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Bling Mitzvah

Sadly, the story is all too common–Jewish families trying to outdo each other with over-the-top Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties that show off wealth and status in an orgy of conspicuous consumption. For some it seems it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that bling.

This is just the type of excess which is parodied in the new movie “Keeping Up with the Steins,” where two families vie to throw the more lavish Bar Mitzvah party. But sadly, screenwriters’ imaginations can’t compete with status-conscious parents, as in the recent Bat Mitzvah celebration of the daughter of defense contractor David Brooks, featuring 50 Cent, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, and a reported $10 million price tag.


All of which raises the question of what these celebrations are about. Bar and Bat Mitzvah is traditionally a celebration of welcoming a child into adulthood as a full and responsible member of the Jewish community. It is both a family and a community celebration, a rite of passage intended to mark the arrival at adolescence but also to initiate the boy or girl into the ways and values of the society. These values generally include study, leading the congregation in prayer, engaging with and teaching words of Torah, and acts of tzedakah–giving and community service.

The focus on party, of course, emphasizes an entirely different set of values into which a boy or girl is being initiated–those of materialism, excess, and status. Perhaps this is why these parties resonate so deeply for so many: More than the religious rituals and service itself, the parties are a true reflection of the values and priorities of many families.


The origins of this excess are almost understandable, as newly accepted and prosperous Jews in the 1950’s and 60’s wanted to demonstrate their respectability in the face of a society that had been, until recently, openly hostile to Jews and still maintained all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle forms of “gentlemanly” discrimination. By the 1980’s, Jews were, virtually without exception, fully integrated into American society at all levels, and so they absorbed the prevailing culture of excess, giving rise to parties celebrated with equal parts of nostalgia and irony at places like Bar Mitzvah Disco. And more recently, the trend has even started to work in reverse: Jewish adolescent ‘Bar Mitzvah’ parties have become so popular that even non-Jews are asking for them. Gee, I guess we’ve arrived.


So now what?

Now that we’ve secured a slice of the American dream, now that non-Jews are imitating us, maybe it’s time for us to reassert what Bar and Bat Mitzvah is really about: family, community, service, responsibility, and recognizing holiness in the transitions in our lives. In the face of this Hummer and bling-obsessed culture, maybe it’s time to use our influence to try to inject these core Jewish values into American society. Now that would be a mitzvah worth celebrating.

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Howard Katz

posted May 11, 2006 at 2:17 pm

“it is…intended to mark the arrival at adolescence but also to initiate the boy or girl into the ways and values of the society”. Actually,the bar/bat mitzvah initiates the boy or girl into the “ways and values” of the society – contemporary Jewish society” – all too well. In my opinion, the all-too-common mistake in this article is to recognize the vulgarity and shallowness of contemporary American Jewish society – but then to assert that this isn’t “really” Jewish. Why? Because somewhere – either in classic rabbinic texts unknown to 95% of American Jews, or in some idealized and/or romaticized version of spiritual/ethical Jewish communities that exist nowhere – the “real” Jewish community exists. And the response to this is – no,it doesn’t. The “real” Jewish community is what you see in front of you, complete with Philip Rothesque bar mitzvahs, boring, suburban tedium masquerading as spirituality, and a rigid conformism in terms of money, status, etc. that boggles the mind. The contemporary bar/bat mitzvah is quite in sync with all this. In my humble opinion, it is the idealistic congregational rabbis who are not.

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posted May 11, 2006 at 4:25 pm

I’ve tutored B’nai Mitzvah for upwards of ten years and am working on a dissertation on the effect of B’nai Mitzvah on the congregation. I am, obviously, involved in the learning, not the party. However, I think that because the party is so easy to make fun of and does lend itself to excess, that is what Americans (Jewish or not) tend to see. But in my years of tutoring, I have really only seen a few students who have remained unchanged by the process itself. In my research, I have found that, while the kids may have thought the party was what it was about, that is not what actually matters in their memories. (By the way, this doesn’t mean that B’nai Mitzvah makes kids Jewish–the effects can be minimal or negative, they can include greater confidence in the secular world, or they can lead to more connection to Judaism and Jewish community.) This makes sense–the party is only one day for a few hours, while the preparation for B’nai Mitzvah is, depending on how you count it, six months to several years. The B’nai Mitzvah party has been mocked for nearly a century, so that is nothing new (though the popularity of B’nai Mitzvah has indeed grown). All of the rabbis responding to the movie accept the premise that the party shows the “real” nature of Judaism. This has been the common view of the Jewish leadership for a hundred years. But why is that nature any less “real” than what precedes it? Why is it that Jewish leadership discounts the real time and effort in getting a child through the years preceding B’nai Mitzvah? Don’t give me answers about manipulative parents and families who vanish after the B’nai Mitzvah. Sure, they exist. But I would argue that the greater problem exists within congregations that do not have ways to incorporate the new “Jewish adults” and their families into congregational life. It won’t happen simply by talking about values, but by actually changing the structure of congregational life. By the way, Mark Oppenheimer, in 13 and a Day, talks about Rite 13, a take-off on B’nai Mitzvah in the Episcopal church. So it is not only the excess that is being imitated, but also the substance.

