In defense of those big fat b’nai mitzvah parties

I recently took my first baby steps into bat mitzvah planning, and I had a lot of feelings — but mostly a twinge of nostalgia. Somehow a girl who was once a toddler with a furrowed brow, a desperate love of Little Bear, and a staying-asleep problem is going to lead an entire weekend of Shabbat services and later, an entire evening of hors d’oeuvres and hora dancing.

Did I mention I am planning for a weekend that is a year and a half in the future? I know. This is insane.

What I do not have are mixed feelings about throwing a big party to mark the occasion. This is about a simcha — a celebration. And you know what? We just don’t get that many of those.

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of bad news. Very young mothers are getting breast-cancer diagnoses. I lost an uncle far too soon. A wonderful 40-something husband and father in my town dropped dead. So lately, I’ve been thinking we should gather together more often, in large groups, and hoist people up on chairs just so we can make our faces hurt with smiles and feel the pinches of our aunts and uncles.

Lately I’ve also been missing childhood and the things about it that stand out for me. One of those things is my own bat mitzvah party, the video footage (on VHS) of which I refuse to watch for fear it will ruin the hazy montage that lives in my memory as a raucous mix of sock-sliding Coke and Pepsi games mixed with twinkling lights and appropriate amounts of tween and family drama. I suppose for 1980s semi-rural Pennsylvania, having a Saturday night affair was maybe a little bit extravagant. Though we did put glitz aside for earthiness by hand-making my invitations at the kitchen table, coloring in little leaves with green felt-tip pens next to the words “Be a Blessing.” Such was my theme.

I also remember riding my bike to the cantor’s house, his wife fumbling around in the kitchen while he and I went over and over “Song of Songs,” and where he taught me not just the words and the tune but the meaning. To me, this man and his thick Yiddish accent embodied meaning and Torah.

I remember having all of my relatives there for the service and later for the party. So many of them are gone: my grandparents, my great-aunts and great-uncles and now even my maternal uncle. He played his guitar on the bimah after the Havdallah service was over, and his presence that day, and later at my various graduations and my wedding, was important and the memories lasting.

We can debate what a party is worth, what it should cost, or if you should take a trip to Israel instead, have a little Kiddush luncheon and call it a day. It’s all good. It’s all wonderful.

The truth is, I don’t know yet what kind of party I will throw for my daughter’s bat mitzvah. I only want it to be a moment where we live in the present and in memory all at once.

It’s OK to throw a party. It’s OK not to. Just let people have their simchas, however they want to have them. No comments.