Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bar Mitzvah Nation

The Jewish Week, May 7, 2004

When we look back years from now, historians might decide that Sunday, April 25, 2004 was the proverbial tipping point when all of America became Jewish.

On that evening, as Americans sat down to their nightly TV ritual, Krusty became Bar Mitzvah. For those who aren’t among the nearly 10 million who watch “The Simpsons,” Krusty, the rabbi’s-kid-turned-clown, metaphorically represents the tragi-comic Jewish condition. In this episode, Krusty, estranged from his traditionalist father (voiced by Jackie Mason) finally understands that one cannot be a Jew in name only. Seeking to earn his place among such Jewish luminaries as Sandy Koufax, Woody Allen and Lamb Chop, Krusty decides to take a hiatus from his show to do some serious grappling with traditional texts.

My jaw dropped when I saw this. I’m more than a casual watcher of “The Simpsons,” (principally because just about every bar mitzvah student is able to quote it chapter and verse), so when I tuned in I was expecting the same old shtick for Krusty’s Bar Mitzvah, an updated version of the excesses of “Goodbye Columbus.” It started out that way, but ended up with Krusty headed on a serious Jewish journey.

The entire country seems to be on a Jewish journey these days.

If you got tired of Krusty on that Sunday evening in late April, you could have clicked onto Comedy Central’s “Bar Mitzvah bash.” And several weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Want a Bar Mitzvah,” detailing the growing trend of non-Jewish children begging their parents for big Bar/Bat Mitzvah bashes of their own. When non-Jews can so casually assimilate what has long been the decisive generator of Jewish identity, it makes us wonder what sort of monster we’ve created.

A successful monster, that’s what.

Think about it. Mainstream America is now so completely comfortable with Judaism that it can dabble in overtly Jewish symbols without denying their Jewishness. These kids aren’t clamoring for mere “parties,” but for “Bar Mitzvahs.” Without batting an eye, they are choosing to live within the framework of Jewish idiom. All we have to do is add content and stir. Certain Jewish values are already built into even the most secularized and over-the-top Bar Mitzvah: the love of family, for instance. But the hard work has already been done. From a marketing perspective, Bar Mitzvah is becoming the Coca Cola of American adolescent initiation rites. “Want to celebrate your coming of age? Have a Bar Mitzvah and a smile – it’s real.”

The most amazing thing is happening: Non-Jews are teaching Jews how to be Jewish.

It used to be that Hollywood was filled with Jews pretending to be non-Jews, lining up to change their names from Goldfish to Goldwyn and from Birnbaum to Burns. Now the entire non-Jewish branch of the entertainment industry is going gaga over Kabbalah, which “W” magazine recently called “Hollywood’s trendiest spiritual movement since A.A.” I remain wary of the kind of hucksterism that threatens to sever Kabbalah from its authentic Judaic roots (the Kabbalah Center purportedly sells those red-yarn bracelets for $26, a rip-off, even if Britney Spears did wear one on the cover of “Entertainment”). But there is nothing inherently evil about being trendy.

When Madonna proclaims, as she recently did, that she will no longer do concerts on Shabbat, something profound is happening here. The singer announced through her publicist that she
would instead be attending services on Friday evenings. The Jewish establishment scoffs at these statements when we should be embracing them. I doubt we would take Madonna seriously even were she to shorten her name to “Maidl,” but we who have been preaching the merits of Shabbat all these years – to those few who will listen between the yawns – have quite a bit of chutzpah (a word you can now look up in your American Heritage Dictionary) to pooh-pooh the cultural earthquake that is going on around us.

Hello, my name is Josh and I am a recovering pooh-pooher.

I needed to make that confession, because for years I’ve come down hard on the superficiality of American Judaism. It was the “Titanic” themed Bat Mitzvah party in Pittsburgh with the iceberg centerpiece that threw me overboard. So it was natural for me to perceive the shallowness of those who pose with red thread. But I’ve grown more tolerant since then. Two months ago, my eldest child Ethan made his Sinaitic climb to the bima, and as I watched his Jewish destiny begin to unfold I experienced for the first time as an adult the full power of the Bar Mitzvah rite. Even in America,

Especially in America.

I know how powerful Judaism can be, which is why I take Madonna seriously. She may not be Jewish – yet – but she is living, increasingly, a Jewish life. She’s even doing a concert tour of Israel this fall, and the morale boost Israelis will feel will be as real as the mitzvah she is performing. Madonna has a long way to go, but at least she is headed in the right direction: East. I guess you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Good Jew. Demi Moore, of all people, put it best:

“I didn’t grow up Jewish, but I would say that I’ve been more exposed to the deeper meanings of particular rituals than any of my friends that did.”

As we celebrate 350 years of Jewish presence on these shores, some strange things are happening. While Jews have been focusing all of our attention on “The Passion,” some of our neighbors have become mighty passionate about Judaism. New forms of Jewish expression are attracting Americans in droves. As they say in Hollywood, “They like us! They really like us!” Maybe Krusty’s Bar Mitzvah can mark a turning point for us too.

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