As October neared its end and my sister Elana’s bat mitzvah party got closer and closer, what had been occasional party preparations became a whirlwind of activity. Guest responses had to be obtained and place cards printed. A menu had to be finalized with the caterer and a playlist with the DJ. The bat mitzvah girl had to finish writing her speech, centerpieces had to be ordered and assembled and decorations had to be chosen to match the black and white theme.
What is so special about this birthday anyway? Becoming a bat mitzvah for girls at age twelve or thirteen, or a bar mitzvah for boys at age thirteen, is the Jewish celebration of reaching adulthood. It means coming of age and taking on the full extent of the mitzvot – taking responsibility for your actions, present and future. This is a joyous occasion, the catalyst for a happy and fulfilling life as a Torah-observant Jew.
So, what do we do to mark this milestone? Well, we celebrate. But that means very different things to different people. Some bar and bat mitzvah parties are made up of only a handful of close friends and relatives, while others fill a party hall. Some people share their special day with a friend or even several. The celebrations range from simple meals with loved ones to wildly extravagant affairs, and everything in between.
I asked people to share their stories from their own bar or bat mitzvah celebrations, or ones they organized or attended. Here are just a few people’s memories—sad, nostalgic, funny, bittersweet or heartwarming. These are the voices of real people who went through the experience of becoming a Jewish teen:
[It was the mid-1960s]; we were immigrants and we didn’t have money for a party. It was herring at shul for a boy and no celebration for a girl.
Our first daughter had her bat mitzvah in 1990. We had a celebration at Lou G. Siegel’s, a fancy kosher restaurant in Manhattan. We had an accordion player and we did some simcha dancing, the hora, that kind of thing. We invited our friends and relatives and she had a table of her closest friends. Then we had a separate kids’ party. It was a joint party with a close friend. There were games and entertainment, and Paula made a mystery game where they had to solve clues in two teams. Our second daughter’s [bat mitzvah] was in 1993. The caterer had a connection with a shul in Long Beach. We rented the party room, got the caterer and hired a band. Bat mitzvah parties back then really weren’t so different from how they are now. They’ve always run the gamut from fancy to simple, religious to secular…but really, they haven’t changed so much. Except maybe some people are spending the party on their phones now.
-Paula and Robert Grossman
This kid’s bar mitzvah was one of the last in my grade. His parents made this tremendous bar mitzvah party. He was interested in astronauts, so there were astronaut ice sculptures, and chocolates, and globes with space shuttles running around. What was different about this bar mitzvah from the other opulent bar mitzvahs was that the kids were fed the same food as the adults. Instead of getting chicken nuggets and French fries or hamburgers, they got the same food that the grown-ups got, and the grown-ups got some nice steak. I took one bite and it was delicious. I wanted to enjoy the rest of it, but the DJ called all the kids up to play Coke and Pepsi. The DJ was very insistent that all of the kids participate in this ridiculous game, which at that time was a requirement for bar mitzvah parties – you had to play Coke and Pepsi – I think it’s written in the Shulchan Aruch somewhere. When the game was over, I went back to my seat. My table had been completely bussed and my steak was gone. I’m still in mourning for that steak to this day.
I’m the oldest in my family, and I remember being really nervous that my mom didn’t know what to do or who to call or how to organize a bat mitzvah party. All my friends who had older siblings were talking about their plans for their parties and it made me nervous that my mom hadn’t started yet. In the end, it was amazing. We did it in our house and I had all my friends. We had a big room in the back, a party room, and my mom hired two people from the area who then became very popular, who are still working today. She hired Maadan Caterers, Teaneck, who people started using after that, and Malka Orchestra, who I still see advertised in newspapers. People also used to be really into memory candles in our time. You would take a glass and throw in whatever you had on hand at the time – a piece of a balloon or streamer, a place card, whatever – then go to the bathroom and fill it up with water. Afterwards you’d melt a candle over the water to seal it and then dump out the water. You can imagine the mess though, having everyone make these candles.
I was late to my own bat mitzvah party.
-Shayna, Bat Mitzvah Year: 2015
I had a joint bat mitzvah with about 15-20 other girls in my community. We each had a few guests, we sang and danced together, we had a meal and each of us lit a candle. It was really nice.
-Stephanie, Bat mitzvah Year: 2015
From these stories, I learned that while the size and nature of the party varies drastically in different communities, the bar/bat mitzvah celebration, like so many other Jewish traditions, is timeless. While parties have changed slightly through the years, they tend to remain fairly similar despite the passage of time. There are the same emotions of nervousness, excitement and joy, and even similar party games. Despite the differences between us, the Jewish people are all linked by shared experiences and heritage.
Rena Max is a junior at Hebrew Academy-Nassau County High School. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.