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Mitzvah Envy

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune
August 29, 2004

Courtney Kuhnen isn't Jewish but she was turning 13.

Not to worry. Here's what her mother, Candice Kuhnen, did:

  • Planned a little soiree for her only child, invited 83 of Courtney's friends, 163 of their parents, rented out a synagogue (even though she's Roman Catholic), and turned the sacred hall into a Parisian nightscape, with an Eiffel Tower made of balloons and a hand-painted backdrop covering the wall where the holy Torah is kept behind doors.
  • Hauled Courtney off to a Winnetka couturier, who designed and sewed a gossamer frock just for the occasion.
  • Brought in a disc jockey, dancers and a videographer who turned 100 snapshots (culled from the 23 scrapbooks Courtney's mother had kept since her birth) into a grab-the-hankie video montage, starring you-guessed-it, who leapt larger than life from a supersized screen.
  • Spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for this little pizza-and-bowtie-pasta bash.
  • Swore that it's the best thing she has ever done for her budding teenager, pointing, quickly, to the fact that Courtney has all sorts of new best friends.

It's the faux mitzvah, and it's catching on. Kids turning 13 who aren't one bit Jewish are opting for all of the above, or certainly some variation thereof, in frank imitation of the Jewish coming-of-age blast, albeit minus one speck of religion.

Now, not everyone who is anyone is fauxing. In fact, it's a trend spotted around the U.S., mostly in places where there's lots of income being disposed, especially on coasts right and left, and down in Dallas, where they do everything up big. Here in the middle of America, where folks are counted on for their firm-footedness in these fertile farm soils, the doings come in dribs and drabs.

It's a scene seen in heavily Jewish areas, where Gentiles are just trying to keep up with the, er, Cohens. But it's also popping up in places where there are very few Jews.

To some it is the height of conspicuous consumption, a bankruptcy of parenthood, the over-idolization of the child, the very worst of a culture that knows not how to say no to a child, and knows no end to the doling out of dollar bills, all in the name of making li'l ones happy.

To others, non-Jews and Jews alike, it is the natural evolution of coming-out parties as old as the first WASP-y cotillion, emulated in some ways by American Jews in the post-World War II years as the long-unadorned and purely religious bar mitzvah took on the trappings of a society flush with money and the time to spend it.

Nothing serious

In the ping-pong of social ritual, volleyed from one side of the net to the other, it is now the non-Jews borrowing back the mitzvah-cum-coming-out, right down to the treacly, quasi-transcendental candle-lighting ceremony and the gaudy dance-floor give-aways, but stripped of the very religious reason for its being.

It also is what happens when kids in heavily Jewish communities hit 7th grade, the year of the perpetual bar and bat mitzvah, it seems. Courtney Kuhnen's refrigerator in her Glencoe home was plastered all year with invitations, as many as 15 at a time. Carey Smolensky, a North Shore disc jockey and interactive entertainer who is a fixture on the mitzvah circuit, says he works anywhere from 5 to 18 bar and bat mitzvahs each weekend, September through June.

In some towns, it is bar mitzvah or bust.

"Let's have a little empathy," said Howard Wallach, president of A-Z Entertainment in Wheeling. "Say you're invited to nine parties, between country clubs, hotels, fancy restaurants. You think, `Wow, I love getting dressed up, love the deejays, love the give-aways.'

"If you're in Deerfield, and you're on the affluent side, you say, `We'll do this instead of a Sweet 16, instead of a graduation party. We'll do this to satiate the social need. We don't want you to feel left out or less than.'"

For Courtney Kuhnen, it was all that and more.

She had once told her mother that when she had children she would make them study the Torah so they could have a bar or bat mitzvah. She never dreamed, she said, that she could have one without going to the trouble of learning Hebrew.

"Everybody knew I was Christian, and they knew I was doing the party. They were like, `Wow, that's cool.' I liked basically how it reminded me of a bar or bat mitzvah. We had a cool deejay and dancers, like every other person does. I liked how the food was arranged by me."

Lots more friends

"It made me feel great, actually. My life really did change. I used to have one best friend. Since I invited so many people, I have so many new friends now. And I have two new best friends. And my ex-boyfriend asked me to be his girlfriend at my party, so that was big.

