judaism to have a bat mitzvah or a bar mitzvah. And because, well, most Jewish people have had a bar or bat mitzvah.

And why is it an important part of Judaism?

Because it’s becoming—well, not an adult adult, but becoming older.

Did your parents do it?

No, but I know that my mom wishes she did.

What are you doing to prepare for the bat mitzvah?

I’m learning how to read Hebrew, and that will help with the Torah. I’m learning prayer. And since you have your bar or bat mitzvah partly in the morning you have to lead a service, so I’ve been going to services also.

Do you know yet what your portion’s going to be?

No, I don’t start until like a year before my bat mitzvah. At my Hebrew school you don’t have yours until your thirteenth Hebrew birthday.

am eleven.”" />Do you think that you’ll keep going to Hebrew school after your bat mitzvah?

 

I don’t think I’ll keep going to Hebrew school, but I’ll still keep going to my Jewish sleepaway camp. Besides the part that you sleep over and it’s during the summer, my camp is similar to Hebrew school.

Do you think you’ll keep going to services?

Yeah.

Do you like going?

Um, yeah.

You sound a little hesitant.

I like it, but—it’s just that it’s early in the morning.

And what do you feel like you get out of going?

Well, I get to know prayers better. I learn ones that I didn’t know—or didn’t know well—before.

Do you feel like going to synagogue is connected to believing in God?

Yeah, I do. Because all the prayers that you say in synagogue are praying to God. And I guess you can’t really pray to something that you don’t believe in.

Do you have a favorite prayer?

I don’t think I do. But I like some of the tunes for some of the prayers. I like the tune that we do to “Mi Chamocha” at my sleepaway camp. It’s a very happy, upbeat tune.

Why do you think people want to pray together? Why go to temple rather than stay at home and pray in your own way?

I guess it’s more special when it’s with other people. Especially with a lot of people. And at home it’s just at home, not a special place.

Why have a special place?

I think because for some people religion is the biggest part of their lives, so they should have a special place for the religion.

Why do you think that religion is so important for so many people? Why do people need religion—or does God need people to be religious?

Well, in the Torah it says that God said to Abraham, “I am your God, and you will be Jewish.” And then once that went on and on and on, people followed what their families did.

Do you think that religion can help people deal with death?

Do you mean when they’re dying or after they’re dead?

Either.

Well, there are prayers for people when they’re sick to help them get better. I don’t know about after they’re dead.

Margaret 'Maisie' Olivia Stern Baronian

What do you think happens when people die?

I really have no idea. I mean, it’s not like I can ask anybody who’s died what happened. I haven’t thought that much about death. I am eleven.

Say someone’s sick and says a prayer to get better. Does God actually change things and make people better?

I think that’s part of it. So, partly yes. But it’s also partly how much your body can handle.

Do you think if you have kids you’ll also want them to go to Hebrew school?

Yeah. It’s a big part of being Jewish. It’s a big part of my life. I would want it to be a big part of my kids’ lives.

Do you ever find yourself thinking about things you learned in Hebrew school and applying them to other situations?

Well, in a way. Like, in normal school we’re learning about ancient Rome; we learned about the Coliseum and about some of the emperors, like Julius Caesar. And before, we learned about ancient Greece. In Hebrew school they’ve talked about how the Romans and the Greeks persecuted the Jews. But they don’t really talk about it that much during normal school.

What’s your favorite holiday?

Probably Passover. Personally, I really like matzo, even though after a while—since I don’t eat leavened bread for a long time—sometimes it can get sort of annoying. I usually go away to family for Passover. I like doing that. The food is good, I get to see relatives. And it’s a story about freedom, the Passover story. It connects to the question you asked before about thinking about things I’ve learned. We’ve also studied ancient Egypt at school, and I’ve thought about the story of Passover when we do it, but obviously it doesn’t come up during school.

What are Seders like in your family? I’ve been at ones where people argue the finer points of the Haggadah for five hours, and ones where people run through it really fast and skip over whole sections just to get to the food.

Ours are somewhere in the middle. It’s not like I’m starving by the time the food is there. But it’s not like there’s not enough praying, either. Sometimes when we say the plagues we pass around little bags that have different things for every plague. There are little cows and if you squeeze them their eyes, like, pop out. And little fake bugs, and little frogs. And little paper things that represent the hail.

Do you enjoy looking for the afikomen?

Yes. I usually find it. I have a little cousin who looks for it with me. But I used to be the only kid—well, the only kid old enough to actually look for it. So I wasn’t looking for it against anybody.

Do you still ask the four questions?

Yeah. When my sister gets older, she’s going to do it, but she’s really little now. I ask the four questions in Hebrew.
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What’s your favorite Passover food?

Matzo ball soup.

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School Days

An eleven-year-old who’s finding her way

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