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The bar mitzvah's combination of spirituality and celebration goes back at least until the 16th century and continues today. (Photo from ) More photos
The bar mitzvah's combination of spirituality and celebration goes back at least until the 16th century and continues today. (Photo from
More photos

My big fat American bar mitzvah

Fretting about lavish bar mitzvah parties is almost as much a feature of the landscape as the parties themselves. But a look at the history of this constantly evolving ritual suggests that the problem is both less problematic -- and less specifically Jewish -- than critics think.

Mark Oppenheimer is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and author of ''Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America," which has just been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

FIFTY YEARS AGO, few scholars of American Judaism could have predicted that one of the great worries for Jews in the 21st century would be the size and expense of bar mitzvah parties.

In the 1950s, bar mitzvahs were limited to extended family and the typical gift was a fountain pen. It was not until the 1970s that lavish bar and bat mitzvah parties attracted substantial attention in the press, Jewish or otherwise. But today, on any Saturday morning, the odds are good that somewhere in the country a rabbi is preaching a sermon against parties that feature hired dancers, expensive light shows, black-tie attire, and invitations that can easily cost $10 apiece.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Bar mitzvahs

But there's never been any clear uncorrupted golden age of the bar mitzvah. Its precise origins are unknown, its history is elusive. Even its definition is no simple matter. Meaning a ''son of the commandment," the term bar mitzvah more commonly refers to the ceremony in which, at age 13 or so, the boy first leads prayers or reads publicly from the Hebrew Bible, and assumes full religious adulthood. (A similar ritual for girls, the bat mitzvah, was created in 1922 but not widely practiced until the 1960s.)

Beyond that, we know very little. The ritual's origins are impossible to trace; neither the concept of the newly vested boy nor the ceremony to honor him is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Most Americans, Jewish or Gentile, would be surprised to learn that the ritual seems not to have existed until the Middle Ages, and it was not celebrated with a party until about the 16th century. For most of the 20th century, few boys in the Reform movement, now Judaism's largest, even practiced the bar mitzvah. When my father, for example, was 13, his Reform temple in Pittsburgh offered only ''Confirmation," a ceremony for adolescents loosely modeled on Protestant rites. (The lack of a family precedent may be one reason that, growing up in Springfield in the 1980s, I too never became a bar mitzvah boy.)

And yet today, anyone who lives in an area with a sizeable Jewish population knows about the big parties with the dancers and lavish buffets and expensive favors. In recent years, these parties have become commonplace on TV and in the movies as wellcharacters have had bar or bat mitzvahs in films ranging from Woody Allen's ''Deconstructing Harry" (which features a ''Star Wars"-themed party, with caterers dressed up like storm troopers) and ''Starsky and Hutch" as well as on ''Seinfeld," ''Frasier," ''Sex and the City," and ''The Simpsons," where Krusty the Klown becomes an adult bar mitzvah in a ceremony presided over by his father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofski (voiced by Jackie Mason). Meanwhile, back in the real world, even some gentiles are getting into the act. Two years ago, People magazine reported that in some areas wealthy non-Jews were celebrating elaborate ''faux mitzvahs" in imitation of their Jewish classmates.

Jews, however, even the ones who throw these lavish parties, regularly abuse themselves about it, wondering why the culture has become so materialistic, wondering where the spirituality has gone. But even though rabbis regularly wring their hands over bar mitzvah excess, even though thousands of parents no sooner send their children to Hebrew school than they start planning how to throw (or how to studiously avoid throwing) a lavish party, even though many Jews worry that these parties confirm the worst stereotype about Jews, the thinking about why the parties have gotten so bigand why it mattershas not advanced very far.

Not long ago, I spent a year traveling the country, investigating how American Jews from the suburbs of New York and Boston to such outposts as Arkansas and Alaska practice this ritual. I found that parents inclined to give large parties see them as necessary, to avoid embarrassing their children; if they worry about the implications of spending such money to honor a child, they nonetheless feel impotent to buck the trend. But the parents most hostile to such parties are no more thoughtful about their beliefs; they simply become hostile to other Jews. ''My bar mitzvah was a very nice affair," many adult Jews told me. ''Very simple, very tasteful. Not at all like so much of what you see today."

It's too simplistic, obviously, to accept these big parties as a given of contemporary Judaism, a reflection of the relative affluence of the community. But it's equally simplistic to reject these parties out of hand, to assume that they are necessarily bad for religion or bad for the Jews. Either response marks a refusal to ask all sorts of interesting questions. For example: How did these parties get so big? What do they say about Jews, and about Americans? If they are indeed cause for worry, then how worried should we really be?

