Excerpted from 13 and a Day by Mark Oppenheimer. Copyright © 2005 by Mark Oppenheimer. Publishes in June, 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
The American Rite
The typical bar or bat mitzvah ceremony—the religious part, anyway—is quite simple. A boy of about thirteen, or a girl of twelve or thirteen, leads a portion of the traditional Jewish Sabbath service and reads aloud some of the Bible portions assigned to that week. The event is supposed to mark the moment when a young Jew assumes the responsibilities of religious adulthood.
In the United States, however, when most people hear the term “bar mitzvah,” “bat mitzvah,” or the plural, “b’nai mitzvah,” they think of the party that follows the religious ceremony. The language we use is telling: while one really becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, a son or daughter of the commandment, Americans speak of “having” a bar mitzvah, the way one “has” a wedding. Even for traditional, observant Jews who take the religious aspect seriously, a bar or bat mitzvah is as much an event as it is a person; for irreligious Jews, it’s one of the very few events, along with yearly celebrations of Hanukkah and Passover, that may mark them as Jewish.
For several centuries after the bar mitzvah’s beginning in medieval times, the ritual was, as far as scholars can tell, only a rite of passage from Jewish youth to manhood, not a grand feast. We don’t even know if parties for the bar mitzvah existed before the sixteenth century. But now the party is often a social coming-out, a boy’s or girl’s first big day, analogous to a debutante’s ball. Once, the best-known visual image of a bar mitzvah was the German painter Moritz Oppenheim’s 1869 painting of a bar mitzvah boy delivering his speech; today, far more people would recognize Lauren Greenfield’s famous photograph, from her book Fast Forward, of thirteen-year-old Adam dancing at a bar mitzvah in Los Angeles, his face level with a hired dancer’s breasts.
A century ago, the bar mitzvah was not an important part of Jewish American social life. Reform Jews did not practice the bar mitzvah, and few Orthodox Jews could afford lavish balls in their children’s honor. When there was a party, it was for relatives and for parents’ friends, only incidentally for other teenagers. The bar mitzvah boy was discharging a religious duty, and for his learning, for his successful completion of the task, he would get his parents’ pride, some small gifts—a wallet, a money clip, a fountain pen—and maybe a little money, to be put in his first savings account. Only fifty years ago, it would not have seemed possible that the bar mitzvah would become common in every branch of Judaism and the bat mitzvah nearly ubiquitous too. Nobody foresaw the parties for hundreds, with deejays and professional dancers and decorations costing thousands of dollars or even more. But b’nai mitzvah became so popular, so swiftly, that now it’s hard to imagine a time when they were not such a big deal.
There was such a time once, a time when many faithful Jewish boys and girls gave only a thought to the ceremony and even less consideration to the party afterward. But today, if a family goes to synagogue at all—and often even if they don’t go—the children celebrate b’nai mitzvah. How they celebrate them, what those celebrations look like, and what they mean have become a problem for contemporary Judaism, with the power to pervert religion into neurosis, joy into anxiety.
Worried rabbis and parents try to focus their children on the spiritual, rather than the material or sensual, significance of b’nai mitzvah, but success has been fitful. Particularly in areas with big Jewish populations, the lavish bar or bat mitzvah party is not just a rite but a right: in Great Neck or Beverly Hills, to have parents who won’t throw a big bar mitzvah party is like having parents who won’t allow television; to have the religious ceremony with no grand festivity afterward would be like Hanukkah without the presents. It’s not that a bar mitzvah can’t be a simple affair, but in these towns the simple affair is the unusual one, and the low-key bar mitzvah is left to self-styled bohemians and counterculturalists.
There is a lot of angst about these parties. Not only can they be elaborate and expensive, but they can be depressingly similar. They are time-consuming. They are repetitive. In towns with large Jewish populations, junior-high-schoolers may be invited to a bar or bat mitzvah every weekend of the school year: endless carpooling for parents, dozens of party dresses for girls, a thousand dollars in gifts. And yet these festivities are one of American Jews’ gifts to the world.