Bar Mitzvah Blues

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.


    • says

      I am. But for the record – just because they thought of it, doesn’t mean they’re really going to want to do it! Still, even thinking of it shows something good, right? So far, I’ve called two Children’s Organizations in NYC – both have turned us down!

  1. Soliloquy says

    Just. so. cool.

    Am reading the Gods & Kings series about the life of King Hezekiah to my almost 13yo son. He is loving it!!

  2. Neshama Mousseau says

    OY! Funny to see Adventure Rabbi referenced. She is in my neighborhood and definitely a big stretch for New Yorkers.

  3. says

    Love that idea. A circus or carnival! We’ve had 3 b’nai mitzvah (2 together) and lived through them… no fancy parties. One was a bowling party at a kitchy place – kids only – and a catered luncheon at temple for the full guest list after the service. The other was paintball for the kids the day after – and a catered lunch for all after the service. Both were tied to community service – one collected nearly 4,000 books to start a library for kids at the homeless shelter and the other two raised money for (very cool org!). We tied our luncheons to the nonprofits. For our family, it was the perfect balance.

    • says

      I don’t know you — but I think you’re my new hero.
      I also think our idea is not gonna happen. But maybe some variation on that theme. Every place I’ve called has turned me down flat.

  4. says

    That. Is. Awesome. Score one for good parenting!

    Even when one intends to put the learning and the hard work first, the reality hits that reservations must be made, caterers must be booked. So many decisions, so much discussion all while you are nagging your child. again. to practice his portion and write the damn d’var already. (Was that just us?)

  5. says

    I think I just fell in love with your kids, Nancy. I LOVE your daughter’s suggestion. Can’t wait to follow the planning. Also? Totally sharing this on our temple’s FB page. It’s just that awesome.

    An Adventure Rabbi? Going to talk to my Rabbi tonight about that!

    • says

      Thanks, Julie. I’ve gotten so many suggestions from so many people from this — both on and off line. I think I’ll have to write more posts about how it all pans out.
      Of course it still might not happen. They may decided they NEEEEEED a DJ. But I’m holding on to the fact that they thought of it. That’s something.

  6. says

    Breathe. Most of our family is out of town, so we went up to a Wisconsin resort near a Jewish camp and had a “Bat Mitzvah Shabbaton”. for 4th of July weekend, no matter when the event was at shul. The kids did not invite their friends (we did this twice, for daughter #1 and son. Daughter#2 wanted the party, so we did an afternoon dj thing at the synagogue with ice cream sundaes and pizza…wasn’t nearly as much fun as her siblings’) The weekend was casual, we had services that everyone sort of took part in, and everyone got to hang with everyone. It was heaven. Just to say, each kid learned a different Torah portion for that summer event. For the social part, older daughter was at a Schechter and joint parties were big – she had a party with 9 other kids, costs split 10 ways, at a place we never would have booked…dj, lots of fun, give aways, but split 10 ways (did I mention that) and it was basically a joint birthday party for the entire grade. Be creative, be firm, and be open to new ideas. But be sure about the point of this whole thing. One friend, when asked by a “planner” what the theme was, he said, “um, religious rite of passage?” He didn’t use that planner. And Mazal Tov, a little early.

    • says

      I don’t know where you live…but it sounds like an amazing community. I remember when my kids were in Pre-K, I suggested that the 6 kids who had birthdays in April have one big party. People looked at me like I was insane. They wanted to have their 4 year olds’ parties at a club, where waiters served passed hors d’oevres and champagne for the adults, and served the kids made-on-demand omelets, and grilled chicken paillards. And I’m not kidding. At one party — in Manhattan — for a four year old — with a Shrek theme, there was a magician, spin art, sand art, cocktails and mocktails, and a Donkey (a REAL donkey) with Shrek and Princess Fiona.
      I think I want to live where you live.

  7. hollynyny says

    I have to admit that you’re scaring me as I can’t get my head around the fact that my kids will soon to be entering this phase. But I hope that they are like your altruistic kids but I doubt that they will be.

  8. says

    I totally sympathize. We were talking about our daughter’s bat mitzvah just this morning. I’ve started pinning ideas on Pinterest and I’m going on faith that somehow it will magically all turn itself into a fabulous, affordable party.

