Jewish: Food, Music, and More
by Rivka C. Berman
• Party Planning
• Why Party
• Historic Overspending
• People of the Book
• Tzedaka Centerpieces
A bar or bat mitzvah meal is a seudat mitzvah, a mitzvah meal, and every
effort should be made to ensure the meal meets kosher standards. However,
even if you choose a non-kosher caterer, skip the obviously non-kosher food. You
don’t have to go the bagels and lox route, but cross shrimp scampi off the menu.
A bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah meal is a seudat mitzvah, a mitzvah meal, and to
have out and out non-kosher food is contrary to the spirit of the day.
This may not be a classical Reform position, but neither is the bar mitzvah
celebration. (Confirmation was favored instead.) A kosher caterer would
also be a big hit with your kosher observing friends. (Though not
prevalent, there are reform Jews who adhere to a kosher diet.)
Sensibly plan a party that keeps the bat mitzvah’s meaning intact. There are
Sweet Sixteens and other teen years birthdays to celebrate what it means to be a
teenager. Bar mitzvahs are distinguished by their focus on what it means to be a
Jew. Which Jewish values are important to you? Whatever they are, the most
meaningful bnei mitzvah parties are built upon these ideals.
Judaism does not regard physical pleasure as a contradiction to spiritual
growth. How many times has your rabbi reminded your congregation that Judaism
does not end at the synagogue door? What he or she means is food, music, dance
and good times are a part of Judaism. The trick is to plan the party – and life
– to be an extension of Jewish values.
Around the 16th century celebrating a bar mitzvah became a standard Jewish
rite of passage celebration. At that time, Rabbi Solomon Luria, a well-respected
Torah authority, wrote that a bar mitzvah party’s seudat mitzvah, mitzvah meal,
is on the lofty spiritual level of a marriage ceremony and deserved a
celebration befitting this spiritually auspicious occasion.
Bar mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah parties celebrate the person a child has and is
becoming. Babies and small children have their parents’ identities and goals
foisted upon them, and there’s no telling how much each child will accept or
reject. By the time the bar mitzvah year is reached, personality, integrity,
humor, likes, loves and hates have begun to take shape – and (we hope) the
adulthood a child is growing into is reason to rejoice.
Bar mitzvah parties have grown in importance for several reasons. People tend to
get married and have children at later ages than the generations before. This
lessens the chance that earlier generations will live to see a grandchild’s
wedding. Bar mitzvahs, then, become a way to really savor the good times, when
everyone can still be together.
More influential than that touching sentiment is the pressure parents feel to
give their children a party that is on par with the rest of the community – or
outshines it. Hand-engraved invitations are a way for parents to show they are
financially successful. Hiring the “right” caterer can be one way to display
Kids feel the pressure too. Adolescence is distinguished by the dominance of a
looming behemoth – peer pressure. This force demands regular feedings of what
everyone else does, has or wears. Great strength is needed to create a bat
mitzvah that does not completely bow to the routine of personalized party favors
and balloon arches. There isn’t anything wrong with these things, per se, but it
takes effort to not get lost in materialism without meaning.
Extravagance is not a modern problem. When Jewish communal authorities held
greater sway, they legislated sumptuary laws to limit bar mitzvah celebrations.
In 1595, Polish rabbis placed a communal tax on bar mitzvah parties. A portion
of the celebration budget had to be donated to the community. Reducing party
expenditures was the goal. Apparently, this didn’t work because in 1659 a new
law was enacted to regulate party size. Aside from family members, only ten
friends were to be invited to the bar mitzvah feast. One of the ten had to be a
Before the bar mitzvah experience hit full stride in the prosperous 1950’s, a
celebration was likely to be quite simple. A typical Ashkenazic bar mitzvah in
the 1920’s consisted a bit of schnapps, some herring, and maybe some cake after
services. (The Depression played a role in restricting expenditures.) Less was
expected of the bar mitzvah boy as well. It was acceptable for a boy to learn
the Torah blessings for his aliyah and not much else.
Even the DJ. your son wants to hire may be familiar with the funky new takes on
old Jewish songs. Klezmer, rollicking Jewish music, has made a big comeback in
recent years. There is Jewish music beyond “Hava Nagila.”
of the Book Centerpieces
Instead of or in addition to the themed centerpieces, put a stack of new
prayer books on each table. Aside from being a symbol of the study and spiritual
maturity, dedicating books to a synagogue is a nice way to honor the event.
(It’s also exciting to open a siddur and read: “This siddur was dedicated by
Josh and Johanna Cohen in honor of Danielle’s Bat Mitzvah.”) Books with Jewish
subjects – history, law, and literature - can also be used as centerpieces and
later donated to the synagogue’s library.
Use centerpieces to display your commitment to doing good. Build
centerpieces around posters, ads or brochures from charities who will benefit
from the bat mitzvah celebration. On a card describe a donation of time or money
that has been made to the organization (or a pledge based on expected bar
Jewish charities abound. Each one has a different focus and serves a special
need from infant health networks to Jewish teen crisis lines to meals on wheels
for the elderly. Choose organizations with missions that mean the most to you.
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Bar & Bat Mitzvah Service