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Keeping Up With the Steins Or Not

When our son Yoni was 12, he begged us for a Bar Mitzvah disco party like all his classmates were planning. He was not initially pleased when we replied with plans for a Saturday night largely home-cooked dinner and talent show for out-of-town guests and a Sunday “Olympiad” in the backyard with relay races and a water gun fight for his friends.

Yet, by the time his July date arrived and he had attended dozens of themed disco parties, he was looking forward to our homegrown plans focused on family and friends rather than lights and sound systems. Instead of being caught up in conspicuous consumption, he worked on the mitzvah part of his Bar Mitzvah. That included preparing to lead services and read Torah and Haftorah, of course, but also organizing a significant Bar Mitzvah project, which focused on what he could give rather than what he would receive.


There is tremendous pressure on children and parents to keep up with the Jewish Joneses, as is so hilariously and poignantly depicted in the new film “Keeping Up With the Steins” being released this weekend. The issue is not just about impressing people, which is problematic enough. I have seen parents worn down with worry over offending family who expect an elaborate dinner to justify their plane tickets or about adequately reciprocating with business associates who had invited them to their affairs.

The cost for such pressure is tremendously high: Hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Jewish community are spent each year on parties that could be put to better use in supporting Jewish educational, religious, and social-service institutions here and in Israel. Just think about the impact just one-fourth of the money Conservative Jews annually spend on Bnai Mitzvah parties could have if it were sent to the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, reaching out to disaffected young Israelis to save the Jewish soul of the Jewish State. Talk about setting a bar for a mitzvah!


The cost is not only in misspending resources on a communal level. There is an even greater cost to the child and the family. Families undergo tremendous strains, financial and emotional, to meet the expectations they assume, rightly or wrongly, others have of them. And what about the mitzvah that is supposed to be the essence of the Bnai Mitzvah? All too often, as a character in the movie says, “It doesn’t matter what happens in the Temple, it’s the party that counts!”

We are not an ascetic religion: there is a value to enjoying good food, singing, and dancing, especially when it is to celebrate a mitzvah. However, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not a wedding. Even some families who keep a kosher home abandon the idea of a kosher affair once they see the price tag. And too few set aside even the 3 percent of the party cost that Mazon suggests to feed the poor. What lesson does the child learn when the very mitzvot he or she just committed to observing (including the kosher laws and charity, tzedakah) are broken or pushed aside for the party? That Judaism is to be treasured only when it is cheap or convenient?


It takes a tremendous act of self-assurance and will power to resist Bnai Mitzvah party pressure. Maybe Keeping Up With the Steins will help. After this movie, maybe more families will realize that they don’t need to impress anyone, and maybe more kids, like my son Yoni, will realize that home-made parties really are not only more meaningful but just as much, if not more, fun.

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Howard Katz

posted May 11, 2006 at 2:51 pm

Hi Sue, Hope you’re well. I’d like to point out something here, which I hope you don’t take the wrong way. While your sincerity and committment are evident, I must say that posts like this (and the previous one) serve merely as apologetics and reinforcements for the rather dismal state of affairs in American Jewish communities. Suggestions that people be “sincere” and remember the “real” meaning of the bar mitzvah – said with the requisite moral earnestness – merely reinforce the status quo of materialism, vulgarity etc. Why? Because this whole system REQUIRES an earnest rabbi to say precisely the things you say, in the same way that you, by keeping Shabbos, justify everybody else going to the mall. “Our rabbi is such a gem – so sincere”, is a sentiment that functions to keep people feeling warm and satisfied – as they proceed to the caterer, the florist, and Lord and Taylors. To illustrate the above, imagine the following. You probably know that in haredi communities (of which I am anything but a fan)the leading rabbis have actually prohibited gaudy bar mitzvahs, going so far as to put upper spending limits on them -and these are obeyed. What do you think would happen if the Conservative (or Reform) rabbinate tried this? I think we can both agree that, once the fahpizted suburbanites got over their shock, they would stop being “lovely people” in rather short order. Indeed, if the rabbi in question persisted, he/she would be run out of town rather quickly. Gaudy bar mitzvahs are the life blood of mainstream American Judaism. Expressing noble sentiments to the contrary merely fills the obligatory systemic role of morally earnest rabbi. Again, I hope all is well with you and your family.

