Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher who also blogs for The New York Times, wanted a rite of passage for her adolescent son to help him mark his transition to adulthood.
Not having any ready-made tradition to draw from, Lahey, who is not Jewish, decided it would be perfect for him to wake up at dawn and milk cows for the first time ever. Her son, not surprisingly, found the activity — which concluded with him drenched in cow spit and urine — less than rewarding.
Sharing her experience at the Jewish Futures Conference, a daylong session focused on “The Role of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in America Today,” Lahey, one of the presenters, reflected that the problem was that she, not her son, had developed this ritual, and that “he had to develop the goals for himself, things that mean something for him.”
Later in the day, another speaker, Rachel Brodie of the San Francisco JCC, noted that for many young Jews, learning to chant Torah is not so different from learning to milk cows: a challenging ancient skill that seems irrelevant to modern life. Not to mention the fact that it is something most kids rarely, if ever, see their parents do.
As the mother of a fourth grader, I’ve recently begun thinking a lot about what I hope my daughter’s bat mitzvah will be like, especially since I never experienced this rite of passage myself.
But I’m hardly the only person obsessing lately about the Jewish rite of passage into adulthood. It is coming under a lot of scrutiny these days.
Not only did the bar/bat mitzvah headline last Wednesday’s Jewish Futures Conference, an annual gathering sponsored by the Jewish Education Project and Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and attracting about 200 Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders; it’s also spurred the Union for Reform Judaism’s “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution,” a pilot project to get synagogues thinking more creatively about the event that so many children and parents view as the raison d’etre for Hebrew school. Meanwhile, an Atlanta bar mitzvah boy’s “save the date” rap video, done as a parody of Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta,” and featuring a cameo from the mayor and other local celebrities, went viral last month, generating over 361,000 YouTube views and a storm of media coverage.
A Kveller article in January titled “Ban the Bar Mitzvah” sparked comments and various counter-posts throughout the blogosphere. And a new magazine, Mazel — which seems to embrace the most extreme conspicuous consumption aspects of the American bar/bat mitzvah — debuted earlier this year.
What’s spurring this bar mitzvah interest?
There seems to be a growing consensus that the ritual as currently configured is not working, at least not as a means of inspiring commitment to Judaism among young people and their parents or a way to experience a meaningful transition from childhood to adulthood.
Who it is working for is the caterer-formalwear-DJ-“party motivator”-florist-photographer-cake baking-trope tutoring-videographer-invitation printing industrial complex and the people who gladly support it. Indeed, at the Jewish Futures Conference, a “thumbnail sketch” history of b’nai mitzvah in America, presented by Hebrew Union College history professor Rabbi Carole Balin, highlighted just how much the modern American bar/bat mitzvah has been shaped not by rabbis, but by caterers.
While early in the 20th century, receptions tended to be small, home-based affairs for close friends and family, as receptions expanded into ballrooms and other venues, caterers often took on the role of “custodian/ritual expert” — as exemplified by the caterer-invented candle-lighting ritual at the party, a “complete usurping of the birthday ritual” that, Rabbi Balin noted, is for many families “as important ritually as the Torah reading.”
Bar/bat mitzvah ennui mixed with excitement about possibilities for innovation pervaded the conference, although two key stakeholders — parents (who do not happen to be Jewish communal professionals) and pre-teens — were conspicuously absent.
The conference did, however, feature a panel of three college students reflecting on their not-so-long-ago and not-so-happy bar/bat mitzvah experiences.
Sylvee Legge, who attended a Conservative day school in Atlanta, reflected on how the mean-girl tensions, fashion/beauty pressures and self-consciousness of middle school permeated every aspect of her and her peers’ bat mitzvah experiences, with mothers seeming to fan the flames rather than defuse them.
“There was tons of pressure about looking good, what designers you were wearing, who was doing your hair and nails, what your mom looked like,” Legge, now an NYU student, recalled. Before the bat mitzvah, she said, girls felt pressured to talk up the party to encourage classmates to attend; during the event, “I was nervous the whole time about what people were thinking, even my relatives.”
