Bar Mitzvah: A History

Bar Mitzvah: A History

Bar Mitzvah: A History

Bar Mitzvah: A History

Excerpt

Laura Jean from Dallas, Texas, was twelve years old when she told her parents in 2003 that she would like a bat mitzvah: “She loved bat mitzvahs: the singing was “inspiring”; the parties were exciting; the attention, no doubt, was flattering. Why couldn’t she have one?” The problem was that she was Methodist, not Jewish. But she went ahead anyway and held a party for 125 friends and relatives. The writer who reported this story commented: “In the United States, bar mitzvahs (for boys) and bat mitzvahs (for girls) get more attention than first communions, baptisms or confirmation combined, even though Christians outnumber Jews 590 to 1. They’re the summit, the zenith, the tops when it comes to teenage rites of passage.” The popularity of the celebration has led to the phenomenon of many Christian teenagers wanting a bar mitzvah in order to emulate their Jewish friends. From 2004 onward in the United States there have also been reports of “black mitzvah,” a party celebrated by African American boys and girls. One blogger wrote of the so-called black mitzvah: “I love the warmth and respect shown by the adults to these kids. They made these young men feel special and I believe they will be successful in life.” The suggestion is that the African American parents want to express the same kind of pride in their children that they notice among Jewish families.

How did bar and bat mitzvah come to be so popular? What is it that appeals to Jews with totally different beliefs and lifestyles from each other and even to non-Jews? How did the ceremony start, and why is it that a higher proportion of Jewish children celebrate it today than at any time in the past?

The original ceremony, which was only for boys, was invented by fathers for their own sons. Bar mitzvah, many books tell us, means “son of the commandment.” But the first meaning of the term was “someone who has the responsibility for carrying out a particular duty.” That is the way . . .

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