Let’s Do The Time Warp

Greatest Bar Mitzvah Hits Of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s

By Daniel Bronstein

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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Think 1980s. Think “Miami Vice” pastels. Think disco and bad 1970s hair. Think age 13. For those who delight in the simchas of yesteryear, there’s Barmitzvahdisco.com, a Web site dedicated to the bar mitzvah — in all its glitz and glory. Sometimes, some people just want to luxuriate in the sentimental kitschiness of “when we were shtetl fabulous,” as the site boasts fondly.

At first glance, it looks like a one-joke Web site: an electronically accessible pictorial history of Diaspora folkways, predominantly from the 1970s through the 1990s. A photo gallery features a host of images resurrecting the sights and sounds of the bar/bat mitzvah celebration. But even if the site were meant as a joke, it would be a multilayered one. After all, the site is a time capsule filled with ephemera, one that’s on its way to becoming a cultural historian’s gold mine.

There are monogrammed matchbooks and thematic T-shirts. “I had a Phantom of a time at Josh’s bar mitzvah,” says one, while another sports a faux Page 1 headline: “Guests Rock All Night at Corey’s Bar Mitzvah.” The tchotchkes and T-shirts, however, pale in comparison to the artistry of the cakes: On one, a mini-bar-mitzvah-boy water skis around Manhattan; another takes the form of an electric guitar.

Cheesiness abounds at theme-party bar mitzvahs that run the gamut from science-fiction superheroes to the pastel suits of “Miami Vice.” At a 1987 celebration, for example, a group wearing New Wave wigs and sunglasses, animal-skin suits and chains poses around a microphone. Impersonators are welcome guests, with Michael Jackson, Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton look-alikes among them. And, lest anyone forget the delights and downfalls of the disco era, spandex and “Jewfros” are in abundance, not to mention the ubiquitous three-piece suit.

But what does it all mean? According to Nick Kroll, one of the site’s founders, the site provides the opportunity to “look back at the awkward times of adolescence and to find humor” while recording a piece of the collective history of the Jewish people. In no way, he said, is it a “condemnation of the Jewish community.” Even if many of the fashion choices do by now seem questionable.

Barmitzvahdisco.com is the brainchild of three bar/bat mitzvah veterans: Roger Bennett, 32, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies; Kroll, 25, an actor-comedian-writer, and Jules Shell, 27, a documentary filmmaker. What began as an informal exchange of memorabilia among friends evolved, according to Bennett, into a passion.

As their enthusiasm grew, Bennett told the Forward, individual “memories of bar mitzvah[s], and the transitional nature of adolescence” came to the fore, while at the same time revealing the “collective story” of Jews in the contemporary era. For her part, Shell said she had been filming a bar mitzvah when she realized there was “something connecting all our stories.”

The site thrives on this overlap of cultural experience by being interactive. According to Kroll, visitors are excited about reliving their own bar mitzvahs, and they seem to relish the opportunity to send in their own ephemera and to comment on what’s posted on the site. Beneath a picture of some wacky-looking entertainers, for example, someone has written: “You’re beginning to scare the children.”

As Bennett, Kroll and Shell emphasize, the site serves a “micro” purpose in relating individual stories while pursuing a “macro” agenda of positioning these individual stories within a broader cultural context.

The site’s founders admit to an explicit ethnographic agenda, which may well serve as a treasure trove for cultural historians. After all, bar mitzvahs aren’t just about parties — even if “Michael” had a faux $100 dollar bill made up with the words “in fun we trust” and a picture of himself. There are pictures of children reading from the Torah and prayer books, with one formal photograph from a 1987 New Jersey bar mitzvah showing a picture of the boy superimposed over the “Gates of Prayer.” Still another features a copy of a bar-mitzvah lexicon, from aliya to wimpel.

These artifacts of popular culture do more than help us bask in sentimentality. After all, Jewish historiography is not restricted to the study of theology and halachic rulings. It relies equally on the way broader cultural trends filter into the rites of Judaism.

The response to Barmitzvahdisco.com has been tremendous. Bennett, Shell and Kroll hope that visitors will continue to share and contribute their personal bar mitzvah ephemera, which they plan to include in a book, based on the site.

The very existence of the Web site also raises questions about Judaism at the end of the 20th century, and some of these questions are left unanswered. As historians puzzle over why our Jewish ancestors employed images from Greek mythology in their synagogues, so too might our descendants be confounded by a Dolly Parton impersonator dancing with the bar mitzvah boy. At a time when books on the individual’s spiritual journey proliferate, a Barmitzvahdisco.com book will be a welcome addition, helping us to understand how religious observance plays out on the popular level.

Of course, it would also make a nice contribution to any modern Jew’s collection of coffee-table kitsch.

Daniel Bronstein, a rabbi and teacher in New York City, is a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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