Reading the story of Noah in synagogue last Shabbat, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the plight of a family coping with a flood. My own family is dealing with a deluge of its own this year, but it isn’t one that Noah would have recognized. It’s the spate of bar and bat mitzvah invitations that overflow our mailbox on an almost daily basis.
As our middle daughter, Sarah, prepares for her own coming-of-age ceremony in February, she and my wife are spending countless hours analyzing fonts, designs and paper stock. Meanwhile, the invitations from her Schechter day school and Camp Ramah peers keep coming, the extravagant, colorful envelopes stuffed with elaborate pockets, flaps and reply cards in such a bewildering plethora of shapes and sizes that we debated hiring a professional organizer to help keep track of them all.
Even as newly minted Americans a century ago, Jews were eager to show their rising status in society through the bar mitzvah invitations that they sent. As Jenna Weissman Joselit wrote in her classic 1996 study, “The Wonders of America” (Hill and Wang), bar mitzvah invitations from the 1920s in New York came in the shapes of Jewish stars, were dyed blue and white or were even mounted on wooden spindles like Torah scrolls, so that, once unrolled, three panels appeared — one showing the invitation, the second displaying the guest list and the third furnishing the menu.
These days, the use of not just paper but a variety of other materials for bar and bat mitzvah materials is back in style. According to Vanessa Kooby, the owner of Blacker and Kooby Stationers on the Upper East Side, Jewish families are increasingly asking for invitations to be crafted from acrylic, wood or metal, even though it often doubles the price, making a single invitation cost up to $40.
Wooden boxes, out of which fall confetti or gumballs, are also popular, as are snow globes. Printed invitations feature holograms or lenticular prints — from one angle, the text of the invitation is seen, from another a photo of the child can be glimpsed, or, alternatively, one image shows the ceremony, while the second reveals the party. Some of these newfangled invitations are so heavy that, rather than sending them by parcel post (which can take up to two weeks to be delivered), Jewish parents in Manhattan, Kooby said, drive around and deliver them to the lobbies of their children’s friends’ buildings, resulting in frequent interruptions during the dinner hour by the doorman announcing the arrival of a package.
“Kids are more involved these days in designing their own invitations,” Kooby told me, partly because, in an image-saturated society, they are attentive to fonts, colors and other elements of type style and graphic design. Gender differences are, however, apparent; girls typically “want more leeway” in coming up with ideas, while boys tend to go with either sports themes or the club-party look.
Both genders are drawn nowadays to invitations in antique letter-press style; all across the country, people are buying old printing machines and turning garages and barns into studios for creating rustic-looking invitations. Matthew Kelsey, a letter-press printer in Saratoga, Calif., views the resurgence in letter-press printing as a “reaction to everything being digital and online. Now people want something less ephemeral.” The artisan uses a late-19th-century Challenge Gordon platen press, with its distinctive curved-spoke flywheel, to craft invitations that have a 3D effect, with debossed (indented) text that does not need color to, quite literally, make an impression. Not everyone uses printed invitations. Some, saving both time and money, simply use email. Brody Criz’s family produced a video invitation two years ago that went viral, attracting 1.8 million views worldwide and appearing on “The Today Show” and in Time magazine. Criz parodied hit songs like John Legend’s “All of Me” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” while dressing as a chasidic Jew and then taking off his clothes. Writing in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, Amishai Gottlieb expressed his dismay at Criz’s video, particularly the line near the end when Criz declaims, “It’s all about me,” seemingly forgetting that the bar mitzvah is supposed to be a communal celebration.
But the idea of sending out the invitation through the media to all and sundry is not new. Netanel Deutsch, the editor of the Cincinnati Israelite, recalled that for decades bar and bat mitzvah invitations were published in his paper’s pages. “You would know if you were expected to attend,” he said. “And anyway, in a small community, pretty much everyone who wanted to come was welcome.”
Ted Merwin is the executive director of Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore. He writes about theater for the paper. His column appears monthly.