"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I dreaded my bat mitzvah 21 years ago. I wasn’t worried about screwing up my debut on the “bimah,” where I’d chant a portion of the Bible — I’d logged nearly a year of preparation with our synagogue’s cantor, and five years of Hebrew school. But as an eighth grader who’d just turned 13, I was the youngest of my classmates to become a bat mitzvah, and I knew I’d have to subject my friends — both Jewish and Gentile — to yet another long, arduous religious service. I prayed my parents would let me reward everyone’s patience with a kick-ass party. Most of my peers had DJs at their b’nai (“b’nai” denotes the plural form) mitzvah receptions — one girl even had a band — which had the effect of transforming those standard gefilte fish and pasta salad buffet luncheons into rousing school dances, while the grown-ups poured themselves endless goblets of that sickeningly sweet Manischewitz wine.
But I was not among the lucky ones. Instead, my mother hired an Israeli folk singer to entertain my small handful of friends from middle school and Hebrew school, as well as members of our family, and the colleagues and golf club pals of my pediatrician grandfather, who was footing the bill. For two hours, we weren’t even going to get a few hyper rounds of “Hava Nagila.” Nope, just a lonely lady strumming her acoustic guitar, wailing somber Hebrew favorites like “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold)” and the Israeli National Anthem, “Hatikvah.” In other words, my bat mitzvah party sucked.
Nothing like the b’nai mitzvah Mark Oppenheimer crashed in Scarsdale, N.Y., and Tampa, Fla., for his impeccably researched, if too often flippantly narrated, cultural history of the Jewish rite of passage, “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America.” The former New Yorker staffer, and current editor of the New Haven Advocate, attended the ceremonies and receptions of American Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews across the nation to find out why so many of us “take such trouble to keep this one part of their faith.”
Oppenheimer, who holds a doctorate in religious history from Yale and hails from secular Jewish stock — his Jewish mother was raised by atheist communists; his father, by irreligious German-American Jews — never had a bar mitzvah. “Leftism, not Torah or Zionism, was what mattered” in his family, while growing up in the predominantly Catholic town of Springfield, Mass. But, as he got to know more Jewish people at Yale, and had his first encounters with Jewish rituals like Sabbath dinners and the blowing of the ram’s horn (the shofar), Oppenheimer experienced something like a cultural awakening. “I felt as if I were meeting other Jews for the first time … Jews who had been to Israel, Jews who could read Hebrew, Jews who planned to be rabbis, Jews who, with a kitschy irony, still wore T-shirts received as Bar Mitzvah party favors.”
Years later, when Oppenheimer took a job as a religion writer for the Hartford Courant, he absorbed even more knowledge about Judaism from rabbis and Jewish scholars, further whetting his appetite as a “journalist, historian, Jew.” It was then he decided he “wanted to investigate the wild and growing popularity of b’nai mitzvah.” That is not to say, as he is careful to note, that he wanted to study to become a bar mitzvah. Why would he? When Oppenheimer’s journey begins in New York, he’s sneaking into swank Scarsdale synagogues and ritzy receptions at Manhattan hotels — gaudy, excessive spectacles thrown by parents who seem more intent on impressing friends and colleagues than celebrating their Jewish children’s rites of passage into adulthood. Not exactly the stuff of religious inspiration.
Oppenheimer can barely contain his grief — at times, awestruck revulsion — at events like these. While that may seem predictable, the thing that really riles him is sitting through b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that hijack the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbos) morning services. The rabbis often cut short the usual rituals at the expense of the regular congregants to accommodate the guests of honor. “By robbing the day of its central purposes, communal prayer and public Torah reading,” writes Oppenheimer, “b’nai mitzvah’s heightened importance within the Jewish community actually seemed to cripple the ritual’s religious potential … The first Torah service a young man or woman takes part in is not a true Torah service at all, but a reasonable facsimile of one … the child is guaranteed success for an audience of invited friends and relatives.” It especially infuriates Oppenheimer because so many of these families join the synagogue on a short-term, opportunistic basis, becoming members a year or two before their child’s bar or bat mitzvah, with no interest in engaging spiritually or communally with the congregation. In fact, most of them don’t renew their memberships once their children complete their rites of passage.
