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Bash Mitzvahs!


And sometimes the games they play -- not those at the reception but the ones on the long bus rides to and from bar mitzvahs at some of the families’ weekend homes and country clubs in the Hamptons or Connecticut -- help pass the time a little too fast.

“We all get bored, so we play Truth or Dare,” confides one boy. “Most of the dares are, like, kissing.”

“French kissing,” says a female classmate. “I sit in front.”

For all the time, effort, and money parents pour into the parties, the mark of the best ones, say the kids -- though the bashes all pretty much blur together after a while -- isn’t the special effects or the free mouse pads but whether their friends are there and everybody’s behaving. They seem to have developed their own unwritten code of bar mitzvah conduct.

“Even though if it’s really extravagant it’s better, it really doesn’t matter, if everybody’s into it, if everybody’s doing what they were meant to do,” says a seventh-grader, describing kids with attitude problems (lingering in the game room when they’re wanted on the dance floor constitutes such a problem) as the primary deterrent to having a good time.

Says a girl at Horace Mann: “If at school someone is flirting too much with somebody else’s boyfriend, I won’t look forward to the party because you’ll think something” -- meaning an argument -- “is going to happen.”

And at one reception, a bas mitzvah girl says, she “begged” some of her more amorous classmates “to take it outside.” She perceives such behavior as a personal slight. “If it’s a good friend, you pay attention to the party,” she says.

Rabbi Levine thinks bar mitzvahs are mellowing out. “I have sensed a reining in of some of the excesses,” he remarks, sitting in his wood-paneled study off Central Park West on a recent afternoon. “I stand up in front of all family bar mitzvah classes and say to them, ‘This is an opportunity for parents to stand up in front of children and teach them what’s really important about this experience.’”

Many children now earmark a portion of their bar mitzvah gifts, up to 10 percent, for charity. One Rodeph Sholom bar mitzvah boy decided to give away all his money, asking his guests to contribute either to Project Ezra, which helps the Jewish elderly on the Lower East Side, or to the City Lights Youth Theatre rather than slipping his dad a check. That was an act of considerable self-denial, since children routinely get tens of thousands of dollars in gifts.

“I have everything I need,” the boy stated simply.

“We have become affluent and in the process of this affluence have made our lives less meaningful,” observes Misha Avramoff, the high-school coordinator at Park Avenue Synagogue and Project Ezra’s co-director. “The incongruities are beginning now to seep in.”

When a slightly gawky, bespectacled 13-year-old girl stood a few weeks ago at Rodeph Sholom’s bema, the platform where the service is conducted, and chanted her Torah portion in a voice that was strong and confident, if occasionally off-key, she did seem to be part of something larger -- and not just her family, one of New York’s richest and most socially prominent. And when she used her speech to tell how Jacob’s cruel words to his son Reuben on Jacob’s deathbed -- “You shall excel no longer” -- had taught her how words can wound, one sensed that she’d actually given the matter a lot of thought.

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