Thursday, October 11, 2007

On Excess

This weekend, my parents, K and I flew down to Boca Raton to attend my second cousin's bar mitzvah. (A bar mitzvah, or bat mitzvah for girls, is a ceremony held the first time a Jewish boy is called to the Torah, typically at age 13. Like a Catholic confirmation ceremony, it symbolizes an entry into an adult faith. The bar mitzvah is now responsible for his own actions and his own life, spiritual and otherwise.)

A bit of background information: my cousin, mother of the new bar mitzvah, was a department head at a major New York financial concern, accumulated all the money she could handle, and left the company and the city to adopt children and get married (in that order). She bought herself a house in Florida, near her parents, and then bought one for her sister and brother-in-law for good measure. She's a lovely, talented, generous woman. With a ton of money.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised that the bar mitzvah party she threw her oldest son was as elaborate as it was--my other cousin's husband, at brunch the day after, assured us archly that "for Florida, that was tasteful," that he had dropped his son off at a bar mitzvah that had gladiators in real chariots pulled by real horses standing outside the gates--but I have to say, I was surprised. And a little shocked.

There were cocktails and hors d'oeuvres to start, along with a magician and a video karaoke booth for the kids, and then we moved into the "grand ballroom" (note, please, that these amenities are built into the synagogue), where we find a cover band, hired crowd-riling dancers, an emcee, three videographers, two photographers, video screens playing slideshows of family photos, the bar mitzvah boy's name emblazoned hugely in lights, and four-foot rotating centerpieces on every table. Not to speak of the long, dormant buffet and the seared beef and cucumber salad appetizers already laid out at the adults' place settings.

Now, I've been to some big bar and bat mitzvahs. I have. Between the ages of 12 and 14, I probably went to 25, and some of them were big things, and some of them had hired dancers, and some of them had bands and some had centerpieces (though I don't think any of them had centerpieces like these centerpieces), but as I can recall, none of them had all of those things.

Then there was a brunch the next day, smaller, more intimate, but still probably fifty people at my cousin's house. Under her twenty-foot ceilings sprawled a catered buffet spread, hired omelet-makers making omelets to order at her beautiful stainless stove, and a guy in uniform working an espresso machine and a wet bar, giving out his business card for pet parties.

Now, my own bat mitzvah party was at my parents' apartment. We cleared out the furniture, hired a DJ and a fortune teller, and had a catered buffet. Guests took photos with disposable cameras, and my mom and I made an album of the photos afterwards. I had all my relatives, a few friends from my old school, a few friends from my new school, and a few friends from my Hebrew school class. I had a really wonderful time. It wasn't an inexpensive party, but I can't imagine my parents spent as much as many parents at the time did (let alone anything like what was spent on last weekend's extravaganza), and it wasn't as lavish, somehow.

What I like about the way we did my bat mitzvah is that it was somehow suited to the tone of the day. My memories of my bat mitzvah are dominated by the events of the ceremony: being up on the bima, chanting my Torah and Haftorah portions, my rabbi and my parents making speeches about me. Most of all I remember my sister, who was nine, saying the nicest thing about me that anyone has ever said, before or since. The party is a total blur. I don't remember a damn thing. But I like the idea that my family and my friends walked from the synagogue to my parents' house and celebrated with us in our home. It feels intimate, which seems appropriate.

The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is about coming into responsibility for one's life. It's the beginning of agency. For this reason, young people preparing for their ceremonies traditionally do a tzedakah, or social service, project (my cousin was no exception), to demonstrate their commitment to their spiritual and social obligations. To couple such a ceremony with such a lavish party, a thing so unmoored from day-to-day life, seems strange to me, seems like insufficient attention is being paid to the meaning of the ceremony itself--its message about responsibility for oneself and for others.