After the ceremonies, Oppenheimer follows the guests to the over-the-top b’nai mitzvah parties, which are fully staffed with DJs, tarot card readers, bartenders, caricaturists. Some of the receptions have “party motivators” — people hired to “chat up the guests at cocktail hour, often engaging the boys and girls in flirtatious — but not too flirtatious — conversation, and then dance, dance, dance when the music starts to play.” He even attends a couple of bar and bat mitzvah party expos in Teaneck, N.J., and Greenwich, Conn., to take note of the latest cultural trends in the realms of photography, entertainment and catering. “The saddest thing about the party culture,” he writes, “is not that it is lavish, but that it can affect a self-perpetuating ubiquity and a sense of helplessness. A family is still free to do its own decorating, build the piñata, cook the food, and play CDs from a stereo … But where a spending race has, like an arms race, heated up, increasingly professional and sophisticated party choreography threatens to make homemade celebrations seem corny and juvenile.”
Oppenheimer eventually moves away from the more revolting b’nai mitzvah — we read about plenty of those in magazine exposés, anyway — and uncovers families for whom the ritual holds serious significance. With this shift, his attitude changes, from disapproval to varying degrees of amazement, and his expressions of smugness, too, adjust from outright disgust to gentle sarcasm. The proximity to religiosity, spirituality and any glimmer of sentimentality appears to threaten Oppenheimer; here, he’s like a smart-alecky teenager whose running commentary is more entertaining to him than the surrounding stimulus. He did warn us; Oppenheimer explains early on that his secular parents raised him to be cynical about organized religion. I presume, then, that he is soulful and brave to pursue his intellectual curiosity with such vigor and intelligence. If only he didn’t feel the need to assert a distance with snark, as he does when describing a frosted-haired Torah tutor, and a Jewish Renewal ceremony in Alabama. He is even a bit righteous when he goes to Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI) synagogue in New Haven, Conn., which has a decidedly egalitarian Conservative Jewish congregation whose vibe is “a mélange of Shetland-wool intellectual and post-sixties hippie.”
The bat mitzvah girl at BEKI, Annie Bass, has chosen to obey all religious strictures. (As Oppenheimer notes, the bat mitzvah is a relatively new creation, invented in 1922 by Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the liberal Reconstructionist movement. Conservatives didn’t catch on until the 1950s.) Annie’s observant family raised her to keep “Shabbos” — withholding from writing or working, operating electrical appliances, or exchanging money on Friday nights and Saturdays until sundown — but she’s decided to pray every day. “It’s pretty and it’s meaningful. I don’t know what it means, but it’s meaningful,” Annie explains to Oppenheimer. She also wears the small black boxes that contain scraps of Hebrew scripture known as tefillin, which are traditionally only worn by men. “With this religious devotion, she was choosing to accept that there are things one does not choose,” writes Oppenheimer, who holds her up as an example of Jewish wholesomeness, and her bat mitzvah, as “the antidote to Scarsdale.”
Oppenheimer knows Annie is unlike anyone he will ever meet. She comes from an anti-materialistic family, and designed her own bat mitzvah. Opting out of a knock-down, drag-out party, she instead preferred a small gathering for a buffet lunch at the synagogue after the morning service. The author is keenly aware that Annie is special, “venerated for being the kind of young Jew rabbis and teachers and parents hope for, spiritually committed and spiritually gifted.” “I felt slightly ashamed of the burden that, unbeknownst to Annie, I was placing on her,” he writes. Indeed, only the Lubavitcher bar mitzvah boy he encounters in Alaska appears as devoted as Annie — these two make for exceptional, obvious studies — but that is not to say that they are the only dedicated, earnest Jewish souls he encounters on his cross-country trip.
Mendy Greenberg, the Lubavitcher living in Anchorage, Alaska, is not the kind of 13-year-old you meet every day, though. He is eager to have his bar mitzvah so he can have the honor of carrying on the missionary work of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. To him, manhood is “the onset of his responsibility to save the souls of world Jewry.” Part of this involves undertaking Schneerson’s obligatory “Tefillin Campaign,” a mission to get as many Jewish men to wear tefillin as possible — Oppenheimer, who doesn’t know how to lay tefillin, offers himself up as a student.
