November 17, 2018

A Plea to Lower the Bar on Bar Mitzvahs

I’ll never forget the first bat mitzvah invitation my oldest daughter, who is now 22, received. It didn’t come in the mail. It was hand delivered after dark by a lady in a fairy godmother costume, carrying a crystal wand, who rang our doorbell, singing.

Her lyrics requested our daughter — to whom she handed an oversized, pink envelope and then in a flourish, gave her the crystal wand and a kiss — to attend the event. The envelope was addressed in professional calligraphy, with swishes and swirls.

As we watched our daughter excitedly open the envelope, out popped a spray of glitter on the furniture, floor and our clothing. I think I still find evidence of it when we move the sofa.

The invitation itself consisted of about 10 pieces of thick, colored paper, all glued together with the edges of each one exposed, rainbow style. They were adorned in more glitter and colored inks — that was just the cover.

It opened to a pop-up announcing that with love and joy, Alan and Alana (not their real names) request the honor of your presence, along with friends and family, to join them when Tiffany would be called to the Torah in the ancient tradition of the Jewish people to join her place among the community as a woman.

Behind it was another piece of paper titled, "Let’s Party!" The event was to be at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where the fairy godmother would again reappear in a magical evening of food, fun and fabulousness. At the bottom of the invitation, the family proudly stated that the floral centerpieces would be donated to an old-age home.

I immediately took off for my bedroom, jumping on my bed and pulling the covers over my head. "God," I thought, "this is the first of three kids. Is this what we are in for over the next six years, as each of them reaches this age?"

It was this — and more.

There was a parade of invitations, some arriving conventionally in the mailbox, some by FedEx, a few more hand delivered, each trying to outdo the other. Some of them had to cost upwards of $25-$35 an invitation.

There were events where the bar mitzvah kid arrived at the party upon a white horse, another driven onto the dance floor in a Maserati, one at the Santa Monica Airport where the kid arrived in a private plane, and many others where the kid made the grand entrance with her name up in lights, as everyone rose to their feet clapping and whistling.

There was even one where the theme was shopping, and every table had a centerpiece of a bag from a fancy store. There was the circus, where the family brought in high-wire acts and roaming magicians. There was another where the parents flew in a 20-piece orchestra from Texas, because they were the only musicians who could do the event right.

At still another, each kid upon leaving was given a dozen bagels, lox, cream cheese and The New York Times. And at another, they rented out a public space in Santa Monica for a sumptuous feast and entertainment, while homeless people looked on from the sides and through the windows.

At many of them, you had to watch the interminable video, which basically showed the kid on all the family vacations, from the Hilton Hawaiian Village to the Sheraton Beijing to the King David in Jerusalem.

You ate at stations. There was the sushi station, the taco station, the pasta station, the hot dog station — and those were just the hors d’oeuvres. There was the sweet table directly out of "Goodbye Columbus."

And then there was the dancing. Dance leaders — Latino, black and Asian — were hired to come and teach the celebrating Jews how to hora. I even remember one where the DJ, thinking he was putting on a hora, instead put on an Italian tarantella. (I’m a folk dancer. I know these things.)

Now that our youngest is a freshman in college, and most of our friends’ kids are well-beyond bar and bat mitzvah age, I feel liberated to speak out: our bar mitzvah culture is out of control. It is an unnecessary, extravagant, showy, inappropriate expenditure, which is done under peer expectation and pressure. It is an embarrassment to the Jewish people.

What does this bar mitzvah overkill say about us? What are our children learning from the bar and bat mitzvah experience? What are they ingesting about the values of Judaism and the Jewish people?

I believe the responsibility for our bar mitzvah culture rests not only with the parents, but with the rabbis. A bar or bat mitzvah is a religious ceremony that takes place under their auspices, in their synagogues. They have the ability to shape it, speak about it and instill the values of what it should be.

The fact is that the kids and the community learn as much, if not more, about what they believe Judaism is from these celebrations. For most, this is the formative, big Jewish experience that shapes their attitude until they hopefully bump into some other Jewish moment, which has the power to undo this one.

The rabbis need to begin discussing the issues of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations with parents years before their children even near the age. There should be classes on bar and bat mitzvah values and planning when the kids are very young, not during the year preceding the event, when it is too late.

The rabbis need to create a synagogue culture of what is and isn’t an acceptable bar and bat mitzvah practice. They need to publish about it. They need to write guidebooks.

As for parents, why do we continue to go overboard on bar mitzvahs? Because we bow to peer pressure. We are at a vulnerable period in life where we want to prove that we have made it, so we use our children’s rite of passage as the vehicle. We don’t want our kids to be deprived of what everyone else’s have. We believe we are showing our children how much we love them, with this kind of party and celebration. We are showing what our family can do, and who we are.

Why haven’t the rabbis stopped this? They are afraid to speak out. They are afraid to step up to the plate of values and practice.

The rabbis don’t do it because they don’t want to offend the family. They don’t want to destroy a relationship with a potential major donor. They leave the values issues, which is their domain, solely up to the families, placing parents in a precarious position.

When our children were attending these events, at first, they would come home describing in wonderment what they had experienced. My wife and I had to often undo the expectations, as well as the embrace of the culture into which they had just been immersed.

They were just kids and could not discern what was appropriate Jewish practice. I eventually learned to tell my kids, "When it is your turn, we will make a celebration and a good time; we are not going to buy one from a bunch of other people."

Can we as Jews not have a good time when celebrating a rite of passage for a 13-year-old without spending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars? Have we lost the ability to celebrate from our soul and our culture in place of celebrating from our pocketbook?

Recently my friend, Louis Berliner, who can afford to make most any kind of bar or bat mitzvah celebration for his five kids, wrote a book titled "Celebrate! And Make the World a Better Place! : A Resource and Planning Guide to Socially Responsible Celebrations," on how to creatively celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah based on Jewish values and appropriate decorum. From the way the book is selling, it appears there are many Jewish families who are as disillusioned with the current practice as I am. More power to Louis.

Our rabbis would do well to follow Louis’s example. And then, they need to do much more. After all, when it comes to Jewish values and practice, who is leading whom?

Gary Wexler is an advertising executive and consultant to Jewish agencies.