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MOVIE REVIEW | Not your average Bat Mitzvah girl

Jana Popliger and her daughter Maya Sinclair, featured in the Becoming Big documentary, at their home in Dollard des Ormeaux on May 18, 2021. Photo: Erin Sinclair
Jana Popliger and her daughter Maya Sinclair, featured in the Becoming Big documentary, at their home in Dollard des Ormeaux on May 18, 2021. Photo: Erin Sinclair
Montreal - Wednesday, May 18, 2022

by Randy Pinsky

When asked about Becoming Big, Maya Sinclair responded, “It’s about an average, normal, almost 12-year-old girl.” But as mom Jana Popliger corrected, “Maya is anything but average.”

Becoming Big (2021) is a coming-of-age story of a young girl who had overcome numerous health challenges to have an impactful Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal’s Nova Grants and produced by Rabbi Mark Fishman of Congregation Beth Tikvah, the documentary recounts Maya’s Bat Mitzvah journey; when 12-year-old girls become adults in the eyes of the Jewish community – literally, “becoming big.”

On February 16, Inspirations’ own Mark Bergman moderated an Armchair Interview hosted by Federation CJA West Island in honour of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month.

Popliger knew something was wrong right from birth. Maya wouldn’t stop crying and she was not meeting milestones. A medical student was able to crack the mystery by remarking on her eyes: the clue to the Axenfeld-Rieger syndrome diagnosis.

According to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, the condition can lead to loss of vision as well as other medical challenges. Though Maya is small in stature, this has not stopped her from striving to meet her goals. “She is the ultimate warrior,” said grandfather Sheldon Popliger. 

“For her to say, ‘I want a Bat Mitzvah. I want to stand up in front of people and make a speech, ’ five years ago, I would have never believed it,” said her mother, making reference to Maya’s selective mutism (an anxiety disorder where individuals feel unable to speak in certain settings). “But we did it.” 

Maya’s Bat Mitzvah talk was fittingly about Judaism’s forefathers who all grappled with physical challenges yet prevailed. Abraham experienced difficulties in old age; Isaac was blind, Jacob had a limp, and Moses led the Jewish people to freedom in spite of a speech impediment.

Eyzeh hoo gibor? Who is a hero in the Jewish tradition?” asked Rabbi Fishman. “Judaism’s definition of strength is not how much one can bench press; it comes from overcoming obstacles.”

“Maya’s Bat Mitzvah is a great example to everybody that a synagogue is able to celebrate every child in its community.”

Wise beyond her years, Maya’s Bat Mitzvah speech touched everyone. “God made me kind, smart and funny, yet He also gave me a unique set of challenges… I learned to be brave… pronounce medical terms that others cannot, be creative and use my voice.”

Popliger reflected, “JDAIM is one month calling attention to disability awareness, but for us, it’s every day. It’s our real life.” As a result, she hopes people will be “a little more kind, a little more forgiving and a little less judgmental.”

Jodi Toledano, Federation CJA’s Engagement and Outreach Specialist, concluded the event with, “Maya, you are truly the biggest person we know.”