All Dogs Go to … Synagogue?

Some Jewish pet owners throw a “bark mitzvah” to celebrate their canine’s coming of age.

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Click photo to download. Caption: "Elvis" Best performs his "arf-tara" at a bark mitzvah in 2008. Credit: Molly Kravitz.

“Fluffy” Shindler barks when he sees Friday night candles and understands that on Shabbat, it’s quieter than usual around the house. It was only natural, then, for the Shindlers to throw Fluffy a “bark mitzvah.”

About eight years ago in Monsey, NY, the perceptive Bichon Frise donned a yarmulke and placed his paw on a Chumash (Bible) before 10 kids and a few neighbors at the Shindler household. The menu included cake for the crowd, and for Fluffy, a cookie decorated like a Torah scroll.

“We didn’t do a big spiel, but it was cute,” Wendy Shindler told JointMedia News Service.

While Fluffy’s bark mitzvah was low-key affair, some bark mitzvahs have rivaled the extravagance of their human-focused counterparts. That was the case in December 2004, when New York cabaret singer Mark Nadler treated his dog, Admiral Rufus K. Boom (“Boomie”), to a party that included a chopped liver sculpture, bartenders and a lavish buffet in his Riverdale, N.Y., home.

According to the New York Times, Boomie’s bark mitzvah featured yarmulkes for guests with the dog’s name and the date printed inside, as well as “many checks” written for $50 or more as gifts—though some attendees gave Boomie rawhide chews. The party invitations, sent to dozens of friends, said the bark mitzvah’s purpose was “to share a special day in our lives when my dog, Admiral Rufus K. Boom, will celebrate his bark mitzvah in the tradition of our ancestors.”

In response to one guest who claimed Boomie “doesn’t look” Jewish, Nadler responded “he chanted his arf-tara this afternoon,” a play on the haftara portion read at traditional bar mitzvahs, according to the New York Times.

In August 2008, David Best, CEO of The Doctor’s Channel, organized a $10,000 bark mitzvah for “Elvis” and 100 guests—including celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, according to Fox News.

Footage of Elvis’s bark mitzvah on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xh2qquQfy04&feature=relmfu) shows the canine motioning on the bimah in a synagogue sanctuary, flanked by two men serving as the gabbaim and stuffed dogs “watching” in front as a human reads the “arf-tara” in sync with Elvis’s movements.

“He has a great personality and everyone loves him,” David Best said of Elvis, according to Fox News.

The bark mitzvah routine, however, isn’t always jovially received. Responding to a New York Times article in 1997—the year when the term “bark mitzvah” was first used—Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, NJ, wrote a letter to the editor expressing that the practice is “nothing less than a desecration of a cherished Jewish tradition and degrades some of the central principles of Jewish life.”

“I enjoy a good time as much as the next person,” Kroloff wrote. “But not at the expense of religious traditions that need strengthening, not desecrating.”

California-based author Shari Cohen told JointMedia News Service that she was “exceptionally aware” of the concerns surrounding bark mitzvahs when writing Alfie’s Bark Mitzvah (Five Star Publications, 2007), a children’s book on the subject. She consulted with Conservative rabbis on the project, asking them if bark mitzvahs were too much of a “boundary pusher.”

Most of the rabbis were enthusiastic about the idea of the book or at least open to it, Cohen said, but a select few “told me what I already knew—‘maybe you should not go in this direction.’” Therefore, Cohen said she was extra careful before finalizing the book, re-working it several times with publisher Linda Radke.

Cohen, a longtime dog owner herself, said the goal of Alfie’s Bark Mitzvah is to teach kids about traditional bar mitzvah themes in a fun and different way. The book comes with a CD of songs by Cantor Marcelo Gindlin, who along with Cohen continues to promote the book at fairs and synagogues five years after it hit shelves.

“I wanted to do [the book] not only with warmth and humor and teaching, but also with song,” Cohen said, explaining that she gave Alfie human-like senses such as the nerves a bar mitzvah boy feels before reading his Torah portion.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) slogan says animals “are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment,” but PETA does not condemn the bark mitzvah practice. On a webpage titled “Let’s Have a Dog Party!” (http://features.peta.org/DogParty/photos.asp), PETA asks “Did Bingo get a bark mitzvah?” and encourages users to “show everyone how to throw a bash to bark about” by uploading their party photos.”

Fluffy Shindler, now 9 years old and living in Bergenfield, NJ, received his bark mitzvah at the age of 1 and a half, but most male dogs have been known to celebrate the occasion at either 13 months or 13 years (the equivalent of 91 in dog years) old.

Despite Fluffy’s usual perceptiveness when it comes to Jewish tradition, he merely barked and “didn’t understand anything” at the party, Wendy Shindler said. It was more about simple fun than anything else.

“We thought it would be very cute to do this for him,” Shindler told JointMedia News Service.

Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.

Posted on November 29, 2011 and filed under Bar Mitzvah, Special Sections.