Star mitzvahs of the rich and famous

Sick of glitzy bar and bat mitzvahs devoid of meaning? Tired of seeing an important religious milestone reduced to a bacchanal of crass materialism?

Well, don’t look to Jill Rappaport’s “Mazel Tov: Celebrities’ Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories” for consolation.

Rappaport’s book consists of interviews with famous Jews, from actors Jeremy Piven, Noah Wylie and Henry Winkler to politicians like Sen. Joseph Lieberman and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Also included are precious, sometimes hilarious, photos of the b’nai mitzvah kids before they were famous or free of peach fuzz.

With only 20 celebrities interviewed (19 actually, as one of Rappaport’s subjects is a pair of dogs named Arthur and Murray) perhaps the sample was too small from which to draw conclusions. Still, one can’t help but take away a depressing sense of the bar mitzvah ceremony’s baseline irrelevance.

For starters, nearly everyone included admits he or she was a terrible student when it came to Jewish studies. Piven called his bar mitzvah preparation “a chore.” Advertising exec Donny Deutsch says, “I went to Hebrew school for five years, but it didn’t stick.”

True, for most celebrities interviewed, the ceremony and afterparty were a big deal, but not always in the manner their parents (or rabbis) might have desired.

Fashion designer Michael Kors loved his big day, in part because he and his mother “turned the whole arranging … into a year and a half of ‘What’s the matchbook look like, what’s the invitation, what are you wearing?'”

Comedian Howie Mandel recalls how his parents hired a sketch artist, rather than a photographer, to chronicle the event.

In case after case, the bar or bat mitzvah closed the door on Jewish education. Playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein said his big day was “the end of my pretending to believe in the God of my father.” NBC president Jeff Zuker noted his bar mitzvah “was the end of my Hebrew education.”

Some — like Noah Wyle and Richard Dreyfuss — didn’t have bar mitzvahs at all (which raises the question why they were interviewed in the first place). But both of these actors, especially Dreyfuss, do say they live in keeping with Jewish values.

That pretty much goes for all the celebrities. Every one of them, no matter what their level of involvement in the communal or religious life, is staunchly proud of being Jewish, and swears by Jewish values.

Which leads to the more positive outcomes of these celebrity bar and bat mizvahs. The ever-eloquent Dreyfuss says he now believes “we were the chosen people, and we were chosen to illuminate mankind.” Talk show host Larry King states, “I like things Jewish. I like the Jewish way of thinking.”

If there appears to be a dearth of bat mitzvahs, it’s because Rappaport included only comic Judy Gold and Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin. It’s too bad there aren’t more women, because those two told the most moving stories: Gold, because of her courage being a 6-foot girl standing next to a 5-foot rabbi; Matlin for her amazing story of shedding tears on the Torah and her rabbi proclaiming her tears “a mitzvah … they represent this wonderful event.”

This might have been a more compelling collection had Rappaport dug a little deeper in her interviews. She seems a bit star-struck and preoccupied by peripheral distractions. Who cares what girl Piven liked best at his party?

As a work of cultural anthropology or Jewish inquiry, “Mazel Tov” falls short. But for anyone who enjoys a good round of “I didn’t know he was Jewish!” the book offers further evidence that Jews have done well in America.

And to think so many of them started out the same way, declaring in that squeaky little voice, “Today I am a man.”

“Mazel Tov: Celebrities’ Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories” by Jill Rappaport ($25, Simon & Schuster, 159 pages)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.