Then one day when my son was in fourth grade, I received a letter from my synagogue assigning him a bar mitzvah date. Surely they jest, I cajoled myself. They didn't. In fact, by the time I'd made my way back from the mailbox the phone was ringing off the hook.
"We got our date, did you get yours?" panted a breathless voice I scarcely recognized as a friend of mine. "The party planner is booking three years out, so you have to call her right away."
And just like that, a jillion years came to a screeching halt as I was thrown headfirst into the maelstrom of bar mitzvah planning.
As my son's bar mitzvah day inched closer, I began to see the world in a whole different light -- a disco ball light, to be exact -- for as my child grew, so did his friends, officially putting us both on the b'nai mitzvah circuit.
And what an elaborately themed circuit it was. From were casino getups that could rival Caesar's Palace to dance floors flanked with Harley Davidson motorcycles.
How did this happen? My fellow bar mitzvah circuiteers and I would wonder. How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in an age-old Jewish tradition end up playing blackjack and Texas hold 'em? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a custom-designed ice sculpture of Shawn Green?
The answer is not difficult. We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our child's Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a secular theme that somehow took on a life of its own. Lost in our child's insistence that she's "only been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life."
But my daughter really has been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life, you may be thinking. We have it all planned out -- "Samantha's Candy Shoppe." Every centerpiece will be inspired by a different type of candy; we'll have an 8-foot chocolate fountain in the middle of the room, and the favors will be Hershey bars with all her vital bat mitzvah stats etched on the label in hot pink.
The trouble is that -- despite honest parental intentions -- following up a meaningful, religious milestone with a glitzy party focusing exclusively on Kit Kats and Jelly Bellies can undermine the entire point of our child having a bar or bat mitzvah in the first place.
That said, I'm not suggesting we bail on our kids' secular dream themes altogether. I mean while it's clearly not what the talmudic rabbis had in mind, I think it's kind of sweet that the bar/bat mitzvah party has evolved into a celebration of the whole child. The trick is in keeping a fluid connection between the morning service and the evening celebration; between Jewish values and kid-defined rules of party cool.
One way to build this crucial bridge is to integrate tzedakah into our party theme.
We added depth to my son's fun -- but admittedly uninspiring -- Super Bowl bar mitzvah theme by incorporating an overnight camp for children with life-threatening diseases that was desperately in need of sporting equipment. All the centerpieces were constructed from donatable sports gear, and there was a collection station set up at the entrance to the party room (Brandon had written his guests in advance explaining his cause and providing them a copy of the camp's athletic supply wish list). The requisite football theme didn't suffer a smidgen, and the charity received a U-Haul full of brand new sporting goods as a goody bag.
To help you infuse Jewish soul into your child's dream party, here are some popular secular bar/bat mitzvah themes and sample tzedakah spin-offs:
Tzedakah: COEJL: Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (www.coejlsc.org); TreePeople (www.treepeople.org); Los Angeles Zoo (www.lazoo.org); STAR ECO station (www.ecostation.org); Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs.org).
Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids" (Broadway Books) will be published in 2007.
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