In the post-punk new wave summer of 1982, I became a bar mitzvah at 13. I led my synagogue’s Friday night services; then my family brought our closest relatives from Brooklyn and Long Island to a festive dinner at Raindancer, a long-defunct Rockville Pike restaurant. The next morning we crammed into Beth Tikva on a stuffy Shabbat: I did some prayers for the opening service, the shacharit. I chanted torah (the first five books of the Bible scrolled in ancient musical Hebrew) in honor of my paternal grandmother, read the obligatory haftorah, and then got nervous and omitted the standard bar mitzvah speech. (My father had written it; I think it was about Jimmy Carter.) After the rabbi and I led the torah procession around the congregation, I chanted the entire afternoon musaf service. For years, I’d looked forward to the moment when the rabbi would lay hands on my forehead and bless me. I was so nervous I only felt his mumbling; to this day I have no idea what he said. More important for me was showing off for my parents some very adult talents in chanting Hebrew and leading Jewish services. In that respect, my bar mitzvah was a smash success.
You’ll notice I began by telling you I “became” a bar mitzvah. Until I read Mark Oppenheimer’s book Thirteen and a Day, I (as many Jews still do) would have said I “had” a bar mitzvah. Something I learned from Oppenheimer’s book: one does not “have” a bar or bat (“b’nai”) mitzvah. One does not acquire it as a possession. As Oppenheimer teaches us, one “becomes” a b’nai mitzvah—embarks upon a journey, prepares the transformation from childhood to adulthood. One “becomes” by giving one’s self to the b’nai mitzvah process. It is not a product to be “had.”
At the beginning of Thirteen and a Day, the author’s foremost concern isn’t the religious transformation—it’s the often lavish celebrations that now grab the spotlight. Oppenheimer travels the scattered American Jewish communities to study b’nai mitzvahs in their national diversity. The result is a sociological and historical analysis of an institution. And, beginning his journey in New York City, Oppenheimer exposes an institution turned status-symbol consumer product. In Manhattan we find the uninvited Oppenheimer gone undercover, infiltrating private hotel festivities. (He’s prepared to tell hospitality personnel he’s posed as a Jewish-looking counteragent to combat terrorism.) His observations are funny, crass, and a bit disturbing: there’s the humongous party supply exposition with displays for Digital Desserts. (Their motto: “Who says you can’t have your photo on a cake and eat it, too?”) There are theme parties fetishizing pop music, idol athletes, and even casino games complete with green-felt game tables and wind chambers which bluster about Monopoly money for screaming, leaping children. And there’s Oppenheimer asking a friend about the theme for her daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah: “Judaism,” she retorts pointedly. Like a blast from a shofar horn, she essentially calls for Jews to restore higher meaning to the madness.
Indeed, the religious ceremony features more prominently after the initial chapter entitled “The Partyers.” From Connecticut, Oppenheimer spotlights the preternaturally spiritual bat mitzvah Annie and the religious awakening she’s stirred in her secular Jewish father and convert mother. In Florida, we meet exuberant torah tutor Judi and the students she teaches to chant: the soccer star, the adolescent masked in painful orthodonture, the mildly retarded immigrant whose parents speak even less English than Hebrew. The synagogue services Oppenheimer attends in Arkansas are new-age revival-tent affairs, rife with percussive instruments and veritable chanting-in-tongue. Perhaps the most fascinating setting Oppenheimer uncovers is a Hasidic Orthodox enclave in Alaska, where a family of rabbis propels its children to outposts worldwide for the purpose of converting Jews to more strictly observed Judaism. The final leg of the author’s journey brings him to his family’s native Louisiana.
Oppenheimer skillfully spans centuries and world cultures to explain the history of b’nai mitzvah (and Judaism) to Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike. He explains how the first 19th century German “reform” Jews rebelled against overt Jewishness. We discover how nature-reveling Hasidic Orthodox Jews turned somber and resurrected various arcane European practices. We learn how recently the founding father of “Reconstructionism,” Mordecai Kaplan, reconceived a more egalitarian Judaism by providing America’s first bat mitzvah for his daughter. Oppenheimer stitches into his narrative an impressive array of support: documented sources (with unobtrusive footnotes), interviews, and a peppering of interesting tidbits and factoids, all of which Oppenheimer weaves together in a refreshingly non-academic manner while maintaining a deft linguistic command. In Thirteen and a Day Oppenheimer seamlessly translates Hebrew and Yiddish into English. For instance, if you read carefully, you’ll uncover Oppenheimer’s logic behind interspersing hypothetical gender “she” and “he.” When discussing the boy’s-only bar mitzvah culture of yesteryear, the author uses “he.” When setting a more contemporary, egalitarian context, he reminds readers that the b’nai mitzvah could be a “she.”
