Celebration Time - Come on

Zach Bar Mitzvah 159-230 5.9.09 047.jpg

July 7, 2009

I recently gave birth to my son all over again. But it hurt more than his actual birth because this time he was 13 and there was no anesthesia. And just like before, I’m sure I’ll forget the pain and do it all over again in a few years for his sister.

We just celebrated our son’s bar mitzvah. It was a huge celebration, and it exceeded my expectations in so many ways. But after the dust settled, I realized that celebrations are both a blessing and a curse. And they can be more expensive than a new car.

Some people don’t understand why we celebrate this rite of passage into manhood in such a big way. They say, “A bar mitzvah…that’s just like a wedding.” No. It’s not. With a wedding, there are in-laws to help pay.

I like to explain that this ritual connects us to more than 5,000 years of history and to a tradition born in the desert in a conversation with a burning bush. Yet somehow I can’t imagine that the bush envisioned DJs, dancers and strobe lights.

For us, the process started almost two years ago when we received our date from the synagogue. Our son wanted to have the ceremony at the Blarney Stone because he was born on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not sure the Blarney Stone even faces the Western Wall, so we nixed that idea.

We chose our venue, the nonprofit art gallery ArtisanWorks, because we felt the place was the coolest place in town and perfectly reflective of our family (eclectic and loud). Also, they had a big picture of a boy getting circumcised that they hung in the ballroom, which was subliminal advertising if ever I saw it.

Mostly we wanted to wow our many out-of-town guests. So many of our friends still ask, “Are you all right living in Rochester?” These are the same friends who said when they learned we were moving to Rochester, “It could be worse; you could be moving to Cleveland.” And almost seven years later, they still don’t believe me when I tell them I’m more than all right. We figured our big-city friends would love ArtisanWorks. The sensory overload alone would make them feel at home.

Once we picked the place and the band, our next mission was to get the bar mitzvah boy working on reading from the Torah, which is the reason we were all coming to this party. It’s also not as easy as it sounds.  Bringing out the actual Torah scroll, and reading the words that are hand-scribed without vowels, is what makes boys turn into men.

Soon the time came to make our guest list. I wanted 250 of our closest friends and family. We ended up with 110. The bar mitzvah boy wanted 65 of his closest friends. We told him 45. He ended up with 65. At my husband’s bar mitzvah in Geneva, N.Y., he had invited four friends (in a nice twist, two of them were able to come to my son’s bar mitzvah).

Let me start by saying to all those not included: It was hard. If you were an old friend, I wanted you there. If you were a new friend I wanted you there. If I knew you, I wanted you there. If I bumped into your shopping cart at Wegmans, I wanted you there.

Except teenagers. Anyone between 14 and 17 years of age should not be invited to any event other than their own basement parties, where they will watch TV while sitting next each other, never uttering a word. They will do this at your event, too, except they will also stand with a puss on their face and pick at the really expensive food you paid for.

When we started getting into the details, the party police (a.k.a. my friends) were there to tell me the need for such things as a toiletry basket filled with sanitary napkins and sewing kits and other necessities (and here I thought toilet paper was enough). Where is it written that you have to buy socks for the girls to dance in? Or plastic sunglasses and feather boas? There is no Torah for these rules.

I started hyperventilating in places like Michael’s and Party City, wondering how I was going to make sense of things like cocktail napkin colors and centerpieces.

Finally I called a legendary retired party planner and said: “Code Red.” For some reason, prior to her retirement, she had agreed to work with me. I’m not sure why. Perhaps she couldn’t resist when I told her, “Think of me as your assistant.”

With her help, we settled on black and white as a color scheme (or the absence-of-color scheme). She extolled the virtues of tablecloths that go all the way to the ground and sign-in boards with Sharpies. When my husband complained that she was an unanticipated cost in the budget, I argued she would be the reason we could actually enjoy our event; so her value was priceless.

What she couldn’t do was save us from…the family.

When we traveled to Israel for my niece and nephew’s combined Bar and Bat Mitzvahs on top of a mountain called Masada, my mother had a moment that is now part of the family lore. My younger nephew, then 10, had a tendency to run away when he was angry. This was fine at home in Chicago—they knew his hiding places. Not so much in Israel.

I must have said something to upset him because, as we waited on the tram for the trip to start to the ceremony, he tried to leap off. My mother, who is tiny and at the time had her arm bound in a sling for a torn rotator cuff, somehow found the superhuman strength to do a cross-body block and pull the big baby back inside the tram as the doors closed, shouting, ‘YOU ARE NOT RUINING MY GRANDAUGHTER’S BAT MITZVAH!”

This became my mantra (just fill in “son” for “granddaughter”).

It started a few weeks before the event. I got a hysterical phone call from my sister, who said my niece wasn’t going to come unless she could bring her dog. She had jokingly replied on the RSVP, “Are dogs allowed?” I had assumed she was joking. She wasn’t.

My husband, ever the curmudgeon, said, “Tell her not to come.”

Then my nephew texted my husband: “Is it all right if I bring this girl I met last weekend as a date?”


Finally, my dear brother, who had a history of shaking things up before family events (I recall lots of shouting the night before my wedding), called on the Wednesday night before the bar mitzvah weekend to tell me he wasn’t coming. I’m still not sure why. Suddenly this Zen master feeling came over me and I felt gratitude to every therapist I’d ever had. With great confidence, I said, “You will come and even if you don’t come, nothing you say or do can upset me.”

This helped me get back to what the ceremony was really all about. My son had taken to saying the event was like a three-ring circus, and at the center of the ring stood Mommy. I told him I was just the ringmaster—he was the star of this show, and when it was all over I wanted him to look in the mirror and know the feeling of satisfaction that comes with accomplishing something big.

And then I started to watch him “get it.” One day, apropos of nothing, he stated that while his roots were in Washington, D.C., his tree was growing strong in Rochester. As my husband and I closed our gaping mouths, we realized this was the kind of thing a man—not a boy—would say.

At our temple on Thursday morning prior to his bar mitzvah, our bar mitzvah boy read from the Torah for a group of mostly older men (okay, old men). Suddenly, I felt like I was on a spiritual acid trip. While I’ve never been on an actual acid trip, in this moment I saw my son as an infant, a toddler and then as the man he will become. And I saw the connection to that burning bush.

This continued all weekend. My sweet boy, who is mostly a lump at home, blossomed. He read Torah flawlessly (six portions). His speech (he hadn’t let us hear it prior to the event, which for this control freak was very hard), was funny. He was a charming host. He performed his good deeds by making a donation to a charity in South Africa and donating food to the Pittsford Food Cupboard. He even played trumpet for the guests, including an awesome rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” (irony intended).

And our extended family, contrary to expectations, showed well. Our friends even loved them. My husband and I danced the night away (thanks to that awesome party planner) and even our 10-year-old had a good time, which is no easy feat.

Never again will this exact group of people assemble together for an event like this. It was a unique moment in time and was worth all the planning, spending and hyperventilating.

In the end, I don’t remember a lot of the details because after two years of planning, it went by in an instant.

But I’ll always remember my husband’s 90-year-old aunt—who endured a seven-hour car ride to join us—walking into the Temple during a silent prayer, pointing at me and exclaiming at the top of her lungs, ‘Who is that skinny girl?!”

Boy, was I glad she made the trip.

As first published in the Democrat + Chronicle and on the USA Today Network