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Esther Nash

posted May 11, 2006 at 6:35 pm

The world is not as holy as holy people would like it to be. People more and more, do “their own thing” today….and, sadly in the minds of traditionalists, most do not follow traditions of even such things as keeping milk and meat separate, (not to mention forsaking the more expen- sive “kosher” meat.) Why? Money (and thus independence), are far more easy to come by now, in the modern west, than it ever was in the “shtetl”….or even in Biblical times. This being (sadly) so, for a great many, (but not all, of course) Jews today, it’s a wonder that any of these newly “independent” people choose to give their children traditional bar or bat mitzvahs, at all….or that the young people in question would acquiese to having such a “time-worn” ceremony with- out argument. (My own nephew, in fact, put his foot down, and totally refused to have a bar-mitzvah….as he felt it would be false to swear alliegance to the exclusivity of a religion and people he, personally, does not believe to be any different, and/or better than any other. (And I must here admit that the only reason I wanted a bas-mitzvah was to prove that I was as good as any boy! I had mine….and my religious uncle in fact did say I did it as well as any boy.) I know that, for good or ill, I, and my family, are NOT alone in our non-traditional attitudes towards Judaism…and all religions, in fact. (I see them as great for those who believe in them, and I respect religious people of whatever religion…but I am more of spiritual person, (beliving in “God, but not in in any organized religion, for myself.) And, as a free person in the Western world, in the 21st century, I thank God every day for my right to believe this way, and not be critized or burnt at the stake for it! This being so…and their being many people far LESS religious than I am in the world….I, were I religious person…epecially were I a rabbi…would positive REJOICE that there are still those who wish to have bar and bat mitzvahs. And if they cost $1 million….it should NOT be seen as a sin. Not if it were a new, and accepted practice that, at such bar and bat mitzvahs, that at least $50,000 be given to Israel, and another $50,000 to a worthy charity!

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posted May 11, 2006 at 11:56 pm

Well Ms. Susan, I don’t understand what you’re so concerned about. As one of your readers correctly noticed “everybody is doing their own thing”. Why are you so concerned about people spending time on preserving Judaism if you yourself help to change, modernize, improve, revise etc. As if G-d made a mistake the first time and now we modern people should help him to realize that in our modern times we shouldn’t keep kosher (we already solved all health issues with which G-d was concerned 3000 years ago), and it’s completely normal to rest on Shabbos at the beach or in the mall, and it’s totally normal for a woman to be a “rabbi”. Neither Reform nor Conservative have any standard; so don’t expect from your crowd to be concerned with Jewish values. Because your values are different from temple to temple. I can go to any Orthodox synagogue and no matter which tradition or flavor the shul is, I’ll be speaking same language everywhere. If I come to Reform or Conservative temple the style may range from almost Orthodox to church-like environment. So if you really want to help to preserve Judaism and Jewish values, don’t concern yourself with how much money people spend on their Bar or Bat Mitzva, but show them by your own example what real Jewdaism is and the nice beginning would be to stop counting yourself in a minyan and resign from the position of the “rabbi”. G-d is not shovinist He just thought that women may be productive in many other ways; He gave us different tasks from men and different set of talents and character traits. If you start respecting G-d and not trying to correct Him 3000 years later because He was wrong, you’ll notice how people will change around you and will also care more about G-d instead of goudy parties.

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Barbara Rabinowitz

posted May 12, 2006 at 6:45 pm

After reading the”rabbis” story and the comments, obviously two from a Conservative/Reform perspective and one from an Orthodox perspective I must say this: The Bar/Batmitzvah is meant in Jewish Life to coincide with our Physical and Mental and even Spiritual Growth It is a time of and for Teaching Have we not up to this time taught or at least attemted to teach our children what it is to be a decent Member Of Society? A decent human being To be honest and Moral in our day to day dealings with our fellow man To be aware of family and friends AND strangers It is for THE PARENTS to show the way Not for children to say whether they will partake in the Ceremony or not It is for the Parents to be shown the errors of their ways. Surely both parents and children can know that we can celebrate and prepare for the morning in Shul with as much gusto and joy as a we celebrate a huge or small party after On bringing Judaism into the home both practically, for eg. observing the Laws of Kashrut, which are Religious Laws and not Dietry, Customary Laws The ritual of giving Tsedaka becomes a way of life, and we could celebrate Religiously,and have a GRAND PARTY Afterwards. Barbara Rabinowitz Miami Fl.

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