Sunday, March 30, 2008

Have We Gone Overboard?

The Jewish Week, November 20, 1998

It seems that the public can never get enough of displays of Jewish excess. Why else would so many news outlets, including the Associated Press and USA Today, have made such a big deal over a recent bat mitzvah celebration in Pittsburgh rumored to have cost half a million dollars?

A teen's infatuation with the hit movie "Titanic" was transformed into an epic theme party, complete with phosphorescent artificial icebergs, 12-foot steaming smokestacks at the buffet table and a huge photo of the young lady's face superimposed over Kate Winslet's body, in Leonardo DiCaprio's loving embrace.

This revelation comes on the heels of a recent spread in New York magazine on the tawdry bar mitzvahs of the rich and famous.

For rabbis, ostentatious bar mitzvahs are nothing new. We've seen it all. My synagogue's social hall has been transformed into everything from a ski lodge to the Super Bowl in celebration of a 13-year-old's coming of age. Try as we might to emphasize the true spiritual nature of the event, there are always going to be those who go overboard, so to speak, in fulfilling a child's fantasies and impressing adult friends. But in truth, the tide has been turned, and the Titanic bash is not merely the tip of but virtually the entire materialistic iceberg.

I know this is disappointing news to those whose impression of American Jewish culture is derived mostly from late-night reruns of "Goodbye, Columbus," but, really, we're not so disgusting.

It's not that Jews have suddenly discovered good taste: some have, some haven't. Nor have we suddenly become more charitable and less self-indulgent, because Jews always have been most charitable and in elections have rarely voted for their pocketbooks.

The images of Jews as conspicous consumers are primarily trumped-up and updated anti-Semitic stereotypes. There is a direct line from Shylock to the Nanny, and the truth belies these shallow, materialistic archetypes. In giving wide coverage to the Titanic bash, the media are missing the real story, which is that Jews are, in fact, beginning to rediscover the meaning of bar mitzvah.

True, many are still having expensive parties but I have seen three clear trends over the past decade within my congregation, situated in one of the most affluent areas of America: 1) the service is becoming more central, 2) the parties more modest, and 3) those who still insist on "doing it up" are more self-conscious. Even the father of this Kate Winslet wannabe tried to justify his extravagance with a weak (and offensive) disclaimer, noting that his parents were survivors of the Holocaust and saying, "Anyone can go down at any time. We didn't want to wait to show how much we love one another."

Note the two things that he spoke of as the core of the event's meaning: love and death.

In a new study of American Jewry, "The Jew Within: Self, Community and Commitment Among the Variety of Moderately Affiliated," published by the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, researchers Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen note that two life-cycle moments are repeatedly cited as crucial turning points in the spiritual lives of Jews: the schooling of their children and the deaths of their parents.

If we allow that loving and educating are virtually synonymous for Jews (just check out the first paragraph of the Sh'ma), then we can see that even this gargantuan party was no more than an extension of the deepest message of the religious event. It's all about love and death.

The bar/bat mitzvah stands right at the intersection of these turning points, the one watershed moment that both grandparents and growing children are likely to be at. This singular celebration takes past and future and transforms them into an eternal present; it is a form of rebirth through initiation. Through this act, parents demonstrate to children their love for all that came before, so that the children might infuse the older generation -- and the rest of the community -- with new life. There is real drama as a youth symbolically scales Sinai to receive the Torah, chanting a blessing in which that sacred text is recognized as "life eternal implanted within us." It is, in the presence of those nearest death, a resounding defeat of death.

And this heart-thumping theater has been playing lots longer than "Titanic," to throngs who travel much farther to get there, provoking many more tears and later on, many more replays of the video.

I won't pass judgment on the staggering costs of the "Titanic" reception, because, who knows, maybe the family took advantage of the numerous educational opportunities presented by their stunning backdrop. Reflective aqua-tinted lighting along the walls made it appear as if the ballroom was underwater -- what better setting to teach the Jewish values of Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life) and teaching one's child to swim? They could also have discussed the ways to keep Shabbat on a journey, how to comfort mourners, whether it is meritorious to give one's life to save another, and even the kashrut of fishes. Somehow I suspect these opportunities were missed. Most likely, this party became just another example of how we indulge our children, how, at the moment when they most need to recognize the sovereignty of a higher authority, we let them proclaim, with titanic hubris, "I am king of the world!"

But in the end, a "Titanic" bat mitzvah theme-party still seems rather a nice fit. What is the film about, after all, but our eternal yearning to defeat death with love? The defeat of death has been fueling our obsession with that sunken ship for decades, and our quest for God for millennia.

And if the party was overdone, well, so was the film. After all, you don't have to be Jewish to be tacky.

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