Trends in tradition

The excessive pop-culture approach to a Jewish-American rite of passage.

October 9, 2005 12:40

Bar Mitzvah Disco By Roger Bennett, Nick Kroll, Jules Shell With Foreword by The Village People Crown 256pp., $23.95 While intermarriage and assimilation remain a real problem confronting American Jewry, in recent years an almost parallel reality has emerged: an invigorated Judaism, part-hip, part-cool, and offsetting the notion that the American Jewish community is slowly withering away. This new brand of Jewish pride is rooted in self-deprecating humor that is wickedly funny, extremely smart and media savvy. This expression of zeal is just so American; it's public and in-your-face; it's urban and so New York; it's unabashed and flagrant. The Jewish experience in America has entered a new phase a period defined by apparent total acceptance into American society. This openness has enabled Jews to express themselves and their religion without recrimination in the cultural mainstream. A Jewish, peyot-wearing hero named Mordechai Jefferson Carver saves Hanukka from Damien Claus, Santa's evil son, in The Hebrew Hammer a comedy-action movie released in 2003. Jon Stewart, the anchor of The Daily Show, a spoof on the day's news airing on Comedy Central, often jokes about his Jewishness while reading the headlines. The music channel VH1 aired last year Matzo and Metal: A Very Classic Passover, a televised Seder hosted by heavy metal rockers. Tapping into this ethos, Bar Mitzvah Disco is a collection of short vignettes and photographs accompanied by pithy captions, celebrating this seminal religious occasion for a young adolescent. The stars of this book are 12 and 13-year-old girls and boys, all awkward and gawky, but made the center of everyone's attention for one spectacular night. Initially started as a Web site titled, the authors received an onslaught of submissions from friends and strangers and realized they had piqued the interest of Jews and Gentiles alike. The book is about Jews poking fun in jest at fellow Jews over excessive and humiliating bar mitzva celebrations, primarily from the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. Materialism trumps all; the religious ceremony is of secondary importance in Bar Mitzvah Disco. The introduction, written by The Village People, sets the tone for this hysterical read. "When we were asked to write the foreword to this book, we were both honored and a little confused. First of all... none of us is an author. Second, none of us had a bar mitzva. Third, not one of us is Jewish," write the five-member musical group famous for the hit song "Y.M.C.A.," a staple heard at many bar mitzva celebrations. Authors of the book Roger Bennett, Jules Shell, and Nick Kroll document the bar mitzva experience of their various photograph submitters, from family portraits to the halla cutting ceremony to the dance party. THIS BOOK tells the story of the bar mitzva experience from start to finish. Each chapter is accompanied by an explanation written by the authors or contributors. The pictures, write the authors, include "images of small girls riding into their bat mitzvas on elephants or awkward teens forced to pose in trees, in the back of Corvettes or with hackneyed celebrity impersonators." Even the captions that appear beside the photographs are amusing. Consider the following examples: "Reagan was in office. The real estate market hadn't crashed yet. I got a Discman, a VCR, and I didn't have to go to Hebrew school ever again. Things were good. I feel sorry for all those people who had their [bar mitzvas] in '91 to '94; recession-era bar mitzvas." (Submitted by Andrew Waranch of Baltimore, Maryland) "The suit I was wearing was made for me by my uncle Arnold. I chose a suit cut like one of the ex-presidents of my synagogue. These were really distinguished men with grey hair, top hats and navy blue three piece pinstripe suits. My dad gave me his late mother's watch for the day. She wore it around her neck but I wore it across the belly. I was 13 going on 75." (Submitted by Jamie Glassman of Cheshire, England) "I grew up a triple outsider fat, Jewish and gay in Flint, Michigan. I have never felt more fat, Jewish or gay than at my own bar mitzva. Fat? The vest of my olive sharkskin suit had to be sacrificed for my pants. Jewish? My uncle, the rabbi, wouldn't let me learn my haftarah from a recording. Gay? Who do you think planned the party? Fortunately, I moved to Los Angeles later in life where being fat, Jewish and gay were three rungs on the ladder of success." (Submitted by Howard Bragman of Flint, Michigan) The chapter contributors are equally funny. Contributor Ali Waller titles her chapter the "Princess of Anaheim" and surmises: "On the day of my bat mitzva, the day I officially became a Jewish woman, I happily yet unknowingly epitomized the profile of a Jewish girl from Brentwood as I walked under a seafoam-and-peach balloon arc, past a photo of me in a fairy dress, hovering over Disneyland's Magic Castle, and into my own fantasyland dressed as a Jewish American Princess." A new public face of Judaism is emerging that is very fashionable, ultra-hip and incredibly appealing. Bar Mitzvah Disco is part of this trend whereby Jewish traditions are celebrated in the mainstream. If the American Jewish community is in peril due to intermarriage and a general apathy toward religion, what accounts for the explosion of Jewish cultural expression within American society? I suspect the authors of Bar Mitzvah Disco might have an insight into that subject. The writer is a reporter with the Talk Radio News Service in Washington, DC. He received his MA in international affairs from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Relations.

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