Thursday, August 04, 2005

Simcha inflation

Is there a correlation between the closing of the Orthodox mind and the opening of the Orthodox wallet?

I had a most enlightening conversation with a member of our staff who describes herself as being of "B'nei Edot haMizrach," which I think translates roughly as "Children of the Communities of the East." I was trying to determine whether the term "simcha dance" might be a term used largely in Ashkenazi Jewish circles, as I had gotten a blank stare from one of our Orthodox Jewish part-timers from the Bukharan community when I'd mentioned to her that I was choreographing a simcha dance. "What's a simcha dance?," said my Bat Edot haMizrach co-worker. "Well, that answers that question." When I explained that a simcha dance was a dance that one did at simchas (weddings, Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration parties, etc.), she explained that her community called these, simply, dances. "We don't go to clubs. What else would they be?"

I got to thinking about that in connection with Mark's/PT's comment to my Sunday, July 31, 2005 post, "The new Qumran community" ( He's of the opinion that some among the Orthodox community think that "Judaism should be "All Torah All the Time" and anything else is evil, including books, tv, internet, games, music...pretty much anything that you might "enjoy" outside of the bais medresh."

If that's the case, what else can one enjoy in life other than the few things that haven't (yet) been declared treif (not kosher, forbidden), namely, food, clothing (the fancier, the better, so that one can show off at shul [synagogue]), shelter (the home that helps one keep up with the Yonatans), ritual objects (why spend the money on, say, tzedakah [charity], when one can own an $800 foot-tall sterling silver Chanukiyah (Chanukah menorah/candelabra) instead?), and, yes, simchas/joyous events (the fancier, the better, to keep up with the Yonatans).

Years ago, my best friend and I used to walk home from shul after Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday night Sabbath Eve) services with the cantor emeritus of my former synagogue. His name was Chazzan Moshe Nathanson. You may not be familiar with his name, but you may be familiar with his music. He took an old Chassidic niggun (wordless song) and wrote lyrics for it: It's now known as Hava Nagila. But the achievement of which he was most proud was the fact that one of his musical compositions had become so well known that people in the kosher-hotel dining rooms in which he ate, occasionally, told him, when he asked, that the tune was "MiSinai," so old as to be thought to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The musical composition of which he was speaking was the music to the first brachah (blessing) of Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals), the one that ends "Hazan et ha-kol." (That's a long introduction to the matter in question, granted, but it was a fun tangent, I hope.) Cantor Nathanson once told us that, when it was time for him to have his Bar Mitzvah celebration, all that happened was that they told him, a week before, that he'd be chanting the haftarah (reading from the Prophets). That was it. No big deal. No party. He didn't have a Bar Mitzvah, he became a Bar Mitzvah, which is as it should be.

Temping as I do for an Orthodox Jewish organization, I've heard some interesting things. People talk about "making" a bris. I always thought that a bris was something that an eight-day-old Jewish boy had. Since when is a bris/brit/ritual circumcision made? Now you have to put out a "spread?" What's wrong with good old bagels and cream cheese (or the Sefardi equivalent thereof)? Who are they trying to impress? I'm sure the poor baby boy doesn't care!

And, a few months ago, the Out of Step Jew from Kfar Saba wrote on his blog ( about the new custom of inviting friends and family to a small shindig after the first time that one's son lays tefillin (puts on phylacteries), about a month before the boy's Bar Mitzvah celebration. As if the Bar Mitzvah celebration doesn't cost enough money these days, now one is expected to invite family and friends to a siyum mitzvah (meal celebration the fulfillment of a commandment) before the boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah?!

On the other hand, it's debatable whether simcha inflation is any worse among the Orthodox than among the non-Orthodox, so maybe my central thesis is completely off-base. I can't remember exactly how much my girlfriend told me she was spending for flowers for her wedding, but I remember that it was a figure large enough to make my jaw drop. She and her husband were married in, and they're now members of, a Conservative shul. I've been to many a lavish Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebration "made" by Conservative and Reform families. And the last bris I attended—fleischig (they served meat), no less—was "made" by a Conservative family.

