For American Jews of a Bygone Era, May and June Were Confirmation Season

June 14 2019

During the early years of Reform Judaism, some rabbis introduced a confirmation ritual for mid-teen boys and girls to celebrate their coming of age—either in addition to or instead of the bar mitzvah, which, it seemed, occurred when boys were still too young to appreciate the gravity of their religious obligations. (The bat mitzvah was not introduced until the 1920s.) Late spring became the standard time for the ceremony, around the time of the holiday of Shavuot. Jenna Weissman Joselit explains its appeal:

Though its origins date to early 19th-century Germany, confirmation came of age and blossomed in the United States, where it took hold of and caught on fast within Reform Jewish circles. It betokened a new kind of ceremonial, one that was no holdover from an increasingly distant past, but a resolutely modern creation. . . . Students were expected to familiarize themselves with and confidently to declaim the Decalogue and other tenets of Judaism.

Pomp and circumstance rather than creed endeared confirmation to growing numbers of American Jewish parents and their offspring. Its pages overflowing with detail, the American Israelite noted how, with great relish, they took to the ceremony with its multiple “affirmations and declarations and bows,” elaborate musical arrangements, “pretty” speeches, and heaps of flowers everywhere, from the confirmands themselves, bedecked with boutonnieres and bouquets, to the sanctuary, which was transformed into a botanical garden of delights. . . .

American Jews may have stopped short of fashioning a floral cross, but in their extravagant embrace of the sight and scent of flowers, they took their cue from their Christian neighbors. American Protestants and Catholics [at the time] increasingly garlanded their churches with “as many flowers as possible” in celebration of Easter. . . . Decorating the sanctuary heralded their aesthetic sensibility, furnishing proof that the Jews, long derided for being a “nonvisual people,” could more than hold their own when it came to beautifying their houses of worship. . . .

Extolling the virtue of novelty, one contemporary observer of the 1880s, put it this way in the American Israelite: “No shofar, no fasting, no sukkah, lulav, or esrog, no matzah, maror, or ḥaroset—but flowers, lovely flowers, sweet flowers.” He was on to something. Where so much of Jewish ritual activity spoke of tradition, the weight of the past, and the demands of responsibility, confirmation was as fresh as a daisy.

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More about: American Jewish History, American Judaism, Reform Judaism, Shavuot

On Thanksgiving, Remember the Exodus from Egypt

Nov. 27 2020

When asked to design a Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed a depiction of Moses at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the children of Israel in the wilderness after departing Egypt. These proposals, writes Ed Simon, tapped into a venerable American tradition:

The Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World with the story of Exodus for more than a century. They were inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision, melding the stories of the Hebrew scripture with their own narratives and experiences. . . .

For the Puritans, Exodus was arguably a model for understanding their own lives and history in a manner more all-encompassing and totalizing than for any other historical religious group, with the obvious exception of the Jews. . . . American Puritans and pilgrims like John Mather, John Winthrop, John Cotton, . . . and many others placed the Exodus at the center of their vision, seeing their own fleeing from an oppressive England and a Europe wracked by the Thirty Years’ War to an American “Errand Into the Wilderness” as a modern version of the Israelites’ escape into Canaan. . . . [Thus the] Exodus . . . has become indispensable in comprehending the wider American experience. Through the Puritans, the story of Exodus became a motivating script for all manner of American stories. . . .

We read its significance and prophetic power in accounts of slaves who escaped the cruelty of antebellum plantation servitude, and who crossed the Ohio River as if it were the Sea of Reeds. . . . We see it in photographs of the oppressed escaping pogroms and persecution in the Old World, and in the stories of later generations of refugees. Exodus is an indispensably Jewish story, but what more appropriate day than Thanksgiving, this most American and Puritan (and “Jewish”?) of holidays, to consider the role that that particular biblical narrative has had in defining America’s civil religion?

Read more at Tablet

More about: American founding, American Religion, Exodus, History & Ideas, Thanksgiving, Thomas Jefferson