Simon Bronner focuses a chapter on the struggles of Jewish cultural studies to find a place in the politics of scholarship.
IIn a Jewish customs approach, scholars investigate the background of current Jewish practices. They trace the source of a behavior to a Torah verse or Talmudic commentary to the recommendations of the rabbinic leaders of a specific community.
Excellent research in this approach appears in Minhagei Israel (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 researchers to emphasize practices directly linked to holy books and religious observances.
Simon J. Bronner, in Jewish Cultural Studies (Wayne State University Press, 2021), takes a radically different approach. Bronner takes as his subject any practice that Jews, or non-Jews, identify as characteristic of Jews, especially in contemporary America.
The practices may have their origins 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 homes today. Different practices register as Jewish in different communities. Bronner does not need to distinguish between essential Jewish practices and practices that Jews practice accidentally. He identifies this area of inquiry as “Jewish cultural studies”.
It focuses a chapter on the struggles of Jewish cultural studies to find a place in the politics of scholarship. Where does it belong? Within the general field of cultural studies, some scholars view Jews as a minor subset of privileged whites and not as an ethnic group worthy of study. Scholars in the field of Jewish studies prefer to honor surveys of classical Jewish texts.
But Bronner argues that the actual lived culture of modern Jews deserves its place as a field of study. Additionally, knowledge of the real culture can help Jewish community leaders make informed decisions to prepare for our common future.
The roots of the Bar Mitzvah
A fascinating example of this approach appears in “Fathers and Sons,” Bronner’s chapter on 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 Europe. Eastern Europe in recent 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’s right: A seventh grader in America doesn’t have a life situation much different than an eighth grader. For many Jews, the ceremony does not mark the beginning of adult participation in synagogue ritual. So why has the American bar mitzvah become since the 1950s the occasion of a big party, almost equivalent to a wedding?
Bronner sees “the bar mitzvah as an invented landmark tradition that deals with father-son conflicts as the boy grapples with the uncertain status of his masculinity within a larger modern context”.
The Yom Kippur fast before its bar mitzvah, in Bronner’s psychological analysis, symbolically moves man from the maternal space of the home to the paternal space of the synagogue. The ordeal of reading the Torah in public puts him to the test before his father and his masters. Even the egalitarian liturgy and female rabbis do not completely neutralize, for Bronner, the masculine identity of the synagogue.
As the synagogue becomes more feminized, bar mitzvah parties become more muscular, with parties “in car museums, on the ski slopes or in stadiums”. The ceremony, which once transferred a boy from his mother’s custody to his father, to his teachers, now transfers his allegiance “to his buddies,” in Bronner’s incisive formulation.
Curiously, Bronner presents the practice of fasting on Yom Kippur the year before the bar mitzvah as an entirely folk practice, with no source in classical Judaism. In support of this analysis, he notes that contributors to an Internet discussion on this practice do not mention any text. Bronner overlooks the Mishnah, at Yoma 8:4, which instructs parents not to let young children fast, but to teach children to start fasting “a year or two earlier.” Bronner supports his larger point, however, that classical sources do not mention any celebrations related to reaching the bar mitzvah age.
Bronner expresses the hope that these studies will influence the position of Jewish culture in academia and help leaders understand Jewish culture at home, in the synagogue and in community organizations.
An unfortunate obstacle to that hope, in my opinion, comes from his academic writing style. In a typical example, Bronner explains here that his fellow practitioners of Jewish cultural studies retain an interest in the possible historical roots of current culture: “Despite the synchronographic or ethnographic orientation of Jewish cultural studies which draws on the heritage of folkloristic and from Jewish anthropology, an adapted historicism of Jewish studies is apparent.
This kind of writing is difficult to pass.