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Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America [NOOK Book]


A striking look at the Jewish rite-and at American Jews in all their diversity

Since its emergence here a century ago, the bar or bat mitzvah has become a distinctively American rite of passage, so much so that, in certain suburbs today, gentile families throw parties for their thirteen-year-olds, lest they feel left out. How did this come about? To answer that question, Mark Oppenheimer set out across America to attend the most distinctive ...
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Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America

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A striking look at the Jewish rite-and at American Jews in all their diversity

Since its emergence here a century ago, the bar or bat mitzvah has become a distinctively American rite of passage, so much so that, in certain suburbs today, gentile families throw parties for their thirteen-year-olds, lest they feel left out. How did this come about? To answer that question, Mark Oppenheimer set out across America to attend the most distinctive b'nai mitzvah he could find, and Thirteen and a Day is the story of what he found- an altogether fresh look at American Jews today.

Beginning with the image of a party of gaudy excess, Oppenheimer then goes farther afield in the great tradition of literary journalists from Joseph Mitchell to Ian Frazier and Susan Orlean. The two dozen Jews of Fayetteville, Arkansas, he finds, open their synagogue to eccentrics from all over the Ozarks. Those of Lake Charles, Louisiana, pass the hat to cover the expenses of their potluck dinner. And in Anchorage, Alaska, a Hasidic boy's bar mitzvah in a snowed-in hotel becomes a striking image of how far the Jewish diaspora has spread. In these people's company, privy to their soul-searching about their religious heritage, Oppenheimer finds that the day is full of wonder and significance.

Part travelogue, part spiritual voyage, Thirteen and a Day is a lyrical, entertaining, even revelatory look at American Jews and one of the most original books of literary journalism to appear in some years.

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Editorial Reviews

Judith Viorst
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.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Oppenheimer, raised in Springfield, Mass., by a mother born of "communist, atheist schoolteachers" and a father born of "irreligious German-American Jews" grew up in a home where "Leftism, not Torah or Zionism, was what mattered." Freshly armed with a Ph.D. in religious history from Yale, he embarked on a two-year odyssey to study the history of b'nai mitzvah-the Jewish tradition marking the beginning of one's adult religious obligations. Like Odysseus, though, he becomes distracted-by the Scylla and Charybdis of lavish New York and L.A. parties (he is very clear about his disdain for this practice) and by a hippie sculptor attending a service in Fayetteville, Ark. Surprisingly, despite a year of travel "across America," he focuses on only a few far-flung communities west of greater New York-Tampa, Fla.; Fayetteville, Ark.; Anchorage, Alaska; and St. Charles, La. Some readers will wonder: What about Cincinnati, home to Reform Judaism? Or Natchez, Miss., site of the oldest shul in the South? His stories, while fascinating, often focus more on the Jewish landscape of these towns, the histories of congregants and participants and less on the actual honoree, whether it's a 13-year-old or, in the case of the St. Charles celebrations, converting adults well past 50. Not really a story of teenage reaction to the Bar and Bat Mitzvah, this is a very personal rumination on Judaism in snapshot form. (June 6) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
There are a number of very good bar and bat mitzvah planning guides, but religious historian and journalist Oppenheimer, a Jew who was never bar-mitzvahed, examines this Jewish rite of passage from a different perspective. Traveling across the United States from New York to Anchorage, he attends the b'nai mitzvah of about a dozen young people-Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Lubavitcher. Oppenheimer profiles the ceremonies and parties, from simple family or community get-togethers to lavish, elaborately themed affairs at fancy country clubs or on cruise ships, and explores their significance in the leisurely, observant style typical of The New Yorker (for which he sometimes writes). Beyond the gala parties and hesitant Hebrew, Oppenheimer sees the ritual as a "terrifically ennobling experience" for the participant, an important public commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people, and a meaningful ritual not just for them but for "the Jews, and even the Gentiles, who surround them." While all Jewish young adults and their parents will benefit from this book, it is also highly recommended for all public libraries and their scores of patrons who will soon attend a bar or bat mitzvah.-Marcia Welsh, Dartmouth Coll., Hanover, NH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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: apparentlyinfluenced 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374708115
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/15/2007
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Mark Oppenheimer

Mark Oppenheimer, born in 1974, holds a Ph.D. in religious history from Yale. He was on the staff of The New Yorker and has written for Harper's and The American Scholar. A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, he lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Read an Excerpt

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.

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