“Keeping up with the Steins,” the new movie set to hit theaters shortly, is one of those cultural events that remind you just how different your Judaism is from your grandparents’ Judaism. The story revolves around a family preparing for the Bar Mitzvah of their son. But this is not your Zaydee’s shindig. A Bar Mitzvah in this wealthy Jewishly populated Los Angeles suburb is something that involves booking rock stars, luxury boat cruises, and million-dollar-a-night venues.
Judaism embraces materiality. There is no mitzvah in being an ascetic. While the rabbis tell us “he who is wealthy is he who is satisfied with what he has,” Protestant moderation is not seen as an ultimate value. I don’t think that the Jewish tradition is opposed to nice Hanukkah gifts, being hospitable, and, yes, even dressed-up parties with good food and entertainment. But there is something about the image of 50 Cent and half-clad women on a yacht with 700 of your closest friends “dancing” around a 13-year-old that just…how do I say this….doesn’t sound Jewish?
Look, the Steins and the rest of the characters in this movie are easy targets for anyone who has a shred of moral and ethical decency. Do we really want the gun-slinging rapper 50 Cent doing the horah with our children at the Playboy mansion? of course not.
So what does this movie have to teach us and what does it tell us about who and what we as Jews have become?
What’s new here is not Jews outdoing other Jews. Rather, it’s that Americans want to be like Jews. The movie is not for Jews but about Jews and for Americans wanting to mimic Jews.
The movie resonates because people are all too aware of the real-life prototypes for its characters and situations. The paradigm for wealth is no longer an old stuffy, reserved silver Cadillac Protestant man. It’s the latte-sipping, iPod-buying, Hummer-driving, sweatsuit-wearing, hedge-fund-managing Jewish type.
Jews now compete with other Jews for wealth and social status. They do so not because of any inner ethnic ties but because this is who moved up the corporate, social, and intellectual ladder with them. American Jews have gotten to the point where it’s the most uncoincidental coincidence that many of their well-to-do neighbors are also Jews.