Think of what might happen to the Jewish calendar if literary scholars got their hands on it. Tisha b’Av would be classified as a tragedy; Tu b’Shvat would come under the heading of the pastoral; and Yom Kippur could serve as a soliloquy. But what would the bar mitzvah ceremony be? The answer is obvious: a comedy.
There is something inherently amusing about the rite of passage by which a 13-year-old dares to assume the formal status of adulthood. There is something risible about that presumption, which is why novelists like Philip Roth, with “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), and Mordecai Richler, with “Joshua Then and Now” (1980), find such rituals irresistible. Satirists also seize an opening when this ceremony encourages the most extravagant and prosperous among us to exhibit excesses of spending and consumption.
Not that weddings have been spared the vulgarities of indulgence and ostentation. But the statistical possibility is high that nuptials may not inaugurate a happily-ever-after union. They might also be a prelude to divorce, acrimony, alimony, bitterness, and pain. By contrast the advantage of the bar mitzvah is its invitation to the pleasure of youthfulness and unimpeded promise, before frustration and failure will take their toll. The onset of adolescence offers parents a chance to demonstrate the lavishness of their love and their hopes. And the ceremony gives their sons and daughters a chance to demonstrate the learning — and maybe even the interpretive prowess, eloquence and wit — that a community famously devoted to education prizes.
Nor has the exuberance marking such religious occasions escaped the rest of America. By the beginning of this century, about eight decades after the first bat mitzvah ceremony (1922), the Wall Street Journal reported that young gentiles in Dallas wanted to have the parties their Jewish friends enjoyed. One girl, quoted in a 2004 article, even told her Methodist parents that she “wanted to be Jewish,” and was willing to study Hebrew, “so that I could have a bat mitzvah.”
Filmmakers have not been far behind. The plot of “Keeping Up With the Steins” (2006) is devoted entirely to the competitive yearning to provide a truly memorable, truly extravagant bar mitzvah celebration, with pop star Neil Diamond risking self-parody by providing the entertainment at the climax of Scot Marshall’s satiric film. In “A Serious Man” (2009), the Coen brothers made their Job-like protagonist — coming up for tenure even as his family is coming apart — pose existential problems for feckless rabbis even as his son prepares for his big day, which somehow proves a triumph after all.
When “A Serious Man” was first screened at Brandeis University, both the leading actor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Aaron Wolff, who plays his son, fielded questions afterward. When asked about the cinematic choice of the Torah portion, Wolff revealed that it was what he actually recited in his own bar mitzvah ceremony. The young actor did not want to learn a new portion. And in the British comedy directed by Paul Weiland, “Sixty Six” (2006), even Helena Bonham Carter got into the act, playing the mother of a bar mitzvah boy in London.
Sometimes the occasion prefigures the career of the adult. In 2008, obituary notices for Irvine Robbins, the co-founder of Baskin-Robbins, noted that, along with Burton Baskin, he started their spectacularly successful business with money he had saved from his bar mitzvah. At the party after his own bar mitzvah, Alan Stewart Konigsberg did a competent Al Jolson imitation. Roughly a decade later, as Woody Allen, he would be launched on a multi-faceted show biz career that would exemplify, even more than Jolson’s, the ambiguities of assimilation in American Jewish life.
Or take Norman Mailer’s bar mitzvah speech, which expressed its author’s ambition to stand in the line of “great Jews like Moses, Maimonides and Karl Marx.” And while the future novelist and New Journalist famously resisted, as he wrote in “The Armies of the Night” (1968), the “fatal taint” of identity as “the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn,” Mailer certainly resembled those earlier heroes in his proclivity for making trouble.
The parents of Carl Bernstein were politically so far to the left that the FBI copied down the license plate numbers of the guests at his bar mitzvah. So there is something fitting about the effectiveness of Bernstein’s reporting, while covering the Watergate crisis for the Washington Post with Bob Woodward, of the abuse of power. How apt as well that the first girl at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York to be assertive and articulate enough to demand a bat mitzvah turns out to have been a future Supreme Court justice, Elena Kagan.
But the oddities and paradoxes from which comedy springs are most evident in the gap between the awkwardness of youth and the responsibilities of adulthood. Humor is often about discrepancy, because an erudite and solemn adult was once a pisher who stood on the bima and pretended to be a grownup. Those who manage to carve out lives of dignity and sobriety, of achievement and eminence were once, after all, only 13 years old. Because oaks were once acorns, such differences can come across as funny. We know that Rabbi Leo Baeck spoke at the ceremony of the future Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann, and we know that Rabbi Max Kadushin officiated when the future Columbia critic Lionel Trilling became bar mitzvah. But to imagine what such academic luminaries were like as kids is to experience a shock of recognition — they too went through the same motions — that makes us all kin.
The late Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell went one better by telling a bar mitzvah joke on himself. Shortly before he underwent the ritual of assuming manhood, Bell confessed to the rabbi a disbelief in God. The rabbi is supposed to have replied: “Tell me something, Danny. Do you think God really cares?”
Stephen J. Whitfield holds the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University and is the author of “In Search of American Jewish Culture” (University Press of New England, 1999).