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Risa Mendelson

posted May 11, 2006 at 5:41 pm

I must agree with the statement that synagogues do not have ways to incorporate the new “Jewish adults” into congregational life. I am the mother of two boys, ages 20 and 16 who, after their Bar Mitzvah rarely attend services. I am a Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutor and I instill the values and meanings of the prayers, torah, and haftorah portions into each session. However, I must agree that the parents as well as the students are all focused on the party. Our rabbi tells the story about a church with a rat problem, the answer is to Bar Mitzvah the rats and they won’t come back. This is indeed a sad commentary on the youth. If we look back,for those of us who became Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the early 70’s, we did not return to shul life until we had children. Perhaps, this is the circle of Jewish life.

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David Altschul

posted May 11, 2006 at 6:42 pm

The Jewish drive to assimilate is not news. The banquet dinner celebrating the first graduating class of American reform rabbis (in the 19th century) featured a trafe menu. (You could look it up.) Holiness, and the ongoing vitality of the Jewish community, has been built on standards. Rabbis who allow excess spending on bar mitvzahs aren’t doing their jobs. Parents who yield to their children’s cravings ditto. In teaching diligently to our children, we are called to teahc honesty, generosity, and tikkun olam. My beshert & I love Tom Petty, too…but a bar mitzvah is not an event for entertainment.

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Lynne Arons

posted May 11, 2006 at 7:21 pm

It really depends on your shul. I live in a pretty upscale area near Chicago, there are over 150 shuls of all denominations including 2 Humanistic 4 Reconstructionist nearly 50 Reform and the rest split between Conservative and the various iterations of Orthodox. Most of my friends kids have had the disco bar mitzvahs with the movie or sports theme centerpeices, a DJ with “dance leaders” and a photo montage of all the baby pictures they could find. Our (Reconstructionist) shul is made up of ex-hippies and social action types who came looking for a spititual movement not a country club. (we dont have a building) Putting G-d on the Guest List is part of the 7th grade curriculum. Our kids lead the whole service, they don’t sit at the back of the bima and wait to do their haftarh and sit down again. They relate their Torah portion and halftorah to current events and what lesson they learned about the world from their reading. THe only competition is in how to make a nice party without dipping into the college fund. For our son we had a picnic at the forest preserve. We had hot dogs and hamburgers, and pickels on a stick. They had a water balloon fight and rode paddle boats around the pond. One family had their daughters party at the roller rink on Sunday afternoon. Several have had vegetarian catering and klezmer dancing. The center peices are usually food baskets that get donated a food pantry, and on the kids tables baskets of toys donated to a local homeless shelter for families. Sure we have some disco parties but usually luncheons which are much less costly (and still with donateable center peices) The fastest way to loose status in our congregation is to be ostentatious. We have pleanty of Doctors and Lawyers in the congregation but not the types that think spending is the way to show success. Other people are always thrilled after one of our Bar/Bat Mitzvahs because they had such a good time and it was not the usual bash that was so loud you can’t hear anything for two days.

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posted May 12, 2006 at 2:48 am

When my daughter celebrated her becoming a Bat Mitzvah, she wanted nothing to do with a party. It occurred during the counting of the Omer, so, instead of ridicuous centerpieces, we filled festive gift bags with bags of rice, barley, pasta, etc. to place on the tables. We donated these to the local food bank at the end of her very low key reception. She grew to dread the “over-the-top”, at times offensive, and rarely kosher parties thrown by acquaintances…

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posted May 12, 2006 at 5:19 pm

The Bling Mitzvah is not only not a sin, it is also not a Bar/s Mitzvah. Granted, those with means have social obligations to those who expect a lot, and they also want to get their bang for the entertaining buck, but they apparently forgot the concept of noblesse oblige. This concept includes material support for those less fortunate, but not rubbing the faces of those others in their wealth. That’s why in prior days obvious displays of wealth were, basically, Ha LaShon.

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Linda Koplovitz

posted May 12, 2006 at 7:56 pm

Well, I am having a Bar Mitzvah/Family Reunion. 60 Adults and 30 kids. My house is too small to accomodate that large number. Everything costs money if you want to treat your loved ones to a lovely party. Try doing it cheaply. I am so thrilled that I can afford something nice for my family. Unfortunately my mother and my husband’s mother and father have passed on. Before the rest of us go, it will be nice to have this joyous occasion and a fond memory for my children.

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Zelda Goldwater

posted May 12, 2006 at 8:57 pm

What is a Bar/Bat Mitzvah? Is it an important religious ceremony or is it a time to have a big lavish party? The money that is spent could be put to better use. The Oneg Shabbat is usually fancy anyhow a lavish HorDerves after the Sat Ceremony. That is all we had. The special relatives and friends were taken out to dinner later. I could not afford much and that is all we had. No loans no debt. We continued to save and donated to the mazon fund where the money was put to better use. I was not ashamed and when someone said anything I simply told them that it was the ceremony was important and not the dinner. My party money went to Mazon so those in need of food could eat. I was proud when I said that and so were my children.

