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.