  9. Ebet says

    I can honestly say, whatever type of party you throw, IT’S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS.
    It’s times like that, where you know you’re doing a good job.
    Way to go Nancy and Alan. Way to go.

  10. says

    Mazel tov to you for raising awesome and thoughtful children. You should be proud of yourself. We just had our daughter’s wedding. I hope your children are like mine as my daughter gave part of her wedding money to a charitable organization as well. Congratulations!

  11. says

    I barely remember my Bar Mitzvah, but I think what’s important is not the party or even the Torah portion. It’s what being a Jewish adult means. Forget everything else, they have to understand the realities of adulthood. I hope as your kids grow older, they remember that wish to help underprivileged kids and they apply it to their lives in the present.
    Oh, and mazel tov!

  12. says

    I envy you for at least you are planning a mitzvah. Mine was slightly embarrassing. I blogged on it and if you get chance give it a read and you will see you are on the right track and mine was, derailed.

  13. says

    I had my bar mitzvah in 1995 and it was giant party back then too. But now with social networking, people want to make it even more of a party. I think you’re right on that point.

  14. says

    Thanks — I enjoyed reading this! Last night I was watching (half of) The Fiddler on the Roof, and now I’m liking how I’m learning a little more about Judaism these days. 🙂

  15. says

    Mazel Tov. I like the way you though about it. yes what count is who you ll becoming. One of human’s default is to compare itself and enter in competition with other for everything. When they would win on every level, on listening to their self and be open to others. A party is always a success when it’s given with positive energy, kindness, happiness, and looking forward to have some fun. I remember my bat mitzva, what matters was to have family and friends and dancing. I was with 2 boys, and Friday night my hands were shaking while I was holding my hands up in front of the 2 Shabbat candles. Th. all went fast. In 3 years will be our first daughter’s bat mitzva, the Maine question will be where will it be, and how many plane tickets as we are spread out over the ocean 🙂

  16. says

    Perhaps I miss something – but how can a Bar/Bat Mitzvah be celebrated for twins? They must be of the same age, but a Bar Mitzvah is for 13 y/o boys and Bat Mitzvah is for 12 y/o girls, right?

    • says

      You can actually have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at any age after you “come of age.” For girls, it’s any time after age 12 and for boys, any time after age 13. As a matter of fact, technically, you ARE a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at that time. “Having” a Bar Mitzvah is really a misnomver. All it means to be a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is that you’re old enough to read from the Torah.

  17. says

    Many thanks for a great read. Over the years you’ve taught your children a life . lesson about what is important and to be respectful. It looks as though the lesson has been learnt well.

  18. says

    You are raising compassionate kids. A hardy mazel. And congratulations on being freshly pressed. That sounds like a compliment for your dry cleaner!

  19. says

    I just found this posting on Freshly Pressed, It’s a great piece. I loved reading it. I live in a part of New Jersey that making a Bar/ Bat Mitzvah is an extension to the ostentatious car that is parked in the driveway and has NOTHING to do with your kids achievement. All show. I know people that have spent close to a million bucks for the spoiled brats big day. What a shame with all the starving people in the world that wealthy idiots as well as not so wealthy idiots spend such large sums of money for the party. The not so wealthy have been known to put it on credit cards and even take out second mortgages so they could keep up with the Schwartz’s. Thank you for this post. I have so much more to comment but it would turn out to be a post in itself.

  20. bethilyssa says

    Just came across your post when googling “low key bat mitzvah” LOL. My daughter’s is still 2 1/2 years away, but you know how it is – everyone at the synagogues (we don’t belong to one – she goes to an unaffiliated Hebrew School) is getting their dates and I started freaking out. I found another article that was “how to have a bat mitzvah on the cheap!” And it was basically hiring a bunch of contractors to do everything for you from centerpieces to dessert, and having the same old dinner and dancing as usual. She even rented couches for a “lounge” area. How is that on the cheap? I guess relatively, compared to Keeping Up with the Steins?! OY. I love your idea. Hope you have another post on your site to see how it turned out!!!!

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