Once upon a time when my now 18-year-old daughter was 12 and preparing for her bat mitzvah, she received a package of materials from our synagogue. One of the items in the package was a book called, “Putting God on the Guest List.” I suppose the well-meaning clergy [as well as the three rabbis who wrote the book] were giving us a hint. They knew that pre-teens and their parents could benefit from some a reminder of the true significance of the Jewish coming-of-age ritual. I don’t suppose my daughter was the only one in her b’nai mitzvah class who received “the book” but never opened it. And I’ll admit it — neither did her father or I.
I tried encouraging her to take a look at the book, but when she rolled her eyes in that way that pre-teens do, I didn’t push it. By the time we began planning our daughter’s bat mitzvah celebration, she had already been on the ‘b’nai mitzvah circuit’ for months. As most parents of day school children will attest to, their children attend bar and bat mitzvot nearly every weekend for a good 18 months or so. If memory serves, our daughter, one of the youngest in her grade, was the 48th of 50 classmates to become a bat mitzvah. By then, she had seen enough of these affairs to know exactly what she wanted her celebration (and her dress, hair and shoes) to look like. The only problem? She wanted it to look like a wedding.
As we tried (in vain) to convince her of the merits of holding the celebration at a casual outdoor venue, an ice-skating rink or even a separate room in a local diner, I was met with tears and slammed doors. Attempts to focus her on the religious aspects of the event, and her required mitzvah project, seemed futile. My husband and I wondered, “What have we done wrong? This is what we get after all those years of day school? ” On several occasions we threatened to cancel the whole thing, unless she changed her attitude.
Right about now, dear reader, I am sure you are thinking that our daughter was/is a spoiled brat, and her parents, overly indulgent, were unable to set limits. I would never suggest that I am a perfect parent. In fact, I’ve had my share of troubles in the limit-setting department. My children, though loveable, aren’t perfect either. But in reality, this sort of behavior was not typical of our daughter. She was generally kind, respectful and grateful for what she received and even mindful of keeping within the family budget.
In speaking with my friends, I found that many of them were experiencing similar struggles with their own b’nai mitzvah-age children.
According to Joan Grayson Cohen, senior manager at Access Services at Jewish Community Services, there are several reasons why children may lose sight of the main event and exhibit unpleasant behavior when it comes time for bar and bat mitzvah planning. Some of these reasons may be developmental, while others may be societal, she says.
“At this age,” says Cohen, “kids are very involved with their peers. They want to be part of the group, and get invited to things. The social aspect is so significant. Kids who aren’t getting invited are trying so hard to figure out why. ‘Where do I fit in,’ they’re wondering. They are not feeling so secure. So they want to have a party that everyone wants to come to, everyone’s talking about it. They want to have what he or she had, wear what others are wearing.”
And it’s not always only the kids who are trying to fit in, or to stand out. Anyone who has seen, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” — a 2006 comedy about a family trying to outdo their neighbors by throwing the most elaborate and expensive bar mitzvah party in the neighborhood — knows that even parents can succumb to insecurities and competitive impulses. It’s only natural. “In our society, bigger is better,” says Cohen.
Not only do some parents and children feel pressure from the people they know, but they are also influenced by the materialistic, frequently ostentatious society in which all of us live. It’s a culture that has brought us b’nai mitzvah celebrations costing many thousands of dollars, featuring bands bused in from New York City or Washington, D.C., extravagant giveaways, sushi bars and scantily-clad dancers, who become role models for the girls and eye candy for the boys.
“It’s a sign of the times,” says Cohen. But not all is lost. If parents are thoughtful, creative and prepared for the issues that are likely to arise in planning their celebrations, Cohen believes they can take steps to ensure that the true meaning of b’nai mitzvah is not lost in the shuffle.
“Maybe pick a time and place that matches the message you want to give to your child and others,” she suggests. When it was time for Cohen’s three daughters (twins and their sister who was about one year older) to become bat mitzvah, Cohen said they shared their bat mitzvot.
“I didn’t let them have a theme. The theme was the bat mitzvah. Instead, I let them choose the colors. For our centerpieces we had tzedakah boxes,” she said. “Each girl was named after a [deceased] relative so we created a booklet that was placed on each chair that told about the people the girls were named for, and what those people were like. Then we wrote about each girl and how she had some of the namesake’s special characteristics,” Grayson Cohen says. “There are many ways to keep the event Jewish.”
As for my family, after some fits and starts, the bat mitzvah came off without a hitch. We managed to make some compromises, although we could have made more. Our daughter performed beautifully during the service, and it was a thrill to watch and hear her read Torah. At the party, we danced the hora, and the room was full of ruach. It was a deeply moving occasion for our immediate and extended families. Our daughter was proud of her accomplishment and came away from the party feeling like a princess. She was very grateful and made sure to tell us so.
Several years later, when she was a counselor in training at Camp Louise, we received a heart-warming letter from her. She wrote us something like this:
“Dear Mom and Dad:
I think I have found my calling. Today we went to do a community service project with some underprivileged girls. I can’t believe how hard their lives are. I was so sad. I think I want to work with kids like that after college.” The letter confirmed what deep down, we already knew. We had raised a caring and compassionate young woman. We are so proud of her.