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Rites of Passage: How Today’s Jews Celebrate, Commemorate, and Commiserate, edited by Leonard J. Greenspoon.  Studies in Jewish Civilization, Volume 21.  W. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2010.  197 pp.  $35.00.


This eleven-chapter collection is a colorful potpourri of essays on customs, celebrations and practices among contemporary Jews. It includes articles on Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and weddings, but in other ways the title can be misleading. “Today’s Jews” refers primarily to Jews in the United States; only Irit Koren’s essay on the interest of Modern Orthodox women in Israel to introduce feminist changes into marriage ceremonies focuses mainly on that country. No paper, for example, is devoted to brit milah—circumcision—although contemporary celebrations regarding newborn girls are referred to in several essays such as Penina Adelman’s description of new pre-Bat Mitzvah rituals and Ori Z. Soltes’s panoramic discourse on artistic representations of “old and new rites of passages.”

The contemporary orientation of the collection is reflected in that the reality of Jews’ shaping and re-shaping their practices in the face of new circumstances, and in terms of personal and ideological preferences, is taken for granted. Another indication is the salience given to women as both participants and authors of ritual life. A reflection of the former process appears in Vanessa Ochs’s reflective discussion about “evaluating new Jewish rituals.”  The essays only occasionally, and then very concisely, go into the historical background of the rituals discussed. An exception is Daniel J. Lasker’s essays on Karaite Jews, while the broad view offered in this informative chapter also highlights the lack of attention in the volume to other significant forms of historically based variation among today’s Jews—namely, the Sephardi world.

In general parlance, the phrase “rites of passage” often refers only to life-cycle celebrations, even though its formulator, Arnold van Gennep, also applied it to rituals that reflect the change of seasons. Several of the present essays also include consideration of festival rites, with minimal consideration of theoretical links between these two sets of ritual sequences.  Most contributions are more oriented to stressing the importance of rituals within Jewish family and collective life than to connecting themselves to general discussions of ritual in society. Thus Oliver Leaman’s probing discussion of American Judaism and the Holocaust, contrasting broadly the approaches of Orthodox and Reform groups, takes Freud’s classic essay on “Mourning and Melancholia” as a main theoretical axis. As his thoughtful questioning of the significance and impact of rituals evolves, dissatisfaction with the personal-psychological mode of interpreting ritual becomes apparent, but little systematic attention is paid to social and cultural analytic frameworks for making sense of rituals in general or cultural expressions of the trauma of the Holocaust in particular. Reference to extant research on how the Holocaust has appeared in attempts to mark and commemorate it in Israel might have expanded the comparative perspective of the book both with regard to Jewish life and more broadly.

In general, the essays are sparse in referring to previous work.  For example, no mention is made of Stuart Schoenfeld’s research on Bar and Bat Mitzvah in North America. Several of them stress highly personalized experiences. One is an account of the process of becoming a rabbi marked ceremonially by the final stage of “getting smicha” (Jonathan Gross). Another is more of a “family auto-biography,” in which Daniel Mandell, Barbara Smith-Mandell, and Jerrold Hirsch depict in finely drawn and sensitive detail what it is to live and raise children in a rural Midwestern town where there are fewer than a minyan of Jews to join in ritual-communal life. 

All-in-all, the collection gives variegated, accessible, and well-written accounts of ritual life among some sections of Jewry today. It has been noted by Arnold Eisen that the extensive literature on processes of modernization among Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth century often overlooked describing everyday and standard practices of ordinary Jews. The present volume helps ensure that this oversight does not repeat itself in the twenty-first century.

Harvey E. Goldberg

Hebrew University of Jerusalem