Wide-ranging exploration of modern American b’nai mitzvah customs and practices.
Journalist Oppenheimer, raised as a secular Jew, never became a bar mitzvah—a “son of the commandment”—himself (the colloquial phrase, “to get bar mitzvah’d,” is an incorrect usage of the term), and he wants to find out what he missed. Although he originally intended to research the practices of one Westchester congregation for a year, the board of directors put the kibosh on that project, so he took to the road across America in search of the essence of the bar/bat mitzvah experience. Here, he begins in New York, and the predictable excesses are found: the ceremonies where often bewildered teenaged guests far outnumber regular congregants, the extravagant black-tie parties, etc. On the other end of the spectrum is a highly observant congregation in New Haven, peopled by idealists, with services led by congregants rather than rabbis. Oppenheimer also visits that lynchpin of many children’s b’nai mitzvah year: the tutor. Ostensibly just the woman who teaches children how to chant their torah portion, in fact a focal point for that child’s Judaism. Exploring the dominant presence of the ceremony today, Oppenheimer turns up some interesting tidbits that point to the strength of the tradition that has risen to real prominence only in the last 30 or 40 years. Even Noam Chomsky, well known for his unrelenting secularism and anti-Zionism, was forced to join a synagogue congregation when his daughter insisted on becoming a bat mitzvah. Although the book does feel as if it’s casting about for an organizing thesis, the author highlights a lot of interesting bits and pieces, including this one at the close: apparently influenced by the bar mitzvah, at least 1,200 churches have demanded a coming-of-age ceremony for young teenagers.
Good stuff, lacking only a center to pull it all together.