In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • ‘‘He had a Ceremony—I had a Party’’:Bar Nitzvah Ceremonies vs. Bat Mitzvah Parties in Israeli Culture
  • Hizky Shoham (bio)


The bar mitzvah ceremony was instituted by European Jews in the late Middle Ages as a rite of initiation that introduced young boys into the world of ritual obligations and Jewish literacy. In modern times, it has been seen by many as the Jewish equivalent of the male initiation rites of many cultures all over the world, through which the child enters the adult community by performing some dramatic, extreme, and onetime version of a routine activity of the men of his community.1 Nonetheless, as Michael Hilton noted in his exhaustive historical account of the bar mitzvah, its popularity among Jewish parents has traced an inverse curve to their commitment to observe the precepts, reaching its peak in the late Modern Era. In the contemporary world, boys, girls, and families that want to feel Jewish conduct the ceremony before a large audience, devoting significant resources of time, money, and mental energy to it; but in the vast majority of cases the youngsters are not initiated into anything that will be meaningful to them later in life. In the two largest Jewish population centers today—North America and Israel—the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah have been transformed into an elaborate birthday celebration centered on a wasteful party in the spirit of the consumer culture; for most people, the initiatory element is quite marginal and has no real impact on daily life, which continues on the morrow exactly as it was before.2

Nonetheless, in the Israeli Jewish mainstream, the modern bar mitzvah ritual has preserved the old form that consists of a visit to the synagogue (perhaps the last for a long time), where the boy takes a leading part in the service, such as being called up to the Torah and chanting the selection from the Prophets (the haftarah). By contrast, the Israeli Jewish mainstream marks a girl’s bat mitzvah only with an elaborate birthday party that has no accompanying ritual. The [End Page 335] question addressed by the present article is: despite its main function today as an expanded birthday party, does the bar mitzvah still serve as a male rite of initiation into something? And if so, into what?

This article analyzes the gender differences in what the 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.3 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.4 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.5 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.

As its framework for analysis of the differences between the meanings of bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah in Israeli culture, this article employs the distinction between initiation rites and the birthday parties of modern industrial society. As David Gilmore notes in his discussion of male initiation rites around the world, modern industrial society has a relatively loose structure of ritualized transitions in social status.6 In their place, the numerical count of a person’s years and the transition between chronological...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 335-356
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.