People like to kvetch about the extravagance of weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other life-cycle events in the Jewish community. When it becomes real, though, doing your own thing is harder than it looks.
We just celebrated our son’s bar mitzvah, our third so far, and I have been thinking about why people do what they do and sometimes go overboard. Everyone knows that boys (or girls) becomes of age just by turning 13 (or 12), and while some recommend a communal meal on the boy’s birthday, the minimum observance involves putting on tefillin (phylacteries) and getting called up to the Torah for the first time. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the rosh yeshiva of the Petach Tikva hesder yeshiva, described how his mother invited his friends for herring and cookies on the evening of his birthday.
There are three main difficulties when planning bar and bat mitzvahs: Parents’ friends, child’s friends, and grandparents and extended family have different needs; observant Jews don’t drive on Shabbat; and in Israel, Sunday is an ordinary work day.
The following are examples of celebrations in Israeli religious circles. It’s common to have more than one:
- In religious Zionist circles, the bar mitzvah boy may read all or part of the week’s Torah portion in the synagogue.
- Celebrating the first time putting on Tefillin. Traditions vary, but most boys begin putting on phylacteries thirty days before their thirteenth birthdays. This becomes an opportunity to celebrate on a weekday. Some do it at the kotel or in school, with anything ranging from light refreshments to a full restaurant meal with a band.
- Calling the boy up to the Torah at a weekday synagogue (or private) service. If your date falls near Chanukah or a Friday Rosh Chodesh (the weekend starts Friday here) then you are in luck.
- Mid-week evening event with a sit-down dinner, a band or DJ, photographer, etc.
- Shabbat in a hotel or guest house. Typically the extended family is invited along with a limited number of friends without their children. I heard of one case where the hosts refused to allow even a two-month old to attend as they felt it would disturb the atmosphere. Some find that if you cut your guest list somewhat this comes out cheaper than a Shabbat at home, once you include meals, accommodations, a kiddush and a mid-week function.
- An activity for the bar mitzvah boy’s friends. This may include a hike or visit to place of interest, and relatives and friends may also be included.
- Hosting the relatives for Shabbat in your community, hoping you can find enough places for them to sleep.
- Making a function on Shabbat such as a kiddush, sit-down meal, or Friday night dessert.
- Saturday evening events are nothing new here, but Havdalah ceremonies are now a trend in the US.
And there are many variations.
There are valid reasons for making “fancy” bar mitzvahs. While we might wish people would tone it down, we only have power over our own decisions.
What about your child? If you can only afford to make a modest affair when your son’s friends are making huge bashes, he will understand. But if you choose to save on this event when you normally spend lavishly on vacations, he may not see things in the same light.
For our recent bar mitzvah we decided to focus on the family Shabbat. We were going to have a mid-week dinner, but cancelled even though we had already printed invitations. The reasons we skipped it:
- Time of year. There are about a dozen weddings this month from our community alone (no, we’re not invited to most of them), and it’s vacation time as well. I told my son that it’s unlikely the parents of his schoolfriends from neighboring towns would be available for driving. As for his local friends, we found out that a good friend held his party on the same night.
- It just seemed like too much on top of hosting 37 for Shabbat and holding a kiddush in shul. And even though I did most of the cooking and set up the kiddush, Shabbat did not come out cheap.
- My son’s birthday fell on Shabbat.
- The only grandparent to attend was my father-in-law, who was not interested in any kind of dinner. But grandparents can put a lot of pressure on a family.
The flip side of making aliyah without parents, or not having them around (our mothers died years ago, and my father cannot make the trip). You suffer from the distance and lack of support, but are freer to do things the way you want.
The disadvantage of not having a mid-week event was having to exclude relatives and out-of-town friends. They always make the effort to attend and invite us to their own smachot, and it’s a rare opportunity to see them. Well, you can’t have everything.
You don’t have to make a huge event just to invite people back. We invited out-of-towners to the dinners we held for our two older sons. Weddings may not be far off so we can invite everyone then. Anyway, if going to a simcha will obligate you to reciprocate you probably shouldn’t go in teh first place.
We felt a lot of pressure to have a mid-week event. Even our haredi relatives have a dinner or some kind of open house. The only ones who don’t, it seems, are the ones who go away to a hotel. I pointed this out to my son, because he was not invited to his friends’ hotel bar mitzvahs.
At the end of the day you need to be comfortable with your choice. Sometimes it’s important to do what your community is doing, but overspending and overdoing adds no joy to the celebration.
Whatever you do, focus on your child, the family and guests, and the significance of the bar mitzvah.