Virtual Talmud

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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