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Emily Pober Higgins

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I Threw My Dog a Bark Mitzvah and All I Got Was This Lousy Jewish Guilt

I wanted to celebrate my dog and my heritage, but others thought I was mocking tradition

I was 20 percent of the way through my speech, which started like this...

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"Remi is more than a dog: he's a friend, a snuggler, a vacuum for kitchen crumbs. If he were human I believe he would be a philosopher. The intensity with which he smells other dogs' pee is like no other dog -€” he's not just smelling, but analyzing, processing conflicting thoughts, considering their implications before he acts...."

....when I realized I might be a crazy person.

How did I end up here, standing in front of my closest friends and immediate family, reciting a speech about my dog —€” a pit bull named Remi -€— while he stood beside me wearing a yarmulke and tallis (the headpiece and fringed, scarf-like garment worn at bar mitzvahs)? The months leading up to this had felt fun, but I was beginning to feel uneasy about what I was doing. I'd wanted Remi to have a bark mitzvah for so long, but a voice in the back of my head began nagging me as I spoke, telling me something was wrong, that I was taking a tradition and twisting it too far, until it broke.

Remi and the author. Image: Emily Pober Higgins

Bark mitzvahs, I'd learned in the months preceding that speech, have a relatively long, if somewhat sporadic history. In 1958 in Beverly Hills, a secretary working for the Navy named Janet Salter threw her dog, a black cocker spaniel named Duke of Windsor (or Windy for short), a "dogtail" party. She told the local paper it was the first dog coming-of-age celebration ever thrown. There's no proof I can find that she's wrong. In the subsequent half-century, dozens of bark mitzvahs have been documented in local papers, in trend pieces and on TV, and on personal blogs. Jason Biggs threw his dog Teets a bark mitzvah a few years ago. But every time bark mitzvahs have appeared on the media's radar, they've been presented as a kind of joke — a fun way to get friends together, to parade around a clueless animal in a silly costume and laugh. Bark mitzvahs have rarely, and maybe never, been considered something worth taking seriously. And while I knew the idea of dressing up my dog in clothes usually reserved for humans can on the surface look funny, I suspected there was something deeper going on, both in the tradition of the bark mitzvah and its relation to Judaism, and in my relation to religion and dogs.

I wanted to believe that the fact that tears were welling up in my eyes as I told my family and friends about Remi was not a sign I was losing my sanity, or my (somewhat tenuous) grasp on religion, but rather a sign that this ceremony was filled with meaning. I just had to figure out what that meaning was. The food had already been made — mushroom risotto and a side of asparagus cooked by some friends for the humans, pumpkin cookies cooked by another friend for the dog; the people -€” my closest friends and family — had already come, by car and by train, up to my parents house in the middle of the woods in upstate New York for the celebration; the bulk of the ceremony, which did not include a rabbi but did include several heartfelt speeches and a lot of wine drinking (just like at a real bar mitzvah), was, after about 30 minutes, almost over; now all I had to do is figure out what the heck I'd just done, and why.

The first place to look for answers was obvious: my family, which contains two rabbis and lots of other Jews. My uncle, Howard Jaffe, the rabbi of a temple in Lexington, Massachusetts, told me that bark mitzvahs were a newfangled symbol of reform Judaism gone awry; that it was one thing to adapt Judaism to a modern context, and another to adapt it to dogs. I tried to convince him that there must be something unique about Judaism and bark mitzvahs. There's a reason, I argued, that Jewish dogware is easy to find online — I'd bought Remi's outfit for his big day off Amazon — while other religions don't seem to ever merged celebrations of dogs with their respective coming-of-age ceremonies.

"Good for the other religions," he replied.

A regular bar mitzvah, for humans. Image: Frederic Lewis/Getty

It wasn't that celebrating dogs was bad, he said. Judaism has a conflicted relationship with dogs. Jewish scripture tends to paint them as symbols of greed, noise, dirt, and general mischievousness. But other passages view those who take care of animals, though not specifically dogs, as shepherds, even heroes. It was elevating a dog to the human level that offended my uncle.

