About a dozen years ago, I traveled across the country crashing bar and bat mitzvahs, from Arkansas to Alaska. I sneaked into one swank New York City bar mitzvah party by posing as a security guard. I stealthily trailed a deluxe coach in my station wagon to figure out where the 13-year-olds were going for the after-party. I got mistaken for one of the hired dancers. I ate a lot of free finger food. It was all research for my book Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America. In the end, despite all the pop-culture ridicule that the bar and bat mitzvah come in for, the TV and movie depictions of bitchy, prematurely mature adolescents at lavish parties (e.g. in Sex and the City, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and many more), I argued that bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies—despite not being in the Torah, not being required, and being widely derided—are valuable coming-of-age ceremonies, and there’s a good reason that Jews who do almost nothing else Jewish nonetheless think that maybe their children should do this crazy thing.
The book is long out of print, probably because I didn’t have the vision to title it The Bar Mitzvah Crasher; the immensely popular movie The Wedding Crashers came out the same year my book did, and if I had piggybacked on the title, and set myself up as the Owen Wilson character, I’d probably still be counting my royalties. (If my book ever comes back into print, we know what we’ll retitle it.) Nevertheless, I still get emails from people who have happened on the book one way or another. And the question they most often have is, “How can we make our kid’s bar [or bat] mitzvah something special? How can we do it right?” How, in other words, can they avoid becoming a cliché, a party in search of a purpose?
I wrote Thirteen and a Day the year that I turned 31, a year before I even had any children, so I was understandably reluctant to offer any prescriptions. But now, years later, as my first daughter approaches bat mitzvah age, I have finally screwed up the courage to offer some wisdom. I still haven’t seen as many bar and bat mitzvahs as the average middle-schooler from a Jewish town on Long Island, but I’ve seen plenty, and talked to the rabbis and caterers, the hired “party motivators,” the florists, the Torah tutors. I’ve earned the T-shirt. I now give it to you. Ready? Here is my wisdom, in a nutshell:
The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony represents the child’s joining the community of Jewish adults.
From that definition, we can infer three big rules, drawing on three key words—ceremony, community, adults. We’ll take those one at a time.
First, it is a ceremony, but one that changes all the time. In the early text Genesis Rabbah, from the first millennium C.E., the bar mitzvah is simply the moment when the father recites the shepatarani prayer, which says, in effect, “Thanks, God, for making my son old enough that if he screws up, it’s on him, not me”—which, if you think about it, is still a workable definition of adulthood, when you are responsible for your own sins. Ages of first marriage or first driver’s license change with time and place, but moral responsibility really does come around early adolescence. Anyway, the ceremony has grown and changed since then, achieving something like its current form beginning in the Middle Ages. But the important thing is that it has evolved, which means that it is not fixed; no one form is commanded or required.
The bar and bat mitzvah ceremony has come to mean reading from a Torah scroll or leading part of the Shabbat service, although it didn’t have to evolve that way (more on that in a moment). But it’s so much more. It can involve a speech by the boy or girl. It can involve a testimony about the boy or girl from the rabbi. Usually, the parents say some words. The grandparents are acknowledged. At one temple near me, the rabbi always speaks about the Torah scroll itself, which in this case was rescued from Europe after the Holocaust. The multifaceted nature of the ceremony, with parts added over time, indicates that it could permit even more innovation—including the abolition, in some cases, of the requirement that the child chant Torah. The bat mitzvah was a 20th-century innovation, and, at first, it did not include reading Torah (and in more Orthodox circles, sometimes still doesn’t—if girls have bat mitzvah ceremonies at all). Throughout Jewish history, chanting Torah has been a specialized skill that only a minority of Jewish men, and a tinier minority of women, have had. There is no reason that we should keep torturing nonmusical children—or shy children, or those with stage-fright—by requiring them to perform a very specific skill that many will never do again.
We need more and different kinds of ceremonies, honoring the special gifts of each child. The child can perform tasks other than chanting Torah—indeed, the nearly ubiquitous inclusion of a speech is a step in that direction. But the ceremony could also be broadened to better include other people. Could multiple members of the congregation stand up to speak about the boy or girl? Should elementary school teachers, some of them gentiles, come to talk to about ways the bar or bat mitzvah has been a leader in school? What about the peer group, the friends—could they have some role other than putting on their best suits and dresses and partying afterward? Becoming a man or a woman is indeed a milestone, and it should be celebrated, ceremoniously. But that could, and should, mean many different things.
