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Reviewed by:
  • The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times
  • Alan Iser (bio)
The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times, by Ivan G. Marcus. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2004.

Ivan Marcus has rendered us a great historical service with this sweeping overview. It is the first comprehensive study of the Jewish life cycle since Hayim Schauss' The Lifetime of the Jew (1950) and is a far superior book. The work is designed for the scholar and layperson alike. Pulpit rabbis will find the book useful to answer those omnipresent "where does this come from" questions at lifecycle events. One cannot help but be impressed by the depth and breadth of Marcus' scholarship. [End Page 93]

Marcus traces the origins and historical development of rites and passages from birth to death and groups them in four clusters: birth, circumcision, and schooling; bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, and confirmation; engagement, betrothal and marriage; aging, dying, and remembering. While the book purports to be comprehensive and inclusive, and does incorporate modern Israeli and American Jewish practices, it contains scant references to Sephardic rituals. The author provides a useful review of existing literature as well as an exhaustive forty-four page bibliography of primary sources and secondary literature, as well as a glossary.

Each chapter contains a discussion of the origins and development of specific aspects of lifecycle events, such as the chair for Elijah at the b'rit milah, breaking the glass at a wedding, and the mourner's recitation of Kaddish. Some of these are monographs in and of themselves and may prove too lengthy for the lay reader, but for the more scholarly-oriented, they are a feast of interesting details. The reader may be surprised to learn that the basics of the most familiar ceremonies in Judaism are mainly post-talmudic. These descriptions are followed by a step-by-step guide to "modern Orthodox/traditional" major life cycle events. For purposes of clarity, the chapters would have been better structured in the reverse order.

It is not clear why the author lavishes much attention on non-mainstream rituals such as initiation ceremonies to Torah learning and a boy's first haircut while neglecting ketubah and taharah, which are both relegated to a few sentences. The author is also inconsistent with regard to contemporary developments, for example, in acknowledging new egalitarian circling ceremonies in weddings, but failing to mention the new developments in the formulation of ketubot or brand-new rituals such as those for adoption. One can also fault the author for failing to distinguish between custom and law in Judaism, although this is admittedly a difficult and murky area. The book would have benefited from more careful editing, which would have prevented inconsistencies in transliteration such as using both "k" and "q" for the letter "kuf." There are also occasional factual errors, e.g., the book states that male children whose mothers are the first-born of Kohen and Levite fathers are exempt from pidyon ha-ben when it is actually mothers whose fathers are Kohanim or Levi'im who exempt their children. These errors may have crept into an otherwise carefully written work because most of it was originally given as a series of lectures.

The great strength of the book is the author's historical, anthropological, and sociological analysis of the genesis, change and, in some cases, disappearance of lifecycle rituals. Marcus emphasizes how many rituals were born out of Christianity, as well as modern social trends and ideologies, like feminism. Some rituals are the result of adaptation by imitation and reinterpretation, and sometimes even are a product of hybridization. Others are polemics against the truth claims of the majority culture. Rarely were Jewish customs due to "resistance" agains host cultures, which Marcus terms "avoiding the other." A few of his attributions of [End Page 94] external influence on Jewish customs seem highly speculative—such as eating cakes with Hebrew letters as part of a school initiation ceremony, being a mocking of the Eucharist—but most of his examples are quite cogent. Particularly outstanding is Marcus' explanation of rites of remembrance. He places the development of Mourner...


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pp. 93-95
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