The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America

By Mark Oppenheimer

Farrar Straus Giroux. 256 pp. $24

Thirteen and a day is the age of Jewish majority, traditionally observed by a boy's bar mitzvah ceremony and, more recently and sometimes at a slightly younger age, by a girl's bat mitzvah. These public and religious rites of passage, sometimes followed by parties of breathtaking lavishness, have become in the past 50 years or so a significant aspect of Jewish American life, even among the irreligious and assimilated. What's going on here? Why is it happening? Is it good for the Jews? And can it be done for less than $50,000? These are just some of the questions Mark Oppenheimer explores as he crisscrosses America in search of varieties of bar and bat mitzvah experiences.

Oppenheimer, who holds a PhD in religious history, has a shrewd eye and tells a good story. And he has some lurid tales to tell about the over-the-top parties that are such an irresistible target for writers: sexed-up affairs with throbbing music and hard-bodied "party motivators" hired to get everyone out on the dance floor, gold-lamed deejays, tarot-card readers, glass blowers, tattoo artists and celebrity impersonators, not to mention the laser shows and the legendary bar-mitzvah-boy bust made out of chopped liver. Many parties also favor themes -- such as Broadway (with gold plastic statuettes) or golf (with dimpled balloons to resemble golf balls) or casino night (with blackjack tables, dealers, a roulette wheel and fake money). So it was nice to learn that one mother, when asked to describe the theme of her daughter's bat mitzvah party, replied simply and sensibly, "Judaism."

But if you're looking for a supercilious take on the current state of b'nai mitzvah (that's the plural form), Oppenheimer's thoughtful, respectful book, which includes an account of his personal Jewish history, doesn't provide it. Not especially anguished over "our country's peculiar mix of piety and materialism," he's more likely to highlight the positive news in even the most unpromising bar mitzvah, reminding us of "the hard work of children who -- learning a dead language, reading from ancient texts, and being celebrated for it -- do inch closer to being Jewish men and women."

Investigating the many ways in which this major rite of passage is marked, he attends b'nai mitzvah across the religious spectrum. And while he can't always embrace what he sees, he generously, or perhaps ruefully, observes that "everything is moving to somebody."

Ben's bar mitzvah, held in what may be the largest temple of them all, New York City's Congregation Emanu-El, is a brisk, 40-minute example of what some scholars label Classical Reform Judaism, with few yarmulkes, not much Hebrew -- and organ music.

Jacob's small-town bar mitzvah, held in a rented room in Fayetteville, Ark., and attended by 75 Jews, gentiles and pagans, is a loosey-goosey Jewish Renewal-cum-New Age celebration in which attendees are given wooden eggs, tambourines and glockenspiels and invited to join the guitarist in making music.

Annie becomes a bat mitzvah (technically, you become one rather than have one) at the Conservative shul known as BEKI in New Haven, Conn., affirming in her ceremony her love of learning, her questioning mind, her non-materialism and her deeply grounded spirituality.

And among the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Anchorage, in a modest basement synagogue with a barrier separating men from women, bar-mitzvah-boy Mendy -- in broad-brimmed hat and silk-sashed Shabbos jacket -- confidently leads the service that will join him, as a man, to a lifetime of stringent religious obligations.

In addition to interviewing bat mitzvah girls and bar mitzvah boys and attending their ceremonies and their parties, Oppenheimer talks to their mothers, fathers and family friends as well as their rabbis and tutors in an effort to understand the context in which these various b'nai mitzvah take place. He sorts out the denominations of Judaism, ponders the difficulties of the cantillation (chanting) of Torah, looks at the seemingly atavistic "laying of tefillin" (which involves ritualistically binding parts of the body with leather straps and small boxes containing Torah passages) and converses with "Jews by choice" about their decision to convert. He also travels to Temple Sinai in Lake Charles, La., where Jacob Ecker, 65, and Rena LeJeune, 63, both adult converts, are preparing for their late-in-life b'nai mitzvah ceremonies. And although on their big day their Hebrew pronunciation is somewhat less than perfect, each of them appears to be, Oppenheimer reports, "terrifically proud."

It's that pride that Oppenheimer encourages in those Jews who are critical of the imperfect or worse bar mitzvah, who view the rite as an embarrassment of conspicuous consumption or a parody of true religious feeling. But Oppenheimer insists that the increased popularity of b'nai mitzvah suggests a growing hunger for the ritual. And although he won't convince everyone, his engaging book makes the argument that the service (even if lightweight) and the party (even if gaudy) can still be of genuine value to the participants, who are standing before their community and, in a public Jewish ceremony, taking their first steps into adulthood.