On a cold Friday evening in February 1973, a skinny girl in a simple plaid maxi-dress stood terrified behind a podium on perhaps the largest bimah in the history of temple sanctuaries. She was unadorned: no make-up or lipstick, hair set in curlers courtesy of her mother, tiny pearls around her neck borrowed from her grandmother. Her ears would not be pierced for another year. “Not until the eighth grade.” Her mother stood firm. Prepared to recite her haftorah, committed to memory using her father’s Maxell cassette tapes in her father’s treasured tape recorder, she sang with a timid sweetness that made her front row-seated parents and grandparents kvell. The oneg following, courtesy of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center’s Sisterhood, offered the typical fare of the time: honey cake and assorted pastries, challah, tiny cups of grape juice and wine, coffee, tea, non-dairy creamer, and packets of sugar and saccharin. Color film family portraits were taken by the guests with 35mm cameras. Her older brother’s Polaroid served as the designated apparatus for instant black and white candids.
The kid’s party on Saturday evening was held at Hawthorne Fire Co. #1, a shared event between the bat mitzvah girl and her best friend from a synagogue in Glen Rock where bat mitzvahs were held on Saturday mornings. Keeping the price down by splitting the cost of the hall rental, the parents pretended not to stare while awkward young teens danced to tunes by Paul Simon, the Beatles, Loggins & Messina, and Led Zeppelin. The musicians were a local junior high school band that had made their mark on the seventh grade bar/bat mitzvah circuit. The kids enjoyed pizza and cans of Coke delivered by Ness Pizza. The cake, of course, was made by Carvel. Late in the evening, the bat mitzvah girl opened her gifts in the privacy of her bright yellow room with bright yellow shag carpet. She’d been told she could keep jewelry, artwork and other keepsakes, but checks and savings bonds were to be saved for college. The following morning, out-of-town guests were invited to lunch at the house for sloppy joes and sides catered by the Kosher Nosh. After getting lost in the hubbub of the previous two evenings, it was at home that she was forced to make small talk with relatives she hardly knew. The smile pasted on her face remained until the last guest was hugged, kissed, thanked and driven to the airport or the Trailways bus station. Thirty-five years later the self-conscious teen that was afraid of her shadow had grown up, married, and had children of her own. Tasked with the event of the century, it was her turn to plan the first of three bar mitzvahs.
“You’ll need a bar mitzvah planner,” my best friend told me. “You mean like a calendar?,” I asked. “No,” my friend said, rolling her eyes. “A planner. An actual person to help you plan the affair.”
“How hard can it be?,” I asked. “Well, besides managing your son’s expectations, the choices are endless,” she said. Feeling overwhelmed, I decided to start by talking to my son. “What kind of bar mitzvah do you want?” I asked. “Is one of the options not to have one at all?” “No,” I replied, silently proud that he’d at least tried to wiggle out of it. Not the kind of kid to seek attention, he would inevitably require some prodding. “Do you have any idea where you’d like to have your party?” “Yup. Dave & Buster’s. Palisades Mall.” That was easy. “Do you care what kind of affair I plan for our adult guests?” “Nope.” That was even easier. “So whatever we decide, that will be OK with you?” “I said I didn’t care.” I’d spoken with friends who were mothers of girls. Their party planning experiences had been much more complicated. Perhaps it was because girls were more invested in the details. The best part of having boys was that their requests were minimal. Other than shopping for suits, shirts, ties, and dress shoes, sport jackets and slacks for Friday night and something casual for the party, scheduling haircuts, and confirming and tightening their guest lists, a bar mitzvah boy’s desire was simply to show up.
Once the date was confirmed and we attended the requisite bar mitzvah planning meeting at Barnert Memorial Temple in Franklin Lakes that reviewed month by month what was expected of the student and his family, reality set in. Never having considered a party more elaborate than Chuck E. Cheese’s, The Strike Zone or Brunswick Lanes, it occurred to me that I had no idea where to begin. “Call my friend in Franklin Lakes,” my friend suggested, handing me a business card. “She does flowers and she plans special occasions.” Hoping I was capable of taking this on myself, I considered the daily and weekly schedules for our family of five. Just looking at the calendar on any given day was overwhelming. Before I knew it, I dialed her number. Whatever the cost, it had to be worth it. I needed to learn the ropes and consider my options. Unlike my own bat mitzvah and my brother’s bar mitzvah, times had changed. There were way more choices to make. And in just over a year, I’d be planning the next one. Enlisting her support was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
With three boys so close in age, people often asked me how I insured things were different for each of my three sons. “That’s easy,” I tell them. “They’re three different people!” I think that’s what made each of their bar mitzvah celebrations so special. Their individual interests and identities drove the tempo for each celebration. While we kept many things the same, each bar mitzvah taught us what worked and what didn’t. Our oldest son, Rob, had his luncheon in the social hall of our temple. Our party planner introduced us to and helped us negotiate contracts with caterers, musicians, custom stationers, photographers, and decorators. Her floral expertise was without parallel and we still get compliments years later on her table arrangements. Just 16 months later, we followed suit for Kenny’s bar mitzvah, using almost all of the same vendors. It’s possible with each event, our guests experienced some deja vu, but the change of seasons from January to May, and the differences in Rob and Kenny’s personalities gave each occasion a personal touch. Rob’s invitations were designed and printed by a lovely shop in Englewood. Kenny’s were printed by the same shop, but we used his original artwork: a portrait of a major league baseball player on the cover. My dear friend from high school, an expert baker, created the sheet cakes for all three boys. Different themes, different decorations, same scrumptious recipe.
