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