The American bar mitzvah, long a mainstay of Catskill humor, has reached a new nadir. As described by the New York Times’ Elissa Gootman, bar mitzvah celebrations in upscale Jewish neighborhoods on both coasts, now surpass even the powers of the young Phillip Roth to satirize. Self-parody has exceeded anything that our enemies could possibly offer.
Bar and bat mitzvahs have now spawned their own industry -- "party motivators" – with their own set of superstars. Lorne Hughes, a native of the Virgin Islands, lives in L.A., but is regularly flown to New York to spend his weekends dancing in "form-fitting black clothes" with "middle school students and their immaculately coifed parents."
Maggie Newcombe, known on the circuit as Maggie Monroe, is another superstar. The specialty of this statuesque blond, in black tank top, is children’s cocktail hour, where she sits, surrounded by 13-year-olds talking about "like sex and girlfriends," in the words of one enthusiastic listener.
Entertainment companies, whose specialty is thinking up nifty "themes" to ensure that "really special" bar mitzvah party, recruit these "gyrating dance wonders" at discos, where they hand out their cards to the best and most flamboyant dancers. Of course, a successful party motivator needs much more than just a sense of rhythm. They "must look young enough to enthrall a 13-year old, yet mature enough that when they dance suggestively with their parents, everything looks legal."
The question of the hour from Scarsdale to Great Neck to Tribeca is: "Can you have a successful bar mitzvah without at least a handful of motivators?"
ONE WONDERS what the parents of these bar and bat mitzvah kids are thinking, though upon reading that many of the dads request "the hottest girls you have," it would seem that thinking is not at the top of their agenda.
But if the parents are brain dead, their kids are not. And the message they’re hearing loud and clear from their parents is: Judaism is a joke. The parents might as well blow raspberries as their hapless rabbi tries to deliver a few words of spiritual uplift at the bar mitzvah service itself.
Mixed messages, of course, have long been part and parcel of the American bar mitzvah. The bar or bat mitzvah spends months learning to read the list of forbidden animals in parshat Shemini, for instance, and then his or her family drives away immediately after services to the local Chinese eatery or seafood restaurant.
Actually the message is not mixed. The bar or bat mitzvah understands clearly that no one takes seriously the words that he or she has invested so much time in learning to read. Told that the laws of kashrut are nothing more than early health regulations developed by our supersmart ancestors, why should it occur to any young Jew to treat the Torah as anything more than the artifact of an ancient civilization or to view it as a guide to life?
No wonder that the authors of a how-to book for gentiles about to marry a Jew can cheerily informs their readers, "Every Jewish holiday is just an excuse to get the loved ones together to eat," or that there is a large, and ever growing, market for such books.
It would be better to have no bar mitzvah than one followed by non-kosher eats, theme parties, and party motivators. Knowing nothing else, the star of the show has no reason to suspect that anything more is involved in turning thirteen than a performance followed by a blowout party. In a similar vein, most of the products of our Jewish educational system complete their Jewish education – usually at the age of bar mitzvah when they first become responsible for their own actions as Jews – sure of only one thing: Judaism has nothing to offer for any spiritual yearnings they may one day experience.
THIS PAST SHABBOS, my son Zechariah became a bar mitzvah. The custom in Jerusalem is that the bar mitzvah boy does not read the entire parshah. For many Yerushalmi boys, then, their own role in the Shabbos service may be less than for those whose main bar mitzvah memory will be discoing with Maggie Monroe.
Yet the 13-year-olds of Jerusalem do not return to school the day after their bar mitzvah, the same pimply-faced kid in braces they were the day before. They know that something solemn has taken place and that they have changed forever. In the months leading up to the bar mitzvah, there are frequent reminders of the momentous change about to take place. The bar mitzvah boy begins fasting the Yom Kippur before his bar mitzvah. A month before the bar mitzvah, he receives the pair of expensive tefillin that will be his daily companion for the rest of his life and begins putting them on every morning.
Some years ago, I was on a Jerusalem bus staring in wonderment at the wild behavior of some religious boys. An acquaintance from yeshiva saw me staring and remarked, "All Yerushalmi boys are vilde chayos (wild animals) until thirteen. Then they put on a hat and you won’t recognize them."
Over the years, I have been privileged to watch this miraculous overnight transformation from boy to man in five of my own sons, and I look forward to witnessing it again with sons and grandsons to come. That joy, however, is tinged with sorrow for all those Jewish boys who will never experience the moment of becoming a Jewish man.