"Jewish Cultural Studies" book cover and Simon J. Bronner. (Penn State)

Simon Bronner focuses a chapter on the struggles of Jewish cultural studies to find a place in the politics of scholarship.

In one approach to Jewish customs, scholars investigate the back story of current Jewish practices. They trace the source of a behavior back to a verse in the Torah or to a comment in the Talmud to the recommendations of the rabbinic leaders of a specific community.

Excellent scholarship in this approach appears in Minhagei Yisrael (Customs of Israel), an ongoing series published by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, head of the Talmud department at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. This approach leads scholars to emphasize practices that connect directly with holy books and religious observances. 

Simon J. Bronner, in Jewish Cultural Studies (Wayne State University Press, 2021), takes a starkly different approach. Bronner takes as his subject any practice that Jews, or non-Jews, identify as characteristic of Jews, especially in contemporary America. 

Practices may originate in religious observance or in the host country where Jews lived a generation ago, or in a peculiarity of the position of Jews in our current homes. Different practices register as Jewish in different communities. Bronner does not need to distinguish between essential Jewish practices and practices that Jews accidentally happen to do. He identifies this field of inquiry as “Jewish cultural studies.” 

He focuses a chapter on the struggles of Jewish cultural studies to find a place in the politics of scholarship. Where does it belong? In the general field of cultural studies, some scholars consider Jews just a minor subset of privileged whites and not an ethnic group worthy of study at all. Scholars in the field of Jewish studies prefer to honor inquiries into classical Jewish texts.

But Bronner argues that the actual lived culture of modern Jews deserves its place as a field of study. Furthermore, knowledge of actual culture can help leaders of the Jewish community make informed decisions to prepare for our shared future. 

Bar Mitzvah Roots

One fascinating example of this approach appears in “Fathers and Sons,” Bronner’s chapter on the bar mitzvah in American and Western European Jewish culture. Far from being an adaptation of an ancient ceremony, the modern bar mitzvah developed from a much more modest observance in medieval Germany and Italy, from where it spread to Eastern Europe in the past few centuries, and only later to other Jewish communities. 

Anthropologists sometimes call the bar mitzvah a “rite-of-passage,” but, Bronner objects, passage from what to what? He has a point: A seventh-grader in America does not have a life situation significantly different from that of an eighth-grader. For many Jews, the ceremony does not mark the beginning of participation as an adult in synagogue ritual. So why has the American bar mitzvah since the 1950s become the occasion for a huge party, nearly equivalent to a wedding?

Bronner sees “the bar mitzvah as an invented milestone tradition that deals with father-son conflicts as the boy wrestles with the uncertain status of his masculinity in a wider modern context.” 

Fasting on the Yom Kippur before one’s bar mitzvah, in Bronner’s psychological analysis, symbolically moves one from the maternal space of home to the paternal space of the synagogue. The ordeal of reading from the Torah in public tests him before his father and his teachers. Even egalitarian liturgy and female rabbis do not, for Bronner, completely neutralize the synagogue’s masculine identity.

As the synagogue became feminized, bar mitzvah parties became more muscularly masculinized, with parties “in auto museums, on ski slopes or in sports stadiums.” The ceremony, that once transferred a boy from the custody of his mother to his father, to his teachers, now transfers his allegiance “to his pals,” in Bronner’s trenchant formulation. 

Oddly enough, Bronner presents the practice of fasting on Yom Kippur the year before bar mitzvah as entirely a folk practice, without a source in classical Judaism. In support of this analysis, he notes that contributors to an internet discussion of this practice do not mention any text. Bronner overlooks the Mishnah, at Yoma 8:4, which instruct parents not to let young children fast, but to train children to begin to fast “a year or two earlier.” Bronner sustains his larger point, however, that the classical sources do not mention any celebration related to reaching the age of bar mitzvah.

Bronner expresses the hope that these studies will influence the standing of Jewish culture in academia and will help leaders understand Jewish culture in the home, synagogue and community organizations. 

An unfortunate impediment to that hope, in my opinion, comes from his academic writing style. In a typical example, here Bronner explains that his fellow practitioners of Jewish cultural studies do retain an interest in the possible historical roots of current culture: “Despite the synchronographic or ethnographic orientation of Jewish cultural studies that draws on the legacy of Jewish folkloristics and anthropology, a historicism adapted from Jewish studies is apparent.” 

That kind of writing is tough to get through. 

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