Zachary Stein is about to have a bar mitzvah—a themed bar mitzvah, specifically, the infamous Titanic. Zachary will make his grand entrance on the bow of a large ocean liner in traditional Leonardo DiCaprio style. This “movie set,” not surprisingly, is staged in Los Angeles, where no one views setting a boy’s coming-of-age party as a disaster in the making as anything odd.
In the 2006 movie comedy Keeping Up with the Steins (top photo), the grandiose size of the physical boat, the Titanic, doubles in meaning as it also is reflective of the large extravagance in today’s bar mitzvah celebrations. At a nominal level, the foundation of a large stage to showcase a five-foot tall boy with progressive acne is the stuff of comedy. And of course, these extreme productions are equally as present in Los Angeles as in New York City. Thanks in part to the introduction of the videographer at these events, the theatrical parties really have started to take on the look of professional movie sets. However, for those not familiar with the bar mitzvah hoopla, the events can be as confusing and bewildering as is this time in a young 13 year olds life. Ready or not, the bar mitzvah circuit is in full spring come the fall. Prepare yourself and your kids—observe the following guidelines to learn what’s kosher and what’s not.
Most Saturday mornings in synagogues across New York City, young girls and boys in the throes of puberty can be heard chanting their torah portions in between voice cracks. Although a great honor in a young Jew’s life, there is great irony in the timing of this tradition. Traditionally, the bar mitzvah was a religious ceremony to mark the assumption of adult responsibilities by a 13-year-old boy. These days, women have bat mitzvahs with the same regularity as men. The service involves the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah being called to read the Torah and/or Haftarah portion in front of the congregation, family, and friends. Services can be in the morning or in the evening (Havdallah) and often precede a celebratory meal. As evidenced by Zachary’s themed bar mitzvah, the religious service has taken a backseat role and lavishly themed weekend-long celebrations have taken its place. Regardless, the bar mitzvah child prepares for this rite of passage all year long. Although less “fun,” it’s important to encourage children to attend both the service as well as the party as means of respect to the bar mitzvah child and family. Depending on the synagogue, boys should wear suits and girls and women should wear dresses, skirts, or nice dress pants. Some places require everyone to cover their shoulders—you can call the synagogue for more information.
For many, the bar mitzvah party means a lucky french kiss, a first slow dance, or too many paper cups of manischewitz wine. Most of us can recall our teenage days—girls towering over boys, painful braces, and full blown acne an almost certainty. The unparalleled awkwardness against the background of these excessive parties is comedic to some, but these social events can be anxiety-ridden for young teenagers.
Many families in New York City spare no expense on the celebratory party that follows the bar mitzvah service. Manhattan hotels, historical buildings, and restaurants are the glorious backdrop for these festive events. Parties can be both during the day (luncheons, brunches) and in the evening. Daytime receptions are often held near the site of the service and involve a large meal, activities and music. Transportation is usually provided and guests attend in the same outfits. For evening parties, guests change into more formal attire. Many evening parties are black tie or black tie optional—check the invitation.
The world of the bar mitzvah party is unlike any other, a merry-go-round of nonstop entertainment, food, speeches and dancing. Once you attend a few, it can begin to feel like déjà-vu. In truth, there are some things that no bar mitzvah party goes without, many of which seem strange to the unfamiliar. No bar mitzvah party is complete without the traditional sign-in board—a large life size picture of the bar mitzvah child that sits by the entrance to the party. “Entry fee” aside, you’re invited to the cocktail hour. Children fill up on pigs in a blanket, mini pizza bagels, and a variety of carbonated beverages. Adults gorge on an array of sushi, hand carved meats, and an open top shelf bar. What follows is an unveiling of the main party room. Dinner (sit-down or buffet style), blessings (over the challah and wine) and dessert are served in between spurts of dancing. Before the night ends, the routine candle lighting ceremony takes place. Somewhere in between, we all dance the horah (traditional Jewish dance) and go up in the chairs. Around midnight, this night of unabashed prosperity comes to an end.
Unlike weddings, bar and bat mitzvah events do not have a gift registry. Unless indicated otherwise on the invitation, gifts are typically expected/accepted. Some families will ask for donations to be made to specific charities in exchange for gifts. Gifts can range anywhere from checks, to religious items (mezuzahs’, menorah’s, Kiddush cups), to jewelry. Bring your gift to the bar mitzvah celebration party after the service.
In New York City, the bar mitzvah party is a fashion stage for nebbishy kids in the bouts of puberty. It’s a fun chance for kids to get dressed up and feel good about themselves. Typically, boys should wear suits and ties or khaki’s depending on the party and time of day. Girls should wear dresses, skirts or nice dress pants. New York City has a wide array of options for girls. Large department stores—Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s—offer dresses for young girls. However, many stores in Manhattan specifically cater to the bar and bat mitzvah attire.
Bar mitzvahs are both an exciting and bewildering time in the social life of young New Yorkers. A clear understanding of the meaning and events that surround them can help to alleviate some of the stress, confusion and anxiety for both children and parents alike. Although bar mitzvahs are fun and exciting, would you want to go back and relive those awkward teenage years all over again? Count your blessings that you don’t have to.