Late at night, after everyone's gone to bed and the house is quiet, I sneak into the living room, turn the TV on and settle back to watch "My Super Sweet 16."
For the past few months I've been entranced by the MTV show. Each episode tracks a 16-year-old boy or girl as he or she -- it's usually a she -- prepares for a massively expensive party in honor of turning 16. Oh how I've enjoyed watching such enormous sums of time and money spent in the dual service of avarice and affection. The parents never say no, the children never say enough, and the end result mobilizes an army of party planners, caterers, choreographers, dress makers and ice sculpture carvers.
And car dealers -- because almost every party is interrupted by the father "surprising" the daughter with the keys to a shiny new BMW or SUV. I don't think MTV sends out a boom guy, much less a film crew, for any party that rolls for less than $100 grand.
I could go on. There was the Miami girl whose pre-gala professional photo shoot aboard a chartered yacht -- she chose a variety of string bikinis and, with her mother's avid encouragement, sex kitten poses -- left me and her Cuban immigrant father feeling just a bit dirty. There was the overweight son of a music mogul whose peers obviously suffered his presence in order to catch a glimpse of Diddy at the bash. At another gala, the parents arrange for rap star Kanye West to show up and sing a song or two.
Then there was the lovely girl who delighted in passing out invitations to "the party of the year" in her school hallway, as girls and boys who pointedly were not invited looked on.
In "My Super Sweet 16," the parties themselves are shown only after the last commercial break -- and they pale in comparison to the preceding orgy of spending and family drama. Anyway, they're all pretty much alike: Enormous ballroom or nightclub, flashing lights, adults dressed like teenagers and teenagers dressed like adults.
What is remarkable, astounding, really, is that the child whose birthday is being celebrated usually goes to the microphone, gets everybody's attention and says, "Thank you."
And that's it.
Thanks Mom and Dad, thanks everyone for coming, have a great time.
The lesson couldn't be more clear: If your parents are rich, and you're not behind bars, you deserve this. Just for being you.
It's not difficult to figure out why this show has fascinated me: This is our son's bar mitzvah year.
Having grown up in the comfy bosom of Encino, I know from fancy shmancy b'nai mitzvah. To this day, no one has topped the parents who sent out shapely young women dressed like harem girls to ring invitees' doorbells all across town (well, mostly north of the Boulevard), and offer them personal magic lamps that contained an invitation to a no-holds-barred Arabian Nights-themed bar mitzvah party.
And I have traveled East, to function halls on the outskirts of Manhattan, where the sides of roast beef at the carving stations were bigger than the bar mitzvah boy.
Yes, the cliché of the over-the-top, "Keeping Up with the Steins"-style bar mitzvah exists, simply because many of us won't let it die. But this year, among my sons' classmates, I've found excess to be the exception.
Their b'nai mitzvah celebrations have been Kiddush lunches in the synagogue social hall, followed by horas and Israeli dancing. At night the kids might gather for a party with a DJ and a dance floor -- but hardly the stuff of MTV reality shows.
In fact, these b'nai mitzvah have been the antithesis of "My Super Sweet 16." Now that I've spent a year on the circuit, I've seen a kind of cultural genius at work, and the differences in the coming-of-age rituals couldn't be more stark. If the lesson of "My Super Sweet 16" is, "Life's a party," the lesson of the bar mitzvah is, "There's no free lunch."
"Think about it," said my friend and fellow bar mitzvah dad, Jon Drucker, a Beverly Hills attorney. "What are the two things that every adult fears most: speaking and singing in public. So we tell these 13-year-old kids you have to do both. And by the way, the words you sing, we're going to remove the vowels from them. And afterward, we want you to share some cogent insights on obscure texts that sages have spent thousands of years trying to interpret. And you have to do all this in front of hundreds of family and friends." Happy 13th!
"No wonder Jews are such overachievers," Jon said. "And so neurotic."
But the other genius of this rite-of-passage ritual is this: The children can do it. They can work hard, they can forgo time on the playground or in front of the TV or even regular schoolwork, and in the process they take leaps into maturity.
All true rites of passage, observed anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis, are "intended to provoke anxiety." They enact the passage from childhood to adulthood, a journey of death and rebirth, an "inevitably stressful process."
Among some Australian Aborigines, the rite involves a male circumcision that doesn't stop with the foreskin. Give me a long haftorah portion over that any day.
In a society that passes off "My Super Sweet 16" as a rite of passage, the bar mitzvah year is something to cherish and to cling to.
As for my own son's bar mitzvah, all I want to say is he worked hard, chanted all seven aliyot and his haftarah without a single mistake. It didn't hurt to have his mother, Rabbi Naomi Levy, as his tutor, teaching him his tropes as her father had taught her. Afterward, he gave a talk on the Torah text that would make any rabbi, or editor, proud. When it was my turn to bless him with a few words, his eyes met mine, and I was momentarily speechless. I was looking into the eyes of my son, but seeing the intimations of the man.
It was really super, and very sweet.
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