Not too long ago, some Jewish mothers and I were discussing our kids' upcoming b'nai mitzvah. We were wondering how to tame the ever-escalating, three-ring circus that the parties have become.
We are commanded to celebrate this important day in our children's lives as if it were a wedding, and you've seen what the wedding business has become. I have a feeling that back when the laws were written, our ancestors didn't anticipate financially disastrous theme parties, DJs with barely clad dancers, stiltwalkers, karaoke machines and make-your-own-T-shirt booths.
"Well, what can you do?" one mother sighed. "They all go to each other's parties, and then they want what everyone else has."
Everyone nodded in exasperated agreement -- everyone except me.
No, I said to myself. No, no, no. The whole idea of this outsized blowout rubbed me the wrong way from the get-go.
At first, I thought it was the expense. I am a writer; my husband is a playwright. (Translation: We have rich inner lives but live very frugal outer ones.) But it was more than that. A bar mitzvah is supposed to celebrate Jewish values.
Where is charity, love of God and a determination to tikkun olam (repairing the world) in such an ostentatious show? And what are we teaching our kids when we let the party become more important than the actual ceremony?
My family took a stand to reclaim the mitzvah in bar mitzvah.
Fortunately, my husband, Bill, and son, Levi, were on the same page as me. We absolutely didn't want an extravaganza that detracted from the meaning of the event. But on the other hand, we wanted something that would celebrate Levi's achievement.
Levi, bless his heart, had only one very teenage request for the day: "Please, please, don't embarrass me." OK, we could work with that.
So, how to strike a balance between an appropriate celebration and one that is also a good time?
First off, Levi was expected to do a group mitzvah project and an individual one, in which he gives back to the community. These were to make the kids realize that being a Jew means helping the world.
For his group project, he and a few other members of his Hebrew class collected toiletry items, books, batteries, CDs and DVDs to send to U.S. troops in Iraq. For his individual project, he contacted the National Yiddish Book Center, an organization devoted to rescuing Yiddish works, and helped find books and records in our community to send for preservation.
While Levi continued to study for his big day, I worked to create a celebration that was, you know, "us." I found a nice hotel for the reception, which charged a very reasonable rate for a lunch buffet. (Trust me, we signed the check and ran before they realized how vastly they underpriced themselves.)
After that, I tracked down Levi Strauss & Co. corporate headquarters and negotiated a wholesale price for 90 Levi's logo T-shirts. I created centerpieces out the shirts, hatboxes, gold foil and weighted gold and silver balloons. (Savings: Overpriced florist need not apply.)
One of the traditions of a bar mitzvah is to have a huge birthday cake at the reception and invite special honorees to light a candle. We wanted the candlelighting but couldn't see the point of ordering an expensive cake, when the hotel was providing a gajillion desserts. Baking our own cake wouldn't save anything, because the hotel charged an astronomical cake-cutting fee. I outfoxed them by bringing in homemade cupcakes and stuck the candles in them. (Savings: $300 vs. the cost of a box of Duncan Hines.)
Family and friends got into the spirit, as well. The expensive computer software that synagogues now like students to use for study preparation? I borrowed a copy from a mother whose kids had already been through the ceremony. Levi made his tallit himself, and my mother made an exquisite collar with needlepoint. My mother-in-law quilted a kippah for Levi out of scraps of material representing family members past and present.
A friend offered to go to the hotel ahead of us and set everything up. (Savings: No event manager.) For photographs, a friend offered to do the honors as his gift. We later printed a lovely album off the Internet using mypublisher.com. We had a DJ but no dancers, no smoke machines, no magicians, no basketball hoops. Dullsville, right? Wrong.
We walked in to the reception and were overwhelmed by how beautiful and tasteful it all looked. And by how much more it meant to us, knowing that we had created it. Our hearts and sensibilities were everywhere, from my grandfather's bar mitzvah photo placed on the escort table to the origami place names Levi and I made.
And the kids? They danced and ate and goofed around as kids will do if you just leave them alone, and no one seemed to miss a thing. I can honestly say that not one child asked me where the Anna Nicole imitator was. It was a magical day. A bar mitzvah is the coming together of the generations to tell the story of what it means to be a Jew. From grandparent to parent to child and, hopefully, to generations not yet born, we are passing the torch of our heritage. Our bargain bar mitzvah forced us to be more thoughtful and more personal in just that way. We put the focus where it should be -- on our son's place in our family and in the Jewish community.
-- Beth Levine is a writer whose essays have appeared in Redbook, Woman's Day, Family Circle, USA Weekend and Newsday.
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