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All Bar and No Mitzvah

All Bar and No Mitzvah

In planning my son's bar mitzvah I have begun to wonder if we as a community are not putting the emphasis in the wrong place.


It's been said that when it comes to raising children, the days go slow and the years go fast. As I find myself in the thick of planning my second son's bar mitzvah, these words ring all too true. But who has time for sentimentalism when you've got to pull off a colossal bar mitzvah bash in less than a year?

The first item on my party-planning agenda was to secure the entertainment.

"Bar Mitzvahs'R'Us," said a perky voice on the telephone.

"I'd like to know if you have availability on April 7, please," I inquired, cordially.

"Is that 2009 or 2010?"

"2008," I answered, panic rising.

"Ha!" said the voice (no longer sounding so perky). "Good luck."

"I'd like to know if you have availability on April 7, please," I inquired. "Is that 2009 or 2010?"

Fifteen phone calls and 14 rejections later, I'd managed to land a living breathing master of ceremonies (who'd miraculously just had a cancellation for my date).

The next morning, I was sipping Starbucks with an MC named Rhythm - a hulking, albeit friendly man who, I can only assume, plays for the NFL during his off-season - to nail down the details of my family's fast approaching event.

"Do you want to do the motzi?" asked Rhythm.

"Yes," I answered, "of course."

"How about a candle lighting?"

"Umm, I'm not sure."

Things proceeded in this manner. Was I interested in birkat hamazon? What about feather boas? Did I want to do the hora? How about the chicken dance?

As Rhythm threw me option after option without missing a beat, I felt myself entering a transformational spin. Like Lynda Carter on the old Wonder Woman TV show. And when I stopped whirling, I was sitting on the other side of my frappuccino - in Rhythm's shoes (enormous though they might be).

I could suddenly grasp the stark bizarreness that this 300-pound linebacker - whose bling didn't include a single Star of David - was so incredibly well versed in terms like motzi and birkat, and, more bizarre yet, was using them in conjunction with terms like feather boa and chicken dance.

I could now clearly see what Rhythm (and the rest of the gentile world, for that matter) must think from the outside looking in at the modern American bar mitzva phenomenon. And how he might interpret the ways we Jewish parents choose to celebrate these meaningful religious rites of passage for our children.

On the heels of this revelation came an unsettling flashback to a Web site entry I'd encountered earlier during a cyber-hunt for hopping bar mitzvah party themes. It was written by a non-Jewish mother about her son's experience at a friend's bar mitzvah. Here it is, slightly abbreviated and 100 percent true: Best bar mitzvah party theme – Terminator

My son William was recently invited to his friend Josh's bar mitzvah. William had never been to a bar mitzvah before, and he's still talking about it.

The invitation was a video tape of Josh, dressed like the Terminator and doing an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression: "Come to my bar mitzvah, or else!"

When I dropped William off at the five-star hotel ballroom, everything was decorated to look like metal. There were robots standing guard with blinking eyes and moving arms; destroyed tanks and cars strewn about (rented from a movie prop house); and inflatable jungle gyms and slides, all in camouflage colors. There was even a life-sized Arnold Schwarzenegger cutout for guests to sign.

After the aliya latorah, Josh made his grand entrance on a "T2" motorcycle - his bar mitzvah gift from his parents! Following the motzi, a live rock band played modern techno music. Josh did a really cool robot dance.

During the traditional candle lighting ceremony, Josh lit 13 candles with a butane lighter shaped like a Terminator rifle. My son wished he could take it home with him.

At midnight, Josh's parents announced that a collector's Terminator action figure was hidden somewhere in the ballroom. While everyone searched, an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike dressed like the Terminator walked in. Every kid got a picture taken with the surprise guest.

William had such a great time that he asked if he could have a bar mitzvah, too.

Fueled with newfound perspective and courage (and an unmistakable wave of nausea), I thanked Rhythm for his time and made a dash for my bookshelf to retrieve my dog-eared copy of the Book of Jewish Values to see what the ever wise and rational Rabbi Joseph Telushkin might have to say about the situation. He didn't let me down.

Lavish parties often end up diminishing, sometimes even eliminating, the religious significance of the bar mitzvah.

"Out of the desire not to appear cheap or unloving to their children, many... Jews feel forced to spend far more on [bar mitzvah] parties than they can or want to," he writes. "Furthermore lavish parties often end up diminishing, sometimes even eliminating, the religious significance of the bar mitzvah. For many of the celebrants, what counts is the ‘bar,' not the mitzvah."

