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Slate's Book Club: Is '13 and a Day' Too Young?

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

On Tuesdays, we usually discuss matters of law, often constitutional law, with Slate legal analyst Emily Bazelon. Today, our topic is a more ancient kind of law, specifically Jewish law, and whether it's something one can really be expected to uphold at the age of 13. That's the age for a traditional rite of passage for Jewish teens. It's called the bar or bat mitzvah. Emily's been reviewing a new book about the traditions of bar and bat mitzvahs. It's called "Thirteen and a Day." And in this book--and, indeed, in the Jewish community--Emily finds questions about whether 13 really is the right age.

Emily, what's happened to the American bar mitzvah, this raising questions about the proper age for bar and bat mitzvahs?

EMILY BAZELON (Slate Legal Analyst): The bar mitzvah has become, in some people's view, too oriented around large parties. That isn't always the case; sometimes the synagogue aspect of the ritual is the primary focus. But even in those cases, the bar mitzvah, for some kids, resembles studying for a big test more than it does an act of real piety or spiritual meaning. Some kids spend years in Hebrew school programs and attend shabbat services regularly before their bar mitzvah, and some kids get a lot out of that process. Others find that they come to resent it and that it's something their parents are forcing on them.

CHADWICK: Is there any support for changing the ritual? Is there any support for moving this age? And what would you move it to?

BAZELON: Well, some support perhaps comes from the history of the bar mitzvah. It's actually a very recent American innovation. It didn't catch on widely until Jews came to the United States in large numbers in the late 19th century. In the Bible, the age of adulthood is 20, not 13.

CHADWICK: And how would the bar mitzvah be different if the age requirement were lifted? Although 20, could you--would people really be willing to wait that long?

BAZELON: At 13, most kids don't really choose to become b'nai mitzvah, and so as a result, the process can feel more infantilizing than inspiring for them. But if we change the age of the bar mitzvah so that an older teen-ager or an adult, or a 13-year-old, could choose to become a bar mitzvah, then we might find that kids, instead of getting stuck practicing and then complaining to their parents about it, decided to keep the tradition going and at the end felt that they'd really given themselves a gift of a lot of value.

CHADWICK: Is this something the community's really talking about? I mean, is there a widespread feeling that it's not working properly and we need to do something so radical as raise the age? Because I think this is something that many Jewish children look forward to.

BAZELON: Well, there is some good anticipation of the bar mitzvah among some Jewish kids. There's also a lot of concern about how commercialized and how party-driven the event has become. And so I wouldn't say that this is an idea that has a lot of people talking about it at the moment, but perhaps the new book that is coming out about the bar mitzvah by Mark Oppenheimer might prompt some thoughts in that direction.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Emily Bazelon. She writes the Jurisprudence column for Slate. This new book is "Thirteen and a Day" by Mark Oppenheimer.

Emily, thank you.

BAZELON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.