Tradition/Ritual – Jewish

Holiday Traditions/ Coming-of-Age Rituals

Bar Mitzvah – Jewish

My dad, who is Jewish, had his bar mitzvah when he turned 13 in Brooklyn, New York. He said it was held in a big hall, where there was a dais, or a stage, where he sat with this friends. The actual ceremony, however, happened in a synagogue.

He said he had to remember long passages in Hebrew and recite them, singing, from memory. This was the most difficult part, according to him. On the script were written special codes that indicated how the inflection was for that part. These codes got quite complicated, required a lot of practice. To my dad, it was a “big deal” learning them, and was especially difficult because he, and most of the boys his age, didn’t know Hebrew. The particular passage depended on when the bar mitzvah boy was born.

At the right time, he had to present the passage in front of the whole congregation in the synagogue. My dad recalled a vivid memory of this moment. He said, “The rabbi had very bad breath, so I would turn away and smile at the audience.” After this uncomfortable moment, however, the big reception is held, almost like a wedding—with food and dancing.

Typically, a bar mitzvah includes a band and a singer. My dad said there would always be “one of those circle dances and usually the bar mitzvah boy would be in the middle.”  He also got presents, usually cash, from friends and family, which the parents “usually used to help defray the cost” of the celebration.

In Jewish tradition, a boy becomes a man at 13. Girls have bat-mitzvahs at this age, although when my dad was growing up, it was not very typical for girls to do so. My dad brushed this off as the characteristic “male chauvinism” of the time. He also mentioned that he didn’t come from orthodox community.

A common American holiday that is comparable to the bar mitzvah is the Sweet Sixteen. However, it is much less ritualized and not exactly recognized as a coming-of-age celebration as much as it’s considered a competition for superfluous extravagance (probably influenced by MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen”).

With the difficult passages and other trials a boy or girl must overcome at a bar/bat mitzvah, it appears the child must prove him/herself before being accepting into adulthood. This concept is not at all present in the general American culture. For those who don’t observe any specific coming-of-age traditions, there are no obstacles or rituals presented. In fact, it isn’t even clear what age qualifies as adulthood. Is it the age when a girl begins to menstruate? Is it at 16, when a kid is allowed to drive, and therefore be independent? Is it 18, the law-determined age of (modified) adulthood? Or, is it 21, when a person finally gains all rights of an adult?

This confused notion of adulthood is probably why there are no traditional celebrations like bar mitzvahs in the general American culture. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it doesn’t force a person to grow up before he or she is ready. After all, in today’s society, 13 is incredibly young for a boy to be deemed a man.