Lots of rabbis are showing “Keeping Up With The Steins” to their bar and bat mitzvah students and families, ostensibly to demonstrate what can happen when a bar/bat mitzvah celebration gets out of control. (The film’s producers were astute enough to get the imprimatur of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, certainly one of the leading rabbis on the West Coast, if not in all of North America.)
This is not the first time in Jewish history that we’ve seen high levels of ostentatiousness. During the Middle Ages, the rabbis were motivated to issue laws about conspicuous consumption in order to control the excesses of some Jewish people. Too often, today’s celebrations put all the focus on the bar and none on the mitzvah. It is the same thing that persuaded our friends at Jewish Lights Publishing to issue “Putting God on the Guest List” authored by my colleague in Atlanta Rabbi Jeff Salkin.
So here’s what I’m wondering: we know that bar and bat mitzvah is a powerful experience for kids and their families that is often overlooked while we who work as professionals in the Jewish community are busy criticizing the excesses of the celebration. And we know that for those children of intermarriage who experience a bar or bat mitzvah, it is of key importance in nurturing their nascent Jewish identity. Without condoning the excesses, let’s also recognize that the blow-out bar/bat mitzvahs are attractions that may lead those on the periphery to deeper engagement with Judaism. (We’ve all heard stories of even non-Jewish kids wanting a bar/bat mitzvah party!) This movie will only increase that attraction, as the celebration becomes more mainstreamed. Are we as a community ready to capitalize on this modern phenomenon, by providing easier access—at least to the meaningful aspects of the ritual?
For example, when a 12- or 13-year-old suddenly decides s/he wants a bar/bat mitzvah, can we accommodate? Or do we require a three year commitment, asking them to postpone the celebration until all their friends are having Sweet Sixteens? Let’s find other options. Even for the kids that may be coming to us for all the seemingly wrong reasons, they may be transformed by the ritual in ways that they weren’t anticipating.
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