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

June 14, 2019 | Jenna Weissman Joselit

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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