"There's nothing wrong with changing traditions for a meaningful purpose," my uncle told me. "But expropriating a meaningful ceremony and calling it by a silly name because it phonetically echoes a life-cycle event — that doesn't have any meaning behind it. To me it feels like mockery."

That, I explained, was not my intent.

But I had to be honest, when this whole thing started, I wasn't really sure what my intent was. I don't remember exactly how I got the idea, but it was at least a year ago. My ex-boyfriend/current friend/ dog co-dad John and I were talking about Remi's theoretical religion. I'm Jewish, and it seemed plausible that Remi would be too, if he had a religion. John and I had already imagined Remi might have a preferred career (investment banker, commercial airline pilot (for some reason I always figured he'd fly with Delta), detective) and preferred style (British-looking tweed cap, tweed jacket, and tobacco pipe), and so it seemed a natural progression to picture Remi participating in other parts of human life. I'd had my own bar mitzvah ceremony when I was 13, and while that felt like a fun and meaningful expression of growing up, it did not feel particularly religious, so I figured it wasn't too much of a stretch to do something similar for a dog.

Judaism has a conflicted relationship with dogs.

Remi had first come into my life six years ago, shortly after I'd graduated college. I was living in Massachusetts with a friend and we'd toyed for several weeks with the idea of getting a dog. As luck had it, my friend's co-worker's acquaintance was a shady character who may or may not have bred fighting dogs. Remi was one of his. His name was short for Remington, like the gun company. We shortened it to Remi. Remi, red and burly with a big snout and broad shoulders, looked intimidating. He looked like a pit bull who embodied the reasons people fear pit bulls. But after we agreed to adopt him, we realized he was essentially as threatening as a pile of muffins, and concluded that the shady character had given him away essentially because he, like many muffins, was too sweet.

Like many new dog owners, I was not prepared for the presence Remi would take in my life. I thought dogs were fluffy toys with a minor responsibility component; moving plants. I did not realize my entire life would change, that I'd have to reschedule my days, narrow my New York City apartment search to the approximately 10 percent of listings that were both relatively affordable and dog-friendly, make arrangements for care every time I traveled.

It's as if somehow, despite being a not-so-observant Jew with little knowledge of how bar mitzvahs work, I knew that the traditional bar mitzvah prayer recited by the father recognizes the two sides of childcare.

Remi, to be honest, was (and is) a burden. But he was a great joy too — I came to cherish our long walks, the wild, excited shaking and tap dancing ritual he'd perform every time I came home, his silliness, his frequent sneezing, his fuzzy warmth on cold nights.

Our relationship grew, and the disparate threads of our life together — the gifts and the burdens, the responsibility and the joy — accumulated in my subconscious brain until they revealed themselves as a desire to reconcile and honor the duality of our relationship. It's as if somehow, despite being a not-so-observant Jew with little knowledge of how bar mitzvahs work, I knew that the traditional bar mitzvah prayer recited by the father recognizes the two sides of childcare. The prayer translates roughly to: Praised are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who has excused me from being liable for this child. It's a prayer of thanks, and also a prayer of lament: The child is a gift, the prayer suggests, but thank God I don't have to take care of him anymore. This is how I felt about Remi.

I eventually started talking about the idea openly with friends and co-dog-dad John. I asked my parents if I could use their small cabin in the woods in upstate New York to host the event, Photoshopped together an invite, and emailed my friends.

"When a dog becomes an adult-dog, it's a very special moment," the invite read. "It only happens once in a lifetime. Remi may be about 49 in dog years but he's young at heart, and I think it's important that he takes a step toward taking responsibility for his physical and spiritual path in life."

