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Lavish bar and bat mitzvah extravaganzas with fancy themes, fancier entertainment and outrageous price tags are in the news again. We're showing the world we've really made it, giving our children a gift they'll always remember.
But what will those memories consist of? The rapper 50 Cents singing about a bat mitzvah? Tom Petty? Some pretty great gifts? I'm all for creating positive associations with Jewish holidays and events, but the key word is "Jewish." Parents of a friend of ours consulted him about a theme for his bar mitzvah. Apparently his suggestion was too novel for them. "How about Judaism?" he replied.
I find it difficult to attend these extravaganzas (perhaps that's why I'm so rarely invited!). Amidst all the hoopla and bright lights, between plates of food and designer attire, I'm so conscious of what they're missing, of how much more there could be -- more in the sense of meaning. More in everything else seems to be covered.
There is an irony that this traditional celebration of the assumption of responsibilities seems to actually illustrate the lack thereof. For 13-year-old boys and 12-year-old girls to have such wealth thrown at them, not based on anything they've done and with no acknowledgement of responsibilities to God and man, creates a sense of entitlement that damages our children.
It also engenders scorn for our heritage. If we, as parents, are blinded by social pressures and expectations from seeing the emptiness of the experience, our children are not. They know underneath it all the occasion ultimately means nothing. Cynicism starts to take root and Judaism is viewed with scorn.
I'm not blaming. They don't know any better. I just wish they could have a glimpse of the way it could be ("Ushpizin" for the bar mitzvah set?). I wish they could see children who understand the meaning of becoming bar or bat mitzvah, who appreciate the privilege to assume the mantle of responsibility to observe the Almighty's commandments and feel appropriately awed and intimidated, children who now feel a sense of accountability and approach the upcoming event with both excitement and a touch of heaviness. They know their lives are changing, and they are preparing themselves.
A bar/bat mitzvah IS a time of celebration. Judaism recognizes that life is not meant to be one long Club Med vacation, that being responsible is a good thing, and something worthy of celebrating.
There is still good food, dancing and most of all, there is still joy. The joy that comes from discovering your place in the world, the joy that comes from recognizing you are part of a special people with unique responsibilities, and stepping up to the plate to accept them. This is a joy that has no price tag. But it's a joy that can only be earned, not bought.