Patricia Keer Munro’s Coming of Age in Jewish America: Bar and Bat Mitzvah Reinterpreted is particularly compelling given the major role that the bar and bat mitzvah ritual has taken in American Judaism. In today’s America, writes Munro, Jewish identification is often a matter of choice. Outside of the Orthodox community, the bar and bat mitzvah ritual has become “the primary means of inculcating Jewish belief and practice” in the child and the family. It is, as Munro suggests, a system in which the youngster, parents, the clergy, congregations, and the larger community are involved in its performance.
Two major cultural shifts have contributed to the significance of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies: rising rates of intermarriage and the growing gender equality brought about by feminism. The Reform movement’s 1983 Resolution on Patrilineal Descent required evidence that children had a Jewish upbringing; the bar and bat mitzvah has become prima facie evidence of that. Feminism sparked a demand that girls fully participate in their bat mitzvah ceremonies and that they, like their brothers, take on adult religious obligations and be counted in the minyan.
The book is filled with powerful, often poignant quotes from the over two hundred interviews that Munro conducted in the San Francisco Bay area in Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and unaffiliated synagogues. In addition, she has drawn upon her own experiences as a bar and bat mitzvah tutor. The result is that Munro provides many strategies for revitalizing the bar and bat mitzvah process for community and congregational leaders. She also postulates a helpful analytical model that identifies four “inherent tensions” that shape the bar and bat mitzvah system. A chapter is devoted to each of structural strains and ways to address them. One chapter, for example, is devoted to clarifying boundaries among participants; this includes a discussion of the role of non-Jewish parents, relatives, and friends within the ceremony. The last chapter includes important policy recommendations to ensure that the bar and bat mitzvah experiences provide youngsters and their families with a “Jewish cultural tool kit” and ensure their ongoing “Jewish allegiance in an American context.”