I've seen plenty of bar mitzvah photos and these three are onto something. Eric, this one's for you.
My Big Fat 80's Bar Mitzvah
Two years ago three bored New Yorkers in their early 30's were trapped inside an Upper West Side apartment on a rainy autumn day when the conversation came around to memories of their bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. On a whim they challenged one another to dig out their photo albums for group inspection.
A few days later all was laid bare: the boys in their tiny polyester three-piece suits, the girls towering over them with their careful yet enormous hair, the braces, the ruffled skirts, the acne, the relatives. "It was pretty startling to see how my parents allowed me to walk around with a pair of what were quite clearly women's spectacles," Roger Bennett said, recalling the queasiness he felt as he revisited photographs of himself sporting eyeglasses the size of cocktail coasters and a blue hair dye job for his punk-theme bar mitzvah party in 1983.
But their horrified fascination soon gave way to sociological awe. "What started as a joke between friends grew into an obsession," said Mr. Bennett, who works for a charitable foundation and said it had been 17 years since he last looked at his album. Soon the three created barmitzvahdisco.com on which to post their photographs and invited readers to mail in their own to add to the collection. It struck a nerve: within months, Mr. Bennett and his partners, Jules Shell, an independent filmmaker, and Nick Kroll, a television comedy writer, had received so many photo albums, commemorative T-shirts and centerpieces via Federal Express that they had to rent warehouse space to store it all.
Now it is a book. A collection of more than 300 photographs culled from bar and bat mitzvahs from the 70's to the early 90's with essays by friends of the authors like Jonathan Safran Foer and Sarah Silverman, "Bar Mitzvah Disco," which will appear in bookstores on Nov. 2. It is at first glance a nostalgia tour through an era of unprecedented bourgeois tackiness. But, the authors say, it is also a cultural history, albeit one with a Duran Duran backbeat. The MTV-era bar mitzvah marked not only a transitional moment in their own lives, they say, but also one for American Jews as a whole. It was a time when an insular Old World ritual blew up into an all-American affair: inclusive, often suburban and, thanks to new Hollywood production values, unforgettably garish.
"That's very much the crux of the book for us," said Mr. Kroll, 27, who grew up in Rye, N.Y., referring to the late-20th-century Jewish version of the American dream, which he and Ms. Shell, 28, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, lived out for themselves. Mr. Bennett, 35, grew up in Liverpool, England, but has lived in the United States since 1992. "We look at where our grandparents came from," Mr. Kroll explained. "They lived on the Lower East Side. Our families moved out to the suburbs and made money, and we had these big bar mitzvahs. Now we have the leisure to look back and reflect."
Traditionally the bar mitzvah was a ceremony intended to mark the assumption of adult religious responsibilities by a 13-year-old boy. The service typically involves his reading from the Torah before the congregation for the first time, usually followed by a party. The contributors to "Bar Mitzvah Disco" had the experience in towns stretching from Freehold, N.J., to Flint, Mich., and Hollywood. Several include candid entries with their photos of those parties in which they fondly recount a lucky French kiss, furtive sips from a mother's screwdriver or too many paper cups of Manischewitz wine. What links them together is exquisite awkwardness against a background of unabashed prosperity.
Of course at a basic level the construction of a grandiose stage for a four-foot boy in orthodontic headgear is the stuff of comedy. But lurking beneath the obvious jokes are deeper ironies, said Joshua Neuman, a former philosophy instructor at New York University, who is editor in chief of Heeb, a Manhattan-based magazine devoted to hip Jewish culture.
During this period, Mr. Neuman said, "the country clubs that used to not want to have us as members want us as members." So the proud new members of the Cadillac-driving gentry began organizing religious ceremonies around "enduring American themes," he continued. It's really funny to watch these kids, he noted, "and these nebbishy adults at a chuck-wagon-themed extravangza."
Mr. Neuman's magazine published pictures from the book in a recent issue. "There is this natural awkwardness that children experience on the cusp of adulthood," he said. "But it's also this kind of rite of passage for the community, which is, for lack of a better expression, becoming white. They are going from outsiders to insiders. What could be more awkward than that?"
Parents are featured in the book as well, always lavishly dressed and often posing proudly in front of banquet tables overflowing with food. Many Jews of that era, said Jeffrey Shandler, an associate professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, saw their son's bar mitzvah as a way to telegraph their social standing and ambitions.
"Part of the move to the suburbs is seen as a step to being more integrated with your non-Jewish neighbors," Dr. Shandler said. "It's not just a family celebration. It becomes a kind of mega birthday party. Parents are using this as a social occasion, so their business associates and neighbors get invited to the celebration."
For them, he said, their child's party was as much about networking and conspicuous consumption as about watching their child give a commentary on the Torah. Bar mitzvahs built around a "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or a Disney theme became common. Thanks in part to the introduction of the videographer, he added, the parties started to take on the look of movie sets.
And the attitude certainly trickled down to their children. In the book Ned Lazarus, who celebrated his bar mitzvah in Washington in 1986, poses proudly wearing one pair of high-price Vuarnet sunglasses on his face and another fastened in a case to his belt.
It was the larger cultural implications of the bar mitzvah that captured the authors' imaginations, and the scale of their project quickly overcame their originally modest intentions of simply posting old photographs.
With more than 1,000 people submitting treasures like vintage basketballs and commemorative ballerina shoes, the three pulled all-nighters on work nights as they searched for hidden meanings among the irreplaceable detritus. "It's very hard to smuggle these things out," Ms. Shell said, recalling her mother's attachment to the bat mitzvah album. "If my mother had her way, it would have stayed on the Lucite table underneath the telephone."
They arranged the material in every manner possible, looking for the larger themes to emerge. "At one point, we had it organized by the colors of the dresses the girls were wearing," Mr. Bennett said. At another, it was hair color. "Ginger-haired girls, we had 200 of them," he added wearily. (In its final form the book breaks down the story into simple categories: music, clothes, photographers, food.) What kept them going, Mr. Bennett said, was that each new album was a story unto itself: lust, death, the fracturing of the American family.
"It became this incredible and serious pursuit," he said. "The bar mitzvah became the prism on how we grew up and how we got to be this way."
After hiding their own albums for years, he said he and his friends were surprised at first by the urgency people seemed to feel about sharing their humiliation.
"For most of these people these pictures have been sources of shame, embarrassment and therapy," Mr. Bennett said. For his part he said he could look at his own album now and laugh, but couldn't face it even a decade ago. "Ten years ago, when you still have everything to prove, and there is some flexibility about who you might become, this is something you most certainly want to hide. But after a certain amount of time the statute of limitations on shame just evaporates."
Of course some memories are easier to rationalize than others. Stephanie Huttner of Denver, for example, is shown standing in the middle of a country club wearing a gold ruffled skirt next to an elephant on loan from the Denver Zoo for her safari-theme bat mitzvah in 1987.
The trick, Mr. Bennett said, speaking from experience, is to search for the meanings beneath the excess.
"Saying this book is about bar mitzvahs is like saying 'Animal Farm' is about horses and cows," he said. "This is sociological history."