Saving the bar mitzvah.

How we interpret the past.
May 19 2005 7:28 AM

Bar Mitzvah Madness

The bar mitzvah's history holds a clue to saving the modern-day ritual.

The Bar Mitzvah: Are its days numbered?
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The Bar Mitzvah: Are its days numbered?

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Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

The "bash mitzvah," as New York once dubbed it, is alive and unwell as a peculiarly American form of excess. As a teenager in the 1980s, I attended parties where DJs spun REO Speedwagon and kids skulked around the edges of the dance floor near a life-size cardboard cutout of the bar mitzvah boy. That sort of awkwardness now seems quaint. (Have a look at Bar Mitzvah Disco and you'll see what I mean.) At today's faux adult parties, as Mark Oppenheimer reports in Thirteen and a Day, his tour of the American bar mitzvah, kids rub up against older "party motivators" and gamble away monopoly money at blackjack tables. Dropping off your son or daughter at such an affair, you could be forgiven for wondering if it isn't time for the bar mitzvah to go.

The bar mitzvah's saving grace is the learning it demands—the passage to adulthood isn't all fun and games. In preparing for the ritual, most kids learn to read Hebrew, if not understand it, and work out something to say about the part of the Torah that they chant. Some have spent years in Hebrew school programs, attended Shabbat services regularly, and become familiar enough with the liturgy to lead the congregation on their big day and comfortably join in thereafter. A kid who has worked hard reaps his reward in parental and communal pride. Earlier this month, I watched a bar mitzvah boy read with authority from a small Torah that had been found by his great-great uncle, a rabbi in the U.S. Army, amid a large cache of stolen Judaica in Frankfurt, Germany, during World War II. It fell to his father to explain the Torah's provenance. He bowed his kippah-covered head and cried while his son looked on solemnly and then drew close for a hug.

Such moments are rare, however. Even in its better incarnations, the bar mitzvah these days has more in common with studying for a big test than with fostering piety or kavana, which loosely translates as "finding meaning in prayer." As Oppenheimer points out, the paradox of the bar mitzvah is that it's flourishing as a coming-of-age ritual among Jews who generally don't take religious maturity seriously. The ceremony is of true import for Orthodox boys, who are obligated to obey the many commandments of Jewish law after the ceremony, but for most kids, no clear-cut privilege awaits at the end of the day. Instead, the anticipation is all on the front end, in the form of practice sessions and last-minute jitters. If the bar mitzvah is mostly a prep-intensive performance, then is it what over-programmed 13-year-olds really need? When I tutored b'nai mitzvah b'nai mitzvah students for a spell, one mother expressed her fervent hope that all the practicing and study would help her son cultivate the habits he'd need to ace the SAT. And that was 10 years ago, at a progressive synagogue that I loved, in Berkeley.

Oppenheimer (whom I know socially and professionally) defends the bar mitzvah by arguing that it's always been a modern concoction: Until recently, Judaism never treated 13-year-olds as adults. In biblical census counts recorded in the books of Exodus and Numbers, the age of majority is 20. The Talmud uses the term "bar mitzvah" in reference to a blessing a father gives to God when he's released from responsibility for his son's observance of Jewish law. The first description of a "bar mitzvah feast" comes from a Polish rabbi writing around 1500 about a German custom. The event in its current form—a reading from the Torah in Hebrew, an explication of that reading in the vernacular, a food-and-drink celebration—didn't catch on widely until it reached New York in the late 19th century. There, it became, in the words of one rabbi, "the greatest of holidays among our Jewish brethren." (The bat mitzvah for girls was a later American addition.)

Thirteen is old enough to learn how to speak in public, greet a crowd, and politely accept gifts; if that's all a kid gets out of the ritual, Oppenheimer argues, then that's enough. He fondly recalls the old joke about the bar mitzvah speech that begins not, "Today, I am a man!" but rather, "Today, I am a fountain pen!" in tribute to the once common gift. And he points out that the harried middle-school student of today is hardly new. As early as 1908, kids were being slipped the equivalent of CliffsNotes—copies of A Collection of Various Bar Mitzvah Speeches in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, Compiled by Famous Jewish Scholars and Orators. It doesn't much matter if adults don't remember their b'nai mitzvah well or fondly, Oppenheimer claims, or if kids derive little meaning from it at the time. They're still publicly proclaiming their commitment to Judaism.

But this is setting the bar pretty low. A public proclamation of "commitment" is, well, hardly a commitment. At 13, most kids don't choose to become b'nai mitzvah—they have the event foisted on them by their parents. At best, practicing their Torah reading is something they do to keep the nagging at bay; at worst, it's homework they resent and blow off. For many, the process can feel more infantilizing than inspiring—less like a first act of growing up than another reminder of her parents' shaping of her identity, just as she's struggling to shape her own.

If it makes you shudder even to contemplate such blasphemy, here's a notion: Why not do away with the age requirement? After all, as a recent American innovation, the bar mitzvah is surely ours to improve upon. Of course, there are many kids who will never choose to become b'nai mitzvah if left to their own devices, just as there are others who will surprise themselves by choosing to—and by accomplishing more than they think they could, without their parents prodding them at every step. If the bar mitzvah weren't set in stone at age 13, teenagers and adults could choose to read from the Torah for the first time when they were moved to—and they would get a real (rather than symbolic) taste of adulthood. So what if it takes some Jews decades to come around? One of my students in Berkeley was a woman in her 60s who'd grown up without a Jewish education. Her name was Bracha, and she kvetched plenty about how hard she had to study. But she stuck with it, and she knew, by the end, the value of the gift she'd given herself. Doing away with the set age will lead to fewer b'nai mitzvahs—but they'd be more deeply felt. And that's probably a trade-off worth making. Just don't tell my kids I ever said so.