Rite of passage celebrations can sometimes go overboard
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Zachary Stein's bar mitzvah party is held on a cruise ship and features a "Titanic" movie theme. A giant replica of the ship appears, with a Kate Winslett look-alike, then crashes into a faux iceberg on which there are mermaids.
"I am the king of the Torah," proclaims Zachary, a variation on a remark lead character Leonardo DiCaprio spoke in the 1997 movie.
That's the opening scene in "Keeping Up With the Steins," a Miramax comedy that will be screened tonight in New York City at the Tribeca Film Festival and is expected to open in Pittsburgh in June.
Whether screenwriter Mark Zakarin intended it or not, that scene echoes a 1998 Pittsburgh event -- "Lisa's Titanic Blowout" at the Omni William Penn Hotel, for Lisa Niren's bat mitzvah. Bonnie Walker Chirigos of Creative Affairs planned that party, with its aqua-colored lights and iceberg. It drew national attention and caused controversy due to its extravagance.
But while "Keeping Up With the Steins" portrays the lavish spending of the super affluent to celebrate this rite of passage for Jewish children, it's not the norm in Pittsburgh, where most families maintain a more reverent, simpler approach, local rabbis say.
In Judaism, girls and boys become sons and daughters of the commandment -- bar mitzvah for boys at 13, bat mitzvah for girls at 12 or older. This coming of age, preceded by years of study, occurs when a youngster stands in front of synagogue members, family and friends and reads or chants Hebrew from the Torah.
It's not easy -- the Hebrew on Torah scrolls contain no vowels or punctuation.
Afterward, Jewish youngsters are considered adults and are held responsible for their actions.
They are expected to observe the commandments, which includes fasting on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Local rabbis emphasize that a bar or bat mitzvah should be less bar and more mitzvah -- that is, more about youngsters accepting their responsibility to observe Jewish law and less about a party.
Lavish celebrations for a bar mitzvah boy or girl, says Rabbi Aaron Bisno of the Reform congregation Temple Rodef Shalom in Shadyside, "reflect misplaced priorities in our culture. The bar mitzvah is a rite of passage that is intended to recognize the taking on of religious responsibility and mark the onset of a process of maturation that is celebrated in the context of a values affirming community.
"To use the bar mitzvah celebration as an opportunity to set new standards of consumption and excess misses the central meaning of this religious event."
Whether large or small, the celebration can create great angst for the parents as well as their children, Fox Chapel clinical psychologist Nancy Berk writes in her humorous 2005 book, "Secrets of a Bar Mitzvah Mom."
Mrs. Berk can laugh about the tension she endured now that her son, Hunter, 13, and his older brother, Daniel, 17, have both come of age.
"Every parent I talked to, two weeks before the bar mitzvah, would panic that their child will freeze up on the bima [temple altar]. But they sail through it," she said.
Mrs. Berk was invited to the Manhattan screening party for "Keeping Up With the Steins" by Scott Marshall, the film's director, after she sent him a copy of her book and told him the movie's trailer looked funny.
Many local families approach the bar/bat mitzvah celebration from a low-key perspective. They plan things themselves, hold a lunch or party at the synagogue social hall, the Schenley Park skating rink or the Jewish Community Center. There may or may not be a disc jockey, but there will always be food.
Rabbi Jeff Salkin of The Temple, a Reform congregation in Atlanta, wrote "Putting God on the Guest List: How To Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah" and lectures nationwide. The book, published in 1992, is in its third printing.
"Pittsburgh has generally been known as a low-intensity bar and bat mitzvah scene as compared to New York, South Florida and Los Angeles. The coasts are the worst. That's where the glitz factor really takes over. It may be because when you're in a culture of finance and entertainment, those values have a way of trickling down into your celebrations," Rabbi Salkin said.
The rabbi's book recalls an infamous bar mitzvah party with a Playboy theme where a young boy arrived at his party in a chariot drawn by bikini-clad playmates.
These and other over-the-top celebrations have inspired parties for Gentiles in the same age range, known as "not mitzvahs."
