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My Son's Bar Mitzvah

My Son's Bar Mitzvah

"It's not about the bills, it's not about the bills," intones the mother, as the family gets revved up planning a meaningful Bar Mitzvah experience for the first born son.


Life has many firsts. It's part of what makes life exciting. It's part of what keeps us on our toes. And it's part of what throws us into panic and confusion. Am I going to get it right? I've never done this before. And even deeper, what exactly is right?

We are, please God, approaching another first in our family -– our oldest son's Bar Mitzvah. And the questions are flying fast and furious. We know we don't want a "circus" theme or a "baseball" theme. We're not hiring a rock band or a trapeze artist or a belly dancer! But that still leaves plenty of leeway.

How do you enjoy the party and maintain the focus?

How do you enjoy the party and maintain the focus? One of my girls wants all the clothing to be color-coordinated. I said no. One of my children wanted the celebration to be at a hotel. I said no. Another wanted all her friends to come. I said no. And everyone wants to help decide the menu. I said no to that also. But there have to be some yes-es. Not because the celebration is about the material but because everyone wants a piece of the joy.

Everyone is genuinely happy and excited for their brother (when they're not fighting over the computer with him!) and they want as many outlets as possible to express it.

Trying to tread the middle road is a challenge in every aspect of life. Here too. We want it attractive but not ostentatious, joyful but not wild, the food delicious but not extravagant, the clothing dignified but not dramatic (and not outrageously expensive). And we want it meaningful.


We want everyone to understand –- especially our son and his siblings -– what a Bar Mitzvah means. It's not about the party. It's not about the gifts. It's not about the band, the dessert or the kiddush. It's not about the beautiful cake our friend Betsy is going to make. And it's not about the bills. (It's not about the bills, it's not about the bills...)

It's about becoming an adult and forging a personal relationship with God. It's about recognizing that inherent in the concept of relationship is the idea of responsibility. And that responsibility is the real joy. Having obligations and using those obligations to connect to the Almighty is the ultimate happiness.

We want our friends and family to think this is the best party ever –- not the best decorations, the most courteous waiters, the most gourmet food, the most exotic setting –- the best party ever because it will teach us what life is really about. What we're really meant to celebrate. Where true joy is attainable. And if we can learn that lesson we want everyone we care about to learn it with us.

We want our family to think it was the best party ever because it taught us what life is really about.

These are all wonderful ideas. But exactly how is this lesson going to be taught?

I know it's not by counting checks. I know that a sense of relief, a suggestion that the "ordeal" is over would be a serious mistake. And the thought that this is an end rather than a beginning would be a tragedy. I know what won't teach the proper perspective. But what will?

One way I hope this lesson is absorbed is through my son's friends. When I've seen the joy of the boys dancing with and for each other at previous Bar Mitzvahs, I've been moved to tears. Their unselfconscious expressions of pure happiness lifted everyone to an appreciation of what the world could be, an excitement about the potential waiting to be unleashed.

Coupled with this are the words of his teachers. Continually exhorting the boys to appreciate the significance of the day and demonstrating to them the pleasure and beauty of a life of wisdom and positive actions, these teachers have primed their students for the new vistas to come. But only by acting on what they've learned, by exhibiting the character commensurate with the wisdom, will the boys begin to forge their own transcendent relationship.


And of course, the most challenging, demanding and effective way to show all our children what it means to have a relationship with God is by our own example (could we go back to talking about the teachers?)

No matter what we say (and we say a lot), our children will learn from our actions.

No matter what we say (and we say a lot), our children will learn from our actions. If we're focused on the centerpieces, they'll be focused on the centerpieces. If we're focused on the banquet hall, they'll be focused on the banquet hall. If we're focused on the guest list, that's where their thoughts will be also.

But if we're concentrating on the awesome responsibility and privilege of raising children who have the opportunity of experiencing a personal relationship with their Creator, if we're infused with warmth of being part of the Jewish people, if we're excited by the opportunity of fulfilling our people's mission in this world, then our children will be also.

Of course the Bar Mitzvah boy must give charity from his gifts. Of course it's very nice to include the poor in your dinner. It's appropriate to think of others and do particular kindnesses for them at this time.

But more important than these grand gestures are the daily acts of caring and honor and respect for others, the daily efforts to grow and become better, the daily striving to use the Almighty's Torah as a tool for drawing every closer to Him. It's being patient in line, it's being respectful to teachers, it's sharing with sisters (yes even sisters!) that truly make the man.

It's a hard example to set. I don't feel up to the task. But we must set our sights high, and pray a lot...

So the preparations continue -– physical and spiritual -– our son will get his tefillin and read the Torah portion in shul as he steps over the threshold from childhood to manhood. And we'll all be there to help him on the way. He'll stumble a few times; we all do. But if he internalizes the teaching of the day, if he recognizes the joy of a relationship with the Almighty, if he understands his ability to express that recognition through all his actions, if he's able to communicate that pleasure to those around him, then it will be a great party!

So if you're in Los Angeles the middle of November, join us. We're going to celebrate and grow together and we want to bring everyone we care about along for the ride. In the meantime, I just keep repeating to myself "it's not about the bills, it's not about the bills..."

September 2, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 19

(19) Vicky, July 30, 2011 5:07 PM

Next July our son will be Bar Mitzvahed

We have been able to save $100/month, so if we can't do the whole shebang for $2,000, its not gonna happen. My son decided to hunt for and grow as much of the food as is possible for his Bar Mitzvah. He will literally be providing almost all of the food. We decided to bring in my husband's parents who have passed and my grandparents by making their favorite dishes. My husband's father made his mother a china hutch and since we have to have the ceremony at another venue, we will use the china hutch as the ark. Love that you all are also trying to make it meaningful.

(18) Anonymous, January 30, 2011 10:19 PM

OUr son's bar mitzva is in April... and we also have very little money to spend on the party as we have tuition and four children. We have chosen to focus on his learning, hiring a great rabbi to work with him, and his grand parents are contributing towards the kiddush. The tefillin were expensive, but will hopefully last a lifetime.

(17) Anonymous, December 26, 2009 5:21 AM

Thank you

My oldest son is 12 and I am not prepared. We have 4 sons 2 years apart. After paying for Jewish Day School and everything else we are broke. I was feeling very sad because I could not afford to give him the party that I felt he deserves. He really is a hard worker and a nice kid. After reading this it helped me to remember that it is a celebration and to keep positive because children do pick up the negative vibes.

(16) Anonymous, November 14, 2009 11:23 PM

Thank you!

Thank you for a wonderful article! I enjoyed it greatly! My boys are 9 and 11 and I am looking forward to this day!

(15) Anonymous, October 28, 2009 12:46 PM

Words for my feelings

Thank you so much for putting words to my feelings. My daughter's Bat Mitzvah is in 2010, and I have been searching for a concise way to explain it. It is about the responsibility to continually educate oneself, build a community, and be a responsible member of the Jewish community and her secular community as well.

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