As a rule, I try not to criticize the choices of others. If they have earned or inherited their piles of money, who am I to stand in judgement of how they spend it?
Actually, I'm officially tossing that rule out the window, effective immediately. Yes, I am judging people who throw elaborate Bar Mitzvah parties. I judge them to have lost all perspective on the world in which we live. I judge them to be setting a hideous example for their kids, including the newly minted man in the family. I judge them to have taken leave of their senses along with their credit card.
In turn, they may judge me and deem me jealous because they could afford to hire a professional event stager to transform the room into a spaceship, arrange for the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders to stop by and pose for photos with the pint-sized man of the hour, and to have Steven Spielberg produce and direct a movie that is invariably titled "Sammy: The Early Years."
Yes, they may deem me jealous, but they'd be wrong.
What is clamping my wallet shut as we plan for my son's Bar Mitzvah is the idea that there should be any planning of this magnitude involved at all. To become a Bar Mitzvah is a rite of passage filled with ritual and tradition. I love that part of it. What we do about the party afterward, well, that's on us. The modern-day spin on the party can cost upwards of $100,000 and is treated in some circles as a mini-wedding with the boy's mother behaving like a Bridezilla. Just the other day, another Mother-of-a-Bar-Mitzvah-boy called me upset that her own mother had handed her a long list of guests she wanted to invite. "My son doesn't even know these people," my friend said.
And then there's the pity you will get for trying to keep the event budget down to a month's take-home pay. A well-meaning friend keeps sending me links to home-made centerpieces she finds on Pinterest. For under $11 -- and, in my case, six hours of my life per centerpiece -- I can make them out of candy and pipe cleaners, she told me. And if I change the theme to Legos, the possibilities are endless for matching place cards and invitations, she advises. When I told her there will be no "theme," she couldn't quite process it. "What will the decorations be then?" she asked.
The problem is, my idea of what a Bar Mitzvah party is is very different from modern-day conventions. I want something where the celebration's roots go back in time the way the ceremony does, something that embraces family and community.
I want my son to have a Shtetl-style Bar Mitzvah, where we come together as a village to share the day. His special aunties will bring the freshly baked bread and I'll slaughter the chickens. We will drink and dance and make music together in celebration of the uber-Shabbat on which my son accepted the responsibilities of adulthood as a Jew. In olden days, he would also be accepting the burden of paying the taxes for the family as well, which is why the Bar Mitzvah dad thanks G-d for his son's ascension to manhood.
I want to have the party in our home -- because the Shtetl lacks adequate and affordable banquet facilities -- and all the neighbors will be invited -- useful if we play music loud or late. We will remember to feed the hungry and welcome the poor to our party because joy feels best when shared. We will practice inclusiveness and not turn up our noses at inviting the kids who never get invited to join the Bar Mitzvah party circuit. We will go out of our way to make sure our elder relatives and teachers are there because without them, how would we know about our tradition and where we came from? We will welcome our friends and loved ones to our home and our pride and joy in our son will be infectious.
We do not need elaborate floral centerpieces or clever themes or matching color schemes to do any of that, do we? Do we even need a DJ? OK, maybe a DJ.
Much to my son's initial horror, I am dead serious. I even consulted MyJewishLearning.com, my guide to all things Jewish when my rabbi isn't available and sometimes even when she is.
According to MyJewishLearning, the Bar Mitzvah feast historically was served as the third meal of the Sabbath (dinner) and always occurred in the parents' home. In the 17th Century, German Jews added the tradition of buying the Bar Mitzvah boy a set of new clothes for the occasion; before that, he wore his existing finery and presumably his mother didn't spend hours getting her hair and makeup done either. An hour before afternoon prayers, the Bar Mitzvah boy went to the homes of the guests to invite them to the meal. There were no invitations with matching pre-stamped RSVP cards mailed eight weeks in advance and no Save The Date notices sent out six months before the event. At the meal, the boy delivered his speech and served as the leader in reciting the grace after eating. Amen.
I want my son's Bar Mitzvah ceremony and party to mean something. I don't want it to be a carbon copy of the ones he went to last week and the week before that. I don't want to have conversations like "Jake had a photo booth and gave everyone hats" or "Dylan had a chocolate fountain plus the cake" or "Michael had a stretch limo bring all the kids to the restaurant."
I want my son to feel special, to know we recognize the hard work and study he has put into this event in his life. I just don't want the only take-away to be a henna air-brushed tattoo and party favors that wind up in the trash the next day anyway.
But you are probably thinking about now, "Shouldn't the party be about him? Shouldn't it be what he wants?" I see my son's becoming a Bar Mitzvah as a teaching moment for all of us, so no -- not necessarily. My children do not always get what they want; they get what they need to the best of our ability to afford them. I will listen to his ideas about how he sees his party and we will discuss them. We will not overspend and we will throw a Bar Mitzvah party that speaks to the values of the occasion. We will certainly compromise and my first compromise was to agree that I will not actually slaughter any chickens.
"That's a relief, Mom," he told me, smiling. And then, proving that he "got" the message, he showed me an ad from a vendor advertising how their photo booths will "impress all your guests." His comment: "Like a photo booth impresses people?"