Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America
by Mark Oppenheimer
Rites (and wrongs) of Jewish passage
A review by Kera Bolonik
I dreaded my bat mitzvah 21 years ago. I wasn't worried about screwing up my debut
on the "bimah," where I'd chant a portion of the Bible -- I'd logged
nearly a year of preparation with our synagogue's cantor, and five years of Hebrew
school. But as an eighth grader who'd just turned 13, I was the youngest of my
classmates to become a bat mitzvah, and I knew I'd have to subject my friends
-- both Jewish and Gentile -- to yet another long, arduous religious service.
I prayed my parents would let me reward everyone's patience with a kick-ass party.
Most of my peers had DJs at their b'nai ("b'nai" denotes the plural
form) mitzvah receptions -- one girl even had a band -- which had the effect of
transforming those standard gefilte fish and pasta salad buffet luncheons into
rousing school dances, while the grown-ups poured themselves endless goblets of
that sickeningly sweet Manischewitz wine.
But I was not among the lucky ones. Instead, my mother hired an Israeli folk
singer to entertain my small handful of friends from middle school and Hebrew
school, as well as members of our family, and the colleagues and golf club pals
of my pediatrician grandfather, who was footing the bill. For two hours, we
weren't even going to get a few hyper rounds of "Hava Nagila." Nope,
just a lonely lady strumming her acoustic guitar, wailing somber Hebrew favorites
like "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold)" and the Israeli
National Anthem, "Hatikvah." In other words, my bat mitzvah party
Nothing like the b'nai mitzvah Mark Oppenheimer crashed in Scarsdale, N.Y.,
and Tampa, Fla., for his impeccably researched, if too often flippantly narrated,
cultural history of the Jewish rite of passage, Thirteen and a Day: The Bar
and Bat Mitzvah Across America. The former New Yorker staffer, and
current editor of the New Haven Advocate, attended the ceremonies and
receptions of American Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews across the nation
to find out why so many of us "take such trouble to keep this one part of their
Oppenheimer, who holds a doctorate in religious history from Yale and hails
from secular Jewish stock -- his Jewish mother was raised by atheist communists;
his father, by irreligious German-American Jews -- never had a bar mitzvah.
"Leftism, not Torah or Zionism, was what mattered" in his family,
while growing up in the predominantly Catholic town of Springfield, Mass. But,
as he got to know more Jewish people at Yale, and had his first encounters with
Jewish rituals like Sabbath dinners and the blowing of the ram's horn (the shofar),
Oppenheimer experienced something like a cultural awakening. "I felt as
if I were meeting other Jews for the first time ... Jews who had been to Israel,
Jews who could read Hebrew, Jews who planned to be rabbis, Jews who, with a
kitschy irony, still wore T-shirts received as Bar Mitzvah party favors."
Years later, when Oppenheimer took a job as a religion writer for the Hartford
Courant, he absorbed even more knowledge about Judaism from rabbis and Jewish
scholars, further whetting his appetite as a "journalist, historian, Jew." It
was then he decided he "wanted to investigate the wild and growing popularity
of b'nai mitzvah." That is not to say, as he is careful to note, that he wanted
to study to become a bar mitzvah. Why would he? When Oppenheimer's journey begins
in New York, he's sneaking into swank Scarsdale synagogues and ritzy receptions
at Manhattan hotels -- gaudy, excessive spectacles thrown by parents who seem
more intent on impressing friends and colleagues than celebrating their Jewish
children's rites of passage into adulthood. Not exactly the stuff of religious
Oppenheimer can barely contain his grief -- at times, awestruck revulsion --
at events like these. While that may seem predictable, the thing that really
riles him is sitting through b'nai mitzvah ceremonies that hijack the Jewish
Sabbath (Shabbos) morning services. The rabbis often cut short the usual rituals
at the expense of the regular congregants to accommodate the guests of honor.
"By robbing the day of its central purposes, communal prayer and public
Torah reading," writes Oppenheimer, "b'nai mitzvah's heightened importance
within the Jewish community actually seemed to cripple the ritual's religious
potential ... The first Torah service a young man or woman takes part in is
not a true Torah service at all, but a reasonable facsimile of one ... the child
is guaranteed success for an audience of invited friends and relatives."
