My twins will be having their B’nai Mitzvah – that’s a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for two – just over a year from now. But this being NY, and me being neurotic, I’ve already started planning.
For those of you who have never seen a NY based sitcom, or a Woody Allen movie, or the Bar mitzvah episodes of everything from South Park to the Dick Van Dyke Show, to Entourage – someone becomes a Bar Mitzvah (for boys) or a Bat Mitzvah (for girls) when they are old enough to read from the Torah. For generations, all that happened when someone became a Bar Mitzvah was that they got to…read from the Torah. Then all the men (because technically, for religious Jews, only men can read from the Torah) shook the kid’s hand, maybe they had a bissel whitefish salad added to that week’s kiddush, and that was that.
Those days are GONE.
These days, Bar Mitzvah has become synonymous with “giant over-the-top party.” A friend of mine saw Earth Wind and Fire at a Bar Mitzvah. Jerry Seinfeld has performed at a few. So has Usher. There are Bar Mitzvahs with Circus Themes, complete with acrobats and tightrope walkers. (Maybe they don’t see the irony: their Bar Mitzvah is a circus.) Some kids have casino parties – with craps tables, and roulette wheels. (Perhaps they’re celebrating how little they care about throwing money away?) The video montage featuring the child in costume and shot with multiple cameras is de rigeur, as are the go-go-dancers who gyrate around a Bar Mitzvah boy lasciviously – giving coming of age a whole new meaning.
Can I get another Oy?
I’m not saying that my kids, who by the time they have their B’nai Mitzvah celebration will have spent 7 years in after school religious classes, put in countless hours learning Hebrew and how to chant their Torah Portion, and devoted significant time to community service, don’t deserve a party. They do. But the party can’t be the focus. It can be a goal, or a reward. But if the main thing you talk about when discussing your kid’s Bar Mitzvah is your theme, your DJ and the caterer – then that’s what your kid will remember about it too. Not the learning, not the achievement, not the fact that by reading from the Torah they are participating in a ritual that dates back to the time of Moses.
I want my kids to remember their party as fun, and exciting. But I want them to remember their B’nai Mitzvah as a process of learning who they are, learning where they come from, and deciding to what degree Judaism is going to have a place in their lives.
But the fact remains: I still have to plan a party. And the fact remains that if everyone else is doing over the top crazy parties, while there is certain to be a degree of Bar Mitzvah fatigue among the 7th graders of their school, a low key, non-showy party is going to seem…lame. And I don’t want my kids’ party to be lame.
So how do I do that? How do I plan a fun, low-key party that isn’t a dud?
I thought of bowling – but here in NY, that means a fancy hipster place like Bowlmor Lanes, or a slick, nightclubby looking Lucky Strike. Ping pong parties can be fun. But the place that does them in NY, SPiN, is owned by Susan Sarandon, and has a definite cooler than thou vibe. We could leave the city, but that entails transporting all of the kids. (We have to invite the entire grade — 60 kids). I suggested a cooking party: shot down. I suggested a scavenger hunt. No all around. A murder mystery evening. Nope. I even found someone called The Adventure Rabbi, who takes your family mountain climbing and then performs the ceremony – with everyone in shorts and climbing gear – right on top of the mountain. Yeah, right. We’re NYers, not mountain climbers. Physical activity in this city is raising your arm for a cab.
So I’ve been feeling kind of stuck.
But then yesterday, my daughter made a suggestion: “why don’t we do our community service with underprivileged kids, and then, as our B’nai Mitzvah party, throw them a carnival?” My son, miraculously, even sort of, kind of, thought it could be fun. We could have a circus theme, he suggested. Pop Corn, Cotton Candy, games.
So it looks like my B’Nai Mitzvah party might end up being a circus after all. And I’m totally OK with that.
Because if my kids can think of that idea can even consider turning their party into a charitable event, then they know what matters.
Bring on the clowns.
Update: In April 2013, my kids had their B’nai Mitzvah — and while it had a charitable component – together, the kids donated nearly $3000 of their gifts to charitable causes, and both did months-long Mitzvah Projects as part of their preparation — it was NOT a party for underprivileged kids. I think – well, I hope – that the fact that they even CONSIDERED doing that means we haven’t completely failed in raising compassionate, aware kids. But I felt I did need to ‘fess up. It was a party. A service and a party, like any other. You can read my speech to them here.