Bnai mitzvah as mediator between dual identities

Patricia Keer Munro had her bat mitzvah at the age of 21 — later than the usual 12 or 13, but not uncommon in contemporary liberal Jewish circles, where Jewish rituals are increasingly being re-examined. It was still unusual in 1978, however.

 

Patricia Keer Munro

In May, Munro, now a visiting scholar at the U.C. Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, published “Coming of Age in Jewish America: Bar and Bat Mitzvah Reinterpreted,” a book about current American b’nai mitzvah practices, based on research she conducted in the Bay Area from 2008 to 2011.

 

It’s a sociological study of the Jewish rite of passage as practiced in five Bay Area congregations: independent, Orthodox, Conservative, large Reform and small Reform. (The synagogues’ names have been changed, so it’s hard to tell which is which.) Her study included first-person observations of b’nai mitzvah ceremonies at those congregations, as well as interviews with hundreds of local parents, students, teachers and rabbis.

Her goal, Munro says, was to generalize the study results to create a picture of what b’nai mitzvah means to contemporary American Jews.

  Munro didn’t grow up in an observant home; she describes her Jewish upbringing as “mostly through ethnic heritage.” By the time she was in college, her parents had joined a synagogue and her brothers were having their bar mitzvahs. At the same time, she says, “During college I started to connect with Jewish practice,” eventually becoming bat mitzvah herself.

While her two daughters, now adults, were growing up, Munro home schooled them. Her husband isn’t Jewish, but “the deal when we got married is that we were going to have a Jewish home,” she said in an interview. “We became very involved in congregational life” at Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, a small Reform synagogue. Experiences there influenced her interest in the topic of her study.

“What happens with small congregations when you only have a few [b’nai mitzvah] each year, you can individualize it much more,” she says. “I thought we were embracing Judaism fully and completely, but in fact what we were doing is customizing it.” In retrospect she sees it differently: “Looking back on what we’d done, there were many ways we’d privatized the event.”

The real subject of the book is the tension between American and Jewish identities and the way b’nai mitzvah mediates the two.

“We learn in our [American] society that to be an individual is to make choices, and that those choices will define who we are,” she says. “Jews as good immigrants/Americans want to do that, too. Except that in Judaism you are chosen, and you don’t have a lot of choice in the matter.”

The result is a conflict between being a self-defining American on one hand, and “being a part of a people with expectations of practice” on the other. “How the hell do you square that?” Munro asks.

One answer is the uniquely American approach to bar and bat mitzvah preparation and ceremonies.

In many families, the decision to have a bar or bat mitzvah is set up as if it’s a choice. “But if you don’t go through with it, the whole family will be disappointed. So there’s not much choice, but it’s set up that way,” Munro says.

However, within the preparation for the ceremony, choice abounds. Though it varies from one movement to the other and among individual synagogues, virtually all American Jews get some degree of choice in which part of their Torah portion they read. In many synagogues, the student also leads parts of the service; again, there are choices to be made.

“Something is expected but framed as a choice, and within that you make it your own by choosing it,” she says. “That’s how we reconcile these two irreconcilable things. You’re going to be Jewish, but you choose how you’re going to be Jewish.”

Munro devotes much of the book to demonstrating how differently rabbis and teachers see b’nai mitzvah than students and families. A given family may go through b’nai mitzvah once or twice; they see it as a singular event, Munro says. But communal leaders like rabbis and teachers, think more about the big picture of how b’nai mitzvah helps perpetuate Judaism.

“People talk past each other, so I hope leaders will pick this book up and understand the perspective of the family more,” she says. “By the same token, I hope families and lay Jews will pick this up to understand where the ritual fits in Jewish communal life.”

Munro chose to conduct her research in the Bay Area for practical reasons; she lives in Livermore. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that this choice affects the results of her study. “The Bay Area is more liberal by far [than U.S. Jewry in general]. There are more Reform Jews, the same amount of Conservative and far fewer Orthodox,” she says.

Despite this, she says there are benefits to limiting the study to the Bay Area community. “It’s one of the top 10 Jewish communities in size in the U.S. It is vibrant. The affiliation rate is not high, but there’s a lot going on.” For American Jews, Munro says, the Bay Area “is a harbinger of things to come.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.