What we desperately need, says Telushkin, are some "wealthy moral heroes... prominent, affluent Jews in our largest Jewish communities - to throw a simple bar or bat mitzvah celebration, one in which the party is very pleasant and celebratory, but not lavish." In doing so, he holds, "the good they would do for their fellow Jews would be almost incalculable."

In my community, I've seen a few brave parents heed this critical calling with wonderful results, and I - post-Wonder Woman-style transformational spin and faithful Telushkin fan - plan to do the same (even if I may fall a tad short of affluent, pillar of the Jewish community status at the present time).

At this stage in my bar mitzvah planning process, I'm still not sure where this journey will take my family. But I do know where it won't.

October 11, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Ronni, November 5, 2008 12:23 PM


My problem is not with the money spent but with the extreme "goyishness" of the celebration. What is being celebrated? This is your son's or daughter's celebration of accepting reward and punishment for how they live their life (when the parents become absolved of that responsibility). Do I need to hear "Jessie's Girl" (about a man fantasizing about someone else's woman) at a Bat-Mitzvah? That is just completely obscene and the sexual dancing with all the men staring? Where is the spiritual component in all of this? I am planning a Bat-Mitzvah for my daughter in the next few months and it'll be wonderful, beautiful, and very spiritual, with lots of dancing (ladies and girls only) without the nasty music that is so popular.

(12) eli, October 27, 2008 3:23 PM

dont celebrate a culture thats not yours

when your cousins from out of town show up, it would be nice to speak to them with out yelling in their ear. the yo boy mtv bar mitzvah is disgusting. horrible, loud and inappropriate music has no place here. the theme of bnai mitzvahs should be BEING A STRONG AND COMMITTED JEW WHO LOVES ISRAEL AND OUR PEOPLE.

(11) MARNIE MACAULEY, October 20, 2008 5:12 PM


A small thing, yet ... a way to handle it. I loathe the pomp and favor the ceremony, as well. One aspect that particularly bugs me (aside from the Bar Mitzvah flying out of a cage with 100 turtledoves), is invitations. Money on food ... eh. But money -- big bucks on invites? Feh! Double Feh! And so the contest for most tacky, overdone, and overpriced invites starts. Well, for my son's Bar Mitzvah, I refused! "A sin!" I thought ... to spend on a functional "thing" that is otherwise useless, and fish paper the day after. So ... I called a charitable organization -- one that sends free cards in advance to encourage donations, and asked if they could make up a simple invitation. No style change -- except announcing the time, place, etc. Eureka! They could. I bought my invites from them ... and each became a contribution from the person I was inviting! So what if it wasn't silly-frilly? I felt it was keeping with the meaning of the event. And BTW ... it was also no doubt cheaper. But aside from that ... it was money well-spent. I wish all charities and organizations would consider offering invitations. Nothing fancy, but meaningful, which would provide a sizeable donation. I also wanted to suggest this to our dear readers ... instead of throwing good money in ridiculous directions. Jewlariously yours, Marnie

(10) Hillel Levin, October 19, 2008 8:41 PM

Twin with a Child in Sderot

Connections Israel, in connection with the city offices in Sderot, Israel is matching up Bar and Bat Mitzvah Children in Sderot with their peers Chutz L'Aretz. Here is a meaningful way to extend the Mitzvah to those children in a difficult situation. For more information, visit our website at: and email me in Jerusalem at: 972-2-623-6893

(9) Lisa, October 15, 2008 1:30 PM

This was not funny, but a good point

I am very pleased to say that my Bat Mitzvah was all about the true meaning of it. The only theme I had was the use of the colors pink and white, from the invitations to paper goods to my dress. My mom and I prepared everything, right down to tying pink ribbons around the white napkins that held the silverware. Festivities began with a Shabbat dinner in the simple social hall at the temple on Friday night, immediately followed by services. The Oneg was better than on other weeks...Mom ordered my favorite eclairs. On Saturday morning I ate a typical, quick breakfast at home with just my mom, dad and brother before heading to the synagogue where I led a 3 hour service. The luncheon celebration was held at our small house, where some of the food was ordered from a catering company and some had been prepared by my mother, grandmother and I. Later on Saturday evening, we had a dinner at our house for just family and out-of-town guests. On Sunday morning, we provided brunch at our house for whatever guests still remained in town. My Bat Mitzvah will forever be in my memory as a weekend of celebrating G-d, my ushering into womanhood, and time with my family.

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