Stop this barmitzvah madness

It’s time to do away with barmitzvah parties.

Before you disagree, Google “Sam Horowitz”. For his barmitzvah last November in Dallas, his parents hired eight showgirls in feathered headbands, who danced to Christina Aguilera while he descended from the ceiling, hidden in a large white cylinder. When it lifted to reveal the barmitzvah boy, outfitted in a sequined white suit, he performed a choreographed number (brilliantly, it must be said), ending with a shower of confetti. In the background, letters two storeys high spelled out “Sam”.

A couple of weeks ago, the video went viral, with over 870,000 hits. It was, according to Gawker.com, “unarguably the craziest entrance to anything ever”, although prominent American rabbi David Wolpe had other words for it: “Egregious, licentious and thoroughly awful… slaughters the spirit”. Like many, he objected to the sexualisation of an adolescent, the ostentation, and the video’s success, which made it “appear that this was a paradigm of Jewish celebrations”.

The problem is that, in a sense, it is. In recent years, there have been numerous stories of over-the-top barmitzvahs, such as that of British retailer Sir Philip Green’s son, which cost £4 million and included a performance by Beyoncé. While few can rival that, Jews have been notorious for overdoing their coming-of-age parties since 1595, when religious authorities in Krakow placed a communal tax on barmitzvah feasts to discourage extravagance.

Modern mainstream affairs, with budgets that stretch the average family, ever more exotic venues, and gimmicks ranging from casinos to football stars, are no exception. If more families had the financial resources of the Horowitzes, they’d clearly go just as big. They’re already on the same spectrum.

Yes, there are many modest and inoffensive parties, but the pressure in the other direction is hard to resist. And what do they add to the main event in shul? Few barmitzvah bashes have significant Jewish content.
The Horowitzes’ defence is that Sam’s big day was meaningful: he read from the Torah, and donated $36,000 of his gift money (probably a fraction of what his barmitzvah cost) to charity. They are clearly good people, yet they fail to see how inappropriate their celebration is to mark a religious occasion.

In a 1984 study, Stuart Schoenfeld, a sociologist at York University in Toronto, argued that the barmitzvah party was really “a social drama”, in which families showed off wealth and established their social status, and publicly affirmed their commitment to Jewish continuity, even if the connection was in reality loosening. The need for a lavish party is tied to deep insecurities resulting from our immigrant background, the risk of assimilation and perhaps even our Holocaust history.

It can also be deeply narcissistic. What message did it send 13-year-old Sam to have eight women dancing around him?

But we can stop the madness. Many families have begun taking on other rituals for bar- and batmitzvahs, such as Israel trips, charity fundraising and parent-and-child Torah study. We need firmly to establish these not as additions to the barmitzvah party, but as their replacement. If a few families publicly forgo the party, and concentrate on age-appropriate, meaningful celebrations, it will embolden others.

Some rabbinic leaders have called for limiting guest lists and budgets, but it’s not enough. Rabbis should work for a wholesale revolution here.

Everyone will be grateful. Most guests do not really want to sit through yet another evening of speeches about an unrelated kid, and most parents do not really want to pay the fortune it costs. Perhaps Sam Horowitz’s video will give us the permission we need to stop.

Last updated: 12:38pm, September 3 2013