In fact, when we ask why the parties have gotten so big, the phenomenon begins to look both less troubling and less specifically Jewish.

. . .

Something even most Jews do not realize is that, according to tradition, they are required to throw a bar mitzvah party. Sometime in the mid 1500s, the Polish rabbi Shlomo ben Yehiel Luria made what seems to have been the first reference to the bar mitzvah meal (described as a practice of German Jews) as a se'udat mitzvahan obligatory celebratory meal. This makes a certain sense, of course: Religions frequently mark special occasions with festivities, as Catholics do for a child's first Communion or for saints' days. Having a party is one way of sacralizing an occasion. And besides, extreme merriment is in the Jewish traditionJews are instructed to get drunk on the holiday of Purim, for example.

Americans, of course, are a materialistic people. And the impulse to spend money has an impact on all sorts of religious rituals. In Miami, the party thrown for a Cuban girl's quinceañera, the mass celebrated for her 15th birthday, will often exceed a bat mitzvah party for sheer lavishness. (Susan Orlean devoted a chapter of her book ''Saturday Night" to the quinceañerasand the problems priests face in reminding girls that the day is about God, not fashion and cute boys.) And the grand parties held after (and before) weddings, even religious ones, are an accepted part of American culture.

This is a country, after all, that spends unnecessary sums of money on all sorts of things. When I visited Tampa to interview Rachel Schonwetter about her bat mitzvah, it seemed like almost everyone (in this largely gentile city) was driving an SUV that looked to have cost $40,000, a figure many times higher than whatever Rachel's parents spent on her bat mitzvah party. And in a suburb like Brookline, where a modest house can easily cost a million dollars, a $20,000 bar mitzvah could be seen as a relatively modest expense.

Or, to put it another way, if we're going to spend a thousand dollarsor $10,000, or $30,000there are worse ways to spend it than in celebration of the newly acquired ability to recite prayers and read Torah in biblical Hebrew. Especially in New England, where the ethic of frugality is still with us, we're suspiciousor think we ought to beof displays of wealth. So it may help to remember that other cultures believe that special times demand special meals, special parties. In India, a wedding can be a feast for the whole town; it may feed thousands of people at a cost exceeding the family's annual income. I expect that many Jews who frown on big bar mitzvah parties would be entranced by such an exotic display of joyful celebration. But if it's fine in Bombay, why not in Belmont?

After meeting dozens of bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls, I was unable to find any correlation between the size of the party and the level of spiritual depth, religious commitment, or intellectual sophistication. Big parties did not always go with meaningful bar and bat mitzvahsbut they didn't necessarily thwart them either.

Although some aspects of bar mitzvah culture are clearly over the top (like the bar mitzvah gift registry that one Toronto entrepreneur briefly operated), I found myself able to appreciate the big parties, so long as they were thrown for boys or girls who had taken the bar or bat mitzvah seriouslystudied Hebrew, learned the Torah portion, delivered a thoughtful speech. In Anchorage, I attended a large party in a hotel ballroom for Mendy Greenberg, an ultra-Orthodox boy who on the day of his bar mitzvah led two hours worth of prayers, entirely in Hebrew, and read flawlessly from the Torah scroll. The party surely cost many thousands of dollars, but the boy was fluent in Hebrew, English, and Yiddish, and planned to follow his father into the rabbinate. Only a fool would think that his lavish party rendered his bar mitzvah meaningless or trivial.

I'm not, of course, arguing that a grand party is ever required, only that it shouldn't always be scorned. In Fayetteville, Ark., Jacob Newman celebrated his bar mitzvah with a potluck lunch in the Unitarian church. There's no synagogue building in a town with so few Jews, and even his guest list was overwhelmingly gentile. And there's not much money in Fayetteville, no cavernous banquet halls or expensive caterers. So he celebrated in a way fitting for his time and place. Had he lived in Newton, he might have done things differently.

And if he'd hired the Patriots' cheerleaders, I confess that my first reaction would have been dismay. But I hope that I would have a sense of proportion about it. Americans buy $200 sneakers and $6,000 touring bicycles and $10,000 flat-screen TVs. We don't balk when our cities spend a small fortune on parades for victorious sports teams. So if we sometimes eat, drink, and dance in honor of a child, that may not be so bad. And it certainly says nothing uniquely negative about one religious or ethnic group. The job of parents, rabbis, and the children themselvesthe job of Jewish communitiesis to be sure that the party, however big or small, honors learning and the search for higher truths, and is not just celebration of dollars spent for their own sake.

Mark Oppenheimer will read from his book on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. For more information, call (617) 661-1515.

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