The Canadian Jeiwsh News

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

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Bar mitzvah blues

Tags: Columnists Married with Kids

My son’s bar mitzvah is almost two years away, and already the pressure is starting to mount. Shabbat dates are filling up for 2013, and hall bookings have started to accumulate. It’s time for decisiveness about the portion he’ll read from the Torah, as well as a sense of how we’ll celebrate afterwards.

So we’ve been debating lately about dinner dances versus a small kiddush lunch, brunch at the country club or appetizers at sunset. Do we hire the services of the smoothest DJ in town or recruit a little klezmer band to add Jewish melodies?

I’ve attended my share of bar and bat mitzvahs lately, and the templates for these affairs are well laid out in my mind. But I always promised myself that when my son approached bar mitzvah age, I’d opt for meaningfulness instead of ostentation. I vowed that instead of throwing pure cash at the affair and relying on theme and colour scheme to create lasting impressions, I’d choose spirituality.

I’m learning now that it’s hard to retain that focus amid the pressure. “Our son loved the last bat mitzvah dinner dance we went to and the DJ was excellent,” my husband muses, recalling a non-kosher party held inside a nondescript hotel banquet room. “Shouldn’t this celebration be a reflection of what he wants and enjoys, rather than what you want?”

Reluctantly, I want to agree with him, but every cell inside me is resisting the banquet hall and DJ party in favour of a celebration more personal and Jewish in its essence. “He’s 11,” I retort. “Is he really in a position to know what he wants? Besides, he’s not the one paying the bill at the end of the day!”

What I’m struggling with is this: how do you retain a sense of spiritual meaning at a bar mitzvah? Do you grasp it during the service, amid the constant hum of guests’ chit-chat, even while the bar mitzvah boy is singing his hard-learned portion? Once the service wraps up, the focus quickly becomes the catering. As they stack their plates, guests are talking about the food, in particular about how kosher/innovative/enticing it is. Roughly translated, that means how much money did the kids’ parents actually spend? Did they cough up for chair covers, floral centrepieces and chinaware, or did they settle for plastic tablecloths and disposable plates from Costco?

In my minds’ eye, the event perfect for my family is taking shape. In it there’s an ideal balance of spiritual nourishment and culinary mastery, with that small klezmer band adding a Yiddishe tone to a celebration that basks in afternoon sunshine and religious affirmation. There’s no sexy dancing, no blathering, interminable speeches from half a dozen friends and family. Just a modest, spiritually rich event that’s laden with meaning intrinsic to Jewish coming of age.

How do I get there? That’s the question I posed to my rabbi last week. A sage-like man with all the gravity of someone knowledgeable, he reminded us the bar mitzvah is a journey we would take as a family, one in which our role was integral. “It’s what you do that matters,” he said solemnly. “Not what you say.”

He posed a challenge in his parting words, a place we might begin our son’s bar mitzvah preparations. “Think about something you can do in honour of the bar mitzvah, something that will let him know how important this event is to you,” he suggested. “It could be undertaking a mitzvah you’ve not done before, or volunteering at a food bank – whatever is meaningful to you and conveys the changes you will make in his honour.”

I’m still brainstorming the options, but his words provided food for thought – sustenance that will hopefully last longer than the cuisine at the bar mitzvah reception.

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