The first known bark mitzvah took place in 1958 in Beverly Hills, California. More than 100 guests attended, and Monty Hall of Let’s Make a Deal served as emcee. The invitations requested “the honor of your presence at the bark mitzvah and 13th Birthday” celebration for the Duke of Windsor—a black cocker spaniel whom his humans dubbed “Windy”—followed by a “Dogtail” party. “Guests brought classic bar mitzvah gifts like fountain pens, and also dog biscuits,” recalls Janet Salter, the former newspaper cartoonist and philanthropist who hosted the festivities along with her late husband, Beverly Hills Mayor Max Salter. Windy remained on his best behavior, as did the other canine attendees—but the human guests, not so much. “They were laughing so hard they could hardly stand it,” says Salter, now 94. The occasion was nonetheless a huge success, and the Salters went on to host several more bark mitzvahs over the years.
Some 25 years later, New Jersey pet entertainer Lee Day began performing bark mitzvah ceremonies for families that wanted to celebrate their dogs. She eventually trademarked the term “bark mitzvah,” described in the filing as “entertainment in the nature of live performances at parties given for pets.” The ceremony’s profile rose in the early 1990s when Day presided over the bark mitzvah of Joan Rivers’ beloved yorkie, Spike, on The Joan Rivers Show. “I’m giving them a little Jewish prayer, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Day said in a 2016 radio interview. “I’m giving them a little party and we’re dancing and having fun, and the animals are getting attention.”
Since then, the popularity of bark mitzvahs has only grown. Search “bark mitzvah” on YouTube and you’ll find all kinds of celebrations, from over-the-top parties to low-key backyard gatherings. Synagogues have also gotten in on the act. Every year, the Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism’s Rabbi Steve Gross conducts a short service for more than 250 dogs that includes readings, songs and blessings, along with a certificate declaring that each participant became a “bark mitzvah.” The festival features a DJ, food trucks and dog-related vendors. “While our dogs certainly don’t practice Judaism, they are members of Jewish families and live in Jewish homes,” says congregant Melinda Neumann, who helps organize the affair. “The bark mitzvah offers us a chance to extend our joy of Judaism to our dogs in a fun and friendly environment.”
The number of people planning bark mitzvahs has generated a market for related products—from “It’s my bark mitzvah!” dog bandanas to bark mitzvah-themed squeaky toys. In 2012, video journalist Janet Weinstein reported for the Associated Press that bark mitzvahs are “a booming multimillion-dollar industry.” Weinstein’s video on the craze was featured on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, complete with a clip of a dog in a yarmulke being lifted into the air, as human guests danced the hora.
Unsurprisingly, some Jews disapprove of the trend. The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony “is something that young Jewish adults prepare for, for years,” Rabbi Daniel Satlow, then of Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, Connecticut, says in the AP video. “To imagine that a dog could do anything like this is degrading.” Cantor Rhoda J. Harrison of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a pet owner herself, has mixed feelings. “I have no problem with an owner celebrating 13 years that they’ve had a dog and maybe drawing on traditions that are Jewish,” she says. But she takes issue with dressing dogs in ritual objects, such as miniature prayer shawls and yarmulkes. “It misses the point about what those rituals are about.”
Although most people don’t know it, Judaism, like many other religions, does have a holiday for animals—Rosh Hashanah la’Behemot (the New Year for Domesticated Animals)—which falls on the first day of the Jewish month of Elul, several weeks before Rosh Hashanah. “It’s so important to dwell upon the awesome totality of creation, including every animal that God fashioned leading up to the forming of Adam and Eve,” says Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. “Rosh Hashanah la’Behemot is a truly unique and special opportunity to consider our compassionate relationship to God through the animals that help sustain our ecosystem and enrich our lives.”
And that is exactly how Rabbi Ariel Edery, of Beth Shalom in Raleigh, North Carolina, has come to interpret the bark mitzvah ceremony at his congregation. Like many other rabbis, he originally dismissed the idea, but after some reflection, he changed his mind. The Book of Genesis, he notes, teaches us about our place in this world and our relationship to animals. Edery believes that the unique bond people have with their dogs ought to be celebrated, and while the name “bark mitzvah” may sound silly, having one can be meaningful. So one Shabbat morning every year, his congregants gather for a short outdoor service and share the special connections they have with their pups. “A bark mitzvah is celebrating life,” Edery says. “It’s reminding us of our role in this world.”
But sometimes a bark mitzvah is just plain fun. Filmmaker Carly Glenn’s award-winning 2015 short mockumentary Bark Mitzvah is about a family who throws an extravagant 13th-year celebration for their beloved pooch, who sports a “taleash” and “yamapaw,” while human guests dine from the “All You Can Eat Bonefet.” Responding to bark mitzvahs’ critics, Glenn says, “Lighten up. It’s a fun celebration. It’s not sacrilegious if you’re bringing people together.”
Janet Salter never anticipated what would develop from Windy’s 1958 bark mitzvah, but she’s proud of what she started. When asked if she knew she was the one who coined the term “bark mitzvah,” she gleefully replies, “Yes, of course I do! I’m on Wikipedia for it.”
Liat Wasserman contributed to this story.