On the third hand :), there's another legitimate issue involved in the question of what constitutes the appropriate way to celebrate a simcha. Several years ago, a tax was put on luxury boats. Sure, it brought in some revenue. But it also had the unexpected and unintented consequence of putting hundreds of luxury-boat builders out of business almost overnight. Is my attitude one that would deprive a Jewish artist of his/her parnassah (livelihood)? If folks who are fortunate enough to be able to afford to do so don't buy $800 foot-tall sterling silver Chanukiyot, will the lack of customers put a legitimate Jewish artist out of business? If a rabbi declares that having music at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah party is against the "sumptuary laws" (rules that attempt to eliminate the keeping-up-with-the-Yonatan's problem by limiting the amount of money that can be spent for certain things), wouldn't such a ruling deprive all the local Jewish musicians of dozens of gigs every year (in addition to depriving the community ofthe opportunity to hear some good music)?

How does one balance the desire of the community at large to enjoy a good time—especially in right-wing Orthodox circles, in which simchas are among the few "good times" that are still permissible—with the need to take the pressure off of families that aren't so able to afford the expense, as well as with the need to put something aside for tzedakah?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an Orthodox musician who has worked in the New York metro area for the last 20 years, and I read your article on "Keeping up with the Yonatans" with a great deal of interest. I would like to comment on two of the issues that you raised:
Regarding spending habits at simchas: I don't think that making incredibly lavish affairs is a specifically Orthodox phenomenon. I think it's more a matter of folks being folks. Some people, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or whatever, will try to impress everyone by making a ridiculously expensive party. Others, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or whatever, will make a modest affair, and could care less about what "the Yonatans" have to say. In fact, particularly regarding Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, the more "Ultra" the crowd, the simpler the affair is likely to be. On the other hand, I've played many affairs for Jews of all denominations that were incredibly profligate. Folks are just folks.
Regarding your musings on the effect of "budgetary edicts" on the livelihood of musicians - it's already happened. About 12 or 13 years ago, some of the Hasidic sects "encouraged" their followers to only hire "one-man bands" for their weddings. Result: the one-man bands tripled their prices, and some legitimate bandleaders went out of business. I know one fellow in particular who "owned" the Williamsburg, Brooklyn market 20 years ago. Today he's an electrician, and his clarinet sits on a shelf. More recently, a more mainstream Orthodox organization tried to impose limits on band size, with similar results. My take - in religion, as in government, common sense can't be legislated - either you've got it, or you don't. If enough people rein in the madness on their own, the market will follow suit.

Thu Aug 25, 12:46:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi ..Cute title for your Blog..As some one who has Super indulged in everything from disco inferno to heavy clubing downtown,,, Unless you truly emerge yourself in a real authentic beautiful Orthodox lifestyle and really "try it on" ..You will remain sadly ignorant, defensive,clueless, quite bitter,unhappy and just stupid sounding .... sorry to give it you straight up ..Good luck with your Shtus.....

Thu Jul 27, 10:42:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anonymous, I have no problem with commenters disagreeing with me, but one of the few rules I have for my blog is that comments must be phrased in respectful language. Your comment is a prime candidate for deletion. I'm leaving it here to enable me to make a point or two.

For openers, "you catch more flies with honey," as the old saying goes--you would have had a greater chance of influencing me if you hadn't insulted me in public.

Speaking of public insults, allow me to quote from the ArtScroll's translation of Pirkei Avot (Verses of the Fathers), chapter 3, saying 15: "Rabbi Elazar the Moda'i said, 'One who . . . humiliates his fellow [chaver = friend?] in public . . . though he may have Torah and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come." I would think that a frummeh Yid like you would know that.

Third, your timing is quite interesting. Here we are, only days away from Tisha B'Av, commemorating the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, which, according to traditon, happened because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) among Jews, and yet you feel perfectly free to humiliate another Jew in public. In case you're not acquainted with the story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, please let me steer you to the Orthodox Union's telling thereof.

And by the way, thank you for forcing me to schlep out my Hebrew-English dictionary and look up the work "shtut"--"foolishness, silliness, nonsense." This is probably the Hebrew equivalent of the Yiddish word "narishkeiten." Kindly allow me to return the favor and teach *you* some new Hebrew words: "derech eretz" means "the way of the land," and is often used to mean "common courtesy;" kavod habriot" means "respect for creatures [including humans];" and "midot" means "attributes," and usually refers to traits of good character. I'll be happy to read your comments on my blog when they display any of the above.

Fri Jul 28, 12:35:00 AM 2006  

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