It's been two decades since I was a bar and bat mitzvah regular. That was back when We Didn't Start the Fire blared in a continual loop on the stereo, Pretty Woman ruled at the box office, and "Multiples" fashions lined my closet.
It's been a long time since I fit the bar and bat mitzvah-attending demographic-back when I was a bat mitzvah myself, nervously chanting Torah, dancing a "snowball" dance, and drinking my bat mitzvah drink, a tween-made concoction so gross I'll spare you its contents.
Oh, how I don't miss those years.
But now it looks like I'm back on the circuit again. I've been invited to four b'nai mitzvot in a six-week period, including a bar mitzvah two weeks ago and a bat mitzvah last weekend.
In the past 20 years, since my own big day, the bar and bat mitzvah industry has gotten out of hand. We hear too often about over-the-top affairs, where families are competing over who can throw the most lavish, gluttonous party, sometimes complete with circus animals and celebrity guest appearances.
I remember once reading about a Titanic-themed bar mitzvah back when the movie was at the height of its hype. Leonardo DiCaprio even made a cameo at the party. How odd to connect this beautiful coming-of-age celebration to a movie about such a horrible disaster.
Then, there was the infamous invitation, an image that will forever be seared into my mind's eye. My friend once showed me the invite for a bat mitzvah party, to be held at a nightclub with a name so erotic that I will chose to omit it from this family-friendly blog. The design of the invitation showed the 13-year-old girl wearing bright pink lipstick, a scantily clad, leopard outfit, and a seductive expression on her face. That's taking this "becoming an adult thing" too far.
Why do we want our kids to grow up so fast? Why would any parent do this to their child? Why would a parent send their kid to a party like this? Just…why?
The bar and bat mitzvah I attended during the last two weeks bore no resemblance to these ridiculous affairs. In fact, the celebrations were haimish, with sweet, poised young people at their centers. These are good kids raised by wonderful parents with an understanding of what our most core Jewish values are.
Indeed, it's not all over-the-top celebrations that I see. On the flip side, thankfully, there's been a wonderful trend of putting the mitzvah back in bar and bat mitzvah. Families and synagogues are making service projects a central park of children's bar/bat mitzvah year, infusing more meaning and the Jewish concepts of tzedakah (charity, justice) and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness) into the process.
Do you remember the 2006 film Keeping Up With the Steins? The small, underrated film offers a commentary on how too many Jewish families overlook the meaning behind the bar and bat mitzvah, and view this time of life as an excuse to throw an outrageous party. In the end of the film, though, the bar mitzvah boy ends up forgoing the fancy shmancy party, in part because of the downturned economy, for a simple celebration in his backyard-and he and his friends love every minute of it.
And, maybe, that's all kids ultimately want. To experience this special rite of passage in an authentic way. To gracefully take on the responsibilities of becoming Jewish young adults in front of their family, friends, and community.
JUF's TOV volunteer network offers guides to making mitzvoth part of the bar/bat mitzvah. Visit www.juf.org/pdf/tov/BBM_Guide.pdf for more information.