By the third bar mitzvah for our youngest son, Danny, we were ready to find a new venue. We looked around and settled on lunch following services at the Brickhouse Tavern in Wyckoff. Same musicians, similar guest list, different photographer. Without the need for a caterer, decorations or flowers, the restaurant event had a different flavor. While the candle-lighting recipients were relatively the same as at Robbie and Kenny’s luncheons, what was significant was that my father had passed away just six months prior. Wearing his grandfather’s tallit, Danny would be tasked with reciting a poem for a grandparent who was no longer here and lighting a memorial candle on the candelabra. Extremely shy, Danny surprised us all by memorizing every word of Hebrew that was taught to him.
It depends who you ask as to what was most special about each of our son’s bar mitzvahs. The grandfathers would tell you it was taking each grandson to Cedar Lane in Teaneck to shop for tallit and the intimate moment of taking the Torah from the Ark and passing it down from generation to generation. The grandmothers would say it was being called up to the bimah to chant their aliyot and walking proudly to stand next to their grandsons to light a candle following a tender candle-lighting poem. My husband appreciated taking the boys to Syms to buy their first suits, watching as the tailor measured their growing bodies for alterations. My brother would insist it was when my oldest son, who nearly hyperventilated while completing his Torah portion, chanted his final “amen.” “Attaboy, Rob,” my brother cried followed by a roaring applause from the entire congregation. Our rabbi, getting to know each of our son’s intimately during his bar mitzvah training, had the pleasure of watching as each older brother joined the younger on the bimah for an aliyot. Our guests appreciated the chance to celebrate each of the boys’ special qualities. I’ll forever cherish my seat at the end of the pew, snuggled shoulder to shoulder with each of them until the rabbi instructed all to rise, and then be seated as he was called to read from the Torah. At each event, our family was surrounded by incalculable warmth.
In contrast to the simplicity of my bat mitzvah, my son’s extravaganzas may have seemed opulent. Conscious of the close proximity of each of the boy’s celebrations, we wanted their bar mitzvahs to be tasteful and meaningful while keeping to a reasonable budget. Neither my husband nor I, nor our boys would have been comfortable with anything grandiose. What we as parents are offered now, that my parents weren’t offered then, is just a staggering amount of options.
Flipping through dusty photo albums, I wonder how we got through the whirlwind. I’m reminded of the arduous and meticulous planning and preparation for three long-awaited celebratory weekends that in retrospect seemed to fly by. Thinking back on ten years past, I’m reminded of the time and love put into writing each son’s meaningful candle-lighting poems, the search for photos for memorable video montages that took my breath away, the endless shopping trips for the perfect dress, the lengthy menu discussions and appetizer tastings, the consideration of songs and musical artists that had to be represented by our trio of talented musicians, the table compositions (how did we ever decide who would sit with whom?), the crazy bus rides (times three!) chaperoning kids from Franklin Lakes to Nyack’s Palisades Mall where the deafening noise of pinball machines and video-games pushed 50 middle-schoolers into overdrive, the endless harping on the boys to write their thank-you notes, and so on ad infinitum.
According to Jewish law, we’re told that once a young boy turns 13 they become bar mitzvah. They are no longer boys, but adults responsible for their actions and they must begin fulfilling the mitzvot (commandments of the Torah). This is a rite of passage from child to adult, with all the duties and responsibilities that come with it. While religion tells us so, I’m not certain my three sons felt the impact of that manhood in 2009, 2010, and 2013 anymore than I felt I’d entered the novitiate of womanhood in 1973 when the Temple Men’s Club president handed me my silver kiddush cup and gold-plated menorah.
What I do know is that since coming of age, three intelligent, engaging, sensitive, inquisitive boys have emerged. Humble and kind, they show up for life and for the people in it. While each may not be able to recall his respective Torah portion, recite his haftorah, sing along with the newest melody from the siddur, or even remember how to read Hebrew without transliteration, the bar mitzvah ritual yielded a deep respect for Jewish values, traditions, and culture. Each has either traveled to Israel on Birthright, studied abroad in Tel Aviv, or visited Poland, Russia or Jerusalem to better understand his roots. They’ve held steadfast to participating in holiday and memorial customs and appreciate the value of community. I’m certain the experience of having a bar mitzvah and becoming a bar mitzvah will resurface on the day he has the pleasure of embracing his own child while passing down the Torah to the next generation.
Deborah Breslow is a freelance writer and college essay coach from Wyckoff. Her three sons, Rob, 23, Kenny, 22, and Danny, 19, are successful young adults. Ms. Breslow’s published work appears in local, regional, and national publications focusing on home, family, essay writing, and medical advocacy. Visit Breslow’s website at www.djbreslow.com