“He had a Ceremony—I had a Party”: Bar Mitzvah Ceremonies vs. Bat Mitzvah Parties in Israeli Culture

Aug. 08, 2016

Source: Modern Judaism, 2016


This article analyzes the gender differences in what the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies mean for the teens and their parents by surveying how they are depicted in popular Israeli culture since the mandate period until yesteryear. Relying on the classical anthropological assumption that ceremonies are a key to understanding a society, such a study can shed light on important aspects of the relationships between religion, consumer culture, and ethnic and national identity, on both individual and family levels. I will specifically argue that the gender difference in the popular depictions of bar and bat mitzvah discloses dominant patrilineal tendencies in current Israeli Judaism at the grassroots level.

Indeed, the underlying assumption here is that Israeli popular customs and traditions articulate a grassroots Israeli Judaism that exists regardless of the law book, government policies, or halachic precepts. The analysis downplays the secular/religious axis and focuses instead on the pressure exerted by mainstream traditionist Israeli culture on various components of society, whose response may vary between adaptation and resistance. Mainstream Israeli Jews mostly choose to use the orthodox bar mitzvah ritual (but not to follow it to the letter, as we will see), while disregarding other cultural alternatives inspired, for example, by feminist ideas. I suggest that this is not a result of conformity per se, but rather because these particular ritual formats, with the sharp gender difference, carry some meaning for Israeli Jews.

To resolve this quandary, I tracked sources of Israeli popular culture— in belles lettres, feature films, television dramas and comedies, popular music, and the how-to manuals for the occasion—in which the bar mitzvah and the bat mitzvah are mentioned incidentally or explicitly. My original idea was to analyze the depictions of both bar and bat mitzvahs, but to my great astonishment Israeli literature and cinema scarcely refer to the bat mitzvah and it crops up in only a few autobiographical works, television shows, and children’s fiction. The isolated appearances of the bat mitzvah analyzed below link it only to the consumer culture and hedonism of industrial and post-industrial society and almost never represent it as a rite of initiation. The bar mitzvah, by contrast, is often depicted as a rite of initiation of some sort, even if in practice the ceremony seems emptied of meaning as a rite of passage, and it is not always clear—initiation to what?

I will first offer a brief historical introduction to the growth of the bat mitzvah celebration in the twentieth century. The comparative discussion continues with a selection from the many representations of the bar mitzvah in Israeli popular culture, followed by an analysis of the sparse depictions of the bat mitzvah. To illuminate the differences, I will analyze two television skits that implicitly compare the two events. Finally, I propose a more general analysis of the meaning of the two events in contemporary Israeli culture and its perception of the gender differences in young people’s initiation into adult society.

Updated: Sep. 12, 2016