From Member of the Family To Member of the Tribe?

By Rachel Zuckerman

Published July 04, 2003, issue of July 04, 2003.
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Burberry raincoats, designer biscuits, health insurance and therapy just aren’t enough for some canines. Fidos and Fifis are now bounding — or being dragged? — up the evolutionary ladder. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s leading whom.

So why stop at “member of the family” when there’s “member of the tribe”?

Enter the “Bark Mitzvah.” Yes, the Bark Mitzvah. They’re cropping up independently in pet stores, homes and even synagogues around the country.

Larry Roth, co-owner of the Doggie Do and PussyCat Too Animal Salon in New York’s Murray Hill neighborhood, has played no small part in this trend. Having hosted about 30 Bark Mitzvahs over the past 13 years, he’s become something of an expert on the matter. So is this a rite of passage? For most people, he said, the Bark Mitzvah is “an excuse to have a party.”

During a typical Doggie Do Bark Mitzvah, Roth said, the dog of honor feasts on bone-shaped dog “cake”; a nod to the Jewish state appears in the blue-and-white frosting. Felt toys in the shape of menorahs and dreidels abound, but the Bark Mitzvah dog is expected to play nice and share them with the other dogs attending while their owners toast one another, saying, “Mazel tov.” For those worried that their dog won’t look the part, the salon sells a selection of accoutrements for the occasion, including dog prayer shawls and yarmulkes tailored to fit over dog ears. And yes, they come in small, medium and large.

“It’s mostly Reform and Conservative Jews who come here to celebrate a rite of passage for their dog,” Roth said. “Some people celebrate it after the dog has lived 13 human years, and some people do it after 13 dog years.”

Roth’s mother, Arlene, helps out at the salon. Her view, it seems, has gone one step further than “like mother, like son.”

“I think my dogs are very Jewish, since I am,” she said.

Bruce Lowy of Skokie, Ill., had a Bark Mitzvah for Kasha, his Jack Russell terrier. “Kasha had turned 13, so we decided to have a party for our friends…. We didn’t recite any prayers, and there was no rabbi there,” Bruce Lowy said.

“It was really just a theme party for our dog,” he added.

Some religious institutions, like Temple Kehillat Chaim, a Reform temple in Atlanta, use the term “Bark Mitzvah” in jest — and to raise money. Last spring, the synagogue sponsored a “Bark Mitzvah Day” fundraiser. For the event, some 60 dogs competed in a dog-show spin-off. “Most Jewish” was one of the competition’s eight categories.

Among those who think that human judgment can be clouded by puppy love is Rabbi Avi Shafran, public affairs director of Agudath Israel of America and author of “Why Pets Don’t Go to Heaven,” an article that recently appeared in several newspapers, including The New York Times.

“Human beings are capable of making all sorts of connections to other things and people, and that doesn’t make the other things Jewish,” Shafran said. “Once you leave the bounds of the human race, it becomes nonsensical to talk about Jewishness. I wouldn’t take issue with the observation that people have strong relationships with their pets. The Talmud says that when one comes home they have to feed their animals before they feed themselves. I feed my tropical fish before I eat dinner each night.”

“A human,” he said, “is the pinnacle of creation because they are open to the concept of being commanded by the divine…. A commandee can go against their nature, to not eat when hungry, to not mate with something even if one wants to. This is what separates humans from animals and the concept of bar mitzvah speaks to that ideal.”

While most Bark Mitzvahs are organized with tongue firmly in cheek, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom, a Reform temple in Santa Monica, Calif., sees a spiritual component that goes beyond dog biscuits shaped as Stars of David. He has performed eight Bark Mitzvahs in the past 15 years.

For Comess-Daniels, Bark Mitzvahs are about the spiritual connection some humans feel for their animals, not about a relationship between their dogs and God — regardless of all the linguistic palindrome jokes. (What’s dog spelled backward?)

“I run a fun event,” the rabbi said. “People are bringing their pets into the spiritual parts of their lives and expressing it in a Jewish, communal way.”

To maintain a boundary of sorts, he said, “we perform Bark Mitzvahs around Purim, because it’s a time when we make fun of ourselves, and I felt it was more appropriate to do it in that context.” Comess-Daniels said he wanted to provide a Jewish equivalent to the Catholic ritual in which animals are blessed in the church.

“I believe that there is some spark of divinity in all animate and inanimate creatures,” he said, adding “this is not necessarily a relationship [between God and dog]…. I do believe they have the essence of divinity.”

All of Beth Shir Shalom’s Bark Mitzvahs are held in the parking lot, to avoid any “accidents” in the sanctuary. The events are usually oriented toward a family’s youngest members, which might account for some of the sillier aspects of the ritual — howling on behalf of the dog, for example. The ceremony begins with Comess-Daniels reciting the prayer said when seeing beautiful animals and ends with the awarding of a Bark Mitzvah certificate to the dog’s owner — to make it “official,” of course.

“I have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals,” said Comess-Daniels, whose home houses an Australian shepherd and a Shetland sheepdog. He said that on several occasions he has been approached by congregants grieving for their pets. “To tell them that Judaism does not accommodate that would just be cruel. So, why not appropriately embrace our pets in our spiritual outlook on life while they are alive?”

“I wonder,” said Shafran, “what [Comess-Daniels] would say if a dog was nominated to take his position as the rabbi of his temple.”

The Forward thought it best not to ask the Orthodox rabbi for his response to Doggie Do’s Meow Mitzvahs — or its iguana ceremony, for that matter.

Rachel Zuckerman is a writer living in New York City.

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