When I walked into an on-call catering job a couple of months ago, I was genuinely thrilled to discover that we would be serving food for a bat mitzvah party. Since I had never had a bat mitzvah — let alone attended one — it seemed like a fun opportunity to create some memories around an event that everyone else seems to remember so fondly from their youth. I pictured a beautiful, ceremonial transition into adulthood for this little girl. I had no idea just how “adult” these little ladies and gentlemen were truly about to become.
With an excited smile plastered on my face, I headed into the crowd of attendees to pass out appetizers and found myself facing three stripper poles.
“This must be left over from a bachelor party last night,” I thought.
Middle-school boys pulled up chairs to form makeshift theater seating in front of the poles, and girls climbed up and started grinding against the aluminum in their impossibly tight mini-dresses.
“Their parents are going to be so mad when they see that the kids have stumbled on those bachelor party stripper poles,” I thought, desperately trying to hold on to my last bit of bat mitzvah naiveté.
I quickly learned through the co-worker grapevine that the young lady’s mother was, in fact, excited and proud that she had rented the poles for the celebration.
I knew that many parents went all-out for these parties. Articles have explored how some parents spend upward of six or seven figures in an attempt to make their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs the extravaganza of the year. An event planner interviewed in an April New York Post article explained the intensity of these celebrations: “It’s insane how competitive they are. Every single mom wants to be the mother that everyone is talking about.”
While this party did not appear to be a million-dollar event, renting stripper poles for middle-school students seemed like a move that would definitely garner some talk and attention for the parents.
“The irony is that the whole bat mitzvah system seems to be oriented around the adults rather than the needs of the children,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, the executive director of CLUE-LA and the former director of USC’s Hillel.
I circled the floor all evening and witnessed one girl who had been on the pole for so long that I couldn’t believe her 2-inch cork wedges hadn’t broken her ankles. I felt unbelievably awkward offering mini-burgers to the adolescent dancers.
That all of this occurred at a celebration for a spiritually based milestone seemed counterintuitive.
After hearing crazy bat mitzvah stories from my Jewish fiancé and reading about a wild 2009 bat mitzvah in Connecticut that ended in the arrest of a family member for disorderly conduct, I couldn’t help but wonder if the poles were simply a sign of the times.
“When it comes to the poles,” Klein said, “it almost seems like desecrating young people who are made in the image of God.”
Despite my own experience that night, there are numerous examples of appropriate celebrations that honor the religion. The story of how one particular young lady chose to celebrate her rite of passage stays with me. Perri Ginsberg was featured in a 2005 New York Times article titled “Putting Spirituality Back Into Bar Mitzvahs.” This young lady collected canned food, tied balloons to the cans, and used them as table centerpieces at her party in an effort to remind her guests of their calling to feed the hungry and poor. After her party, she donated the cans to a local soup kitchen. Her actions illustrate a frequently quoted modern Jewish adage: She focused more on the “mitzvah” and less on the “bar.”
Teenagers with raging hormones have always been desperate to delve into forbidden behavior. But what message do parents send when they encourage such behavior during the celebration of a presumably sacred event? When a young woman says to her community, “I am ready to be a responsible adult who will uphold the mitzvahs in order to make this world a better place,” that message gets lost in the over-sexualization of girls in front of their families and friends.
Becoming a bat mitzvah should be celebrated, but in a way that embraces the responsible side of Jewish adulthood, rather than the strip club.
“The modern bat mitzvah is not beyond repair,” Klein said. “It’s up to the community to reclaim it as a valuable symbol.”