What To Do With Bar Mitzvah Crashers

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 26, 2010, issue of June 04, 2010.
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We evidently need a new system.

I am referring to the traditional method for deciding who shall be invited to attend a bar or bat mitzvah. In olden times, when nature and nurture combined to indicate the ripeness of the child, the invitation list almost composed itself: family, friends, perhaps colleagues. But, as the saying goes, things today are not what they used to be (and they never were).

It turns out that the guest list has become a matter of some controversy, beyond whether Uncle Myron, who snores during services and slurps during lunch, should be invited, beyond the particular problems presented by all the permutations and combinations of current spouses and their exes. Now, it appears, the kashrut of the guests is an issue — and no mashgiach has been trained for this. And not just the guests, and not even just members of the extended family, but the actual parents and grandparents!

If it were not so absurd, it would still be absurd. We have one recent case where a grandfather was told that if he attended his grandson’s bar mitzvah the event would be picketed, and we have a different ongoing case where the father — the father! — of the boy has been threatened with protests if he shows up. The grandfather problem (Judge Richard Goldstone) was finally resolved — a green light to attend belatedly and somewhat reluctantly given — and the day passed at least pleasantly. The father problem (Rahm Emanuel) is more nettlesome. It involves Emanuel’s son, and also his nephew, both scheduled to become b’nei mitzvah in Israel any day now. Two Israelis, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel, described in the press and in blogs either as “far-right activists” or as “right-wing extremists,” have threatened to disrupt the ceremony; Marzel, a Hebron hooligan imported from America and heir to Meir Kahane, blames Emanuel for allegedly turning Obama against Israel. And so he has written to Emanuel, “We promise to accompany your son’s bar mitzvah events in Israel, we will make sure to receive you as you deserve to be received… with catcalls and disgust.” (Rumor has it that the bar mitzvahs were to be celebrated at the Western Wall, but in the wake of the Marzel letter, it appears they will be held in “an undisclosed location.”)

Such rude interventions will not do. The day belongs to the boy or girl, and the boy or girl belongs to his/her parents and grandparents. So how to handle the matter? Herewith, three suggestions; if, as may well be the case, you have better ones, feel free to post them online.

1) Perhaps we can learn something from Abraham Rice, the first ordained rabbi to lead a congregation in America, who served a synagogue in Baltimore in the 1840s. He confronted there a new problem in the Jewish experience. Ought a person who was not shomer Shabbat, a Sabbath observer, be given the honor of being called to the Torah?

In the old country, the problem did not arise. Non-observers of the Sabbath had the virtue of consistency; they did not come to shul. But this was America, its Jews a strange new breed. (Rice, writing home, quoted Amos in describing his people: “Am parua hu” — “they are a wild people.”) In keeping with elementary Jewish understanding, Rice refused to permit Sabbath violators the honor of an aliyah. But his congregants rebelled, and subjected him to fierce pressure, demanding that he be more lenient.

At last Rice conceded — in part. He agreed to call the non-observers to the Torah and, having called them, agreed that they might chant the appropriate blessings. But he forbade the congregation from responding “Amen.”

Alas, to ask those who find this judge or that White House chief of staff or anyone else treyf to signify their feelings by withholding their “amen” will not likely satisfy them.

2) Encourage the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times (and The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and, of course, the Forward) decrying intervention in other people’s simchas.

3) Create local committees empowered to weigh such protests and impose penalties when they are frivolous or even just plain rude. One kind of penalty: Require those who have brought the protest to cover the costs of the post-bar/bat mitzvah kiddush, and perhaps, if their behavior is particularly egregious, to come back after sunset to clean up the mess.

But it may be too cruel to demand that they underwrite the event that has so exercised them. Then how about the Haman punishment (minus the terminal hanging)? Haman, you will recall, was required to lead Mordecai, mounted on the royal horse, through the streets of Shushan. These days, royal horses are not easily rented. Then a Corvette convertible, the villain driving, the vilified lounging in the back seat? Justice pursued, and captured.

4) Or just let the boors fulminate; we know how to aerate.


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