"I'll call your bet and raise you two," the sequin-clad woman said.
"Go for it," I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.
"You may have won this round," I told my chip-hauling opponent. "But just wait until after the Motzi!"
Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I've been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar's Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.
How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?
The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid's Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child's insistence that she's "only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!"
It's not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b'nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, "Keeping Up With the Steins," but when they're inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.
"The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child," said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of "Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah" (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) "It's not fair to leave our values at the front door."
Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child's big day doesn't melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:
At the Service
Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.
"A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family," said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta's Congregation Or Hadash.
Link the generations. When my son's bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather's tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.
Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?
"Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child," said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b'nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of "Siman Tov, Mazel Tov."
Share the spotlight. When Salkin's son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b'nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.
Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.
At the Party
Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables' focal points from donatable items. And you needn't bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son's centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.
Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her -- or one that incorporates the theme of your party -- and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.
Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.
Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it's easier to stay focused on what's really important.
Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?
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