The bar and bat mitzvas in my town have gotten out of control in terms of lavishness. And the content is either non-existent or totally unrelated to Judaism. I want to buck the trend, but I don't have the courage. Can you give me some ideas as well as some strength from Jewish tradition? What should the day really look like, pre-Hollywood-obsessed America?
I commend you for your willingness to address this important issue, not only for your own family but for the entire Jewish community. I’m reminded of the 2006 movie “Keeping Up with the Steins” in which the worst excesses of the American B’nai Mitzvah scene are portrayed on the big screen. Though at the end of the movie it brings out the importance of what this ceremony is all about, nevertheless it shows Jews and the ritual of B’nai Mitzvah in a less than flattering light.
Unfortunately, you may not be able to change the minds of others who see this ritual as an opportunity to have a party for friends and relatives and who don’t look at it for what it is – a chance to renew the life of their son or daughter in Judaism. You might have to see yourself moving forward in a new role – a pioneer in your community, a person who, as the saying goes, puts the mitzvah back into Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Look at this as a chance to show by example the beauty of this ritual and what it can mean for your family and community at large.
There are many books that speak to your question of gaining strength from our tradition in this important endeavor. I would highly recommend "Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah" by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, published by Jewish Lights Publishing. It not only gives you the ways in which Judaism can inform your planning and preparation but it also is a practical guide as to how you can accomplish this worthy goal of yours. Another excellent book is Danny Siegel's Bar and Bat Mitzvah Mitzvah Book (A Practical Guide for Changing the World Through Your Simcha) which again speaks to your question.
These books will help you to create not only a day but an experience before and after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah that will stay with you and your child forever. Mazal Tov on this wonderful simcha and may it be everything that you hope it can be.
I believe that a distinction has to be made between the ritual aspect of a Bar or Bat Mitzva and the subsequent celebration. If the religious service at which the celebrant demonstrates his/her familiarity with and commitment to the Jewish people, its traditions and its future, is a meaningful and authentic experience, then the occasion should prove to be a memorable one not only for family and friends, but for the boy or girl him/herself. In order for the role of the child in their Bar/Bat Mitzva service to be significant, it will require substantial preparation, thought and study. While rote recitations are often a centerpiece of such services, they usually do not address the existential questions implied in the moment. Does a Rabbi meet with the child and discuss the significance of coming of age as a Jew? Does the child engage in a Chesed project whereby s/he is not only enamored of the gifts that s/he will receive, but also what s/he can now do on behalf of others not as fortunate? Has the child completed the study of some major work in Jewish tradition to feel a sense of accomplishment to go along with his reaching adolescence, the age of majority? Is there consistency between the avowal of Tora and Mitzvot and the Bar/Bat Mitzva’s family lifestyle? Adolescents in particular pick up on what they perceive as hypocrisy and less than whole-hearted commitment. If they perceive that the ceremony is empty and vapid, not really reflecting the values and heart-felt beliefs of his family and community, chances are that the entire occasion will be easily dismissed or even viewed negatively as sanctimonious and insincere.
Assuming that the Bar/Bat Mitzva ritual ceremony is sincere and inspiring, the party that follows should be complementary, an extension of what took place in the synagogue. The question that those arranging for a party should ask themselves is how can a tasteful and joyous celebration be conducted that rather than standing in opposition to the religious service, commemorates and deepens it? Are there speeches by significant individuals in the Bar/Bat Mitzva’s life, who have led exemplary Jewish lives, and who therefore have earned the right to impart wisdom and goals for the future? Is a sense of the holiness of the occasion maintained, or is it obliterated by merry-making and immodesty? It is difficult to set absolute guidelines when there are so many variables to consider in each individual situation. Perhaps the rule enunciated by King David concerning the members of the Jewish people in Yevamot 79a provides a rule of thumb for not only the individuals themselves, but also the types of celebrations that they organize for themselves, their children, relatives and friends: “There are three characteristics of this nation—They are compassionate, modest and doers of good deeds.” If in the Bar/Bat Mitzva party, the essential qualities of kindness, humility and concern for doing good would be recognized as informing the evening’s program and activities, such celebrations would live up to their Kiddush HaShem potentials.
FIRST OF ALL, EVERY BAR OR BAT MITZVAH SHOULD HAVE A “MITZVAH” COMPONENT, IN WHICH THE YOUNG MAN OR WOMAN ACTIVELY ENGAGES IN A PROJECT THAT MAKES HIS/HER COMMUNITY A BETTER PLACE. THOUGH TRADITIONALLY THE ONLY REQUIREMENT TO BECOME A BAR MITZVAH WAS BEING CALLED TO THE READING OF THE TORAH, WE NOW EXPECT THEM TO HAVE A KNOWLEDGE OF AND ABILITY TO, LEAD A SHABBAT SERVICE (OR TWO) READ A SIGNIFICANT PORTION FROM THE WEEK’S PARSHAH, AND DEVELOP AND READ A SIGNIFICANT, MEANINGFUL AND PERSONAL D’VAR TORAH. I REQUIRE EACH ONE TO PREPARE THE LATTER WITH ME, AND THAT INCLUDEDS SOME PRETTY SIGNIFIANT DISCUSSION AND UNDERSTANDING OF THEIR PORTION AND GROWING JEWISHLY.
THE CELEBRATION OR PARTY ASPECT SHOULD BE SECONDARY; IT IS SO UNFORTUNATE WHEN WE HAVE TIO “KEEP UP WITH THE STEINS.” THERE IS CERTAINLY NOTHING WRONG WITH HAVING A PARTY THEME, SO LONG AS THE CELEBRATION IS MODERATE, IN GOOD TASTE, AND IN KEEPING WITH THE NATURE OF THE FAMILY. THERE IS CERTAINLY NO NEED FOR A FAMILY TO GO INTO A HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLAR DEBT.
MOST RABBIS I KNOW WOULD OFFER PRETTY MUCH THE SAME ADVISE. SIMPLE RULE OF THUMB: “THERE SHOULD BE TWICE AS MUCH MITZVAH AS THERE IS BAR.”
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