Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

December 21, 2005

Bar Mitzvah Extravagance

Filed under: — Different River @ 7:15 pm

In case you happened to read this article in the Washington Post, please note that this is NOT what a bar mitzvah is supposed to be like, let alone what it’s supposed to be about.

Some very brief excerpts:

For a girl named Lexy, [event planner Pat] James devised what he called a “Lex and the City” theme, for which he rented a pink couch that was an actual prop in the similarly named HBO show.

Hundreds of New York bar mitzvahs cost $100,000 or more. Many top the quarter-million-dollar mark. If you’re ready to spend that sort of money on a five-hour shindig for an eighth-grader, Pat James is the man to see.

His go-to move is something called a “fantasy video,” which plays on TV screens right before The Moment arrives. Most of them are filmed and edited weeks in advance, by professionals whom James hires.

“We had this one kid who was really into the Yankees and we sent him to Tampa, where the Yankees were in spring training,” he says. “And we filmed him in a Yankees uniform, around the park, pretending to play with the team. We even had a couple Yankees say, ‘Happy bar mitzvah,’ I think. Then you saw him waking up in his bed, realizing it was all a dream. And he looks at his clock and sees that he’s late for his bar mitzvah party.”

Her first daughter, Amanda, was bat mitzvahed a few weeks ago, and during the cab ride she and James leafed through a scrapbook with photos of the event. The room, you can see, was festooned with poster-size, glamorous photos of Amanda, who looks like a model. You can’t tell from the photos, but Stoopler says a performer from Cirque du Soleil was there all night, hanging and twisting from a silk rope attached to the ceiling.

The phrase we used to use to mock extravagant bar mitzvahs (“Too much ‘bar’ and not enough mitzvah.”) doesn’t even begin to describe the monstrosities described in that article. Last weekend, I was actually at a bat mitzvah in that vein, if not quite at the same level of extravagance (no one was actually hanging from the ceiling), but in just as poor taste.

If you are not Jewish (or even more, if you are) and you get invited to one of these, please — please! — don’t think that that’s what Judaism is about! Judaism is about having a special relationship with God through, among other things, living according to the commandments (Hebrew singular: “mitzvah”) of the Torah. To become a bar or bat mitzvah means to achieve the age of religious adulthood; that is, to be old enough to be obligated to obey those commandments. (Obviously, a two-year-old can’t be expected to have those obligations, and a 50-year-old can. The age of bar or bat mitzvah is the cut-off, kind of like turning 18 and getting the right to vote.) Since we consider the Torah and its commandments to be a gift from God, it is appropriate to celebrate the occasion of entering into that obligation. But it is most certainly not appropriate to engage in a display of extravagance for its own sake — not to mention by engaging in activities that violate the commands that have just — in theory — been taken on. For example, at this one I attended last weekend, they served non-kosher food, and had the hired dance coaches (what do they call that job?) dancing in an erotic fashion with persons not their spouses — i.e., parents of the girl whose “bat mitzvah” this was.

In other words, they celebrated her taking on the commandments by violating a bunch of them!

Along, of course, with a brief interlude of seriousness in which the girl’s father spoke about his daughter’s new responsibility and how proud he was that she was taking it on, and that she “knows what it entails.” Sadly, she didn’t and he didn’t.

In a certain sense, it’s not completely their fault, since they live in a social circle in which everyone does this sort of thing, and they probably don’t know any better. But just the same, it’s sad — and embarrassing.

AFTERTHOUGHT (12/22/05): Perhaps this is to Judaism what the commercialization of Christmas is to Christianity.

UPDATE (1/1/06): Batya Medad shows us how it can be completely different (via Havel Havelim).

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