It especially infuriates Oppenheimer because so many of these families join
the synagogue on a short-term, opportunistic basis, becoming members a year
or two before their child's bar or bat mitzvah, with no interest in engaging
spiritually or communally with the congregation. In fact, most of them don't
renew their memberships once their children complete their rites of passage.
After the ceremonies, Oppenheimer follows the guests to the over-the-top b'nai
mitzvah parties, which are fully staffed with DJs, tarot card readers, bartenders,
caricaturists. Some of the receptions have "party motivators" -- people
hired to "chat up the guests at cocktail hour, often engaging the boys
and girls in flirtatious -- but not too flirtatious -- conversation, and then
dance, dance, dance when the music starts to play." He even attends a couple
of bar and bat mitzvah party expos in Teaneck, N.J., and Greenwich, Conn., to
take note of the latest cultural trends in the realms of photography, entertainment
and catering. "The saddest thing about the party culture," he writes,
"is not that it is lavish, but that it can affect a self-perpetuating ubiquity
and a sense of helplessness. A family is still free to do its own decorating,
build the piñata, cook the food, and play CDs from a stereo ... But where
a spending race has, like an arms race, heated up, increasingly professional
and sophisticated party choreography threatens to make homemade celebrations
seem corny and juvenile."
Oppenheimer eventually moves away from the more revolting b'nai mitzvah --
we read about plenty of those in magazine exposés, anyway -- and uncovers
families for whom the ritual holds serious significance. With this shift, his
attitude changes, from disapproval to varying degrees of amazement, and his
expressions of smugness, too, adjust from outright disgust to gentle sarcasm.
The proximity to religiosity, spirituality and any glimmer of sentimentality
appears to threaten Oppenheimer; here, he's like a smart-alecky teenager whose
running commentary is more entertaining to him than the surrounding stimulus.
He did warn us; Oppenheimer explains early on that his secular parents raised
him to be cynical about organized religion. I presume, then, that he is soulful
and brave to pursue his intellectual curiosity with such vigor and intelligence.
If only he didn't feel the need to assert a distance with snark, as he does
when describing a frosted-haired Torah tutor, and a Jewish Renewal ceremony
in Alabama. He is even a bit righteous when he goes to Beth El-Keser Israel
(BEKI) synagogue in New Haven, Conn., which has a decidedly egalitarian Conservative
Jewish congregation whose vibe is "a mélange of Shetland-wool intellectual
and post-sixties hippie."
The bat mitzvah girl at BEKI, Annie Bass, has chosen to obey all religious
strictures. (As Oppenheimer notes, the bat mitzvah is a relatively new creation,
invented in 1922 by Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the liberal Reconstructionist
movement. Conservatives didn't catch on until the 1950s.) Annie's observant
family raised her to keep "Shabbos" -- withholding from writing or
working, operating electrical appliances, or exchanging money on Friday nights
and Saturdays until sundown -- but she's decided to pray every day. "It's
pretty and it's meaningful. I don't know what it means, but it's meaningful,"
Annie explains to Oppenheimer. She also wears the small black boxes that contain
scraps of Hebrew scripture known as tefillin, which are traditionally only worn
by men. "With this religious devotion, she was choosing to accept that
there are things one does not choose," writes Oppenheimer, who holds her
up as an example of Jewish wholesomeness, and her bat mitzvah, as "the
antidote to Scarsdale."
Oppenheimer knows Annie is unlike anyone he will ever meet. She comes from
an anti-materialistic family, and designed her own bat mitzvah. Opting out of
a knock-down, drag-out party, she instead preferred a small gathering for a
buffet lunch at the synagogue after the morning service. The author is keenly
aware that Annie is special, "venerated for being the kind of young Jew
rabbis and teachers and parents hope for, spiritually committed and spiritually
gifted." "I felt slightly ashamed of the burden that, unbeknownst
to Annie, I was placing on her," he writes. Indeed, only the Lubavitcher
bar mitzvah boy he encounters in Alaska appears as devoted as Annie -- these
two make for exceptional, obvious studies -- but that is not to say that they
are the only dedicated, earnest Jewish souls he encounters on his cross-country
Mendy Greenberg, the Lubavitcher living in Anchorage, Alaska, is not the kind
of 13-year-old you meet every day, though. He is eager to have his bar mitzvah
so he can have the honor of carrying on the missionary work of Rebbe Menachem
Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. To him, manhood is "the onset of his
responsibility to save the souls of world Jewry." Part of this involves
undertaking Schneerson's obligatory "Tefillin Campaign," a mission
to get as many Jewish men to wear tefillin as possible -- Oppenheimer, who doesn't
know how to lay tefillin, offers himself up as a student.
