Thursday, February 12, 2004

You Don't Have to Be Jewish To Want a Bar Mitzvah Party

More Kids on Cusp of 13 Get Faux Post-Rite Parties; Picking Hawaiian Theme

After going to a dozen bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs last year, Laura Jean Stargardt told her parents she wanted one of her own. She said she found the singing inspiring and offered to learn Hebrew. She also said she wanted a big party.

Her parents thought the request was unusual since the family is Methodist. But they co-hosted a lavish party for her and two of her friends last month that looked like a bat mitzvah, without the religion. They booked a country club in Dallas and a disk jockey, invited 125 friends, and hired a professional dancer that Laura had seen at her friends' bar mitzvah parties.

"I wanted to be Jewish so I could have a bat mitzvah," says Laura. "Having the party fulfilled that."

A number of kids about to turn 13 who aren't Jewish are bugging their parents for parties that resemble those held following bar mitzvah ceremonies. In some affluent communities, parents line up the same entertainment and book the same party places. If they don't dance the traditional Jewish hora, they at least manage a tarantella or an Irish jig.

"Parents will call us and say, 'My son's been to over 20 bar and bat mitzvahs, and I just want to do something nice for him,' " says Paul Noto, whose Carle Place, N.Y., party entertainment company recently staged one such 13th birthday party that cost $75,000 and included a tent with chandeliers, DJs and dancers.

The parties can be upsetting to Jews who say they mock an important spiritual rite of passage. Others call the trend a welcome example of Jewish traditions becoming part of popular culture. "It shows how much the Jewish people and Jewish customs have become mainstream," says Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

A generation ago, when bar mitzvahs were simple affairs celebrated with a glass of Manischewitz, the idea of a copycat rite wouldn't have occurred to anybody. But, starting in the late 1960s, parties with themes became popular, and by the end of the '70s in some areas, competition was raging to make them ever more elaborate.

The bar mitzvah is actually an ancient, solemn event marking the coming of age of a Jewish male, undertaken after study of Jewish history, traditions and Hebrew. Bat mitzvahs, for girls, are a more recent phenomenon. Typically, children start intense preparations about a year before the event, spending several hours each week learning to read from the Torah -- the scroll containing the Five Books of Moses -- and sometimes writing a speech and doing charity work.

After his daughter, Melissa, had attended a handful of bar mitzvahs a few years ago, Kevin Williams decided to spend $12,000 to throw her a faux bat mitzvah at a Manhattan hotel. About 150 people received invitations that read, "Welcome to Melissa's Black Mitzvah.... Don't get offended, it's just her 13th birthday party." There was a candle-lighting ceremony -- like those she had seen at some bar mitzvahs -- where the birthday girl's parents, friends, grandmother and uncle were called up to light the candles on her cake. "After that party, two more of her non-Jewish friends had them," says Mr. Williams.

At Hart to Hart, a party company in Woodland Hills, Calif., co-owner Marsha Bliss says she organized more than a dozen parties last year for non-Jewish 13-year-olds whose parents requested bar mitzvah lookalikes, up from three in 2001. Daniel Rose of Montville, N.J., says he did seven or eight of these parties last year, up from two in 2001. In Roslyn, N.Y., NY Rhythm Entertainment has booked about a dozen in the past two years and none before that.

Many rabbis are quick to point out that the parties have little in common with the real thing. "Bar and bat mitzvahs are about accepting adult responsibility in the community," says Rabbi Richard Block, senior rabbi of The Temple-Tifereth Israel, in Cleveland. "If non-Jews are going to emulate their Jewish neighbors, better they emulate the enduring values of Jewish tradition than the material excesses of contemporary life."

In Malibu, Calif., Danielle Davis, who is Catholic, asked her parents for a bat mitzvah after attending several of her friends'. They explained to her the true meaning of the ceremony as a Jewish coming-of-age rite. "She said, 'Some of those things apply to me. I'm growing up and becoming a teenager. I should have a party to celebrate,' " recalls her mother, Rebecca Walls.

"Of course the kids who had great bar mitzvah parties were elevated socially. So we kind of felt a little bit of pressure to hold an event people would remember," Ms. Walls adds. In the end, Danielle had a party, in February 2002, at a beachfront banquet hall with a Hawaiian surfing theme, a DJ and two professional dancers.

Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at

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