Although I never had a bat mitzvah, hearing Legge brought back my own unpleasant middle school memories.
My atheist mother and (non-Jewish) stepfather would probably have grudgingly cooperated had I pressed for a bat mitzvah, but the potential stresses and embarrassments — being the only kid in Hebrew school whose family didn’t actually belong to the synagogue, enduring parental teasing about the spiritual component and parental complaints about the expense — made the whole ordeal seem way too daunting.
I took flute lessons instead, and in seventh grade, when bar/bat mitzvah season began, I was both envious of the celebrants and relieved that my biggest performance was a flute recital, where I was not a soloist but part of an ensemble. Thanks to the social roller coaster of middle school, exacerbated by my insecurities about being a late bloomer, I had few friends that year, so hosting a big party, only to have kids not want to attend it, sounded like the ultimate nightmare.
The bar/bat mitzvah is an unfortunately timed event in many ways: at a period in life when most people are experiencing peak levels of self-consciousness and snobbishness, the current performance-and-party-hosting structure seems to exacerbate, rather than relieve, these tendencies.
One of the people at my table, Stacey David, the education director at the Summit JCC Conservative Synagogue, complained to me about the bat mitzvah scene in Livingston, N.J., where she lives: various auxiliary rituals and customs, with girls now hosting expensive and competitive pre-bat mitzvah parties as a sort of dress rehearsal a year before the real event, and the bat mitzvah dress now “like a bridal gown, something no one is supposed to see until the day of the ceremony.”
Which creates new bullying opportunities: excluding kids from pre-parties and the bat mitzvah itself, mocking people for their attire, and, as happened to her daughter, posting on Facebook spoiler photos of a girl’s dress before the big day.
Other cultures don’t necessarily have it any better.
Michele Salcedo, an editor at the Associated Press’s Washington Bureau and author of “Quincenara! The Essential Guide to Planning the Perfect Sweet Fifteen Celebration,” presented at the conference on “What We Can Learn from Quincenara.” Granted, as a shleppy person, I may be too dismissive of fashion and visual aesthetics, but I cringed when Salcedo spoke approvingly of how Latina girls get to be “a princess for a day” and how there is even a ritual in which the girl exchanges flat shoes for high heels. (Is there a ritual later on in life, maybe toward menopause, when she lets herself swap the torturous heels back for comfy flats?)
Lest you conclude that the modern American bar mitzvah is just a case of too much bar and not enough mitzvah, it seems that the religious/ritual aspect of the day — and the preparation for it — also leaves much to be desired.
Like milking cows, chanting Torah was once a relatively practical skill. But today, just as it’s generally easier to buy dairy at a grocery store than to raise your own cow, it’s easier to access Torah — and, wisdom in general — digitally, or even from a bound book, than from a hand-crafted, vowel-less scroll of parchment.
Several participants at the conference are experimenting with alternative bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies. Judaism Your Way, an outreach nonprofit in Colorado, gives kids a choice of five pathways to bar/bat mitzvah: they include the option of a “Storahtelling”-style ceremony, in which kids and families do a creative theatrical interpretation of the Torah portion; and choosing 13 individual challenges, four of them explicitly Jewish in nature, to master and then give a presentation about.
“Part of being a grownup is the freedom to choose,” explained Rabbi Brian Field, Judaism Your Way’s rabbi.
A recurring theme at Wednesday’s conference was that to save the bar/bat mitzvah and make this rite of passage truly meaningful, the liberal Jewish community first needs to figure out what it means to be a Jewish adult, and what skills are most valued and necessary in life.
Indeed, learning to visit the sick, to navigate Jewish texts online, to make thoughtful charitable contributions, to host holiday celebrations, to participate in a shiva minyan — even to research one’s family history — might be more useful and meaningful than chanting trope and hosting a gala celebration.
Or we could just send them out to milk some cows.