by Jonathan Tobin
Just when you thought that the integration of Jews into American culture couldn’t be more complete, now comes news that non-Jewish adolescents are afflicted with a new problem: Bar and Bat Mitzvah envy.
Laugh all you like, but this curious trend was the subject of a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 14. In it, Journal staffer Elizabeth Bernstein reported that upscale non-Jewish kids are bummed out about the lavish parties their Jewish classmates are getting — and want in on the action. The result is that some parents are giving them catered 13th birthday parties with DJs and dancers that bear a striking resemblance to contemporary Jewish celebrations.
While Bernstein didn’t supply any data to lead us to think that this desire was really sweeping the nation, she did discover that there are enough of these odd events taking place to note that the trend was growing.
According to the Journal, Jewish reaction to this tidbit was split between those who are tickled by the idea of Americans adopting yet another piece of Jewish culture as their own and those who resent it.
In the former view, we should be proud that our rite of passage is no longer exclusive to the Jews in the way that bagels-and-lox, and some Yiddish words, have also become as American as apple pie.
Others apparently worry that these faux Bar/Bat Mitzvahs that feature candlelighting ceremonies for relatives are a mockery of Judaism.
In an age where anti-Semitism is on the rise, some of us can be forgiven for seeing anything — even something as harmlessly stupid as this — as an excuse for worry. But those who wonder about the implications of such silliness have it backward. It’s not the non-Jewish kids and their parents who are mocking Judaism; it’s the Jews they are copying that are at fault.
Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but in this case, the compliment highlights some of the worst aspects of American Jewish life.
Let’s face it: In an age of conspicuous consumption in this country, American Jews are among the most conspicuous of consumers.
In a cliché that has been tossed down from virtually every synagogue pulpit in the country by frustrated rabbis to their indifferent congregations, there is often a lot more bar than there is mitzvah in our coming-of-age rituals these days.
No one suspects that the non-Jewish kids who caught the attention of the Journal had any desire to actually learn Jewish history, Hebrew and study the Torah, and to therefore take on more personal responsibility in their lives or even to adapt any of this to their own faiths. They just wanted a big party.
The question that ought to haunt us is how different are they and their parents from all too many of their Jewish counterparts?
The formal ritual of the Bar Mitzvah for boys dates back to early modern Europe, while the Bat Mitzvah for girls was a 20th-century American innovation. But the notion that the age of 13 was a time for assuming religious and legal obligations goes back much further in Jewish consciousness.
Mishnaic literature tells us that it was at age 13 that our biblical father Abraham tore down the false idols of his father. But it is probably not stretching a point to note that the many extravagant parties these days seem to be more of a homage to false idols of popular secular culture than a reaffirmation of religious values.
It is this noxious aspect of our culture that leaps straight out of the bourgeois gaucheries of Philip Roth’s classic Goodbye, Columbus that some of our neighbors are seeking to imitate, not the nobler ideals of Judaism.
The ritual of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah has undergone a transformation in this country in the past century that parallels the rise in status and income for many American Jews.
The celebrations of our immigrant grandparents were in keeping with the modest resources of most in the Jewish community in those days with the stereotypical gift of the era giving rise to the old joke that a Bar Mitzvah boy’s speech would begin with the phrase, “Today, I am a fountain pen.” Today, that lame jest rings hollow in an age when the cost of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs typically runs into the tens of thousands, if not more.
Is this merely a question of rampant bad taste? Maybe. But I think critics of our coming-of-age culture are more than party-poopers.
Calling the Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrant to the Torah as an adult is a symbol of the youngster joining a community of faith as a full-fledged member.
But the downgrading of religious content and the emphasis on secular display illustrates the way all too many American Jews are becoming more distant from Jewish tradition, no matter which denominational interpretation they might accept.
If all we are giving our kids is a taste for expensive display, then we would do better to, as the Reform movement once suggested, scrap this tradition for a confirmation ceremony at the end of a course of Jewish study that extends beyond the age of 13. Indeed, the fact that for most kids, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah marks the end of any Jewish education is a worse problem than the expense wasted on lavish affairs.
SOME POSITIVE EXAMPLES
It should also be noted that there are some highly positive alternatives to hideous theme parties that are also growing in popularity.
More kids these days are donating percentages of the cash gifts they receive to charities or dedicating the event to a cause that they see as greater than their own personal glory.
During the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, the practice of twinning Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrations here with kids still locked behind the Iron Curtain helped bring that issue to a mass audience. Perhaps that idea can be revived by matching American kids with those in Israel who are survivors of terror attacks or otherwise in need.
And, of course, there is the all-purpose alternative to a big party: a family trip to Israel. Though the popularity of such excursions has understandably declined in recent years due to the Palestinian terror war, there are still many courageous parents and children who want something far more meaningful — and are rewarded with the experience of their lives.
But if the only point of contact for Jewish youngsters with their tradition is a part-time education whose sole raison d’être is to give them an excuse for an expensive bash for their friends, then why should we be surprised if many of them reject Judaism as lacking in the spiritual values they seek as adults?
The Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrated as a soulless and Godless excuse for spending money is a real problem for a Jewish community that wonders about its future. It is a custom other faith communities should imitate only at their peril.
The author is Executive Editor of The Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia, where this article
first appeared. Reprinted with permission.