When my oldest daughter had her bat mitzvah, one of my proudest moments did not occur during the ceremony, though she certainly invested time and hard work in preparing. It came early Sunday morning when we were deciding what to do with the leftover food from our huge Shabbat Kiddush. My daughter suggested that we bring it to a shelter for women and children that she had volunteered at with her school, the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School.
This was a truly meaningful statement: My daughter embraced her role as an adult Jew who is able to see herself as capable of making the world a better place. That morning, before her bat mitzvah party, we delivered the food to grateful recipients at the shelter.
Something similar happened a few days before my second daughter’s bat mitzvah. We took a walk and stopped to talk with an older neighbor. She told us that she always made blintzes on Shavuot but hadn’t been able to this year. Without prompting, my daughter went home and selected some of the blintzes that she and her older sister had made themselves to share with our neighbor.
As I listened to friends and family begrudgingly make decisions about Hebrew school for their kids this year, I started a conversation on my personal blog about alternatives to the typical after-school programs. As I mentioned, I was not asking on behalf of my own family.
My kids go to a non-Orthodox day school, attend shul every week and live in a home that I’ve described elsewhere as “Reformadox”. I was asking for new ideas on behalf of my friends and as a concerned member of the larger Jewish community. I felt that, with so many disgruntled customers out there, there had to be some newer, experimental models to try.
I heard from families in various cities who belong to Reform or Conservative synagogues, but send their kids to a Chabad-run religious/Hebrew school program on Sundays, meeting the call of Jews who want their kids to experience a Jewish education, but not at the expense of the taking over the family’s schedule for the week.
Some families in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago said they dropped out of their synagogue’s Hebrew school for a newer organization run by an Orthodox couple called Jewish Family Experience. Rabbi Yehuda Polstein and his wife, Mashi Polstein, run their own school which, like Chabad’s supplemental school, meets on Sundays. JFE, as the group’s members call it, is based on another popular program in Cleveland called Jewish Family Experience, commonly referred to as JFX. At JFX in Cleveland, entire families meet on Sundays for Jewish education. I heard from parents in both cities who raved about the passion for Judaism their kids felt and the depth of knowledge the kids and parents learned during the once-a-week sessions.
I actually must thank Sam-the-Bar-Mitzvah-video dancer and his family for their voyeuristic and strategically-posted video of the burlesque dance routine that’s been making blogosphere news. They have certainly given us Rabbis fodder for our high holiday sermons.
But while many of us are busily typing up diatribes against the excess, the lavishness, the expense and the lack of Jewish focus, and while we are all right in our musings about so many of the wrong messages Sam’s scantily-dressed dancers gave off, I hope we don’t miss seeing it through one more lens: the feminist one.
Imagine you are one of the 12- or 13-year old girls watching the performance, whether live or on the video. What do you see?
You see a riff on all those music videos with hot girls shaking everything they’ve got around a male lead singer (this time a Bar Mitzvah boy). You see a 13-year-old boy hungrily adored by female dancers the age of older sisters, or worse yet, mothers. You see that “women” — in the form of the Ritual Rockettes — want that boy. You see that one guy can satisfy 20 girls. And that they all desire back. You see a boy being welcomed into a gaggle of females vying for his attention. They wait for him and on him. And you no doubt imagine yourself, the skinny, awkward, gawky tween, hoping to be one of those women soon — hoping to have a man to allure the way those women are not-so-subtly alluring and admiring Sam.
Who in America with a Facebook account hasn’t seen this D-cup of craziness? It’s Sam Horowitz’s big fat bar mitzvah dance number, replete with dancing girls clad in golden sequined mini-dresses shaking everything their mamas gave them to the Christina Aguilera song “Show Me How You Burlesque.”
In front of 15-foot-high letters spelling out Sam’s name in bright lights, the young Barry Manilow-in-the-making descends to the stage, hidden within a white cylinder of sparkly curtains. It lifts to reveal the boy, clad all in white, who makes his entrance surrounded by the gyrating dancers and shows off his own, fairly impressive moves.
The video — taken at his Dallas bar mitzvah last November — even earned young master Horowitz his own segment on Good Morning America on Wednesday and then a live demo of his dance skills (including the dancing girls and an interview with his proud mama) on the same program on Thursday.
