Few things illustrate the vapid relationship between materialism and Judaism
better than over-the-top American bar/bat mitzva celebrations.
vast majority of these parties are treated respectfully by Americans –
emphasizing tradition over grandeur – there is unquestionably a conspicuous
pocket of wealthy Jews who have distorted an otherwise holy ritual into an
unrecognizable three-ring circus, where they unsuspectingly play the
Growing up, I attended black tie bar/bat mitzvas in Philadelphia
that would make God want to resign. The word ostentatious simply didn’t do these
“religious affairs” justice.
Invitations were routinely adorned with
enough tacky rhinestones, cubic zirconium and absurd fonts to make me initially
think I had been invited to one of Liberace’s farewell concerts at The Mirage.
Despite earnest attempts to appear elegant, they always looked as if a Bedazzler
had vomited on them after a crystal-meth bender.
Upon arriving at one of
these celebrations – usually held in venues no less stately than The Four
Seasons Hotel or Philadelphia Museum of Art – I would watch with morbid
fascination as kids (who considered foot-long hotdog day at school to be a proper
holiday), rushed the buffet table to binge on shrimp as big as mangos, and crab
legs the size of tree branches, for appetizers.
Not to be outdone, for
the main course, filet mignon and lobster with melted butter were brought to our
tables (irony not included), served by waiters who looked like they were
attending a wake procession.
Have you ever seen kids have a food fight
with items costing $75 a pound, that forced an entire wait staff (dressed in
tuxedos so starched as to make walking a minor miracle), clean up after them? I
have, and it ain’t pretty.
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And lest we forgot this was a bar mitzva
celebration, glorious sundaes – with enough candy to make Willie Wonka develop
an inferiority complex – awaited us for dessert. Ah, surf and turf at a bar
mitzvah, immediately followed by a dairy wonderland... God, of course, was
I can still remember one of my non-Jewish friends
coming up to me after one such celebration, looking like he had just seen Star
Wars for the first time, saying: “Damn, Dan! I wanna be Jewish!” It was just the
kind of PR we, as Jews, needed.
“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome,” I replied,
with borderline shame.
Even I, as a totally non-observant kid – who hated
going to Hebrew school more than studying for a math test (that’s a lot of hate,
by the way), and never met a bacon cheeseburger I didn’t like – thought I was
going to go to hell after one of these shindigs.
As for the adults in
attendance? I still recall feeling like I was being held hostage at a Salvador
Dali-inspired catwalk during Fashion Week in Paris. Some of their ensembles
would have humbled Lady Gaga and Siegfried & Roy, respectively.
yeah: The “religious” portion of the ceremony? It usually lasted no more than 30
minutes, with the kids reading three sentences of their Torah portion
(phonetically) and then giving a brief speech about their monumental achievement
– as their parents glowed with incandescent pride in the front row. All the
while, a videographer stood a few feet from the Holy Ark, capturing every moment
as if he were covering Prince William’s wedding.
Sadly, I thought these
celebrations were totally normal until I went to college.
I’m surprised the parents who arranged these Sodom and Gomorrah-esque debacles
didn’t think to give everyone miniature Golden Calf key chains (made of real
gold, of course) as souvenirs, for good measure.
Indeed, if Moses were
still around, I have no doubt that he’d obliterate the Ten Commandments again in
utter disgust, tell God “I freakin’ quit!” and exile all of the proud parents
who enabled these celebrations to 40 years of living in faux-wood-paneled mobile
homes in trailer parks across Newark, New Jersey.
days, the ultra-wealthy have only lowered the bar – paying leading child role
models like 50 Cent and Lil John upwards of a million dollars to perform for a
half-hour at their kids bar/bat mitzvas. (In fact, I hear that bidding wars have
erupted across the States to get “Snookie” of The Jersey Shore fame, to grace
their kids’ parties with her otherworldly grace.) It goes without saying that in
certain “elite” US Jewish circles, the symbolic meaning and importance of these
holy coming-of-age indoctrinations have become profoundly lost in a vacuous
conga-line of materialism and narcissism – with enough neon glow sticks, bad
music, hired professional dancers, and rabid, sugarinfused kids to induce an
average elderly person into an epileptic fit.
Now, to be fair, it’s
important to note that I am among the least materialistic people around. The
mere sight of velvet ropes and red carpets are like kryptonite to me. In fact,
to every one of my ex-girlfriends’ revulsion, I’m a guy who shops for clothes at
K-Mart, considers Haines V-neck T-shirts to be haute couture, and gets my hair
cut every four months by a monosyllabic guy named Rocco.
I have never
owned a new car, hate jewelry and view combat boots as the height of style. I
kid you not when I say that getting “dressed up” to me means wearing a black
T-shirt, instead of a white one. Indeed, I am to pomp and circumstance what Mel
Gibson is to Jewish pride.
That said, Israel and I fit each other like a
Here, men and women are not afforded the opportunity to hide
behind material excess – because the majority of its citizens don’t have any. To
be sure, a surprisingly high percentage of the population barely makes enough
money to hire a baby sitter, let alone fund a gratuitous display of
The minority who do gallivant around town here with shiny,
expensive objects and host grandiose bar/bat mitzvas are viewed with far more
suspicion and disdain than envy, for the most part. While Israel is certainly
not impervious to over-the-top show-boating – far more often than not – it is
the exception, not the rule.
In short, Israel is my
Accordingly, the one bar mitzva I attended here was a modest
– yet genuinely joyous – affair, where the venue was secondary to the
significance of the ceremony itself. People invited were told to “come as you
are” – even if that meant wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
The bar mitzva boy
himself had studied diligently to master a significant Torah portion, and led a
service that lasted most of the morning. The party afterwards was as understated
as they come — featuring a simple band, and food that many of the attendees
cooked at home and brought themselves, in enormous tupperware
But here’s the thing: Nearly every person in attendance – old
and young alike – could be found on the dance floor, dressed without an ounce of
pretension, celebrating as if they’d just won the lottery.
As it should
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