About the Book
About the Authors
When Sara Charmé-Zane, 13, reminisces about
her bat mitzvah, she doesn't prattle on about disc jockeys. Or outfits.
After being encouraged by her rabbi to do a "mitzvah
project" to mark the rite of passage, she was uninspired by the
idea of simply writing a check to a charity. So she began thinking more
creatively, searching for a project that would be meaningful to both
herself and her community.
The result is a 4-foot-square mosaic of the Hebrew word
"Shalom," a dove and a tree that Charmé-Zane designed
and created for display in her Reconstructionist synagogue, which is
housed in a former warehouse in need of beautification outside of Philadelphia.
The project — to which she devoted months, including an unfortunate
redo when the mosaic got wet and the tiles fell off — is what
she talks about when asked about her bat mitzvah last June.
"A lot of people don't really look at it as a mitzvah
project," said Charmé-Zane of the reaction many had on hearing
of her unconventional venture. But Charmé-Zane, who also made
the prayer shawl she wore for the service, said that art can give back
to a community as much as traditional service projects.
"If you can give someone just a moment of feeling
really happy, or seeing something really beautiful, that's a great gift
to give," she said.
New books are examining trends in American bar and bat
mitzvah celebrations, and they are concluding that Charmé-Zane's
experience is becoming more the norm than the fancy fêtes of yore.From
families forgoing printed invitations in favor of online invites to
make an environmental statement, to re-creating a Jerusalem street scene
to celebrate Israel, Jewish values are infusing every aspect of bar
and bat mitzvah experiences, not only those parts that take place in
This is the message of Lori Weinrott and Jayne Cohen's
new book, "The Ultimate Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration Book: A Guide
to Inspiring Ceremonies and Joyous Festivities" (Clarkson Potter).
The book, a how-to party-planning manual with a Jewish
touch, urges families to learn from others and take advantage of a moment
ripe with the potential to be a beginning of a meaningful Jewish life.
Weinrott and Cohen detail stories from parties that take
as their themes the child's Torah portion — not basketball or
movies — to large-scale donations of sporting goods to needy schools
or food to homeless shelters. The authors say that in interviewing families
for the book, they found a yearning among children and parents for Jewish
meaning and a connection with the Jewish community at large, rather
than a display of wealth.
"Mitzvah projects" have become common in many
Jewish circles. Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger is a charity that
partners with the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements,
as well as some Modern Orthodox synagogues, to encourage bar and bat
mitzvah students to donate 3% of the money they receive as gifts to
the cause. While donations such as these continue, many young Jews also
choose to take on more significant projects as a way to become part
of the greater community in a meaningful way.
Americans are "finding ways to make Judaism a more
authentically shared and a more authentically felt experience,"
said Cohen, a Conservative Jew who is also a professional food and culture
But some scholars worry that too much of a focus on traditional
or simplistic mitzvah projects could equate Judaism with social justice
in a child's mind without contextualizing good deeds in the larger framework
of Jewish religious life.
But for many, preparing a mitzvah project, whether alone
or in "teams" that enhance the sense of community for the
children, is a way to put Jewish values into practice.
"We never want to impose what that connection is,"
said Weinrott. "It has to come from within themselves." The
owmer of a kosher catering company in Philadelphia, Weinrott said this
connection could take any form, from taking decorating ideas directly
from a biblical passage to arranging for smaller tables that encourage
Weinrott and Cohen advise readers to make decisions as
a family and allow their children's Jewish learning to bring insight
to the endeavor.
Weinrott, for example, adopted a Hebrew name at the same
time as her daughter when the family prepared for her son's bar mitzvah.
It was a powerful moment for Weinrott, who had been raised at a time
when girls were not given Hebrew names.
It wasn't until the 19th century that the bar mitzvah
as we know it spread through Europe, said Ivan G. Marcus, a professor
of Jewish history at Yale University.Marcus, whose forthcoming book,
"The Jewish Life Cycle from Biblical to Modern Times" (University
of Washington Press), contains a chapter on bar and bat mitzvahs, said
that although some kind of bar mitzvah was observed as early as the
16th century, it wasn't until late-19th-century Germany and New York
that bar mitzvah celebrations became prevalent. The bat mitzvah did
not debut until 1922.
Yet hovering around the history of the ceremony is a fact
that many American Jews may not know.
"The truth is, a bar mitzvah is not a ritual, it
is just a moment in time," said Marcus, referring to the fact that
at the moment when a boy turns 13 years old plus one day, a girl 12,
he or she becomes responsible for observing all of the 613 commandments
of Jewish law. There is no Jewish mandate that there be a Torah reading
or public ceremony; in fact, there is no theological basis for it, according
to Marcus. Instead, he said, the tradition developed over time.
"It has to do with the notion of the development
of childhood and adulthood," he said, adding that this idea has
taken different manifestations in different cultures. In Yemen, for
example, boys put on tefillin and perform commandments such as waving
a lulav on Sukkot when they are "ready," at whatever age that
"The nice thing about tradition is that it keeps
evolving," Marcus said. "Tradition is the ongoing engagement
with earlier texts, sources and practices. Every single life cycle event
has this pattern" of developing and changing through time.
Not that the "tradition" of lavish celebrations
is a thing of the past. Cohen says that for cases in which elderly grandparents
are not likely to live to see their grandchildren married, it is both
appropriate and moving to have an extravagant bar mitzvah celebration,
accompanied of course by a sizable donation to charity.
Cohen adds that the concept of hiddur mitzvah, or beautifying
the commandments, suggests that making an event beautiful enhances the
appreciation and meaning of the occasion.
"It can be a wonderful, wonderful thing," she
said. "I don't think that it's wrong, providing that it's done
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Mass