Then the guilt started to set in. Leave it to a Jew to turn a celebration into a pity-fest, but I started wondering if what I was doing was sacrilege, or even precedented. I was prepared to have fun and celebrate my dog, but I wanted to know I wasn't alone, that there were others who thought throwing their dog a bark mitzvah was not an idea only for an insane person.

Schnoppsie Lewis-Drazin's bark mitzvah. Image: Cedric Dana

The history of bark mitzvahs is not available for check-out at university libraries or preserved for study by religious institutions, yet I was able to find out about a few other people who seemed to have independently come up with similar ideas for celebrations. The closest I could find to what I envisioned for Remi happened in July of 1977, for Schnoppsie Lewis-Drazin, a dachshund in West Orange, New Jersey. I'd seen the photos of their celebration online, and because the celebration looked fun yet familial and emotional, I wanted to know more. Was it all just a joke, or did they feel some connection between their dog and their Jewish heritage? So I spoke with the grandson of the humans who threw that bark mitzvah, Cedric Dana (his grandmother is still alive but too sick to talk on the phone).

"It was just a fun way to get together," he told me from his house in Maryland. "It was just random."

Dogs were a big part of his family's life, he said. And like many Jews, my grandparents included, the cultural traditions of Judaism were important to his family, but not rigid. A bark mitzvah seemed like a semi-traditional but totally ridiculous way to get some Jews together.

"I mean they invited other Jews because they knew they'd get a kick out of it," Cedric said, but that was basically it. There was no deeper meaning.

Schnoppsie-Lewis-Drazin in full regalia. Image: Cedric Dana

Bark mitzvahs seemed to fall off the map after Schnoppsie's. The next mention I could find was in the New York Times in 1997, which was about a woman who arraigned bark mitzvah parties presumably for wealthy people. The original article seems to have disappeared online, but a response in the form of a Letter to the Editor from a Rabbi Charles Kroloff reads, in part, "This is nothing less than a desecration of a cherished tradition and degrades some of the central principles of Jewish life. I urge readers to reject such practices."

In 2004, the Times once again picked the tradition up, this time by covering Mark Nadler, a fortysomething cabaret singer who performs all over the country, including at bar and bat mitzvahs, and who threw a huge party for his dog Admiral Rufus K. Boom in Riverdale, a neighborhood in the Bronx.

"I decided to go whole hog," Nadler told me over the phone. "I went to the party supply store, got real bar mitzvah invitations. I had 180 people at my house. It was extremely crowded but fun."

I asked Nadler what he thought about the controversies, about the angry rabbis, about the supposed desecration of the tradition.

"This doesn't have anything to do with religion," he told me. "But the bar mitzvahs I've been to don't have anything to do with religion either!"

"This doesn't have anything to do with religion," he told me. "But the bar mitzvahs I've been to don't have anything to do with religion either! They have mounds of shrimp [which isn't kosher]. The parents are partying more than the kids. There's no religion there!"

But why a bark mitzvah, as opposed to a nondenominational party for a dog? Why did it have to be Judaism-themed? Doesn't that say something unique about us?

"If I were Catholic, I would come up with something for Holy Communion or something," he said. "You can't put a dog's head underwater, that would be mean, so baptisms are out. But I'd figure out something."

I wanted to believe Nadler, and I obviously cannot predict what he would do if he were indeed Catholic, but his insistence that a similar ceremony would be performed by a Catholic dog owner seemed historically inaccurate. After all, Jews make up about .2 percent of the world's population, but apparently account for 100 percent of all dog coming-of-age ceremonies. So I made some more calls, to a cantor, to a rabbi, to a woman named Shari Cohen who wrote a children's book called Alfie's Bark Mitzvah, which I'd purchased (along with the yarmulke and tallit) on Amazon. I thought out of all people she'd understand my desire to find deeper meaning in a dog party, but she calmly explained that her book was meant to give comfort to kids who were scared to have their bar and bat mitzvahs and that she was not amused by the idea of someone placing their dog at the center of Jewish tradition. According to Cohen, depicting dogs celebrating a bark mitzvah could be a way to lighten up the ceremony for kids under pressure from their parents to learn their Torah portions, but Cohen is serious about Judaism, and told me she saw the idea of throwing a dog a bar mitzvah as sacrilege.