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posted May 12, 2006 at 11:45 pm

David Brooks is teaching his young daughter to be self-indulgent, gluttonous and acquisitive. I read nothing about any mitzvah project – and as for those millions of dollars – they could have gone a long way to help any number of needy Jewish organizations – instead of enriching the lives of such “luminaries” as 50 Cent. It’s revolting. Leann Sherman West Hartford, CT

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posted May 13, 2006 at 4:36 pm

The Western custom of spending lavishly for B’enei Mitzvot is disgusting Themed parties? Non-kosher catering? Sadly, the purpose of this coming of age ceremony is too often lost or obscured by the almost manic need to outdo one another Ask any guest wahat the theme or main course was and they will hae no problem remembering. Should you ask these same guests which Haftorah was read, and you will most likely get a blank stare Money should not be the issue when the ceremony is supposed to teach our youth how to be responsible adults.

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posted May 13, 2006 at 9:16 pm

So now from what were seeing a Bat/Bar Mitzvah isn t about welcoming our sons and daughters into the community and honoring Hashem, but instead were showing them to be as materialistic as they can and all the ceremony is for is to gain a party. How sad and it makes me so ashamed it has gotten to this in our community.

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Tzvi McCloud

posted May 14, 2006 at 8:09 pm

Its funny, I like to laugh because I was raised nominally conservative, but had a bar mitzvah in a Reform congregation, where I was expected to Co-lead services with another person also having a Bar Mitzvah…needless to say the 2 things I remember about it to this day were that we were not evenly matched(I was miraculously better prepared) and that I also felt, partially because of the nature of the congregation, that after the Bar Mitzvah, that there was nothing left. The Congregation offered a “confirmation class”(like many reform congregations), but I saw that as not even close to Jewish ways(like copying the non-jews). Otherwise, as far as the party, I can say simply i had to show up, and that was it, I was never asked, never had any say, in a way it was my “indoctrination” into what jewish life meant, where Men had no say, and ranked at a level comparable to Furniture. Then again, I went on to College, Majored in History, “reconnected” with my jewishness, and rediscovered what was never fully taught, that It really should be about the Mitzvah. Perhaps that should be the new focus, but who knows.

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posted May 16, 2006 at 5:24 pm

Another idea about connecting after the Bar/s Mitzvah: Perhaps those members need to have a representative on the Temple Board. That way, activities and difficult issues (the parents are no longer member, i.e.) can be discussed at the Board, and appropriate solutions found. For example, activities for young adults, appropriate membership/dues levels for solitary young adults.

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TDW Segtall

posted May 17, 2006 at 4:09 pm

This article brings back some fairly traumatic times for me even though it is fifty-four years ago. At the time of my bar mitzvah my mother was in her ninth month of pregnancy; she had lost her job, and my family was in fairly sad financial straits. I felt very bad that no particular celebration could be afforded for me. It may have been one of the steps that spoiled religion for me and led me to humanistic practices.

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Nancy Cronk

posted May 17, 2006 at 5:11 pm

I do believe that lavish Bar Mitzvahs are inappropriate. Beyond a simple celebration, excess money should be spent in Tzedakah (charitable efforts). However, I do think the controversy is unnerving, when it takes place outside the Jewish Community. Where were the complainers when George Bush spent many millions on his disgustingly excessive inaugural ball, with all of its unnecessary expenditures? Wasn’t that also supposed to be a meaningful and solemn rite of passage? As responsible Jews, we need to fight the stereotype of excessive Bar Mitzvah spending with a vocal emphasis on Tzedakah, symbolism, family and meaning.

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Lynne Arons

posted May 17, 2006 at 6:44 pm

How to keep the kids engaged after B’nai Mitzvah? Pay them. We offer our post Bar Mitzvah kids jobs as teachers aids in the school. There is a madrichim program so their is some curriculumm and learning involved for them as well as an opportunity to be seen as “adults” in the community. For the last couple of years we have had more madrichim than classrooms. So we have one teen as librarian on sunday, another that helps in the office etc. They get to teach electives, my son taught Sheikmet (Chess) this year, bringing his High School experience to Hebrew school, showing the kids in a very concrete way that our Jewish life is not separate from our “regular” life. We also have a great Havaya or Post Bar Mitzvah class, it meets twice a month on Monday evenings, the theme this eyar was All My Jewish Values come from the Movies. Our Rabbi brings movie clips that demonstrate some Jewish Value or Talmudic lesson and they discuss it. Again showing them that Jewish Life and secular life are all wrapped up that Judaism is relevant in the world. We regularly get 85%-90% of our kids the year after their B’nai Mitzvah to sign up and throughout High School we retain over 60%. It can be done!

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