Bar mitvahs less outlandish in recession

Gift wrapped with blue ribbon with Jewish stars of David for a bar mitzvah

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Kai Ryssdal: If you have teenagers, they've may have been to a couple bar or bat mitzvahs. Bar's the one for a boy; Bat for a girl. There's the religious ceremony, to mark a Jewish child's move into adulthood, and then there's the party. Back before the economy went into the tank, these celebrations had become so competitive that "over the top" was becoming the new normal. But the growing financial crisis may be crashing that party. Rebecca Sheir has more.


Rebecca Sheir: The 2006 movie, "Keeping Up With The Steins," opens at a bar mitzvah celebration with a "Titanic" theme and budget. The bar mitzvah boy sails into the ballroom on a replica of the "Titanic." Alongside him, a killer whale -- a real one -- wearing a yarmulke and leaping through a Star of David.

Zachary from "Keeping Up With The Steins": Today I am the King of the Torah!!!

The scene is intended as satire, but in some cases, it looks a lot like real life.

DAVID WOLPE: I've seen tropical parties with dancing Hula girls, and the child ushered in like some ancient Hawaiian potentate.

That's Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. He's seen kids make their grand entrance on horseback -- one jumped through a ring of fire. This kind of excess used to be reserved for weddings, Wolpe says, but now--

WOLPE: The only way to have a wedding that would surpass the bar or bat mitzvah is to do it in outer space.

And the tab for some bar and bat mitzvahs does reach into the stratosphere -- what with the caviar and filet mignon, the $10,000 celebrity impersonator, the elaborate invitations, hand-delivered with a goody bag.

But now that the economy has, well, "plotzed," people are bringing their parties back to Earth.

GABRIELLE STONE: They may say "you know, I want to plan a beautiful bar or bat mitzvah for my child, but I know I also have to pay for college five years from now, and so maybe we don't do the world's craziest thing."

Gabrielle Stone is an event planner in Cambridge, Mass. She says even if you're not doing "the world's craziest thing"--

STONE: If you have any event that has 100 guests, and you're serving a full meal, and you're having music--

And you've skipped the martini bar, the five-story centerpieces, and the souvenir bar mitzvah boy T-shirts--

STONE: Possibly the bare minimum might be around $20,000? $15,000?

To beat that, Stone says, people are trimming their guest lists to family and close friends, trading steak for chicken or vegetarian, hiring a D-J, not a band and ditching those flashy invitations for ones you can download and print out yourself.

Ellen Klapper is planning her daughter's bat mitzvah in Newton, Mass., and trying to keep it simple. As a mortgage banker, she's plenty familiar with the financial downturn.

Ellen Klapper: In this economy where people are so struggling and there's no light at the end of the tunnel, to do something so outlandish wouldn't be sort of in line with what's happening in the big world.

Nor, she says, would it be in line with what a bar or bat mitzvah is supposed to be: a sacred rite of passage where a 13-year-old child takes on the "mitzvah," or "divine commandment," of making that "big world" a better place.

As Rabbi David Wolpe sees it, the recession might be just the thing to encourage people to focus more on the "mitzvah" and less on, well, the "bar."

WOLPE: It may be one of those times -- one of those rare times -- when economic trial helps spiritual health. Because this is about the quality of your soul, and not the size of your bankbook.

And given that today's 13-year-olds will one day inherit all of our economic "mishegas," spending less just might be a 'mitzvah' in and of itself.

I'm Rebecca Sheir, for Marketplace.

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