"In the last few years, there was a phenomenon of non-Jewish children wanting these parties. I think it was an East Coast phenomenon," said Rabbi Bisno.
Other youngsters are more earnest. One boy from Rabbi Salkin's Georgia congregation dedicated his recent bar mitzvah to his activism around Darfur.
Earlier this week, "I was privileged to stand next to him at the rally in Washington, D.C.," Rabbi Salkin said.
Giving back has long been part of the bar/bat mitzvah tradition, with children donating a portion of their gifts to charity.
Ms. Chirigos noted that earlier this year, one child whose party she planned requested that in lieu of gifts, guests donate to a kosher food bank. The invitation included a stamped envelope addressed to the charity and a letter from the girl saying: "I would like to remember these momentous times as a time that I helped my fellow Jews."
Bonnie Poole, owner of Dressed for the Occasion in Shadyside, makes centerpieces for parties. For last weekend's bat mitzvah party for her niece, Emily Flam, the centerpieces were baskets of food instead of flowers.
"A lot of people do baskets of food that are donated to the food bank. The food pantry puts them together for you," Ms. Poole said, adding that the kosher food pantry on Forward Avenue is a branch of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Sometimes, large parties held after a bar or bat mitzvah can generate major gifts to local charities.
That happened last month when Ms. Chirigos staged a "Field of Dreams" party at PNC Park for three Sewickley brothers -- Aaron, Joshua and Benjamin Pollon. Missy Elliott, backed up by seven hip-hop dancers, sang and invited teenagers up on stage, then later posed for pictures with guests and gave autographs.
Aaron and Joshua Pollon, who are twins, gave all their bar mitzvah money, which their parents matched, to the Pirates Charities for Children and Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Each charity received a check for $15,000 during a presentation on the baseball field.
The twins made the donations because their brother, Benjamin, was born with a disfiguring skin disease and melanoma and later diagnosed with autism.
Aaron and Joshua Pollon wanted to thank the doctors, nurses and therapists who supported Benjamin through 13 years of surgery, Ms. Chirigos said.
The Pollons' party featured fireworks, and because the evening was cold, guests received warm blankets, seat cushions and hats.
"You've got to make people comfortable," Ms. Chirigos said.
Rabbi Salkin said lavish parties combined with generous giving are "really a metaphor for the confusions of American Jewry. We want to do good, but we also want to know that we have done well and celebration is frequently the celebration of our success.
"We have to ask ourselves not only what things cost but what they mean. ... I don't know if one cancels the other out. At the very worst, it's a disconnect. They are doing all these great, altruistic things. On the other hand, they are celebrating this as if it were a Roman festival," he said.
"Personally, I question the wisdom of having a hip-hop star performing at a child's bar or bat mitzvah. I think we're not critical enough of the music that our children listen to," Rabbi Salkin added.
Instead of parties, some parents opt for memorable pilgrimages to Israel.
Seventeen years ago, Sheila Weiner of The Event Group took her son and daughter, who are 12 months apart in age, to Israel.
"We went to the ruins of the oldest temple in Israel on top of the Masada," a famous fortress and Israeli shrine, she said.
"It was a wonderful experience. We have a very small family. There were no grandparents living. It was a 10-day trip. We went with friends of ours whose son was bar mitzvahed with them in a joint ceremony."
Saul Markowitz, of O'Hara, was the youngest of six boys who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and whose father was a cantor.
Mr. Markowitz, who owns Markowitz Communications, recalled reading about a boy who went on safari in Africa during his bar mitzvah.
"We thought, 'Oh my God.' All I wanted for my bar mitzvah was a nice U.S. bond. I'm looking for a college fund here. I'm not looking to wrangle a lemur," Mr. Markowitz said.
At his niece's bat mitzvah, the party theme was music and "You could go up and play the music with the band." Mr. Markowitz said.
"You should never have to mortgage your house for a bar or a bat mitzvah party."Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Nancy Berk, Fox Chapel clinical psychologist and author of "Secrets of a Bar Mitzvah Mom," was invited to the screening party in New York.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published May 3, 2006 12:00 am