In Tampa, Oppenheimer hooks up with tutor Judi Gannon, who teaches "trop"
-- or chanting -- of the Torah. Chanting from the Torah is one of the most difficult
tasks, because the entire Torah is written in consonant letters, with no vowel
markings, making it nearly impossible to sight-read. One of Oppenheimer's strangest
missteps appears here, when he offers an unsettling example to convey the complexity
of trop: He likens it to singing a piece by Hitler's favorite composer. Is he
nuts, naive, or was this truly the only example he could conjure, as when he
writes, "To chant the entire Torah ... is akin to singing all the parts
in Wagner's Ring cycle from a text that has neither vowels nor any musical notes."
Not a few Jews would be horrified to see "Torah" and "Wagner"
in the same sentence.
After making fun of Judi's frosted hair, her breathless enthusiasm (he quotes
her in paragraphs, and describes her manner of telling her life story "as
if she were the emcee of a variety show, introducing one act after another")
and her house full of b'nai mitzvah tchotchkes, he finally pays her the respect
she deserves. Judi is wholly committed to her students and the synagogue, and
boasts an immense knowledge of the Torah -- and she is a necessity in a town
with such a small Jewish community.
Indeed, one of the reasons the bar and bat mitzvah has endured in American
culture, Oppenheimer discovers, especially in predominantly non-Jewish areas,
is the fact that it is a public declaration. "It's a natural opportunity
for Jews to proclaim that they exist and to perform their existence in a way
that the neighbors can see," as Jacob Newman does in Fayetteville, Ala.,
at his hippie-ish Jewish Renewal ceremony. "At Temple Shalom, the very
occasional bar mitzvah, perhaps one a year, is a gathering of the Jewish and
the Jewish-ish -- the fellow travelers, the onlookers, the bookish folks and
literati, the liberals and hippies, the somehow different -- and a sizable cluster
of sympathetic but more clueless Gentiles, the classmates and co-workers who
are happy to see what this Jewish stuff is all about."
Jacob's bar mitzvah at the Unitarian Universalist Society has congregants picking
instruments out of a bag before the service -- mariachis, wooden eggs, tambourines,
glockenspiels -- to accompany a guitarist who sings and strums the service in
Hebrew and English, not unlike a 1970s guitar Mass. But it's not as cloying
as all that, according to Oppenheimer, who said he was "unexpectedly moved
to poignant gratitude, one that persuaded me to quiet my cynical side, just
for a moment, and sway in time to the guitar."
If only we got to know the bar mitzvah boy as intimately as the kookiness of
his ceremony, not to mention the local color. Indeed, with the exception of
rare cases like Mendy and Annie, who appear in Thirteen and a Day as
sideshow attractions, we have little sense of the b'nai mitzvah kids. We don't
learn much about how most of these boys and girls feel about preparing for the
big day, how the ritual resonates for them, and how their Jewish identities
fit into their respective communities. They are, after all, the VIPs, if only
for a day.
But that's only a quibble in light of the unexpected -- and delightful -- payoff
to Oppenheimer's painstaking research: By investigating the history of this
Jewish coming-of-age ritual, he has become more knowledgeable about it than
a bar mitzvah boy. As Oppenheimer explains the nuances of trop, or describes
an irrepressible young teenage boy wrapping the leather straps of the tefillin
around his forearm, the author's cynicism melts away, and he lets slip his own
naked enthusiasm for the beauty of these rituals. I am a secular Jew who harbors
her own skepticism for organized religion -- I hated Hebrew school -- but I
was admittedly verklempt when I first went to the Western Wall, and I am always
humbled when I hear the sound of the shofar. One of the things I admire most
about Judaism is that it rejects blind faith. 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). And, unlike
most kids preparing to be men and women of the commandment, he will probably
retain this information far longer. Insist though he does throughout "Thirteen
and a Day" that he doesn't want to be bar mitzvahed -- too bad. His investigative
pursuit transformed him into something of an honorary, if reluctant, bar mitzvah
boy -- the kind any rabbi or Jewish parent would be most proud of.