Is the Bar Mitzvah Arms Race Going Too Far?
Though he’s not yet a man, Brody Criz is a household name—at least for today. Even if he stumbles over his Torah portion, botches his speech, or falls off the chair, the cherubic adolescent can always say he won the internet with his bar mitzvah invite video. The kid’s commendable chutzpah carries him through the medley of pop songs, from Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” to a memorable rendition of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Seriously, I didn’t want to make eye contact with most of my junior high peers when my bat mitzvah approached, let alone grooving in the (sort of) buff for their judgmental, catty eyes.
However, as much credit goes to Brody, the brilliant parody lyrics and viral videography are actually the work of a team of professionals, including filmmakers, writers, and actors. Xpress Video Productions in Northbrook, Illinois, executed the elaborate production, one of the many they’ve done for adolescents in the Chicago-area looking to make a splash before their big days on the bimah. The days when some monogrammed yarmulkes and fountain pens would suffice for bar mitzvah celebrations are o-v-e-r.
“That’s gone out the window a long time ago,” says Xpress Video Production’s creative director Jeff Goldstein when I ask what happened to the simpler, more traditional religious affairs.
“We work with a lot of families in Highland Park, Northfield, Deer Park. The kids go to three or four bar mitzvahs every weekend. All the families in the circuit want it better than the last party, and these videos are different.”
Not that Brody’s video is the first time a bar mitzvah invite has gone viral. In 2013, there were at least two big ones: Daniel Blumen’s “Welcome to Atlanta” Save-the-Date snagged national headlines about a month before Toronto-native Jorel Hoffert’s “Bohemian Raphsody”-meets-“Gangnam Style” video did the same. Blumen’s clip included a number of Atlanta celebrities, including Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley. His dad Rick told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that they were able to get their famous guest stars through “mostly friends of friends that have connected the different points.” Hoffert’s effort was less star-studded, though equally professional, as his dad is a director and music producer and his grandparents are a lyricist and a jazz musician.
“Families end up being exactly like the relationships writers have with Hollywood producers. They know they want to do something fun and funny, but don’t know what exactly,” says Patrick De Nicola, the man behind Brody’s video and many others at Xpress Video Productions. De Nicola is exactly the kind of man you would want producing your kid’s bar or bat mitzvah video, if you can afford it. He trained in the legendary comedy group Second City and is a member of iO (formerly ImrovOlympic) Theater, which boasts a plethora of comedic successes as alumni, including Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey. De Nicola doesn’t just do comedy, though. He tells me they recently did a video where they made the bar mitzvah boy into the general manager of the Chicago Cubs “in the vein of a serious piece like Moneyball.”
These videos do not come cheap. Goldstein estimates that the invites cost $15 to $18 per DVD, which usually comes out to $3,000 to $5,000 in total. The videos are still somewhat rare—Goldstein has produced bar mitzvah invites since 2009 and he estimates that he has only done 15 or 20 in that time. In contrast, he does about 150 video montages per year. The montages start as low as $550 but “most videos that have a movie attached average between $3,000 and $6,000,” he says.
Bar and bar mitzvah video invites and montages are a microcosm of the growing shift toward more elaborate and ostentatious bar and bat mitzvah fare. Of course, there are massive caveats to this pattern. The videos mentioned in this article come from metropolitan cities—Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto—that tend to have wealthier populations. Contrary to the remarkably robust stereotype, not all Jews are wealthy and not all Jews can afford these kinds of trimmings—or want them even if they’re financially feasible.
In fact, this is a good place to point out that the increasingly elaborate and lavish bar and bat mitzvahs aren’t unique to Judaism in the least. MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 ran from 2005 to 2008 for a reason: There were lots of parents making it rain for their kids’ birthdays, and those families spanned every ethnic and religious background imaginable. The wedding industry booms in the U.S. Couples spent a record high of about $30,000 on average in 2013. We, as a society, are in love with increasingly dramatic, over-the-top, ostentatious affairs to mark milestones.
That being said, I do have mixed feelings and concerns when I see these kinds of elaborate displays, especially with bar and bat mitzvahs. On one hand, I only have sincere admiration for Brody and his gutsiness. He is adorable, and I would love to be at his bar mitzvah to high-five him and wish him a hearty mazel tov.
At the same time, the more I see these videos, the more I worry about what my own (hopeful) children’s bar and bat mitzvahs will look like. I am not so high-minded about religion that I think there is something “corrupting” about bringing in fun materialistic and secular elements to bar or bat mitzvah. At a certain level, it makes kids excited about a religious celebration that involves months of studying in an ancient language. Otherwise, the event can seem about as much fun as taking the PSATs or getting Gardasil shots.
However, in just the eight years between my bat mitzvah (2002) and my younger brother’s bar mitzvah (2010), it felt like the social pressure had already stepped up dramatically. Now five years later, at least in the communities where parents can afford it, bar and bat mitzvahs seem to necessitate even more elaborate pizzazz, and I am not sure where it’s going to stop.
In addition, I must admit that I am worried about how the Jewish community appears to those outside of it when highly-produced bar mitzvah invites become our national markers. Anti-Semitism is far from dead in the U.S.—let alone the globe—and videos that showcase superficial displays of wealth leave me uneasy. I don’t want viral bar mitzvah videos featuring NBA stars or Lorde parodies to be the face of the American Jewish community, and I don’t want Jewish adolescents to think this is what having a bar or bat mitzvah is about, either.
But, in the vein of the expression “two Jews, three opinions,” I am not of one mind on this issue.
“I think some of the things are over the top and nuts, but at the end of the day, if the family is having fun and enjoying themselves, let them do it,” says Goldstein. You know what, maybe he’s right.