But, like my cousin's husband reminded me, it's Florida. And the parties are given by the parents, really, and the parents are subject, perhaps more than their children, to an awareness of social norms. That awareness is hard to buck--my own aversion to a party of this magnitude is as much about finding it sort of overwhelming and a bit tacky (both related to my own, different sense of social norms) as it is about the cognitive dissonance between the occasion and its celebration. I don't know if that cognitive dissonance would be as strong for someone who didn't find the party itself outside the realm of their experience.

On the other hand, is it even reasonable for such a party to be within the realm of people's normal experience? Especially thirteen-year-olds' experience? What call is there for this kind of thing? It's not that I'm against luxury. I'm definitely not. But this party does not represent the kind of luxury I like. Maybe if it's your kind of luxury, this feels the way that a nice trip or a great dinner feels to me--something that you give yourself because you can, but wouldn't do every day.

I keep chewing on this thing without coming to a conclusion. I don't know what to make of it. I don't know that I can figure out what to make of it, really, other than concluding that it's not my kind of thing, and that says something about the kind of person I am, but more different than better. The whole thing just kind of blew my mind a bit.


LN said...

At least bar/bat mitzvahs are celebrating something, unlike that horrific/fascinating show on MTV, "My Super Sweet Sixteen," where the parents throw over-the-top parties to celebrate the fact that...their kids are old enough to drive?

S/100/30 said...

At least bar/bat mitzvahs are celebrating something,

Are they?

Anyway, I'm really surprised the synagogue would encourage this. I went to a few excessive bar/t mitzvahs as a teen, but they were held in a hotel ballroom; I always assumed the rabbis found the excess unfortunate.

Actually, it's the truly insane, over-the-top and tacky consumption fests that I enjoy the most; I can really get into those and have a blast. It's like being at the local Catholic parish's carnival - total campy fun.

English Major said...

s/100/30, I do think bar/bat mitzvahs are celebrating something (that was probably clear from the post, though). And I agree that I always assumed that the rabbis found the excess unfortunate--I was taken aback by the way this synagogue catered to it.

It's not that I dislike the mere intersection of religion and over-the-top celebration: I can get into things like the Festival of San Gennaio...but for some reason, this feels quite different.

S/100/30 said...

Yes, I wasn't very clear, especially given the abbreviated quote. Obviously they are celebrating something; what I should have taken the time to write in response to In is that it requires a particular perspective on religion to assert that bar/t miztvahs are celebrating something more than a mere birthday.

plonkee said...

I don't like the expectations it creates on the child. It means that they will have to grow up and get really, really well paid jobs in order to fund this sort of thing for their kids (and so on).

I would call it tacky too, but I'm also trying to accept that things are different not necessarily worse.

Little Miss Moneybags said...

I am one of those "hired crowd-riling dancers" (I perform with a belly dance troupe here in NYC) and the party with the gladiators and chariots sounds about like what I've seen. Just the cost to hire my troupe alone would blow my personal party budget out of the water; I can't even comprehend what some of these things must cost. I remember one party that had an entire casino spread with blackjack, poker, craps, and roulette tables with dealers, a video karaoke booth, an arcade room (brought in for the party) and other fun things. Upstairs was a catered, decorated hall more lavish than the fanciest wedding I've been to as a guest (I've seen some amazing ones as a dancer) and there was a Joan Rivers impersonator complete with red carpet. One of my jobs that night was to act like the paparazzi and scream and take pictures of the kids as if they were famous when they arrived. After the party, they all left in four or five party-bus-limo things for a night of driving around Manhattan.

I felt really bad for the bar mitzvah boy, as he was clearly quite shy and overwhelmed by all the attention and excess being poured on him. At all of these events, I can't help wondering...if this is just the bat or bar mitzvah....what will the WEDDING be like?

mOOm said...

My barmitzvah party (in England in 1976) consisted of a kiddush (small reception with whisky, cake etc) after the service at the synagogue (nominally orthodox but most members would be conservative in the US) and then a meal for about 10 family members at a Jewish restaurant in central London. Certainly, wealthier community members had bigger events but this trend in the US is just crazy.

mOOm said...

