When the Past Becomes Safe Enough To Revisit

By Laura Silver

Published December 09, 2005, issue of December 09, 2005.
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Once upon a time, back in the halcyon days of the 1980s, there was celebrated a Jewish rite of passage known as the bar or bat mitzvah. Upon arriving at such an affair, one was greeted with a sign-in board adorned with photos of the celebrant; the assembled were dressed in an array of cringe-inducing getups. The dancing was done to such artists as Yaz and Neil Diamond; the young would dash across the banquet hall’s parquet floor in a game known as Coke versus Pepsi and the evening would be commemorated with a memento-packed, wax-sealed drinking goblet known as a memory glass.

Nowadays, those who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s are far away enough from the centerpieces, caricaturists and ice sculptures of their youth to want to revisit them.

Which brings us to the compendium of kitsch that is the recently released book “Bar Mitzvah Disco” (Crown). What began as a Web site and matured into a handsome volume has become a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Photos from the collection have even been sighted on TV screens in the windows of New York branches of the uber-hip American Apparel clothing chain.

There’s something beautiful — and grotesque — about having a shared heritage of schmaltz (the culture, not chicken fat) projected onto a busy avenue with minimal explanatory text. It’s hard to know whether to stare or to run away. The photos, like the people they depict, are certainly entitled to get out and have some fun. But when they’re displayed so publicly, the potential for embarrassment grows exponentially. There are all the bar and bat mitzvah accoutrements — poofy-sleeved party dresses, boys in their ill-fitting suits, the staged photos of family members — out in the open for all to see.

Compiled and edited by Roger Bennett, Jules Shell and Nick Kroll, “Bar Mitzvah Disco” is a hefty volume that documents celebrations from Ohio to Michigan, Colorado to Maryland, Westchester to Long Island. Without the place labels, it might be hard to pin a geographic tag on images. Gathered together, the pictures assembled here constitute a nearly universal book of memories.

The images are at once coy and confessional. Looking at them is an experience that elicits an immediate pang of recognition and the freedom to either turn the page or slam the thing shut.

With bar mitzvahs, representation has become part of the tradition. The theme of an event (the wonders of Manhattan, animals in the zoo, Fantasyland) is, after all, easier to grasp and remember than the many messages of a week’s Torah portion. The disco ball is a secular Ner Tamid, an instrument of reflection and refraction that, by shining its countenance on revelers, confers meaning and deflects criticism. “Bar Mitzvah Disco” showcases the glitz and inquires into the shadows behind it.

The book is a clever objet d’ coffee table that could stand in as an actual album for retroactive revelers. Yes we’ve grown and fashions have changed. Plaid suits and sky-high hair may be less widespread, but our need to show off what we’ve got has not diminished. After all, flaunting the things that money can buy is a means of disguising the fact that we’re fatter, balder and grayer than we were back in the first flower of our teenage years.

Bennett, Shell and Kroll began their Bar Mitzvah Disco Web site to further a joint curiosity and share a labor of love. Turns out, they have their fingers on the pulse of another burgeoning trend: They’ve already opened a call for photos and memorabilia from the heyday of the Catskills.

There’s something homey about glancing backward to a time and place beyond resuscitation, like the Borscht Belt. An ingathering of this kind of memorabilia serves as a resting place for shared history and communal blushing while peeling back curtains on the ark of American Jewish experience.

Scrutinizing modern-day servings of excess would be much trickier. The book’s subtitle proclaims, “The Music May Have Stopped, but the Party’s Never Over.” Indeed, the New York cultural center Makor recently hosted a bar mitzvah disco party for 20- and 30-somethings willing to subject themselves to “The Electric Slide,” “The Chicken Dance” and awkward photos of people dressed in polyester clothing. And yes, people were hoisted into the air on chairs. This is all good fun, but perhaps there are deeper complexities to shoulder: The generation that giggles at its own pimpled, opulent youth is the same one that yields brides and grooms who choreograph costumes, invitations and table settings with zeal that risks eclipsing their reasons for betrothal.

Hopefully the three nostalgia-hungry authors are taking notes and collecting souvenirs at the weddings of today. The findings will make for a great book in another 20 years.

Laura Silver is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

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