It is arguably the most significant moment in a Jewish teenager’s life, marking adulthood, accountability and the ability to lead religious services.
The bar/bat mitzvah is a rite of passage for which boys and girls spend months (sometimes years) preparing. But is this something our furry friends can do too?
Enter the bark mitzvah®.
Some dog enthusiasts honor their canine companions with these pseudo-ceremonies to mark their 13th birthdays. Although 13 people years is late in a dog’s life, owners take no issue in dressing their pooches in tallit and yarmulke and holding a ceremony to bless them and mark the occasion.
Owings Mills resident Pam Frankle held a bark mitzvah® for her Yorkshire Terrier, Nacho, about five years ago. (Nacho has since passed away.) Her husband said the Shehecheyanu blessing, and they took photos of Nacho wearing his Jewish gear.
“When my son was bar mitzvahed, someone had given him a mini Torah scroll inside a Lucite box, and we did take a picture of the dog right next to it so it looks like the dog is reading the Torah,” Frankle said.
Much like the modern-day bar and bat mitzvah party, Nacho’s dog friends were invited to celebrate with him, and they went home with specially made dog toys, such as a camel that said “schlep” on it. There were two cakes — for the humans — one in the shape of a dog bone and one in the shape of a paw print.
The bark mitzvah® was created in 1983, according to New Jersey-based pet entertainer Lee Day, who trademarked the term in 1986. She came up with the concept while joking with one of her clients, but then ran with the idea. She has since officiated at thousands of bark mitzvahs® around the world.
“It’s a blessing for the animals,” she said. “Every animal needs to be blessed.”
She estimates she has performed between 2,000 and 3,000 bark mitzvahs® and pet weddings. Day also runs a doggie dating service, but the animals must be spayed and neutered to participate.
In addition to blessing the animals, Day’s lavish ceremonies include dancing the Horah — the dogs are put on chairs and lifted in the air.
Day always brings her assistant, Rabbi Otis, a rescue dog that was found on the Long Island Expressway five years ago. Rabbi Otis has his own Facebook page.
Day has traveled all over the world and appeared on numerous television shows. She even bark mitzvahed® Joan Rivers’ dog; celebrities such as Betty White and Geraldo Rivera attended that one.
It sounds fun, but the question has to be asked: Is turning a time-honored, sacred tradition into puppy love sacrilege? Some rabbis are not too keen on the idea.
Rabbi Shaye Taub of Arugas Hab-osem, a Chasidic congregation on Park Heights Avenue, said that people who consider giving their dog a bark mitzvah® have lost sight of the real celebration and ceremony.
“I wouldn’t even call it a ceremony because it does take away from the
seriousness of a bar or even bat mitzvah,” he said “It becomes, for lack of a better term, a joke.”
At least one of his Reform counterparts agrees.
“A bar mitzvah is about coming of age in the Jewish community. It’s about attaining a level of responsibility,” said Rabbi Rhoda Silverman of Temple Emanuel in Reisterstown. “It’s not for our pets.”
She said the yarmulke, tallit and tzit tzit are symbols of God’s commandments to human beings, and applying those to pets doesn’t make sense.
“It’s a challenge to the integrity of Jewish tradition,” Silverman said.
Day doesn’t feel that she is desecrating tradition. She said those against the bark mitzvah® should lighten up.
“This is a blessing for the animals,” she said. “If you think the dog can read from the Torah, you’re out of your mind.”
Even those considering throwing bar mitzvah parties for their dogs don’t take it too seriously.
Pikesville resident Wendy Miller’s toy poodle, Coco, turns 13 this coming March. Having attended a friend’s doggy bar mitzvah recently, she brought up the idea of having one — “half-joking, half-serious,” she said.
“My husband would think I’d really lost it at that point,” she said with a laugh.
The bark mitzvah® doesn’t set off any red flags for Owings Mills animal advocate Marty Sitnick. As long as weather is taken into consideration when dressing a dog up, putting a costume on a pet and throwing it a party is far from abuse, he said.
“For many dogs, 13 years — human years — is a senior dog, and celebrating the dog’s life with some sort of festival sounds like a great idea to me,” he said.
The retired businessman is on the board of Adopt a Homeless Animal Rescue, is a former board member of the Baltimore Humane Society and trains shelter and rescue dogs pro bono.
“I would encourage anything that celebrates the lives of these companion animals,” Sitnick said. “It can only enhance the bond.”