Age and Identity
Age and Identity
Reaching Thirteen in the Lives of American Jews
Stuart Schoenfeld’s essay traces the rise of the bar and bat mitzvah in American Jewish life and consequently the growing significance of the age of thirteen in the lives of American Jews. He argues that in the twentieth century, especially, bar and bat mitzvah provide a place where American Jews perform their identity among family and friends. He begins his story with the Bible, demonstrating that both the age of thirteen and bar and bat mitzvah themselves are actually not to be found in the Bible. He then traces the emergence of the age of majority, and eventually thirteen itself, in the Mishnah and other legal and theological writings. Schoenfeld demonstrates the ways that the bar, and eventually bat, mitzvah began to be celebrated by ever greater numbers of people over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Americans increasingly debated the form and significance of these celebrations, especially when they seemed to serve little religious purpose. One of the consequences of the immense popularity of bar and bat mitzvah and its meaningfulness for American Jews is the growing disjuncture between thirteen as a significant life marker for Jews and its lack of significance in the wider world, where other ages are more important as indicators of a transition to adulthood.
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