“Bar Mitzvah Madness”

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Perhaps it is the time of year but it seems like there is a bevy of articles about the bar and bat mitzvah hitting the press. And while most of them either note the sensational and some applaud those that are grounded in social action, few provide the balance that reflects the majority of bnai mitzvah ceremonies as this recent article in Slate. While it is true that more and more bar and bat mitzvah parties are over the top, such extravagance does not always eclipse the important emotional changes that take place in the bar or bat mitzvah candidate and his/her family as a result of the process. Moreover, if it is to be a rite of passage into adulthood, then we have to find ways of affirming that adulthood within the context of the post modern world where adulthood has been delayed significantly since the time in which such a passage made sense.

In JOI’s recent study about children of the intermarried, which is about to be released, we discovered that the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony was extremely important in the affirmation of their Jewish identity although many of them reported little contact with the organized Jewish community over a sustained period of time. If that is the case, then we will have to develop innovative ways of providing access to the bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies for these children if we want to help them affirm their Jewish identity.

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  1. For another balanced — in fact, downright inspiring!* — view of bar & bat mitzvah across America today, see Mark Oppenheimer’s new book _Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America_.**

    In the process it also provides a nuanced portrait of the role played by non-Jews (and those whose family backgrounds are not Jewish) in Jewish lives, communities, and family histories:

    The second chapter (”The Girl”) is an insightful & engaging account of a bat mitzvah at BEKI, a New Haven Conservative egalitarian shul. The mother of this outstanding bat mitzvah girl converted to Judaism long after her marriage to a Jew. Both she and her daughter read Torah, lead services, and are halakhically-observant, knowledgeable, and passionately-involved members of the community.

    Chapter 4, “The Small Town,” is about a Renewal bar mitzvah in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the service has been put together by the bar mitzvah boy’s mother. She herself is “the daughter of a Jewish mother from New York and a Gentile farmer from Dodge City, Kansas” (130). All the lyrics sung by the klezmer band that plays at the celebration are in Yiddish, but not one of the four musicians is Jewish: they have named their group “the Po’ Goys” (144). There are 175 Jews in Fayetteville and 1,100 in Little Rock; Jews make up 0.1% of the population of Arkansas. Oppenheimer concludes of this small-town bar mitzvah that Jacob can “take pride in having perpetuated Fayetteville Judaism. He hosted a community simcha, bringing together Fayetteville Jews and their gentile friends. That is a good thing, and whether or not Jacob knows it now, he will” (156).

    The last narrative chapter, “The Grown-Ups,” is about the adult bar and bat mitzvah of 2 converts to Judaism/Jews by choice in Lake Charles, Louisiana (where the author’s grandmother grew up). It contains a paragraph that begins:
    “These are the converts, or, as they now say, ‘Jews by choice,’ whom I have known”–which interestingly, consists of 3 men and 2 women (statistically, fewer men than women convert to Judaism). [Doesn’t happen to include my husband, though he did convert and Mark does know him. ;) ]
    It continues:
    “And these are some converts I know of, but do not personally know”–which includes 2 African-American women (Nell Carter and Jamaica Kincaid) as well as the usual African-American male convert known to most American Jews, Sammy Davis, Jr., in its list of six. (I wonder: would Julius Lester be the next-most-well-known? Or only to those who have read his wonderful works?)

    To paraphrase Walt Whitman–we are vast, we contain multitudes! And our Jewish world is often in contact with & sometimes even includes non-Jews in that multitude, as in the “mixed multitude” (_erev rav_) of Exodus 12:38, who went up out of Egypt with the children of Israel. Our history reflects it. Our contemporary reality reflects it. But we need to work harder to make what we say about Jewish life and Judaism today reflect it, and to know that when we speak to Jewish families and communities we are often speaking to, and about, that mixed multitude as well.

    I’m off now to live that mixing: my husband & I are joining 2 friends from our egalitarian minyan (one of them a Reform rabbi) to hear a member of our community–not Jewish, but married to a Jew and father to 2 more, and instrumental in making all our children’s services and activities happen–perform Celtic storytelling at Anna Liffey’s Irish pub. (See

    *NYTimes book columnist Judith Shulevitz writes, “Anyone who hopes to find authenticity underneath the banality of much mainstream religious practice will be encouraged by this book.”

    Judith Viorst writes:

    Oppenheimer, who holds a PhD in religious history, has a shrewd eye and tells a good story. And he has some lurid tales to tell about the over-the-top parties that are such an irresistible target for writers: sexed-up affairs with throbbing music and hard-bodied “party motivators” hired to get everyone out on the dance floor, gold-laméd deejays, tarot-card readers, glass blowers, tattoo artists and celebrity impersonators, not to mention the laser shows and the legendary bar-mitzvah-boy bust made out of chopped liver. Many parties also favor themes — such as Broadway (with gold plastic statuettes) or golf (with dimpled balloons to resemble golf balls) or casino night (with blackjack tables, dealers, a roulette wheel and fake money). So it was nice to learn that one mother, when asked to describe the theme of her daughter’s bat mitzvah party, replied simply and sensibly, “Judaism.”

    But if you’re looking for a supercilious take on the current state of b’nai mitzvah (that’s the plural form), Oppenheimer’s thoughtful, respectful book, which includes an account of his personal Jewish history, doesn’t provide it. Not especially anguished over “our country’s peculiar mix of piety and materialism,” he’s more likely to highlight the positive news in even the most unpromising bar mitzvah, reminding us of “the hard work of children who — learning a dead language, reading from ancient texts, and being celebrated for it — do inch closer to being Jewish men and women.”

    ** I got mine at the local independent bookstore where he was giving a reading & talk, but it’s also available on Amazon at

    Comment by Becca — June 22, 2005 @ 5:54 pm

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