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Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America Hardcover – May 12, 2005

6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Oppenheimer, raised in Springfield, Mass., by a mother born of "communist, atheist schoolteachers" and a father born of "irreligious German-American Jews" grew up in a home where "Leftism, not Torah or Zionism, was what mattered." Freshly armed with a Ph.D. in religious history from Yale, he embarked on a two-year odyssey to study the history of b'nai mitzvah—the Jewish tradition marking the beginning of one's adult religious obligations. Like Odysseus, though, he becomes distracted—by the Scylla and Charybdis of lavish New York and L.A. parties (he is very clear about his disdain for this practice) and by a hippie sculptor attending a service in Fayetteville, Ark. Surprisingly, despite a year of travel "across America," he focuses on only a few far-flung communities west of greater New York—Tampa, Fla.; Fayetteville, Ark.; Anchorage, Alaska; and St. Charles, La. Some readers will wonder: What about Cincinnati, home to Reform Judaism? Or Natchez, Miss., site of the oldest shul in the South? His stories, while fascinating, often focus more on the Jewish landscape of these towns, the histories of congregants and participants and less on the actual honoree, whether it's a 13-year-old or, in the case of the St. Charles celebrations, converting adults well past 50. Not really a story of teenage reaction to the Bar and Bat Mitzvah, this is a very personal rumination on Judaism in snapshot form. (June 6)

From Booklist

In popular culture, the bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah for girls), the ceremony welcoming individuals, usually but not always children, into the Jewish community, has a mixed reputation. Occasionally it is presented as an excuse for excess rather than a genuine affirmation of faith. So, why, wonders Oppenheimer, given the dubious rep and the fact that the rite is never mentioned in the Torah, do b'nai mitzvahs remain popular not only among observant Jews but also across the American Jewish spectrum? To find out, he traveled the country, visiting a highly selective but intriguing sampling of children, grown-ups, rabbis, parents, and guests to find what role the observance plays in the lives of modern American Jews. Despite occasional snideness, especially regarding his frustration at not getting access to one New York congregation's young celebrants and ceremonies, Oppenheimer's revelations are well contextualized and thoughtful. He comes to see the celebration as not only a marker of Jewish endurance through the ages but also a compelling slice of Jewish life that lays to rest the stereotypes. Stephanie Zvirin
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (June 6, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374106657
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374106652
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,038,862 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mark Oppenheimer writes "Beliefs," a biweekly column for The New York Times. He also writes for The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Slate, the Forward, and Tablet. He teaches English, religion, and political science at Yale, where he is the director of the Yale Journalism Initiative. Mark lives with his wife, daughters, and dogs in New Haven, Connecticut. For more information, please check his website at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Serious Reader on July 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This wonderful book charts a double journey. It is a journalist's voyage through Jewish America, with Oppenheimer serving as a kind of traveling anthropologist who is examining an important religious ritual in its various manifestations. But it is also an autobiography, a coming-to-grips with roots, with the possibilities for religious belief, and a quasi-Oedipal rebellion against the author's frankly secular, modern, atheistic, non-observant, left-wing Jewish parents, who came of age in the 60s. Young Oppenheimer, a product of the 90s, came to look at the Jewish religion first in an academic way, and then was gradually drawn in to the mysteries and the doctrines of his people. By looking at the practice of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah in expected places (New York City) as well as unexpected ones (Alaska, Arkansas), Oppenheimer presents a full and generous (as well as a funny and informative) account of why people worship and believe as they do. The book makes sense for anyone involved in a similar personal quest, or for anyone interested in fine writing.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Sherman L. Cohn on September 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a first-rate survey of an established custom. The book goes through many varieties of bar and bat mitzvat, demonstrating that they are not all alike. It focuses on values and choices, so that a person planning a bar or bat mitzvah can reflect on the values that he or she wishes to convey to the bar or bat mitzvah and to the congregation at large. While it is highly readable -- and not at all boring -- it has a significant depth that educates and challenges preconceived notions. It should be read by all parents who contemplate a bar or bat mitzvah for their child. I have otdered additiional copies for other family members for this reason.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Phelps Gates VINE VOICE on September 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Even though it's nominally about bar mitzvah celebrations, this book really uses them as a taking-off point to look at the state of Judaism in America today, from Temple Emanu-El to the Lubavitchers, with numerous stops in between. I had actually expected (with a mixture of anticipation and dread) that the book would be mostly about the over-the-top parties of the type we see in the recent movie Keeping Up With The Steins. Oppenheimer does discuss these affairs, but most of the book is about the personal Jewish experience in a variety of places around the country: I found the most interesting part to be the study of a tiny congregation in St. Charles, Louisiana. Highly readable, highly recommended.
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