Raising The Bar (Mitzvah)

A new Miramax film Keeping Up With The Steins explores the increasingly ostentatious world of Jewish celebrations. From what I can pick up from the trailer, the Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven) becomes obsessed with planning his son’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah after his neighbor Arnie Stein (Larry Miller) throws a lavish Titanic themed Bar Mitzvah for his son (“I’m king of the Torah!”). Being the good competitive suburban neighbor Fiedler goes all out to make sure his son has the best Bar Mitzvah available no matter what the cost (the trailer mentioned $500,000).
Unfortunately, this appears to be a case of art imitating life as these sorts of lavish events are gradually gaining in popularity and expense. Ostentatious Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations have become so prevalent that they are being covered by mainstream medea. CNN recently covered a $200,000 Bat Mitzvah held at the famous Hammerstein Ballroom, and an eerily prescient Miriam Shaviv blogged about a ?4m Bar Mitzvah.
The tendency to overspend on simchas is not limited to the uber-rich. Even in the more accessible “upper middle class,” simcha spending is skyrocketing to the point where R. Haskel Lookstein of the Upper East Side’s Congregation Kehilath Jerushurun tried instituting a policy where every dollar spent on an affair would be matched by a dollar to charity. Either events would become more reasonable or there would be a social if not religious value to the conspicuous consumption.
The obvious reason for such spending is competition and/or just showing off wealth, but at this point I think we’ve all given up on this ever changing. But there has been some discussion as to the declining significance of the Bar Mitzvah such that it turned into just another party.
Slate’s Emily Bazelon blames the fixed and forced nature of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Kids don’t choose to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah but are rather just another burden the parents are putting on them. They don’t embrace Judaism as much as they have extra homework for which they get paid handsomely for completing. Instead, Bazelon suggests a floating date for Bar/Bat Mitzvah such that the child can approach Judaism on his/her own terms and actually appreciate its significance.
Miraim rejects Bazelon’s arguments on the grounds that it is the parent’s responsibility to impart Judaism’s spiritual significance.

    If the parents, even the most secular among them, shifted the focus away from the $8m. party and onto study, meaning, community, history, etc., the kids would get a lot more out of it. Unfortunately, the parents are too materialistic, too unfamiliar with Judaism, and too divorced from spirituality…By suggesting that people drop the Bar Mitzvah ceremony instead of taking responsibility for it, the author, Emily Bazelon, is simply too accepting of our society’s faults.

Miriam also finds value in leaving the age exactly where it is:

    Unfortunately, we live in a culture where people in too many cases never grow up and where the line between child and adult remains forever blurred. I think it’s positive that in our Jewish culture there’s still some kind of formal statement that kids are expected to mature, and what better age to make this clear than 13.

While I think there is merit in all these arguments I also find that they miss the point. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration is by all accounts a relatively modern innovation. At best, it is a glorified se’udat mitzvah celebrating a change in religious status. But at its core, he Bar Mitzvah is not a rite-of-passage into adulthood, but a halakhic classification. It happens regardless of how well the child reads from the Torah or how many dancers get down on floor.
This is not to say that the modern day treatments of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah have not been beneficial. For many kids, it is the primary if not only regular Jewish education they will receive – especially in the more liberal denominations. True, many may not appreciate Judaism at the time, but one could give the same argument for teaching teenagers anything. By the time these kids are old enough to appreciate their studies, it is likely they’d have already lost most of their Jewish identity already. Learning about the prayer service, Jewish history, or whatever gets taught at these things does help foster Jewish identity.
But the cost of such contemporization is that the very celebration itself has become compromised. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah stopped being a primarilly religious affair some time ago and has instead become more of a social or cultural event.1 It isn’t forced because the religion demands it, but because that’s what the community expects. The fact that Bazelon entertains the hypothesis that the age should be moved simply stresses just how far the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is removed from the original religious meaning towards the anthropological liminal rituals. If anything, the reckless spending of the nouveau riche is simply indicative as to where the society currently stands vis-a-vis the religion.
Let me be clear that I am not opposing nice simchas, and while I do think people get far too worked up over details, people understandably want their special occaisons to go a certain way. Rather, my issue is with worshipping wealth in the name of God. Miriam is correct that we need to take responsibility for our rituals and our Jewish culture. It probably goes far beyond better Bar Mitzvah lessons, but I suppose we have to start somewhere.
Then maybe we could at least have more hope for the future generations.


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