A Birthday Party, Only a Little Bigger’: A Historical Anthropology of the Israeli Bat Mitzvah

Published: 
2015

Source: Jewish Culture and History Vol. 16, Issue 3, pages 275-292

 

The article looks at the evolution of the bat mitzvah in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) and Israel during the 1940s and after. It traces the event’s grassroots development as an expanded birthday party to mark a girl’s 12th birthday, copied from the bar mitzvah festivities for a boy of 13, but without the religious ritual. My argument is that the bat mitzvah is a classic product of the festive culture of the Industrial Age – a birthday party that combines the family rituals of the bourgeoisie with the cult of childhood. As such it developed independently of the world of the synagogue or Zionist ideology. Thus the story of the creation of the bat mitzvah and its naturalization by the festive culture of the Yishuv highlights the middle-class nature of the consumer society in Palestine in the mid-twentieth century and illuminates the influence of modern consumer culture on Jewish culture.

The article deals with the emergence of the bat mitzvah in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) and Israel during the 1940s and afterwards. It tracks references to the event in diverse sources, in order to ground the argument that the bat mitzvah developed from the grassroots, at the initiative of the girls themselves, rather than of their parents or teachers, as an extension of the bourgeois cult of birthdays. When the bar mitzvah morphed into a lavish party that included many gifts and prominent attention to haircuts, clothes, and the like, girls started demanding and receiving a fancier birthday party when they turned 12, similar to what their brothers had at age 13, but without the religious ritual. This is the essential difference between the Israeli bat mitzvah and its American counterpart, which developed at the same time but at the initiative of parents, educators, and rabbis, as a rite of passage for women, centered in the synagogue. My claim is that in the Yishuv and Israel the bat mitzvah was spawned by the consumer culture, as a family celebration devoid of religious content or any other element of passage, and was not an import from American Jewry.

This article is another stage in the author ’s study of the anthropological history of various lifecycle rituals and holidays, which traces the evolution of the small details of festive practices and tries to understand what they mean for the practitioners from a methodological perspective, however, this study has proven to be more complex than anticipated, because of the unexpected paucity of documentary sources about the early years of the bat mitzvah and its naturalization as part of the festive culture of the Yishuv. As we will see below, the bat mitzvah was not the initiative of some cultural entrepreneur, but of the grassroots: it was created in the family space, from which it expanded outward into the commercial sphere. Only after it had become a fait accompli and an obligatory social norm, accepted by society in general, did educators, rabbis, and cultural entrepreneurs turn their attention to it, while the labor movement and the cultural elite of teachers and intellectuals still tried to ignore it. Indeed, as we shall see, the kibbutzim were the last sector to adopt the bat mitzvah – even after the Orthodox. This explains why there are no references to the bat mitzvah in the archives that deal with education and culture and why it is rarely mentioned in the press of those years. Most conspicuous is its absence from the periodicals for children and women and from the professional education journals. This void also seems to be why scholarship has never addressed the topic. To deal with this problem I adopted a regressive method, focusing on the micro level, searching for offhand and incidental references in the press and other ethnographic sources, as evidence of a phenomenon that already existed on the cultural landscape.

Updated: Mar. 06, 2016
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