"I don't think it's a Jewish custom at all, but I guess we do enjoy silly things," he said. "There is some part of our tradition which enjoys parody and spoof."

The most I could sympathetic ear I could find belonged to a man named Rabbi Michael Hilton of the Kol Chai Hatch End Jewish Community in London. He wrote one of the most well-known books on bar mitzvah rituals and told me that over the past 30 years the events had taken an outsized role in Jewish life. Bar mitzvah parties traditionally were small affairs meant to welcome a boy to adulthood at the age of 13 (this was back when people lived much shorter lives). There were rarely big parties. A father would say a blessing, maybe there'd be a nice dinner, and that was pretty much it. Hilton was not exactly enthused about the idea of a bark mitzvah, but he was friendly.

"I don't think it's a Jewish custom at all, but I guess we do enjoy silly things," he said. "There is some part of our tradition which enjoys parody and spoof."

I pushed him further. Is it offensive? Is it meaningful? He wouldn't tell me, except to say that getting people more involved in Judaism can't be a bad thing, though he didn't see how bark mitzvahs really got people involved in Judaism. To be honest, at least at that point, neither did I. I felt depressed. I wanted this event to be meaningful, not offensive and trivializing. I wanted proof I was not a desecrator but an embuer-of-meaning.

My last call was to the other rabbi in my family, my cousin David Spey, works in Florida. He was slightly more understanding, but I could tell he was stretching his sympathies. Still, he provided me with what I've come to see as an answer to my questions about the meaning behind a bark mitzvah. He told me the story of my aunt and uncle's wedding, which apparently was meant to be a goyish (see: WASPy, uptight, boring) affair, with finger sandwiches and tea. Then my grandma, a first generation immigrant from Eastern Europe who was known for making meatballs the size of a human fist, showed up with pans of turkey and veal and gravy.

"It was a good thing too," David said. "Because people were hungry."

Remi on his big day. Image: Emily Pober Higgins

His point was that Jews like parties that celebrate life and family and togetherness (this is, in my experience, very true; we also like food); that we tend to take what others take for granted, and commemorate them with food and love. But why not have a Remi party, or even a party celebrating Judaism, David asked, where, "you celebrate life, your liberalness, your intellect, your willingness to say your opinions, the importance you place on life and family?" Why not make it about Judaism, and not the dog?

The conclusion became obvious to me as soon as I realized literally no religious figure would sanction my event: I wanted a celebration that included the two things that felt most important to celebrate to me on that day, the two things that I feel have made me the person I am: the life I've been given, which I believe in large part is thanks to being Jewish (for all the reasons David had mentioned), and my dog.

I stood on the cabin's front porch and got further into my speech, and the thoughts of guilt and hesitance and ridiculousness passed. This was my day. It was Remi's day. I was doing this for me, for him, for my family and friends. It felt significant to make it Jewish-themed not because I wanted to degrade Judaism, but because I wanted to connect my life to it in a way that felt accessible and meaningful. This may be sacrilege to a rabbi, but it felt important to me.

Toward the end of my speech I mentioned some recent dog science research that suggested dogs did not evolve by being tamed from wolves; instead, researchers believe some wolves found that they could become close to humans (and get some free food) by being less aggressive and more goofy, and so they evolved to become our friends. If you think we humans get nothing out of it, it's a parasitic relationship, but it's a symbiotic one if you believe we get equal value. The latter seems right to me: dogs get food and pats on the tummy and a safe home. I get a dog — a blessing and a burden, a responsibility and a gift — and a changed life.

The bark mitzvah may not make sense to a dog, or within the history of Judaism, but it made sense to me, as a way to show a creature I care so much about love in the deepest way I know how: through my culture, through my family and friends, through tradition.

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