Synopses & Reviews
A striking look at the Jewish rite-and at American Jews in all their diversity
Since its emergence here a century ago, the bar or bat mitzvah has become a distinctively American rite of passage, so much so that, in certain suburbs today, gentile families throw parties for their thirteen-year-olds, lest they feel left out. How did this come about? To answer that question, Mark Oppenheimer set out across America to attend the most distinctive b'nai mitzvah he could find, and Thirteen and a Day is the story of what he found an altogether fresh look at American Jews today.
Beginning with the image of a party of gaudy excess, Oppenheimer then goes farther afield in the great tradition of literary journalists from Joseph Mitchell to Ian Frazier and Susan Orlean. The two dozen Jews of Fayetteville, Arkansas, he finds, open their synagogue to eccentrics from all over the Ozarks. Those of Lake Charles, Louisiana, pass the hat to cover the expenses of their potluck dinner. And in Anchorage, Alaska, a Hasidic boy's bar mitzvah in a snowed-in hotel becomes a striking image of how far the Jewish diaspora has spread. In these people's company, privy to their soul-searching about their religious heritage, Oppenheimer finds that the day is full of wonder and significance.
Part travelogue, part spiritual voyage, Thirteen and a Day is a lyrical, entertaining, even revelatory look at American Jews and one of the most original books of literary journalism to appear in some years.
"Oppenheimer, raised in Springfield, Mass., by a mother born of 'communist, atheist schoolteachers' and a father born of 'irreligious German-American Jews' grew up in a home where 'Leftism, not Torah or Zionism, was what mattered.' Freshly armed with a Ph.D. in religious history from Yale, he embarked on a two-year odyssey to study the history of b'nai mitzvah the Jewish tradition marking the beginning of one's adult religious obligations. Like Odysseus, though, he becomes distracted by the Scylla and Charybdis of lavish New York and L.A. parties (he is very clear about his disdain for this practice) and by a hippie sculptor attending a service in Fayetteville, Ark. Surprisingly, despite a year of travel 'across America,' he focuses on only a few far-flung communities west of greater New York Tampa, Fla.; Fayetteville, Ark.; Anchorage, Alaska; and St. Charles, La. Some readers will wonder: What about Cincinnati, home to Reform Judaism? Or Natchez, Miss., site of the oldest shul in the South? His stories, while fascinating, often focus more on the Jewish landscape of these towns, the histories of congregants and participants and less on the actual honoree, whether it's a 13-year-old or, in the case of the St. Charles celebrations, converting adults well past 50. Not really a story of teenage reaction to the Bar and Bat Mitzvah, this is a very personal rumination on Judaism in snapshot form." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A] compelling slice of Jewish life that lays to rest the stereotypes." Booklist
"Wide-ranging exploration....[T]he author highlights a lot of interesting bits and pieces....Good stuff, lacking only a center to pull it all together." Kirkus Reviews
"Traveling from Arkansas to Alaska, from blowouts where even the photographer wears Prada to modest services that bring out the best in both celebrant and guests, Mark Oppenheimer explores an age-old ritual that still hums with life. Though this accomplished young journalist approaches his subject with humor and skepticism, it moves him and through his well-chosen words, we are moved as well." Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
"Mark Oppenheimer has written a large-hearted, absorbing investigation into the varieties of the American Jewish experience as seen through the lens of that beleaguered but mysteriously resilient ritual, the bar mitzvah." Jonathan Rosen, author of Joy Comes in the Morning
"Mark Oppenheimer brings a journalist's penchant for the absurd and a theologian's sense of wonder to a ritual all too easily reduced to kitsch, and shows us how much life and meaning it has in it yet. Anyone who hopes to find authenticity underneath the banality of much mainstream religious practice will be encouraged by this book." Judith Shulevitz, New York Times book columnist and author of the forthcoming book Sabbath
"By definition, Judaic thought invites cynicism questioning reaffirms faith and some sects are open to adapting to a new age. So, even if his writing persona comes off as a little grating at times, there really is no better guide than a sardonic intellectual like Oppenheimer, who has opened his mind wide enough to let himself find out what he'd been missing all those years (and see if he actually missed it)." Kera Bolonik, Salon.com
(read the entire Salon.com review
Oppenheimer sets out across America to attend the most distinctive b'nai mitzvah he could find, and Thirteen and a Day is the story of what he found an altogether fresh look at American Jews today.
About the Author
Mark Oppenheimer, born in 1974, holds a Ph.D. in religious history from Yale. He was on the staff of The New Yorker and has written for Harper's and The American Scholar. A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, he lives in New Haven, Connecticut.