November 8, 2007
‘Mazel Tov’: Lifecycles of the rich and famous
For one weekend, an acne-plagued kid is transformed into an acne-plagued celebrity. There's an agent (tutor), fans and paparazzi (guests and photographer) and the public apology for wild, offensive behavior (thank-you notes).
For many, the 15-minutes of fame is enough. For some -- including many celebrities -- the glimpse of momentary stardom becomes a pivotal moment in their lives.
That's the idea behind Jill Rappaport's book, "Mazel Tov: Celebrities' Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories" (Simon and Schuster, $25). Rappaport interviews 21 celebrities as they describe how the b'nai mitzvah experience brought them to where they are today. With the photographic help of her sister, Linda Solomon, Rappaport provides a joyfully contrasting image of the celebrities and their familiar adolescent counterparts.
The idea for "Mazel Tov" came about five years ago, while Rappaport was watching "The View."
"I thought it'd be funny if there was a show called 'The Jew,' that talked about hip bar and bat mitzvah parties," said Rappaport in a phone interview from New York.
While a b'nai mitzvah has the potential to bring out your inner celebrity for a weekend, it is also a "humorous, sentimental and emotional experience that involves indelible work," she said.
It's a turning point in one's life, but most of all, because each story is primarily about self-discovery, she said, "you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate this book."
Rappaport, who has yet to celebrate a bat mitzvah, explains that she got her taste of the experience through her friends' ceremonies and parties, much like some of the celebs she interviews.
Featuring more than a few embarrassing photos, this book illustrates that while many celebrities have cultural roots in Judaism (Jewish neurosis, Jewish humor, Jewish appearances), they also have specific religious roots as well. In fact, their early memories of being in the public eye are often related to a b'nai mitzvah experience.
"Entourage" star Jeremy Piven remembers his bar mitzvah as "a rite of passage." Growing up in Evanston, Ill., Piven recalls how his service was actually in a church, because they belonged to an extremely liberal Reconstructionist congregation. But unlike his character on the hit HBO show, Piven wasn't that interested in a big, fancy party.
"It wasn't a big community of people battling each other for the biggest bar mitzvah, like in my movie 'Keeping Up With the Steins,'" he says.
But the b'nai mitzvah experience isn't just about the ceremony. The party is still important.
Noah Wyle of "ER," who never actually had a bar mitzvah, says b'nai mitzvah parties brought out his inner celebrity.
The b'nai mitzvah celebrations were "a significant part of my life because all my friends did, and boy, did they have a huge impact on me."
Even without all the studying and preparation, Wyle explains that it was actually at a bar mitzvah party where he gave one of his first public performances -- lip-synching Bob Seger's song, "Old Time Rock and Roll."
"And that was a real confidence boost. It was actually a seminal moment," Wyle says.
Many of the celebrities featured in the book cherished their b'nai mitzvah experience, and "each one of them showed signs of genius even at that young age," Rappaport said in a phone interview.
However, just as the b'nai mitzvah experience can lead to self-discovery, it can also provide a road to self-fulfillment involving challenges that must be overcome.
Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin shares the difficulties she encountered as a deaf child learning Hebrew.
"I didn't have the benefit of hearing myself say the words," Matlin says, adding that the b'nai mitzvah experience is "a great way to teach your children about community and social responsibility."
Even famed actor Henry Winkler dealt with his fair share of b'nai mitzvah struggles.
"I'm dyslexic, which is a real problem when you're trying to read and a huge problem when you're studying Hebrew," Winkler says. "The words would just swim around on the page."
Although he panicked in his early years, Winkler is now quite comfortable in front of a crowd and is grateful for the effort he put into his b'nai mitzvah studies.
Many of the actors in this book describe the satisfaction that came from their hard work and effort. But then there's Howie Mandel. "The Deal or No Deal" host admits that he definitely had some difficulty accepting the idea that manhood is the ultimate product of a bar mitzvah.
"You're 4-foot-10 and you weigh 70-something and you explain to all your non-Jewish friends that you can't go out this Saturday because you're having a party celebrating the fact that you're a man," he says. "And this is a guy who had a woman's voice."
Mandel gets serious as he explains what a great responsibility the bar mitzvah is, but adds, "the only light at the end of the tunnel was that I didn't have to go to the Hebrew school anymore."
A portion of the book's proceeds are going to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Shoah Foundation.