Boris Fishman

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Coming of Age in the Burbs

The bar or bat mitzvah is a religious ceremony that initiates a Jewish boy or girl into adulthood. But you already knew that. You watched Krusty the Klown have a belated bar mitzvah on ”The Simpsons,” and you remember that Samantha arranged a bat mitzvah after-party on ”Sex and the City.” B’nai mitzvah — the Hebrew plural term — are ubiquitous in America, even though the Torah doesn’t mention the rite, which appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages and didn’t become an important part of Jewish American social life until after World War II. Why then, asks the journalist Mark Oppenheimer in ”Thirteen and a Day,” does this ritual continue to flourish in a country where so many Jews lead mostly secular lives?

In a half-dozen snapshot-clear chapters, Oppenheimer travels the country to find out. Crashing some post-bar-mitzvah festivities at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in Manhattan, he glumly takes in the mock casino that is the evening’s highlight, and wonders if the religious ceremony is merely an excuse to have a lavish party. In Scarsdale, a rabbi’s simplification of his b’nai mitzvah sermon into a catalog of Hallmark homilies seems to confirm that suspicion. (”I’ve always said the child is more important than the text,” another rabbi explains.)

Oppenheimer grants that tradition survives when practice accommodates changing times, but Scarsdale, he feels, has it all wrong. In his view, such concessions to the distracted lives of modern adolescents compromise b’nai mitzvah’s seminal experience of faith and community — to perform, publicly,” as he puts it, ”the chanting of an ancient language” and express ”devotion to the simple idea that there are things worth doing just because our parents and grandparents did them.”

Oppenheimer discovers antidotes, and in some unlikely places. In an ”egalitarian” neo-hippie synagogue in New Haven, a girl uses her bat mitzvah recitation to celebrate the virtues of dissent, a poignant message when you consider that the modern female ceremony wasn’t invented until 1922. And in Fayetteville, Ark., he visits a tiny Jewish community that preserves the faith through Unitarian innovations that make its traditions accessible to a wider, non-Jewish audience. At both these synagogues, practice departs from tradition, but in ways that Oppenheimer believes will succor rather than undermine the essence of the ritual.

Despite his academic background (he has a doctorate in religious history from Yale), Oppenheimer doesn’t spend much time analyzing why b’nai mitzvah persist. (He doesn’t, for example, consider the possibility that Jewish culture’s increasing integration into the mainstream may be precisely what has ensured the popularity of one of its most public celebrations.) Then again, the book is about more than b’nai mitzvah: it’s also the story of Oppenheimer’s own growing attachment to the faith of his ancestors.

Try as he might to preserve his journalistic detachment, this child of ”communist, atheist” parents who has ”come to the tradition a little late” is enchanted by the beauty and rigor of observant Jewish life. In a moving scene, he ”lays tefillin” — a ritual that involves binding the head and arms with small wooden boxes filled with Torah verses — with a recently bar mitzvahed Hasidic boy, an experience that initially strikes his intellectual side as ”atavistic and scary, especially because it seems to answer no purpose except fealty.” To the benefit of his book, Oppenheimer finally surrenders to the ritual, ”choosing to accept that there are things one does not choose.”

Published
July 10, 2005