A (Not So) Innocent Abroad: Feeding the Golden Calf

While Israel is certainly not impervious to over-the-top show-boating – far more often than not – it is the exception, not the rule.

little sandwiches (photo credit: Courtesy)
little sandwiches
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Few things illustrate the vapid relationship between materialism and Judaism better than over-the-top American bar/bat mitzva celebrations.
While the 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 clowns.
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.
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 thoroughly impressed.
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.
Oh 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.
In retrospect, 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.
Unfortunately, these 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 glove.
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 wealth.
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 Shangri-La.
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 containers.
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 be.
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