1977, forgot when I was born :)

VixenOnABudget said...

Within the past year, I've read two articles dealing with the ridiculous excesses being lavished on bar/bat mitzvahs. I'll have to dig them up.

While it's unfortunate and downplays the significance of the event, what can we expect? Even subcultures (such as Judaism) within mainstream America have subcumbed to capitalist overindulgences.

PiggyBankBlues said...

i find it hard to navigate the private celebration thing morphing into public spectacle of excess. whether its bar/bat mitzvahs, QuinceaƱeras, birthday partys, elementary school graduation parties (!!), or weddings, etc.- to me its borderline obscene. rather than being about the people and traditions involved, it's about the "show", and some things i think just shouldn't be for "show".

that said, i also agree with plonkee. i guess whatever floats your boat...

festivals seem different to me, since they are a public celebration. i love the campy, fun, over-the-top street festivals!

Tired of being broke said...

I find it hard to reconcile the excesses at most of these events with the occasion they are celebrating. For a bar/bat mitzvah, how does celebrating so lavishly tie into spirituality? Does a 16 year old need a $100,000 party just to turn 16. For a quincinera, does the dress have to cost more than some wedding dresses? Just my thoughts!Capitalism at its best.

Ms. M&P said...

Some PF bloggers have posted recently about how your friends affect your finances. I think this is a classic example. I'm personally taken aback that the party you described is normal for Florida! But you're right, to some extent it's all relative to who you hang out with and where you live. I don't know if there's an absolute line of excess that can be drawn, but it does seem like the bar keeps going higher. I'm sure there are families who get competitive about these parties...

Strange Bird said...

Mine was nothing like a Florida bat mitzvah, apparently! But it was still probably two times more expensive than my wedding will probably be (only partly because I'll be the one paying for the wedding).

It's all kind of sad, really.

Sistah Ant said...

i think that at a certain point even excess can get excessive. maybe that's what happened here. first, keeping up with the joneses kids is a likely factor. also not wanting to deprive your child of the fruits of your labor, either.

but every graduation party i've had has been family oriented, intimate, and inexpensive. it's what my parents could afford, and i appreciated it. but i don't think i'm a better person for having had humbler parties, just like i don't think your cousin is somehow bad. tacky, sure. but not bad.

what i wonder is, what message is that community in florida putting into these kids about consumption? is their understanding of the excesses of bar and bat mitzvahs balanced with an understanding that excess isn't standard - it's beyond standard? i hope so.

English Major said...

little miss moneybags, I hope you didn't take my phrasing as condescending! It certainly wasn't meant to be; I actually thought all of the crowd-riling by the dancers in question was well done, and a couple of them in particular were really great dancers.

As to your experiences...yikes! I went to private school growing up (until I was 12, but I was still invited to a bunch of the parties), and I never went to any bar/bat mitzvahs like that!

Moom, your bar mitzvah sounds very much in line with the traditional celebrations of bar mitzvahs. When K was telling his dad about the party, his dad was talking about how in his day, many weddings were celebrated much the same way as your bar mitzvah, with coffee and cake in someone's home after the ceremony.

Ms. M&P, according to my other cousin's husband, yes, the families are very competitive about these parties.

Sistah Ant, you hit the nail on the head--that's what makes me nervous, the idea that maybe these kids grow up thinking that's normal. It's not that I don't think my cousin has tried to tell her son, because she certainly didn't grow up in the circumstances in which she's bringing him up, but I'm not sure how well one can really learn when one lives in as socioeconomically homogeneous a community as he does.

SF Money Musings said...

That sounds insane and excessive for a celebration like that! I wonder what impressions the kids are getting about their parents and money when they throw huge celebrations.

The WSJ back in April (around Easter) had an article about how some parents were even throwing bar/bat mitzvah's all the way in the Carribean! Talk about extravagant!

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