Bar Mitzvah Planning (Or Not)

By Mark Binder

Published January 28, 2009, issue of February 06, 2009.
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Every time I think about my son Max’s upcoming bar mitzvah, I temporarily freeze. My brain just locks up as I try to wrap it around the concept of putting together a fancy-shmancy shindig for hundreds and hundreds of people.

It’s not that I don’t want Max to have a good time. It’s just the money.

You say bar mitzvah, I think expensive. Catering. Hall rental. Bands. … Oy.

Somebody told me a joke: I could take the whole family to Israel for the bar mitzvah and it would cost less than holding it in Providence, R.I., where we live. I laughed. They weren’t kidding.

If I were rich and famous with piles of cash to throw around, it would be no problem. But I’m not. That’s not likely to change quickly unless the Farrelly brothers call to option my novel.

In the Old Days

I don’t really remember my bar mitzvah. I remember studying with Mrs. Weissberg. I remember being frustrated that, because there were so many kids in my class, I was going to have the first double bar mitzvah in the history of the synagogue. I remember standing on the bimah, chanting my Haftorah, and forgetting how to read Hebrew mid-sentence.

And I remember the party going on afterward, in the backyard of my parents’ house while my friends and I hung out in my bedroom and listened to Emerson Lake & Palmer.

It was fine. It was good. It was reasonably priced.

Avoiding the Process

A few years ago, when the temple gave us the date for the bar mitzvah, I filed it into my calendar and immediately forgot.

As the day began to approach, I did what any happily married man would do. I gave the whole project to my wife. She started talking with my mother and things were going along very smoothly. (I know, I know. We’re supposed to be postmodern enlightened males, but really, I would rather not be involved in picking out linens and planning the menu. Just make sure we have some of those little wrapped cocktail franks if it’s a meat meal or mini-éclairs if it’s a milk meal and I’m fine.)

Then the stock market tanked and the extra funding that was going to come from my family’s investment portfolio evaporated.

We were back to square one.

Avoiding the Peer Pressure

Fortunately, my sweetheart, Alicia, is clearheaded and persistent. We had “the conversation.”

It went like this:

Alicia: What do you want for Max’s bar mitzvah?

Me: I want it to be over and done with.

Alicia: And how will it look when we’re done?

Me: Finished! Without any coronaries. And I’d like to have a little bit left over in the bank.

Alicia: Let’s ask Max what he wants.

It turns out that my son doesn’t want a big party with a band, disc jockey and trapeze artists. He wants to go to Lazer Gate with his friends.

This I can afford.

Me: Whew, that’s a relief.

Alicia: So, what are we going to do with all the relatives who come in to visit?

Me: Give them directions to the beach?

Alicia: It’s in April. We’ll find a way to have people over to our house.

Me: Now you’re talking!

Alicia: But we still have to do the Kiddush at the temple.

Me: Did your brain freeze? My brain just froze.

The Reverse Checklist

With less than six months to go, I started to make the checklist. The first obstacle was the Internet search, which recommended I begin making my checklist two years prior to the bar mitzvah! Oy!

Work Forward From Here

• Set bar mitzvah date

• Check with relatives and make sure there are no major conflicts

• Create guest list

• Create budget — how much can you spend? Minimum/maximum?

Work Backward From Here

• Send thank-you cards

• Bar mitzvah evening (Entertainment/dinner?)

• Bar mitzvah ceremony

• Friday night dinner

• Arrange for flowers

• Plan menu with caterer

• Send invitations

• Six months to one year prior — reserve facility (at synagogue or other social location)

Optional Accessories

• Hire band

• Make gift bags for guests

• Print T-shirts

• Hire videographer/photographer (Ask a friend to do this!) Free or low cost

• Assign Torah portions, honors and aliyot

• Grow plants for event

• Designate charity in lieu of gifts

Taking It to Excess

• Rent Gillette Stadium for bar mitzvah. (Yes, it showed up on one of the Internet searches we did.)

• Hire limousines

• Arrange for video montage of bar mitzvah child’s life

• Schedule “Record your own CD” trailer to come to evening event

• Fly to Jerusalem with immediate family and skip the whole mishugas. Hold the ceremony near the Western Wall.

 The Game Plan

Now that the list is made, I’ll start checking off the actions as I take them. I also will cross off the ones I’m choosing not to take. There is a huge amount of satisfaction every time something gets checked off or crossed out.

One by one, the list gets shorter, the day gets closer and then, when it’s over and I breathe a sigh of relief, I know that someone is going to ask me, “So, when is the bar mitzvah date for your next child?”

Mark Binder is the author of “The Brothers Schlemiel” and “A Hanukkah Present,” which was the finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for Family Literature. His latest book is “It Ate My Sister.”


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