Opulent Bar Mitzvahs
Derach Eratz and Cookie Cutter Bar Mitzvahs
Recently we returned from one of many Bar Mitzvahs which we attended over the years. My spouse and I were comparing our thoughts as a result of our observations and recognized how similar these celebrations are: the behaviors of the participants, the attitudes, the overt and covert purposes and a backward glance historically at these affairs. Early in the 19th century among European and immigrant Jews, the most important purpose was to have the thirteen year old child learn his portion of the Torah and affirm that he is now a responsible “adult”capable of carrying on the mitzvahs / duties of the Jewish male . The festivity consisted of reading from the Torah in the Synagogue, dressed in the proper attire of which the kipah / yarmukel, tallis and tefillin (phylacteries) are a part. It was generally performed on a Monday , Thursday or Schabbath with family and friends being among the other “schul goers” / attendees. A few cookies and a little wine might be the fare provided by the family for those present . One erstwhile Bar Mitzvah youngster, grown old, told how happy he was when his mother, a widow, made a special meal whose highlight were goose livers preserved in chicken fat. The purpose of the Bar Mitzvah was clear in those years. Times and attitudes have changed. Bar Mitzvahs today are mostly one like the other depending on the wealth or lack thereof of the parents. The thirteen-year-old, after the performance, is told by members of the congregation, by the Rabbi and by his parents and friends that he is the most wonderful, talented person on land, sea, or air. He is thanked, praised and has an overvalued opinion of himself and his accomplishments. He perfunctorily thanks his parents for their part in his creation while in actuality they thank him and almost seem to believe that all the praises that are showered on him are real. The festivities that follow are sumptuous meals, special activities for the age mates – such as dances, live ear-bursting music, and adulating adults sitting around decorated tables. The conversation is frequently difficult. Around each of many tables people are segregated by age. The old are by themselves, regardless of their interests or their backgrounds. They are generally ignored by the young and the middle aged contingency. They are invited because the hosts cannot escape from inviting the older members of their family. They do, however, demonstrate by their body language and lack of interest in these folks, their real feelings. The hosts and guests are interested in those who are like themselves and those are definitely not these human anomalies. They do not really want to know them. These, the older generation, are dusted off and brought in as symbols and as obligations. As one person admitted: "It would not look right if we did not have them with us." Appearances matter and the hosts want to meet their obligations, to be “yotze”.
Unfortunately, individuals of the older generation begin to believe themselves what the geerontophobics have taught them, to dislike themselves and frequently protest that they prefer to talk to the young and that “the old” are uninteresting no matter how talented and special the people in question are.
There are many jokes told about the opulence of Bar Mitzvahs. One such example is the story about the Bar Mitzvah party being held with a Safari in Africa and ahead of the Safari is another group with even a larger group of elephants celebrating their Bar Mitzvah!
Would it not be comforting if we could reverse the trends and remember the real reasons for the celebration of Bar Mitzvah? To begin the festivity should be simple and any excessive money should be given to charity, a wonderful Jewish tradition. The second would be to demonstrate derach eretz: to look up to the older generation, to be inclusive not exclusive, remembering the words in the siddur: Dor Vador ,“From generation to generation." Our lives were built on those of our forebears. Let us act accordingly!
Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of Deviant Nurses & Improper Patient Care (2006).