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How Confirmation Came of Age

This resolutely modern ceremony held around Shavuot blossomed in America

Jenna Weissman Joselit
June 07, 2019
Photo: Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries
Rabbi Alfred H. Khan with the Temple of Aaron confirmation class, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1920 Photo: Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries
Photo: Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries
Rabbi Alfred H. Khan with the Temple of Aaron confirmation class, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1920 Photo: Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries

Across the land, in Reform congregations and in some Conservative ones, too, a procession of framed photographs lines the corridors of the afternoon religious school or of the vestibule that links one part of the temple complex with another. Some of them, reflecting the age of the congregation, date as far back as the late 19th century; others are more recent. No matter its vintage, each photograph captures a ceremonial moment in the lives of the congregation’s teenage sons and daughters: confirmation.

Passersby might be tempted to think if you’ve seen one confirmation photo, you’ve seen them all. But that’s a thought to be resisted: Every image calls out for close scrutiny. Each one is of its moment.

Notice how, at a time when photography was as young as those whose expressions it captured, everyone within the frame sat erect and composed, gazing intently into the camera. In confirmation stills of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these youthful celebrants were alert to, and one with, the seriousness of the occasion—and also somewhat ill at ease with the newfangled conventions of photography. Keen on making a good impression, no one slouched or made funny faces.

With the passage of time and the growing availability of domestic cameras, the taking of photographs became less of an occasion and more of a routine affair. Consequently, as one decade gave way to another, confirmands looked considerably more relaxed; invariably, someone in the back row was goofing around.

Over the years, there were a lot more confirmands, too, and many more of them were of the male persuasion than was originally the case, when girls predominated. In a number of late 19th-century instances, one lone boy sits surrounded by girls. In other instances, the boys, clad in dark suits, were overshadowed as much by their hats as by gender: Grown-up fedoras sat uneasily on their heads, threatening to swallow them up. The effect is unintentionally, endearingly comical. Girls, crowding the picture plane, were dainty and lovely and all in white; in keeping with the season, they’re clad in summery, sleeveless dresses. Later, in postwar America, both boys and girls graduated to wearing cap and gown, endowing the event with a decidedly academic feel.

Though its origins date to early 19th-century Germany, confirmation came of age and blossomed in the United States, where it took hold of and caught on fast within Reform Jewish circles. It betokened a new kind of ceremonial, one that was no holdover from an increasingly distant past, but a resolutely modern creation.

Conceived of as an alternative to the bar mitzvah, confirmation had a number of things going for it, not the least of which was how it made a ritual, as well as a virtue, out of what we today would call “mindfulness.” Where bar mitzvah, at age 13, was thought to come at a time when its celebrants were intellectually and emotionally immature, confirmation was held a year or two later when its celebrants allegedly possessed a heightened appreciation for the deeper meanings of life.

What’s more, where bar mitzvah was intended for boys only, confirmation included their sisters, expanding the circumference of their spiritual lives and enlarging the potential pool of candidates. And, as an added bonus, this newfangled ceremony emphasized the collective, the house of Israel, rather than its individual inhabitants.

In its earliest form, confirmation entailed a brief period of text study, culminating in an elaborate service that was held either close to or on Shavuot, the traditional Jewish festival that marked both the giving of the Torah at Sinai as well as the sacrifice of the bikkurim, the first fruits of the season, at the Temple in Jerusalem. But make no mistake: The text study it commanded had more to do with catechism, with a declaration of faith, than with the kind of intensive, close reading of a biblical or rabbinic passage we’ve come to associate with the term. Students were expected to familiarize themselves with and confidently to declaim the Decalogue and other tenets of Judaism.

Pomp and circumstance rather than creed endeared confirmation to growing numbers of American Jewish parents and their offspring. Its pages overflowing with detail, the American Israelite noted how, with great relish, they took to the ceremony with its multiple “affirmations and declarations and bows,” elaborate musical arrangements, “pretty” speeches, and heaps of flowers everywhere, from the confirmands themselves, bedecked with boutonnieres and bouquets, to the sanctuary, which was transformed into a botanical garden of delights.

“Festoons of green and flowers” hung from the chandeliers, related one enraptured congregant, while fluttery ferns blanketed both sides of the ark. The bimah, or altar, in turn, was adorned with so many horticultural elements—a succession of potted plants hovered at its edge; an enormous urn from which tumbled an exuberant arrangement of smilax, gladioluses, and roses stood watch at its foot—it’s a wonder anyone could move about. Even the Torah scrolls were floralized: Wreaths decorated their wooden staves.

American Jews may have stopped short of fashioning a floral cross, but in their extravagant embrace of the sight and scent of flowers, they took their cue from their Christian neighbors. American Protestants and Catholics, turning to Church Festival Decorations, a popular how-to guide of the early 20th century, for floral advice, increasingly garlanded their churches with “as many flowers as possible” in celebration of Easter.

Confirmation afforded affluent American Jews the opportunity to keep up with the Joneses and the McLaughlins and, concomitantly, to showcase their visual sophistication. Decorating the sanctuary heralded their aesthetic sensibility, furnishing proof that the Jews, long derided for being a “nonvisual people,” could more than hold their own when it came to beautifying their houses of worship.

But then, as Laura Yares, a historian of Jewish education, points out, confirmation’s deployment of flowers was not simply a nice touch or a sociological aspiration, but one of its central conceptual elements. Drawing on the ancient biblical notion of the first fruits as well as on the Victorian language of flowers in which, say, forget-me-nots symbolized fidelity, daisies were associated with hope, and roses with devotion, the ceremony evocatively linked the old with the new. Lest some worshippers miss the connection between Jewish values and flowers, confirmation made it explicit by likening the celebrants to bikkurim.

No sooner did confirmation take hold than critics commenced their tsk-tsking, taking it to task for being long on spectacle and short on substance. As early as June 1880, “Maftir,” a columnist for the American Israelite, writing from San Francisco, pounced on what he took to be the ritual’s superficiality, going so far as to predict that, within a week of the ceremony, the “over-dressed little folks” would have forgotten their “machine confessions.” This disgruntled observer also called on his coreligionists to shorten the service, which, in his estimation, went on and on and on. “Little speeches, little prayers, little sweet somethings in the shape of exhortations and confessions of faith is all that is required,” he suggested.

Thirty years later, confirmation’s critics were still at it. Writing in the same publication in 1910, Rabbi Max Heller of New Orleans, his indignation in full flower, lamented confirmation’s “theatricalities, rhetorical exuberances, sesquipedalian phrases.” These days, he noted, “confirmation is under fire.”

Their critique hit home. Today, confirmation is far less of a heady, perfumed affair and more of a sustained exercise in group study and social engagement. That the bar mitzvah retained its hold over the Jewish politic and did not disappear, as some within the Reform movement had hoped, even as a brand new ritual for girls—the bat mitzvah—came into being in the 1920s, repositioned confirmation more as a sequel to these two coming-of-age ceremonies than a grand finale, an end in itself.

Though diminished in scale, confirmation deserved the fuss America’s Jews had once lavished on it. Extolling the virtue of novelty, one contemporary observer of the 1880s, put it this way in the American Israelite: “No shofar, no fasting, no succah, lulaf [sic] or esrog, no matzoh, maror or cheroses—but flowers, lovely flowers, sweet flowers.” He was on to something. Where so much of Jewish ritual activity spoke of tradition, the weight of the past and the demands of responsibility, confirmation was as fresh as a daisy.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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