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Easy Target

“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.

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posted May 10, 2006 at 11:19 pm

In my work, it seems clear that what lasts (when it lasts) is not the party and status stuff, but the preceding years of study, in whatever form that takes. Also it’s interesting to see how education and the service affect congregational community. I’ll know more in a year or so. Hi from UCB.

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posted May 11, 2006 at 1:28 am

This is definitely a topic near to my heart… I didn’t have a bat mitzvah as a kid because my family was secular and I was recently debating having one now. Putting aside the issue of “bat mitzvah” for girls, I honestly wanted nothing to do with the whole event because instead of being a meaningful rite of passage, the bar mitzvah has clearly become a vulgar, over-the-top party. I also sincerely think that American Jewish society would be healthier if it abandoned, or at least re-considered, the current state of the bar mitzvah ceremony. As a Russian-born Jew, I think the bar mitzvah is a perfect example of the American focus on status and wealth, and the trivialization of religious observance. (Weddings in the U.S. are another example.) The fact that children are throwing gigantic, wealthy parties is a disgrace to the Jewish community. Unless more Jews, and especially rabbis, step up the criticism, the average bar mitzvah will continue to be a prime display of American overindulgence. As for Judaism not being an “ascetic” religion… I think there have been plenty of Jewish leaders throughout the centuries who have focused on self-restraint, denounced material possessions and emphasized lifestyles based on spiritual devotion. The fact that today these people would be considered “un-Jewish” only means Judaism isn’t big enough for them. And maybe the b’nei mitzvah of today would learn a thing or two from more ascetic cultures or religions.

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Jane Mulsman

posted May 14, 2006 at 6:13 pm

What will the Christians think when they read this? Too often the emphasis is on the Bar rather than the Mitzvah.

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Jane Mulsman

posted May 14, 2006 at 6:18 pm

For my son’s Bar Mitvah the caterer wanted to know what the theme was. I didn’t know what she was talking abut. My son was being Bar Mitzvah and his interest was computers. He isn’t a sportsman and wasn’t then. We didn’t even have a second party at night. A luncheon followed the service with a daffodil plant on each table. No music or pictures were allowed on Shabbat and the lack of pictures is my only regret. However, we were allowed to take picturesin our Bar Mitzvah clothes a few days prior to the service.

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posted May 19, 2006 at 3:51 am

What will the Christians think when they read this? When can we stop giving a damn?? Let’s focus on getting our own house in order.

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posted May 21, 2006 at 1:05 am

What will Christians think? I’m a Black Christian and an American. I come away from this thinking..gee, I thought Jews born in America *were* Americans. I subscribe to and read articles posted on this website as well as I do Budhist, Islamic and Christian religious sites because I believe in one God and I have a strong desire to understand differences, religious and otherwise, as the path to common ground amongst people of the world. The vast majority of non Jewish Americans are not even able to practice overindulgence or material excess. However, I observe with a great degree of sadness that overindulgence and excess appear to be a product of extreme wealth moreso than geographic citizenry. Wherever you find individuals of extreme wealth, be it in European, Middle-Eastern, Latin American, Central American, or Northern American will find commensurate overindulgence and excess. I hope I don’t offend by commenting here. I would add that as a world’s people, I believe us to be better served by searching for and embracing our common ground while celebrating our differences..whatever they might be. Different is not inherently bad.

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posted June 18, 2006 at 9:46 pm

I am a Christian and an American. I was reading and absorbing with an open mind until I saw the “what will the the Christians think when they read this” comment. I don’t understand what being Christian or being American has anything to do with this topic. The “Steins” are not outdoing the “Smiths” – as you already know Christians, American or not do not celebrate bar/bat mitzvahs. Every religious denomination celebrates when someone, youth or adults, accepts God into their hearts, but the celebrations are nothing even remotely close to the celebrations of the mitzvahs. I would boldly suggest that instead of blaming the American and/or Christian for the way of the American Jews, take a deeper look. Do you really think that on the day “Mr. Stein” stands before God, that God will say, “Mr. Stein, the bar mitzvah you had was over the top – gluttony was prevelant – however, let’s blame your inability to make good judgment on the Americans and/or Christians.” One should never catergorize a Nation as a whole – especially America. Again, I say the answer is prayer, not casting blame.

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow

posted June 20, 2006 at 5:25 pm

The Shalom Center began in late May to act on this mitzvah. We received an emergency plea from Physicians for Human Rights in Israel to send money to them to meet the need for urgent help to Palestinian hospitals that had run out of supplies, instruments, anesthetics, etc. We asked our members and readers to contribute, promising to absorb out of our own account , as The Shalom Center’s own tzedakah, the 3% cost of accepting donations. Within three days, $15,000 arrived. To join in this effort, click on and then on the large blue “DONATE” button. Send what you can, and be sure to write “PHR – Hospitals” in the “On behalf of” box. Shalom, R. Arthur Waskow

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