Most entertainingly—perhaps most importantly—Oppenheimer lets the fascinating characters along his odyssey speak for themselves. At length. The spiritually enlightened girl Annie, who has turned her entire household to a strict shomer shabbas observance, takes Oppenheimer to her bookshelves and shows him her secret collection of clay figurines she crafts against the Jewish Shabbat work ban. Oppenheimer knows when to condense rabbi’s explanations of religious laws and compromises . . . and when to let a rabbi roam the synagogue stage as he leads the b’nai mitzvah class in the Jewish-pride game of Real-Names-of-Celebrity-Jews (“Winona Horowitz [Ryder] . . . Barry Pincus [Manilow]”). In another chapter, Oppenheimer reports torah tutor Judi Gannon over the phone, inviting him to her home:
“Of course you’ll come. You’ll come for a whole week, I hope. You’ll meet me; you’ll meet the girls I am working with. I am working with two terrific girls right now . . . [a]fter them, I take a sabbatical. Our shul down here, Kol Ami, is wonderful. Of course, to have a wonderful shul, you need a wonderful rabbi, and we have a wonderful rabbi . . . [h]e’s a Canadian. And a wife and three kids. He is just great. They’re all great, though we’re afraid we could lose them. Their kids are getting older, and there’s no Hebrew high school in Tampa for them, so they might go somewhere there’s a Hebrew high school. You should see my appointment book for the past year. It has just been crazy. I need Judi time, that’s why I’m taking a sabbatical. Now, if someone offered me a contract to come back, I would come back—maybe. And even while I’m gone, I might give special lessons. But it’s time for me to spend time with my family. Do you know that I miss my own family’s weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, because I have to go—I want to go—to the [ceremonies] of the boys and girls I teach? This job takes over your life. When are you coming?” (p. 102)
Oppenheimer’s authorial presence scans with an astute eye and speaks with an often deliciously bitchy tongue—but he allows various other characters their own natural schtick.
My only real criticism of this book is actually further praise, depending on your perspective regarding Judaism and religion. The last chapter, “We’re All Jews Now,” brings to bear the theme he’s developing throughout. In Judaism, as in many other religions, the coming-of-age ritual derives from sketchy (and even apocryphal) documentation. It has exploded in popularity such that its excesses drive some Jews to excoriate it—and many well-to-do non-Jews to appropriate it with “faux mitzvahs” for their children. And, resembling the proliferation of Protestant offshoots in Christian America, Jewish b’nai mitzvahs play out such that no two ceremonies look alike. In other words—given the crass consumerism Oppenheimer starts with—he concludes that bar and bat mitzvahs have come to symbolize not just all American religious practices but America itself.
I will admit that, as a traditional-minded Jew and defiant sort, this notion gives me the heebie-jeebies, especially when I read about Oppenheimer traipsing across the deep South. In Florida, Oppenheimer finds the minority Judaism losing its particularity among the generally Christian majority. Tampa shows us a Church of Scientology outpost lurking wherever there’s a synagogue hurting for members. As synagogue memberships dwindle nationwide, a marketplace of Eastern-flavored spiritual practices and pseudo-Christian congregations emerge, beckoning to the Jew who wishes neither to convert from nor delve into Judaism. Even the mere hint of Judaism’s disintegration troubles me: whether it’s Christianity un-Jewing the Jewish people or our own capitalistic urges assimilating us.
But try as I might to argue Oppenheimer’s thesis, I can’t really deny it. After all, he’s portrayed the Judaism of my past—and its place in today’s spiritual marketplace. American Jews once assimilated, fearing their old-world religion would clash with their Christian new world. Now the old-world Jewish peculiarities have diminished and Judaism appears more as a mere choice of product, its shelf-life growing stale alongside others. The b’nai mitzvah party essentially devoid of religion really serves as a perfect metaphor: a place where America seeks to commune with like-minded friends and party with a generic God. Maybe all bat and bar mitzvahs are faux mitzvahs anymore . . . and maybe we are all Jews now.
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