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Bar mitzva-va-voom
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Bar mitzva-va-voom

The title of Adam Mansbach’s 2009 novel The End of the Jews isn’t a reference to the Holocaust or other Jewish cataclysms. The novel’s protagonist, a young DJ, explains to his grandfather what goes on at a typical bar or bat mitzva, and the thousands spent on food, music, party favors, and a caricature artist.

“It’s the end of the goddamn Jews,” laments the grandfather, who explains that all he got for his bar mitzva was a tongue sandwich and a pen.

Bemoaning the modern bar mitzva party is a favorite pastime of rabbis, writers, and pundits like me. I’ve had my fun mocking the scantily clad “spirit” dancers, the outrageously inappropriate themes, and the increasingly expensive giveaways.

A few years back, planning a bar mitzva of my own, I asked L.A. Rabbi Steven Leder for advice on curbing the supersizing of the event. In his book More Money than God, Rabbi Leder urged parents not to lose sight of the values b’nei mitzva are supposed to represent, and to be more thoughtful about the role money plays in their lives.

Leder also had another piece of advice: “You should never put children in an adult environment, a sexually charged environment. You’ve seen the spaghetti-strap dresses on 12-year-old girls. There are 100 kids at the party: Do you know what’s going on in the bathrooms?”

Armed with this kind of advice, you’d think I’d be outraged by the latest example of bar mitzva excess, this one brought to us by a YouTube video that has gone the Jewish version of viral. In the video, a Dallas kid named Sam is seen vamping with a chorus line, having been lowered onto the stage at the Omni Hotel in a giant chandelier. His name appears behind him in lights, Chicago-style.

The video has launched a thousand tsk-tsks on Facebook, with most of the commenters sounding like the grandfather in Mansbach’s novel. The most visible of these laments was written by another L.A. rabbi, David Wolpe, a thoughtful and influential leader of the Conservative movement.

“The egregious, licentious, and thoroughly awful video…contains so much that is offensive that it requires restraint to hold oneself to three ways in which this display slaughters the spirit,” Wolpe wrote at The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog. “To turn a ceremony of spiritual maturation into a Vegas showgirl parade teaches a child sexualization of spirit.”

Normally, I’d agree with Wolpe. I’ve been to my share of bar and bat mitzvas where the hems of the teens’ skirts seem to rise in direct proportion to the money being spent on the food, flair, and photo booths.

But then I read a few things about Sam’s bar mitzva that gave me pause. First, as Allison Kaplan Sommer reported in Ha’aretz, the bar mitzva boy donated his $36,000 in gift money to Israel’s Ben Yakir Youth Village. Would the kids there rather accept such an amount from a “thoroughly awful” spectacle like Sam’s bar mitzva, or a lesser amount from a tasteful kiddush luncheon at Wolpe’s shul? As Tevye might say, ask the recipients.

Furthermore, as JTA’s Adam Soclof points out, Sam’s was hardly the world’s most outrageous bar/bat mitzva party. That prize, he suggests, goes to David H. Brooks, a onetime defense contractor who in 2005 threw a “$10 million bat mitzvah celebration featuring appearances by Tom Petty, the Eagles, Aerosmith, 50 Cent, and Kenny G.”

If anything, the only differences between Sam’s bar mitzva party and probably dozens that take place every weekend is that a/ the video went public, and b/ the family ramped up the fabulousness by two or three notches.

But here is one other factor to consider before judging Sam: context. Sam’s mom tells JTA that he wants to be “really famous” in the entertainment industry and that he “loves fashion.” Now look closely at the video. The dance number itself owes less to the bump and grind of the dance floor than the kick and strut of the Broadway stage. You don’t see a horny teen twerking with hired hotties. Instead, you see a liberating moment for a boy who marches and kicks to a different drummer.

We don’t know what Sam said in his d’var Torah, or how well he read his haftara. All we know, perhaps, is that he and his parents chose to mark his coming of age in a way that celebrates the adult he hopes to be. Almost everyone spends too much on the bar and bat mitzva parties. (Imagine, for instance what the money spent on even a modest catered meal would mean to a soup kitchen.) Even a low-key affair features customs not mentioned in the Talmud (unless I missed the tractate on Coke & Pepsi). Why single out this family for spending their money to indulge their own kid’s Broadway fantasy?

None of this changes my dim view of the average over-the-top affair, or my conviction that a lot of the money and creativity that go into b’nei mitzva planning might be better directed at any of a number of needy and worthy Jewish and secular causes.

But I do think there are times when we have to heed the words of Mishna: “Judge to the side of merit.”

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