Com­ing of Age in Jew­ish Amer­i­ca: Bar and Bat Mitz­vah Reinterpreted

Patri­cia Keer Munro
  • Review
By – June 7, 2016

Patri­cia Keer Munro’s Com­ing of Age in Jew­ish Amer­i­ca: Bar and Bat Mitz­vah Rein­ter­pret­ed is par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pelling giv­en the major role that the bar and bat mitz­vah rit­u­al has tak­en in Amer­i­can Judaism. In today’s Amer­i­ca, writes Munro, Jew­ish iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is often a mat­ter of choice. Out­side of the Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty, the bar and bat mitz­vah rit­u­al has become the pri­ma­ry means of incul­cat­ing Jew­ish belief and prac­tice” in the child and the fam­i­ly. It is, as Munro sug­gests, a sys­tem in which the young­ster, par­ents, the cler­gy, con­gre­ga­tions, and the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty are involved in its performance. 

Two major cul­tur­al shifts have con­tributed to the sig­nif­i­cance of bar and bat mitz­vah cer­e­monies: ris­ing rates of inter­mar­riage and the grow­ing gen­der equal­i­ty brought about by fem­i­nism. The Reform movement’s 1983 Res­o­lu­tion on Patri­lin­eal Descent required evi­dence that chil­dren had a Jew­ish upbring­ing; the bar and bat mitz­vah has become pri­ma facie evi­dence of that. Fem­i­nism sparked a demand that girls ful­ly par­tic­i­pate in their bat mitz­vah cer­e­monies and that they, like their broth­ers, take on adult reli­gious oblig­a­tions and be count­ed in the minyan.

The book is filled with pow­er­ful, often poignant quotes from the over two hun­dred inter­views that Munro con­duct­ed in the San Fran­cis­co Bay area in Reform, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Ortho­dox, and unaf­fil­i­at­ed syn­a­gogues. In addi­tion, she has drawn upon her own expe­ri­ences as a bar and bat mitz­vah tutor. The result is that Munro pro­vides many strate­gies for revi­tal­iz­ing the bar and bat mitz­vah process for com­mu­ni­ty and con­gre­ga­tion­al lead­ers. She also pos­tu­lates a help­ful ana­lyt­i­cal mod­el that iden­ti­fies four inher­ent ten­sions” that shape the bar and bat mitz­vah sys­tem. A chap­ter is devot­ed to each of struc­tur­al strains and ways to address them. One chap­ter, for exam­ple, is devot­ed to clar­i­fy­ing bound­aries among par­tic­i­pants; this includes a dis­cus­sion of the role of non-Jew­ish par­ents, rel­a­tives, and friends with­in the cer­e­mo­ny. The last chap­ter includes impor­tant pol­i­cy rec­om­men­da­tions to ensure that the bar and bat mitz­vah expe­ri­ences pro­vide young­sters and their fam­i­lies with a Jew­ish cul­tur­al tool kit” and ensure their ongo­ing Jew­ish alle­giance in an Amer­i­can context.”

Relat­ed Content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions