Too Much Bar and Not Enough Mitzvah

“The kids are all in there!” my oldest friend and college roommate shouted to my 12-year-old son Levi as she gently pushed him toward the foreboding ballroom. He tried to resist, but the element of surprise had slowed his reflexes a bit and he’d inadvertently staggered a few feet in the direction of the ominous entrance. Under the pressure of my closest pal’s scrutiny, he cautiously pulled open one of the ginormous double doors and reluctantly stepped into the fray. My husband and I, along with our younger son Eli, followed close behind.

It was a total sensory overload. The multicolored strobe lights, along with a series of red-carpet style photoflashes blinded us like morning sun on a snow-capped mountain. The hip-hop din was deafening. In the distance we could vaguely make out the figures of half a dozen or so scantily clad professional dancers and a cadre of middle-aged rockers pounding out notes that didn’t seem to belong in the same song. “Argh,” Levi moaned, “What is this?”

Suddenly, we were overtaken by an older woman dressed in a frightfully hip Betsey Johnson polka-dotted strapless get-up. Her dazzling white, Cheshire Cat-like grin seemed threatening. “Come join the fun!” she insisted, more like a command than an invitation. Then she grabbed my son’s arm and began leading him to the dance floor.

“Mom!” he cried, “Get me out of here!” It was one of those cries that tells a mother this is a real cause for intervention. I stepped forcibly between Levi and the party planner dressed like an adolescent. “Maybe later,” I smiled, attempting to sound sincere. Levi was frozen solid. He looked like a deer who’d been stunned still by a tranquilizer to the sternum.

My husband and I managed to coax him out of the room and into a quiet corner of the swanky Chicago hotel lobby. Once his breathing slowed and he seemed nearly back to normal, he spit out the sentence that would color our plans and decisions for the next year as we embark upon the path toward his becoming a bar mitzvah. “I don’t want anything like this.” He insisted with unmistakable clarity.

We had secured his bar mitzvah date early in the summer and had been casually tossing around ideas for the upcoming celebration. For no specific reason, we’d felt compelled to imagine the affair at one of Scottsdale’s elegant resorts. Images of DJs, photo booths and sweet tables with chocolate fountains danced in our heads. But luckily we hadn’t gotten too far in the planning. The message from our son was crystal. We needed to immediately change course and rethink everything.

While fancy hotel soirees have been a bar and bat mitzvah staple for decades, they’re not right for every kid. They can also cost as much as a wedding, and with the economy continuing to downturn, spending up to $30,000 on a party for your 13-year-old may not hold the same appeal it once did. So what is a parent to do? You want to mark this momentous ritual in a meaningful manner, with a celebration that’s not only important, but also takes into account who your child is, his interests and talents, his uniqueness and individuality. There’s also a financial reality that needs to be assessed. Too many parents overspend on the bar mitzvah festivities and end up in a financial bind that makes future day-to-day living uncomfortable, stressful and angst-ridden. That shouldn’t be the price for successfully ushering your youth into adulthood.

Rabbi Mari Chernow, senior rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix, encourages families to have open conversations about the Bar Mitzvah celebration. “I suggest families sit down and discuss priorities,” councils Chernow. “This can be one way of treating the bar/bat mitzvah as an adult. Encourage him or her to articulate one or two things that feel really important (i.e. having all of his or her friends, or a certain kind of music or food). This is part of the maturing process — learning to pick some priorities and let others go.”

This sage advice is aimed at keeping families focused on the meaning behind the celebration. Chernow reminds parents, “Before they know it, their ‘children’ will be asking for the car keys and thinking about college applications. The ritual surrounding becoming bar and bat mitzvah is the Jewish tradition’s way of slowing us down so that we recognize the enormity of what is happening in a family’s life. Your child should feel celebrated. And so should you. This is an opportunity for friends and family to rejoice and have a wonderful time. But the celebration can also be infused with meaning.”

While centerpieces, candle lighting ceremonies and photo montages are standard bar/bat mitzvah protocol these days, Chernow suggests “doing them in a way that reflects the meaning and Jewish values that are behind the celebration — like welcoming a young person to the community, teaching Torah, giving tzedakah and other mitzvot which the bar/bat mitzvah takes on as an adult.”

Ultimately, we decided as a family that Levi would be happier hosting an intimate luncheon with family and a few close friends to celebrate his becoming a bar mitzvah. He’s not into dancing. He doesn’t want a DJ or a live band. He loves the culinary arts and prefers to have a unique gastronomic experience at a small local eatery in town. He gets to work with an award-winning chef to create a menu and plan the event, while at the same time get a closer look into a business and profession that intrigues him. There will be no photo booths, no green screens, no street artists making caricatures of guests. Just a few friends, close family, delicious food and many stories shared about our bar mitzvah.

It’s taken awhile, but we’ve realized this is a celebration about Levi and we need to make sure that whatever we do represents him and his interests, values and beliefs. So whatever the size, scale and scope of your bar/bat mitzvah celebration, just be mindful of who your child is and the really important message of the day.

Debra Gettleman is a mother and blogger based in the Phoenix area. For more of her work, see

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