Thirteen and a Day: the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America takes readers on a cross-country journey through the state of Judaism. A Bar and Bat Mitzvah, for better or worse, is the most visible Jewish ritual, and as such, it can become a kind of indicator of the religion at large. At the very least, it is certainly the easiest rite to pick on. Who hasn't heard about the obscene amounts of money spent on certain Bar and Bat Mitzvahs including the recent $7.3 million BeyoncŽ concert for a British tycoon's son? Even in my own sane, suburban universe I hear the grumbles of seventh-grade parents Jewish and gentile whose school-year weekends are held hostage to an endless sequence of B'nai Mitzvah (plural) ceremonies with the attendant parties and presents. (The gifts don't bother me. I think of it as payback for 13 years of Christmas-envy.) Thankfully, this book is not an excuse to gripe about material excess and spiritual bankruptcy. Neither is it a how-to handbook on planning the perfect party, nor a coffee-table tome designed to bedeck the Bar Mitzvah gift table. Instead, it is a journalist's thoughtful, even-handed exploration of the history and practice of a surprisingly young Jewish ceremony. The author, Mark Oppenheimer, party-crashes from New York to Alaska in search of stories past and present: stories from the kids, parents, guests, deejays, Torah coaches, rabbis, cantors and also from several adults who have chosen to prepare for their own belated ceremonies. The range of preparation, execution and experiences reflects variables such as denomination (from guitar-strumming Jewish Renewal to the ultra-orthodox), geography, budget, community, individual spirituality and learning styles, and, let's face it, parental expectations. By keeping the focus on the religious ceremony and not just the party afterwards, Oppenheimer emphasizes the universal need for ritual and recognition. The particularity of this Jewish ritual fills the need nicely so nicely that some non-Jews have started their own faux mitzvahs. Be they forewarned, however, that Jews have had a few hundred years head start at raising the bar [mitzvah]. Joanna Brichetto started collecting Bat Mitzvah invitations and programs at the birth of her daughter in 1994. Only three more years to go.

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