Second, the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony welcomes a Jew into a community. So it should not be a private ceremony. I don’t recommend a trip to Israel with some siblings and Bubbe and Zayde. As much as I like off-script, do-it-yourself religious creativity, being a Jewish adult means joining a Jewish community. It means being welcomed by an intergenerational community of elderly people, empty-nesters, young parents, and babies. And, ideally, it means having the poise and training to greet all those kinds of Jews, of different ages, with a smile and an appropriate greeting. It’s a moment when you are expected to deal with Jews outside your narrow age cohort, some of whom you may not know well. Because the Jewish family is diverse and multifarious, and we belong to all of them, and they to us.
So I recommend that if a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is important to a family, they join a community. Maybe it’s a temple or synagogue, maybe it’s an independent havurah, maybe it’s a group of other Jews struggling to find the right community. Maybe it’s an online community (as a last resort—Shabbat dinners are harder that way, as are hugs). Whatever it is, they won’t all be your kind of people. You won’t love every one of them. Some of them won’t share your politics or your beliefs. Some of them will seem snooty, others tacky. Some will seem too observant, others too casual about observance. But some of them will be loving and bring unexpected riches to your life. Judaism is a communal religion; we don’t do monasticism or hermeticism, and we can only pray fully in a group of 10. A central goal of the adult Jewish life should be spending some time with other Jews, and that bar or bat mitzvah can be a good time to start.
Jewish events are public events, by the way. Brises, for example, aren’t supposed to be by invitation; like shivas, sitting for the dead, they are announced to the community, and anyone can drop by. No reason a bar mitzvah can’t be an occasion to invite lots of people you don’t know, or barely know. They’ll feel honored, and you might make new friends.
And if, for whatever reason, there aren’t other Jews around, then have your ceremony around all your gentile friends (who can be invited even if there are plenty of other Jews). Take the occasion to explain to them, and show them, what your very different tradition is.
Finally, the bar or bat mitzvah is a ceremony welcoming a Jewish child to the community of Jewish adults. So it raises the question of what makes one an adult. Above, I noted that it’s the onset of moral responsibility. OK—so what else? Well, in most Jewish communities today, the adulthood is performed at the bar or bat mitzvah by leyning Torah, a skill the boy or girl may never again use. And, generally, the bar or bat mitzvah functions as a temporary graduation from Judaism, the Jew not to be seen again until his or her wedding (maybe). But what if we treated the bar or bat mitzvah as the onset of new adult responsibilities?
I believe that rabbis should talk with boys and girls approaching their bar or bat mitzvahs and say something like this: “Our community has a range of needs from its adults. We need people to chant Torah, yes. But we also need people to visit our sick elderly people in hospice. We need people to babysit during certain events when parents are busy. We need people to rake leaves and shovel snow. We need people to chop vegetables for the kiddush lunches. We need people to show up to help make a minyan. We need people to stuff envelopes for the monthly mailing. We need people to do tikkun olam for the wider, and non-Jewish, community. So: which of these gifts are you going to give us after you become a bar or bat mitzvah?”
In other words, flip the “bar mitzvah project.” Make it not a yearlong final exam leading up to the day you graduate from Judaism, but rather a commitment that you will undertake as a newly minted adult. Such an approach makes sense theologically. It gives a rabbi better grounds to talk about what Jewish adulthood really means—what we owe each other. And it honors the unique gifts of every child, including special-needs children, children with stage fright, tone-deaf children, and those who love being Jewish but aren’t moved by Jewish liturgy. This would, of course, be an expectation, not a contract; plenty of b’nai and b’not mitzvah would fail to uphold their commitments. But that’s OK. Plenty of much older adults fail, in all sorts of ways, all the time. Jews are human, after all. The point is to think of Jewish adulthood in a fuller way, a more realistic way. A better way.
What do these three rules mean in practice? They mean that, first, a bar mitzvah should have a ceremonial component: a date; an invitation; the child doing something, whether chanting Torah, or giving a talk, or leading a discussion of a Jewish text, or leading a song circle, or going off-site to clean up a park and then concluding with a discussion of Jewish environmental values—somehow demonstrating the gifts she or he plans to give to the Jewish community henceforth; then a celebration, one that is comfortable for, and unique to, the child. Second, the ceremony (and celebration) should go beyond the child’s immediate circle, to suggest an evolving and expanding commitment to Jews, and to humanity. Third, the new adult should be able to speak concretely and meaningfully about what she or he plans to do differently, particularly in a Jewish context, now that adulthood has arrived.
Come to think of it, that’s good advice for all of us. One thing I learned writing my book is that bar and bat mitzvah really are family occasions when everyone from the child to the parents to estranged Great Aunt Estelle has a reckoning with what it means to be Jewish and to be human. Giving us all that opportunity is the central work of the bar and bat mitzvah—not just the ceremonies, but the new adults themselves.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.