Resting on the butcher block in my Brooklyn kitchen are seven black and white napkins with the name “Caroline” written on them in a cloud of polka dots. I found the napkins — leftovers from my bat mitzvah — four years ago while combing through the attic as my parents prepared to sell my childhood home. My boyfriend and I used most of the napkins the following year. Two apartments later, we have seven left, all tangible remnants of the day I became a Jewish adult. Seven reminders my parents threw a kick-ass party organized by a top-notch party planner, who I didn’t realize was also a top-notch wedding planner until he kissed me on the cheek at my friend’s wedding.
I’m concerned that 17 years later, these napkins are the primary reminder of my becoming a bat mitzvah — the day I chanted 40 verses of Torah and led the service, an overachieving upgrade from the usual eight verses read, not chanted, at my Reform synagogue.
In the United States, especially amongst Reform and Conservative Jews, we all too often focus on the party and on ourselves, rather than the actual responsibility of becoming a Jewish adult. In the past few months, video invitations to Jorel and Daniel’s bar mitzvahs went viral on YouTube. While the videos are adorable testaments to the boys’ precocious playfulness, as well as their parents’ deep pockets, they epitomize the ongoing clash between American and Jewish values.
We all expect makeup to do exactly what it promises, right? A woman in Monsey, N.Y., has filed a lawsuit in federal court against cosmetics giant Lancome saying that its “24-hour foundation” doesn’t last for 24 hours, which she needs to make it in full makeup through Shabbat.
Rorie Weisberg is charging, in her lawsuit, that Teint Idole Ultra 24H, a pricey purportedly pore-perfecting product, doesn’t live up to its promise. And she needs it to last through Shabbat so she can look her best at her son’s June bar mitzvah, the lawsuit states.
Now this is a lady who does her homework; her son’s bar mitzvah isn’t until next month and already she has done trial runs of her makeup. And for the fastidiously frum there are specific rules about wearing makeup on Shabbat. There are several companies that manufacture makeup specifically formulated to allow observant women to look fabulous without contravening Jewish law. Shaindy Kelman started one of them, ShainDee Cosmetics, — whose tag line is “look beautiful and follow halacha” — two decades ago.
We learned from the cover story of the past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that there is a debate raging in developmental psychology and neuropsychology circles as to whether there is a new stage in human development called “emergent adulthood.” Some might call it “prolonged adolescence,” but apparently, a lot of people are asking a variation of the question “What Is it About 20-Somethings?”
The jury is still out as to whether the fact that so many young people in their 20s are not yet financially independent, settled on a career, or in long-term, committed romantic relationships is a definitive indication that humans are not cut out to assume the responsibilities of adulthood until they reach the age of 30.
Whether or not you completely buy the new theory, this re-thinking of the timing of the true onset of adulthood has not only biological, social and economic implications, but also religious ones. If brain imaging research has found that the human brain does not finish its major growth and hardwiring until approximately age 25, then what are we Jews doing declaring young people adults at the age of 12 or 13?
The Sisterhood Digest:
• Rachel Lester, a 15-year-old who attends a Modern Orthodox high school, has been elected Los Angeles’ youngest-ever public representative.
• The New York Post reports on the rise of million-dollar bar and bat mitzvahs. Among the lavish affairs that the paper details is one bat mitzvah at which the guest of honor emerged from behind purple lamé curtains “dressed in a cropped circus ringleader jacket — a duplicate of the one worn by Britney Spears on her ‘Circus’ tour — a top hat, and fishnet stockings. A troupe of Cirque du Soleil performers surrounded her…” and another in which the bat mitzvah girl “descended from the ceiling of Cipriani Wall Street harnessed to a wire and dressed in a catsuit. Then she was serenaded by Jon Bon Jovi for 45 minutes.”
It’s been clear for a while now that post-bar mitzvah age boys drop out of organized Jewish life, at least in the non-Orthodox world, far more than girls the same age do. In this article in The New York Times a few years back, I wrote about how the Reform movement had begun to address the gender disparity.
The organization Moving Traditions runs the successful program Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, which aims to improve the self esteem and strengthen the Jewish identity of girls in grades 6–12. This year there were 285 different groups all over the country and, since the program was begun in 2002, some 6,000 young Jewish women have participated.
Now Moving Traditions, which focuses on gender issues within Judaism and is based in the Philadelphia suburb of Jenkintown, is turning its attention to boys. It has been conducting focus groups in Denver and convening experts to do additional research into the developmental life of boys. Moving Traditions also commissioned a research report, titled “Wishing for More: Jewish Boyhood, Identity and Community,” from two University of Pennsylvania academics who study education and gender development.
According to “Wishing for More,” which has not been publicly released, the boys studied “were able to find their way to the Jewish community, fashioning a home for themselves by cobbling together their own particular mix of relationship, education, symbol and religious practice.”
