Too often, theres a lot more bar than mitzvah in our coming-of-age rituals

Israeli stereotypes of American Jews tend to center on the wealth and hedonism of their cousins across the ocean. It turns out that non-Jews here in America tend to feel the same way.

Apparently non-Jewish adolescents in the United States are increasingly afflicted with b’nai mitzvah envy.

Laugh all you like, but this curious trend was the subject of a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. In it, Journal staffer Elizabeth Bernstein reported that upscale non-Jewish kids are bummed out about the lavish parties their Jewish classmates are getting — and want in on the action.

The result is that some parents are giving them catered 13th birthday parties with all the trappings associated with bar- and bat mitzvahs these days, including DJs and dancers.

According to the Journal, some Jews worry that these faux b’nai mitzvah featuring candlelighting ceremonies for relatives are a mockery of Judaism.

But those who wonder about the implications of such silliness have it backwards.

It’s not the non-Jewish kids and their parents who are mocking Judaism; it’s the Jews they are copying who are at fault.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but in this case the compliment highlights some of the worst aspects of American Jewish life.

Let’s face it, in an age of conspicuous consumption in the United States, American Jews are among the most conspicuous of consumers.

In a cliché that has been tossed down from virtually every synagogue pulpit in the country by frustrated rabbis to their indifferent congregations, there is often a lot more bar than mitzvah in our coming-of-age rituals these days.

No one suspects that the non-Jewish kids who caught the attention of the Journal had any desire to actually learn Jewish history, Hebrew or Torah and take on more personal responsibility in their lives or even adapt any of this to their own faiths. They just wanted a big party.

The question that ought to haunt us is: How different are they and their parents from all too many of their Jewish counterparts?

Mishnaic literature tells us that it was at age 13 that our biblical father Abraham tore down the false idols of his father. But with the fashion of having b’nai mitzvah parties arranged according to a theme — with everything from Disney movies and sports teams to Wall Street moneymaking and “The Sopranos” TV show as examples — it is probably not stretching a point to note that the many extravagant parties these days seem to be more homage to false idols of popular secular culture than reaffirmation of religious values.

It is this noxious aspect of our culture that leaps straight out of the bourgeois gaucheries of Philip Roth’s classic, “Goodbye, Columbus,” that some are seeking to imitate, not the nobler ideals of Judaism.

Is this merely a question of rampant bad taste? Maybe. But I think critics of our coming-of-age culture are more than party-poopers.

Calling the bar or bat mitzvah celebrant to the Torah is supposed to be a symbol of the youngster’s joining a community of faith as a full-fledged member.

But the downgrading of religious content and the emphasis on secular display illustrates the way many American Jews are becoming more distant from Jewish tradition, no matter which movement’s interpretation they might accept.

Though a larger percentage of American Jewish children are being educated in religious day schools than ever before, they are still the small minority. Most still acquire a smattering of knowledge about their heritage from part-time synagogue Hebrew schools — many known as bar mitzvah factories — that have already fostered the most Jewishly illiterate generation in the history of our people.

If all American Jews are giving their kids is a taste for expensive display, they would do better to, as the Reform movement once suggested, scrap this tradition for a confirmation ceremony at the end of a course of Jewish study that extends beyond the age of 13. Indeed, the fact that for most kids, the bar or bat mitzvah marks the end of any Jewish education is a worse problem than the expense wasted on lavish affairs.

On the other hand, some highly positive alternatives to hideous theme parties are also growing in popularity.

More kids these days are donating percentages of the cash gifts they receive to charities, or dedicating the event to a cause they see as greater than their own personal glory.

During the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, the practice of twinning b’nai mitzvah celebrations in the United States with kids still locked behind the Iron Curtain helped bring that issue to a mass audience. Perhaps the idea could be revived by matching American kids with those in Israel who are survivors of terror attacks or otherwise in need.

And, of course, there is the all-purpose alternative to a big party: a family trip to Israel.

Though the popularity of such excursions has understandably declined in recent years due to the intifada, there are still many courageous parents and children who want something far more meaningful, and are rewarded with the experience of their lives.

But if the only point of contact for Jewish youngsters with their tradition is a part-time education whose sole purpose is to give them an excuse for an expensive bash for their friends, why should we be surprised if many of them reject Judaism as lacking in the spiritual values they seek as adults?

The bar or bat mitzvah celebrated as a soulless and Godless excuse for spending money is a real problem for a Jewish community that wonders about its future. It is a custom that other faith communities should imitate only at their own peril.

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer at National Review.