In Tampa, Oppenheimer hooks up with tutor Judi Gannon, who teaches “trop” — or chanting — of the Torah. Chanting from the Torah is one of the most difficult tasks, because the entire Torah is written in consonant letters, with no vowel markings, making it nearly impossible to sight-read. One of Oppenheimer’s strangest missteps appears here, when he offers an unsettling example to convey the complexity of trop: He likens it to singing a piece by Hitler’s favorite composer. Is he nuts, naive, or was this truly the only example he could conjure, as when he writes, “To chant the entire Torah … is akin to singing all the parts in Wagner’s Ring cycle from a text that has neither vowels nor any musical notes.” Not a few Jews would be horrified to see “Torah” and “Wagner” in the same sentence.
After making fun of Judi’s frosted hair, her breathless enthusiasm (he quotes her in paragraphs, and describes her manner of telling her life story “as if she were the emcee of a variety show, introducing one act after another”) and her house full of b’nai mitzvah tchotchkes, he finally pays her the respect she deserves. Judi is wholly committed to her students and the synagogue, and boasts an immense knowledge of the Torah — and she is a necessity in a town with such a small Jewish community.
Indeed, one of the reasons the bar and bat mitzvah has endured in American culture, Oppenheimer discovers, especially in predominantly non-Jewish areas, is the fact that it is a public declaration. “It’s a natural opportunity for Jews to proclaim that they exist and to perform their existence in a way that the neighbors can see,” as Jacob Newman does in Fayetteville, Ala., at his hippie-ish Jewish Renewal ceremony. “At Temple Shalom, the very occasional bar mitzvah, perhaps one a year, is a gathering of the Jewish and the Jewish-ish — the fellow travelers, the onlookers, the bookish folks and literati, the liberals and hippies, the somehow different — and a sizable cluster of sympathetic but more clueless Gentiles, the classmates and co-workers who are happy to see what this Jewish stuff is all about.”
Jacob’s bar mitzvah at the Unitarian Universalist Society has congregants picking instruments out of a bag before the service — mariachis, wooden eggs, tambourines, glockenspiels — to accompany a guitarist who sings and strums the service in Hebrew and English, not unlike a 1970s guitar Mass. But it’s not as cloying as all that, according to Oppenheimer, who said he was “unexpectedly moved to poignant gratitude, one that persuaded me to quiet my cynical side, just for a moment, and sway in time to the guitar.”
If only we got to know the bar mitzvah boy as intimately as the kookiness of his ceremony, not to mention the local color. Indeed, with the exception of rare cases like Mendy and Annie, who appear in “Thirteen and a Day” as sideshow attractions, we have little sense of the b’nai mitzvah kids. We don’t learn much about how most of these boys and girls feel about preparing for the big day, how the ritual resonates for them, and how their Jewish identities fit into their respective communities. They are, after all, the VIPs, if only for a day.
But that’s only a quibble in light of the unexpected — and delightful — payoff to Oppenheimer’s painstaking research: By investigating the history of this Jewish coming-of-age ritual, he has become more knowledgeable about it than a bar mitzvah boy. As Oppenheimer explains the nuances of trop, or describes an irrepressible young teenage boy wrapping the leather straps of the tefillin around his forearm, the author’s cynicism melts away, and he lets slip his own naked enthusiasm for the beauty of these rituals. I am a secular Jew who harbors her own skepticism for organized religion — I hated Hebrew school — but I was admittedly verklempt when I first went to the Western Wall, and I am always humbled when I hear the sound of the shofar. One of the things I admire most about Judaism is that it rejects blind faith. By definition, Judaic thought invites cynicism — questioning reaffirms faith and some sects are open to adapting to a new age. So, even if his writing persona comes off as a little grating at times, there really is no better guide than a sardonic intellectual like Oppenheimer, who has opened his mind wide enough to let himself find out what he’d been missing all those years (and see if he actually missed it). And, unlike most kids preparing to be men and women of the commandment, he will probably retain this information far longer. Insist though he does throughout “Thirteen and a Day” that he doesn’t want to be bar mitzvahed — too bad. His investigative pursuit transformed him into something of an honorary, if reluctant, bar mitzvah boy — the kind any rabbi or Jewish parent would be most proud of.
Kera Bolonik is a contributing writer at Salon. Follow her on Twitter @KeraBolonikMore Kera Bolonik.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)