However, their Jewish community did not make it easy for them to accomplish this outcome: on the contrary, most of the boys complained about the offerings available to them within organized Jewish institutions. From stale and dogmatic supplemental education, preachy youth outreach, anxious parents or overly secular youth groups, even the boys who were the most Jewishly affirming explained that they had to construct their Jewish identities despite significant barriers.
“The problem for Jewish boys is that Judaism and Jewish life are not there to help them consider what it means to be a man and as they face the pressures of adolescence,” Deborah Meyer, director of Moving Traditions, told The Sisterhood. “The end result of our inability to engage and inspire Jewish boys is that not only are few of them developing strong Jewish identities but we’re not helping them develop as mensches.”
Moving Traditions’s plan is to develop a program that can be replicated, like the Rosh Chodesh groups, around the country. It’s currently piloting a boys’ program in the Philadelphia and Boston areas, in Washington, and at a summer camp in the Poconos.
“The most strategic time to reach them is 8th and 9th grades, when there’s the greatest risk of boys stepping out of Jewish life. This is a time when we want to inspire them and give them a reason to stay rather than let them wander away,” said Meyer. “We’re going to come out with a program that can be offered to boys in a variety of settings, as well as a framework for working with Jewish boys. We want to know the most effective ways to get them in the door and to work with guys to have conversations of meaning. We want to help them form a Jewish identity and a healthy male identity.”
But the organization is also trying to come up with a snappy name for the boys’ program, and promises an iTunes gift card to anyone who comes up with the winning idea.
I was married last week, and for our recent rehearsal dinner, my now husband and I put together a slideshow of photographs showing each of us at various stages of childhood and young adulthood. There were the obligatory bar and bat mitzvah shots. Combing through the photos of my 1992 bat mitzvah party, I got a good laugh at my girlish outfit: a carnation pink dress, with puffy, floral sleeves and a multi-tiered skirt that passed my knees. At my bat mitzvah party, the extent of boy-girl interaction was a dance-floor game of Coke and Pepsi, led by the emcee (who happened to be Paul Rudd — the now A-list actor who cut his teeth as a suburban Los Angeles bar mitzvah DJ).
At more recent bar and bat mitzvah parties I’ve attended, I’ve noticed, with a raised eyebrow, that the middle schoolers’ get-ups have gotten way skimpier — with many of the young girls in form-fitting dresses with spaghetti straps and high heels — and the co-ed dancing a whole lot closer. So perhaps it only a matter of time before the bar mitzvah took a real frat-party turn.
And last Saturday, it did, according to reports of a bat mitzvah so raucous that it had to be broken up by the police. In an article about the event, held at a Norwalk, Conn. museum, The Stamford Advocate reports:
Brian Fischer, rental coordinator for the museum, told police the younger guests at the Jewish ceremony, which celebrates a girl’s coming of age, tore out ceiling tiles and a light fixture in the 141-year-old, 62-room mansion. Fischer said he saw several boys and girls engaging in oral sex in the bathrooms, Officer Carleton Giles said.
Those allegations are “blown way out of proportion,” the bat mitzvah girl’s mother told the newspaper, employing an unfortunate choice of words — given the bathroom behavior Fischer says he witnessed.
But one local rabbi is urging the community not to jump to the conclusion that the incident is emblematic of any larger, troubling trend. Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford — incidentally, he officiated at our wedding — writes on his blog:
I’ve been the first to critique excesses at these events … but specifically to tie this type of misbehavior into Bar Mitzvah is equivalent to saying that because there was rioting in L.A. following the Lakers’ championship the other day, the NBA somehow is evil and corrupt. I won’t raise the banner of anti-Semitism, but why focus on a party that happens to occur after a particular religious event as opposed to any other teen party where similar (or worse) things might happen?
I’m not blind to the fact that our own students are capable of this kind of thing … but I’ve noticed a distinctly positive trend in the way families approach this event over recent years, and in particular this year. The over-the-top parties have fallen victim to the bad economy (even those who have the money see it as being in bad taste) in favor of more spiritual values. Our kids understand that as well. I’ve seen far less “bar” as the saying goes, and much more “mitzvah.”
Lower-key bar and bat mitzvahs — specifically those that incorporate tzedakah and social justice projects, as a growing number do — should be commended. But now parents and clergy need to take on, and take seriously, the issue of age-appropriate dress for young bar and bat mitzvah guests, whether or not it has an impact on age-appropriate behavior. I tend to think that it does.