The Mitzvah and the Mania

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

My family knew I was losing it when I started growing grass.

No, not the mind-altering kind. Not even the suburban homeowner kind. I was growing wheatgrass to use in centerpieces for my daughter's bat mitzvah. A bat mitzvah -- bar mitzvah for boys -- marks the entry of 13-year-olds into Jewish adulthood. It has also evolved -- mutated might be more accurate -- into the occasion for a celebratory extravaganza.

Which explains the wheatgrass: Despite my determination to resist, I found myself caught in the iron grip of bat mitzvah mania. And I began to understand how ordinarily sane parents get carried away and how the resulting excesses reflect not only conspicuous consumption but also abundant love.

When I was growing up, there was a commercial for rye bread whose signature line was, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's."

Well, you don't have to be Jewish to understand bat mitzvah mania.

Any mother who's planned an elaborate Winnie-the-Pooh birthday party for her 2-year-old, any bride who has sweated the most trivial details of her wedding, has suffered from a similar syndrome.

Certainly it has its unattractive, even vulgar, side. Now we have "My Super Sweet 16," the MTV reality show about overindulged teenagers having over-the-top parties, such as the one that featured sisters borne into their party on litters in a procession led by elephants. Hispanic girls who celebrate their quinceaƱera can hold the event at Disneyland and be greeted by Prince Charming as they step out of Cinderella's coach, or on weeklong quinceaƱera cruises.

Non-Jews even put on faux mitzvahs -- all party, no purpose. One rabbi I know reports receiving calls from non-Jewish mothers inquiring about ceremonies for their children. All this is mere run-up to the Wedding Industrial Complex, premised on the conviction that no wedding can possibly be held without three participants: bride, groom and wedding planner -- not necessarily in that order.

The average cost of a U.S. wedding is $30,000. When I plugged my Zip code into a wedding Web site, it produced the sobering information that the average price of a wedding in my area was $55,016, ring and honeymoon not included.

Note to my daughters: No way, girls.

So when we started the bat mitzvah process -- without the $10,000-a-pop planner -- I was determined to maximize the religious and minimize the glitz. When my daughter pondered what her "theme" should be, my response was, "How about, 'We're Jewish!' " Then the mania kicked in. Imagine planning a wedding, except instead of dealing with a nervous bride, you are coping with a hormonal teenager being asked to chant in a strange language in front of a synagogue full of strangers (bad) and friends (worse). Instead of having to satisfy prickly in-laws, you have to entertain her closest friends -- every last one of them.

Having convinced Emma that themes were tacky, I decided we needed one to organize our thoughts. Hey, what about springtime? In one of my more lunatic decisions, we made the invitations ourselves, which involved many hours of glue-sticking strips of Japanese rice paper printed with cherry blossoms and tying little pink bows. In an even more lunatic decision, we made the centerpieces, too, after the florist said the understated tulip arrangement I admired would run $75 a table.

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