Growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in Beverly Hills, California, I often felt ashamed of what I could and could not afford. It’s why I’ve always lied about the reason I didn’t have a bat mitzvah.
I’ve offered inquiring minds countless explanations: my dad isn’t Jewish; my mom hated her bat mitzvah; my parents were divorcing. While those circumstances were real and undoubtedly affected my parents’ decision, money had a lot more to do with it.
My experience is far from uncommon. Hebrew school is expensive, and in many Jewish circles, bar and bat mitzvahs are more than a religious rite of passage. Many families use these celebrations as an opportunity to show off their wealth. The bar and bat mitzvahs I attended in Southern California, for example, involved ballrooms at The Beverly Hilton and booked appearances by the Laker Girls.
And yes, there are dozens of ways to celebrate for less, but it’s far from the norm. The average cost of a bar or bat mitzvah is estimated to be between $17,000 and $30,000. That’s how much the average wedding costs.
In Hollywood, the price of becoming a Jewish “adult” can run even higher. The Hollywood Reporter found that some entertainment industry families spend as much as 5 million dollars on their children’s parties.
Popular culture has also played into the hype. The 2006 movie Keeping Up With the Steins satirizes the lengths two families go to throw the best (read: most expensive) bar mitzvah for their sons.
Even just attending a bat mitzvah can prove costly. Jewish blogs recommend giving cash gifts of at least 72 dollars, an amount that can easily exclude less-affluent guests.
In middle school, I was so ashamed not to be having a bat mitzvah that when classmates asked me why I wasn’t, I lied and told people my parents had me choose between Hebrew school and a Sweet 16, a storyline I’d seen on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16.
As someone who writes about money on the internet, I’ve struggled to accept that my money shame is intimately connected to my Judaism. How else can you feel when your Judaism is questioned not only by non-Jews but your fellow Jews as well?
I’m reminded of the time a boyfriend’s roommate told me that because I hadn’t had a bat mitzvah, I wasn’t “actually Jewish.” As a college freshman, I didn’t yet have the words to explain that gatekeeping Judaism was wrong. I didn’t know that bat mitzvahs didn’t even become common practice for girls until 1922, or that the stigma against those of us who didn’t receive bar or bat mitzvahs is ignorant at best and classist at worst.
The truth is that if we want to talk about money and class in a meaningful way, we need to reckon with the fact that having a bar or bat mitzvah celebration is often a privilege in and of itself. Money touches everything, even the parts of our lives we view as a simple, spiritual fact.
I’ve struggled to feel like I belong in Jewish spaces and am “Jewish enough” for most of my life. On top of the stigma of not having a bat mitzvah, I share a last name with my Irish father and most of his features, which often leads people to make statements like “but you don’t look Jewish.”
When the pandemic began, the ability to live stream Shabbat helped ease my fear of standing out in Jewish spaces. Zoom offered anonymity and protection from the questions and comments I’ve grown tired of fielding.
As the months progressed, I became more and more interested in integrating my Judaism into my pre-existing spiritual practices. And although having an adult bat mitzvah is something I’ve always thought about, I’ve decided to finally do it.
While I don’t expect to throw a lavish party, I’m grateful that becoming a bat mitzvah has forced me to confront the lies I’ve told to avoid my money shame. Last week, the rabbi asked why I was pursuing an adult bat mitzvah, and didn’t have one at the traditional age. I paused and ran through the list of things I could say to avoid the truth.
My dad isn’t Jewish. My mom hated her bat mitzvah. My parents were divorcing.
“I don’t think my parents wanted to pay for it,” I finally explained, staring down at my keyboard so I wouldn’t have to confront the sea of Zoom faces.
The class moved onto the next person and the person after that.
I had told the truth, and no one cared. For the first time, neither did I.