B'nai Mitzvah Nation
By REBECCA PHILLIPS
THIRTEEN AND A DAY
The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across the Nation
By Mark Oppenheimer
272 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.
around the Internet recently, I came across BarMitzvahPoems.com, the kind of
website I figured had to be a joke. The site offers ready-made poems to use for
bar and bat mitzvah candle-lighting ceremonies, that tortuous party tradition
in which the girl or boy of honor invites 13 long-lost aunts or cousins or
whatever to light a candle on a cake. For a $225 payment to BarMitzvahPoems,
your special guests can be welcomed to the front of the banquet hall with
verses like this: "We've always been so very close; on you I can
depend/You're more than just an aunt to me; you are my special friend."
According to the website, your $225 also gets you an audio tape featuring a
voice "reciting each rhyme—making it easy for your child to practice the
inflection and intonation of each poem."
It wasn't until I noticed the tiny Visa and Mastercard logos in the corner of
the web page that I realized the people behind BarMitzvahPoems meant business.
The site is not a joke—instead it is one of many examples of the transformation
of every part of the bar and bat mitzvah celebration into a marketable
commodity. This rite of passage, along with its commercial ramifications, has
become so ubiquitous in American culture that in the past several years both The Simpsons
and Frasier have
featured characters celebrating a bar mitzvah; the Forward has reported on the explosion of bark mitzvahs,
bar mitzvah celebrations for dogs; and the Wall
Street Journal has drawn attention to an even more surprising trend: bar mitzvahs for non-Jews.
In an environment like this, can a contemporary bar or bat mitzvah celebration
possibly have any real religious meaning for a 13-year-old child, or for his or
her parents? Enter Mark Oppenheimer, a journalist with a religious history
Ph.D. from Yale, who, with his new book, Thirteen
and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America, seeks to find out.
Part theological investigation, part travelogue, Thirteen explores the diversity of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies
and celebrations in America today. To many familiar with the bar mitzvah
scene—especially those who have put in their time at ceremonies week after
week—the experience may seem rote: Torah portion, after-service luncheon, party
for the kids. But this book details an astounding and surprising variety of bar
and bat mitzvah experiences in the U.S. Oppenheimer sneaks into a posh Upper
East Side bat mitzvah to catalogue its excess: mock casino tables for kids to
try their hands at blackjack, party motivators who encourage the guests to dance,
a station for turning instant photos into Sno-Globes. He visits a Jewish
Renewal-style bar mitzvah in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he's one of the few
men not sporting a ponytail and the entertainment is a klezmer band called the
Po' Goys. He even travels to the bar mitzvah of the son of the local Chabad
rabbi in Anchorage, Alaska, where the kosher food has to be flown in by
chartered plane from Los Angeles and the guests include a black female champion
bench presser who is converting to Judaism.
The stories Oppenheimer tells from his travels to bar and bat mitzvah services
in different cities are all unique and moving, and he shares these encounters
in an artful way. He is obviously critical of the outlandish and expensive
parties that he crashes in New York, but he takes warmly to children like
Annie, a bat mitzvah girl in New Haven, Connecticut, who cares more about the
content of the service and her d'var
Torah (speech about the Torah portion) than about the party afterward.
Oppenheimer occasionally indulges in unnecessary moral philosophizing about his
subjects—"And Annie still might turn to the dark side—rather, she will
turn to the dark side, in that even the most childlike do grow worldlier.
Someday Annie will drink, someday she will have sex," he writes of the
seemingly fleeting innocence of the bat mitzvah girl. But most of the time
Oppenheimer remains an impartial narrator, enabling readers to be as intrigued
as he is by certain customs—the traditional Bar Mitzvah Maamer, or discourse, a
speech in Yiddish recited from memory by Lubavitcher Hasidim in honor of their
bar mitzvahs—and as dismayed as he is by others, like the watered-down services
at a synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, shortened to accommodate bar mitzvah
For Jews who have lived their own bar and bat mitzvah experiences, or planned
the ceremonies and celebrations of their children, parts of Oppenheimer's book
might be a bit basic. Non-Jews and Jews less familiar with bar mitzvah trends
and customs—not to mention the costs—will appreciate the detailed account Thirteen provides of every element of
the process and emerging traditions, from the role of the bar mitzvah tutor to
the recitation of the Haftarah to the growing number of adult bar mitzvahs. The
book is packed with historical detail, interesting for any reader, no matter
how versed in bar mitzvah culture. Readers learn that there is no mention of
the bar mitzvah in any of the major Jewish sacred texts, that the first known
description of a bar mitzvah party comes from a Polish rabbi in the mid-1500s,
and that the bar mitzvah ceremony was long shunned by Reform Jews, until its
comeback in the late 1960s.
If parts of the book seem like they cater more to non-Jews without any
background knowledge than to those more Jewishly-literate, Oppenheimer has good
reason. "If present trends hold," he writes in the introduction to
the book, referring to the "faux mitzvahs" trend, "the bar
mitzvah might someday be more popular than Judaism itself." But in the
end, what Thirteen and a Day
demonstrates is just the opposite—that it is Judaism itself, in all its varied
forms, rituals, traditions, and meanings, that give the bar mitzvah its shape
and its significance. With a few possible exceptions, Oppenheimer details the
coming of age experiences of people who are actively engaging in Jewish
learning, who are intimately tied to Jewish culture and observance, at many
levels, and who want to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah not because it means a
larger bank account but because they view the event as a gateway to a more
meaningful adult Jewish life.