The Bar and Bat Mitzvah in the Yishuv and Early Israel: From Initiation Rite to Birthday Party

April 2018

Source: Association for Jewish Studies Review 42:1 133–157


This article is an anthropological history of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony in the Yishuv and Israel of the 1940s and the 1950s, when this ceremony radically grew in terms of the space, time, and economic resources devoted to it, as well as expanded to include girls. To explain that shift, I suggest distinguishing classic rites of initiation from the system of life-cycle ceremonies typical of modern consumer culture, which emphasizes the transition between temporal markers rather than social statuses and imposes no task on the birthday celebrant.

The article reconstructs the process by which, during the 1940s and the 1950s, the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony came to function more as an elaborate birthday party than as a rite of initiation. The historical reconstruction demonstrates how, during the late Mandate period and early years of statehood, a new grassroots Israeli culture emerged, shaped by the accommodation of Western consumer culture to Jewish traditions rather than by Zionist ideology or established religion.

The bar mitzvah emerged in medieval Europe as a rite of initiation. In the early modern era, the ritual took on some components of temporality and was popularized as such in most of the Jewish world until the middle of the twentieth century, while still retaining aspects of a rite of initiation. Midcentury, in both Israel and North America, it became mainly a larger and fancier birthday party, and was soon joined by the bat mitzvah, with both ceremonies highlighting the celebrant’s having arrived at an arbitrary temporal milestone derived from “tradition.” Since the 1950s, some have tried to remake the ritual as more than an exclusively temporal rite and reclaim it as a rite of initiation, by assigning the twelve and thirteen year old age-appropriate educational tasks that instill intellectual, Zionist, religious, and/or socially conscious values. In North America, the bar/bat mitzvah became the main trigger of Jewish education in various degrees for many boys and girls. Although this was not the case in Israel, interestingly, most Israeli bar mitzvah boys (and a tiny number of girls) still perform the synagogue ritual. What the synagogue ritual means for the boy and family, what exactly this ritual initiates them into if the family does not regularly attend synagogue, and why mainstream Israeli culture has not developed parallel rites for girls, are questions that deserve separate discussion. Because there is no change of social or legal status at age twelve or thirteen, the initiation component remains an epiphenomenon; the ceremony is still essentially a marker of an arbitrary temporal milestone. Undoubtedly most boys, girls, and their families are mainly interested in the party as a social event, with the focus on the clothes, hairdo, food, music, and social standing.

It was in the Yishuv of the 1940s and Israel of the 1950s that the bar/bat mitzvah emerged from the grassroots as a lavish birthday party that nonetheless conveys Jewish identity to the celebrant (even if they are not always sure what this identity means). In this period, the various traditions of immigrants, even during the mass immigration wave of the 1950s, were amalgamated into the melting pot—not of Zionist ideology, but rather of modern individualism shaped by consumer culture. Jews of all ethnic origins and religious affiliations began celebrating the bar/bat mitzvah in more or less the same way, with differences in cultural tastes, but with the enduring influence of consumer culture as a unifying vector.

What happened in Palestine during the 1940s that prompted this makeover? A similar transformation took place in North America at around the same time. There it could perhaps be explained as a result of suburbanization. It is more difficult to explain why it happened when it did in the Yishuv and the young state of Israel, particularly because the change trickled up from below and had nothing to do with the Zionist or religious establishments. The change of the 1940s corroborates previous findings that identify this decade as a period of transition in the consumer culture of Palestine, for both the Arab and Jewish sectors, but further research is required to confirm this periodization. Part of the story was the war economy of 1940–1945, but as shown above, the bar mitzvah continued along the same track later, in the early 1950s, which were years of relative scarcity.

What can be proposed is that this periodization accords with the notion, advanced by historian Moshe Rosman, that the 1940s were a watershed in Jewish history, separating the modern era, with its traumas of migration and socioeconomic instability, from the postmodern era of the emergence of two main demographic centers, relative political stability, and economic ease. This hypothesis is supported, with due caution, by the evolution of the bar mitzvah celebration, which precisely during that transitionary period was integrated into modern life-cycle rituals of temporality informed by consumer culture, both in Israel and North America. Such changes can be detected, of course, only with the appropriate historical perspective, and only through the perspective of the longue durée rather than through the lens of the dramatic events that took place at that period.

The bat/bar mitzvah emerged from the grassroots, fertilized by consumer culture, as a more elaborate birthday, despite criticism voiced by rabbis and the Orthodox on the one hand, and by secular intellectuals and educators on the other. The history of these ceremonies shows that the 1940s and 1950s were the formative years of a new grassroots Israeli Judaism that expressed traditional Jewish identity through the rituals of consumer culture.

Updated: May. 16, 2018