An Ethnographic Research on Bat Mitzvah

The bar or bat mitzvah is a Jewish initiatory ceremony recognizing a female youth as a bat mitzvah and male youth as a bar mitzvah. It is a celebration of youths coming of age rite of passage from childhood to adulthood at age thirteen (Boxer 134).Bar and bat mitzvah refer to a youth being subjected to the law and connote formal membership to the community. Under Jewish law, the youth are not obligated to observe the commandments but they are encouraged to undergo the ceremonial rite for them to learn the obligations they will have as an adult Jew.

    The barbat mitzvah ceremony publicly marks the assumption of adult obligations along with the corresponding right to take part in Jewish religious activities, to belong in a minyan or the quorum needed to partake in certain aspects of religious services, to form binding contracts, to testify in religious courts and to marry. Historically, this celebration was for boys only as womens roles in Orthodox Judaism were of an auxiliary nature (Boxer 134). The rite of passage for girls before were held privately in synagogues. It was in the latter part of the century that the public ceremony for a girls coming of age came to a head.

Purpose and Methodology
    The purpose of this paper is to observe what have been the changes in the rite of passage ritual as perceived by women coming from different generations. It has been said that the introduction of bat mitzvah for young Jewish women is to proclaim to the public the status of women as having an equally relevant influence in the promotion of the Jewis religious society. Three women of different generations are interviewed in order to have an in-depth analysis of what has become of the bat mitzvah all through the years and to be able to identify the social factors that which have contributed to the particular changes in the standpoints concerning the ritual. Also, the interview is conducted to ascertain some knowledge on the importance of the ceremony to the Jewish culture.Women from old, middle and contemporary generation are interviewed to obtain a comparative qualitative analysis of the ceremony.

The Bat Mitzvah during the First Generation
    Representing the first generation, Mara, age 87, appears to adhere to the more traditional standpoints of women taking part in religious rituals. With her family strictly following rules, she did not have the chance to undergo the ritual. Mara was one of the many women who were raised in a period in which Jewish education was exclusively for men and their inheritance of the commandments had limited practical reality. But she had the chance to attend some simple celebrations of the bat mitzvah that vary greatly from todays elaborate ritual. Mara said that the ceremonies she witnessed were very religious, sincere and somber.

     The ceremonies focused more on the reading of the Torah and the wisdom behind the seriousness of becoming an adult and confirming the responsibility for ones own actions. Mara also said that what came after the ritual was a happy and joyous celebration which included food and congratulations from close relatives, friends and rabbi. The overall setting of the celebrations conveyed the spirit of a happy, small and respectful somber occasion in which the authenticity of Jewish tradition was felt. Mara added that gift-giving was not of high relevance to the humble ritual. Being unable to have her own bat mitzvah, Mara said that she felt quite uncomfortable with it. According to her, the lack of mitzvah somewhat deprives her of the formal public participation in the synagogue services. It can be said that she was unable to have her bat mitzvah because the reformist movement did not play an active role in women empowerment and due to that fact that the movement was questioning the necessity of even having those kind of ceremony (Bank 191).  Women who were not able to undergo the ritual tend to feel, isolated, ignorant and illegitimate before the congregation (Hendler 41).  The traditionalist view of the first generation prior to the feminist movement posits the imbalance between men and women in the Jewish culture.

The Bat Mitzvah during the Second Generation
    In interviewing Lanie, age 43,  it is found out that the ceremonies she had witnessed differed from Maras generation. According to Ruth, she attended Hebrew school for quite some time, but became unfocused and decided to discontinue her schooling. Ruth said that the ceremonies she witnessed  were centered on the reading of a Torah passage totally in Hebrew. She also witnessed the somber and serious setting of the rituals which were aiming at encouraging women to become active in the community and to reach to the less unfornate and socially disadvantaged people.

    Lanie described the celebratory ceremonies following the ritual as extravagant and more elaborate than the ceremonies during Maras time. At Lanies time, the ceremony now had bands that rendered live music, catering services, and photographers. In addition to the ceremonies extravagant features, formal invitations were sent to more than just close relatives and friends. Gifts ranging from school supplies to cash were common in her time and it was evident that there was a transformation from the solemn ritual to a much more celebratory ceremony.

    Lanie belongs to the era of women in which the bar mitzvah has become a more elaborate affair involving gift-giving, feasting and festivities that meant to express entrance to puberty. But with changes, the basic purpose of the bar mitzvah remains the same and it is the acceptance of a youngs responsibility for own actions and his acceptance of the tenets of Judaism (Sherman 37).

The Bat Mitzvah during the Contemporary Generation
    Carie, age 13, belongs to the contemporary society enjoying the modernistic approach  of the bat mitzvah. Her knowledge of the ritual includes a 13-year-old Jewish girl,  Rabbi as the leader, and that girl reading a Torah passage in Hebrew that introduces her to the Jewish world as an adult. According to her, the girl is expected to partake in some form of community service. Carie said that the best part of of the ceremony is the reward gained from hard work and that is the party.

    In interviewing Carie, it is observed that a generation can have an impact to the ritual. The celebratory ceremony in the contemporary period is now known as the party. The party serves as the reward gained from studying and preparing for the ceremony. The focus of the party is the girl. It is all about her and te people around her are not allowed to upstage her. The parties may be thematic and involving common norms for events and gathering.

    Carie said that themes can vary from cartoon theme, beach themes to retro themes. The celebratiry party can include disc jockeys, dancing and oter leisure activities such as taking photographs. The norm in gift-giving is centered on money and jewelry. Carie claimed that te more a person is closer to the celebrator, the more expensive the gift. It is now expected to give an expected gift. It noted that examples of generosity and sending gifts meant to uplift everyones spirits abound Jewish culture and tradition (Freeman 165).

    The bat mitzvah is an important rite of passage that initiates the perosn as a formal member of the adult Jewish religious community. The norms in the ritual have been shaped and changed by the different periods of time and by the different types of congregation such as Orthodox, Reformed and Conservative. The three interviews relay a message that the ceremonies have stayed somber and respectful across generations but have been modified b y the sociological trends. The relevance of the ritual has not been lost on the contemporary society as seen through Carie who knows the value and real meaning behind the ritual. With     Mara, it can be said that the relevance of bat mitzvah is that it is the mark of womens equality to men and an indicator of complete loyalty and sincerity to Jewish customs and traditions. The gift-giving and the other activities which have been incorporated in the rituals appear to be somewhat elevated and may imply that the contemporary society is all about the monetary things and not about traditions.

    This notion presents the challenge to celebrate the rite of passage within the context of the customs and tradition and the Jewish community. Based from the information gathered during the interview, it is viewed that te essence of the ritual is the fulfillment of the covenant between God and His people. Through this concept, the bat mitzvah is a living covenant that acknowledges the Jews sense of ownership and participation for the Gods commandments.

    The interview is a kind of ethnography format that lets the interviewer connect with the three women who belong to the Jewish community. Through the utilization of open-ended questions, I was able to go into more detail about the womens personal experiences and was able to obtain more information on the real essence of Jewish culture and traditions.


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