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Party with Jewish Flavor, Food & Music
A Conservative Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

   • Food
   • Party Planning
   • Why Party
   • Historic Overspending
   • Music
   • People of the Book Centerpieces
   • 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. 

Party Planning
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.

Why Party?
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 gourmand palettes.

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.

Historic Overspending
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 poor person.

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.”

People 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.

Tzedakah Centerpieces
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 mitzvah booty.)

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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Why are the Bat and Bar Mitzvah Celebrated at Ages Twelve and Thirteen
Biblical Thirteen Year Olds
Evolution of the Bar Mitzvah over the years
Evolution of the Bat Mitzvah over the years
Is a formal celebration of a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah required by Jewish law?
Settings for the Celebration of a Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah
Setting a Date for the Celebration of a Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah Services and Ceremonial Rituals at the Synagogue
Getting Ready for the Bar Mitzvah - The Tallit: Prayer Shawl
Getting Ready for the Bar Mitzvah - The Tefillin, Phylacteries
What a Bar and Bat Mitzvah Need to Know
Getting Ready for the Bar Mitzvah - Reading Hebrew & Torah Reading
Preparation for the Bar Mitzvah Celebrations: Ideas and Alternatives
Beyond Party Plans: Meaningful Projects for the Bar and Bat Mitzvah
The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Service: Instructional Booklets and Schedules
The Bar Mitzvah: Roles for Parents
Memorial Prayers during the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Celebrations
Videography and Photography during Bar Mitzvah Services at the Synagogue
Bar Mitzvah boy and Bat Mitzvah Girl of Divorced Parents.  What to do?
"Honors" during Torah Reading at Synagogue Bar Mitzvah Services
Synagogue Etiquette: What to Wear, How to Conduct Oneself

Party with a Jewish Flavor: Jewish Food, Jewish Music, Jewish Dance, and more
Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah Speeches
Candle Lighting Ceremonies
Charity and Good Deeds: The Bar Mitzvah opportunity for doing something good!

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