"When I get married it won't be the same as my party. I'll have a fiance. It won't be just what I want, it'll have to be what he wants too."

Her mother, a marketing and event planner, never married and raising Courtney alone, is unabashed: "It was the most wonderful thing I could have done for my daughter. She loved it, she absolutely loved it. She was on stage. Now, the phone is ringing. She is totally a different person. Was it too much? No."

Not everyone agrees.

Arnold Wolf, emeritus rabbi of Congregation KAM-Isaiah-Israel in Chicago's Hyde Park and not one to mince words, has this to say: "It's really, really dangerous. It communicates narcissism instead of obligation. It's the worship of the child, instead of the child's worship of God."

It completely misses the point of the bar or bat mitzvah, Wolf said. The point being that a young person is coming of age, and with that maturity comes a moral responsibility to begin to right the wrongs of the world, to mend what ails those around us.

Literally, bar or bat mitzvah means "son or daughter of the Torah," or the five books of Moses, known to Christians as the Old Testament. In fact, it is a legal coming of age in the Jewish tradition. A 13-year-old, by Jewish law, is commanded to follow the laws of the Torah and is considered an adult required, among other things, to fast on the highest of holy days and recite weekly the holy Scripture.

In a traditional bar or bat mitzvah, the 13-year-old is called to the altar to read a Torah portion in Hebrew, symbolizing that child's taking on of the moral, religious and educational obligations of Judaism. A feast celebrating that passage is a rite as ancient as the religion itself. The lavishness of that feast is a relatively new American quirk.

The best bar and bat mitzvahs, Wolf and other rabbis say, are those in which the child and the family spend a year or more working on a service project, be it teaching a blind student to read, grocery shopping for a housebound elderly person or working at an overnight shelter for the homeless.

It is this inculcation of the values of the Torah that makes the celebration, in keeping with the spirit of the day, a natural outflow of rejoicing and bringing together a circle of family and friends.

Not so in the case of the faux.

Second mortgages

Diane Smolensky runs the promotional gifts division of Carey Smolensky Productions in Wheeling, one of the top interactive entertainment groups on the mitzvah circuit and now booked four years in advance. She says she has had families who took out second mortgages just to finance the mitzvah, faux or otherwise, and clients who swore her to secrecy so no one else--not even a client's own sister--could copy their big ideas.

Consider this blowout in Lake Geneva, where just this May a lad turning 13 with a penchant for pineapples had himself one prickly faux mitzvah. (Because the boy is from an old-money family and would consider it way declasse to air their excess, the party planner declined to have the boy named.)

As guests milled into the ballroom at the Abbey Resort, they found themselves standing in a custom-built pineapple shack where virgin pina coladas and pure pineapple juice quenched parched prepubescent throats.

A pineapple throne, complete with pineapple crown and pineapple staff, beckoned the birthday boy (who, by the way, hates the taste of pineapple). Tropically dressed dancers got things moving. A tattoo artist spun out pineapples and palm trees on epidermis aplenty. One corner of the room was roped off and dubbed the Pineapple Museum. There, the birthday boy exhibited his eclectic collection of pineapple tchotchkes: pineapple lamps, pineapple candles, pineapple picture frames. Oh, and at a craft table, kiddies could decorate a pineapple to take home.

"We've all been saying this on the QT in the industry for the last couple years, you know how the Latins have the quincineras, the Jews have the bar and bat mitzvahs, and now the Gentiles are starting too. And you see more and more of them," said party planner Patrice Van Wie of Speakers & Events R Us in Lake Geneva, who has seen just a few faux mitzvahs in the last few years. She is planning a hockey-themed one for September.

Peter Zollo, president of Northbrook-based Teen Research Unlimited, an outfit paid plenty by clients to know exactly what teens are thinking and doing and buying, said he first heard of faux mitzvahs a few months ago but has no data yet.

"It's such an interesting thing. Not only can Jewish kids blow it out of proportion, non-Jewish kids can too," said Zollo, who hopes to track the trend as soon as numbers start trickling in. "This is one of those things that blows me away, but it totally makes sense. The thing that's almost the toughest to swallow is parents facilitate it. It's all part of being so permissive, not saying no. Kids ask, parents say yes."

Copyright 2004 Chicago Tribune

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