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The Jewish Report Editorial

Deconstructing the ritual

  • JNF - Tu B'shvat
The planning of our children’s coming of age party - their bar- or batmitzvah - is an event of profound importance. We have all either been through - or will go through - what has become for many a costly, stress-inducing process.
by VANESSA VALKIN | Jun 03, 2015

If our children, or grandchildren, are at Jewish day school, and at bar- or batmitzvah age, they have already attended several “batis” or “barmis” (as they call it). Bar- or batmitzvah fatigue may have by now set in and, as parents, we are feeling compelled to search for new and innovative ideas for our own child’s celebration that might differentiate it from the rest of the parties.

A first child’s bar- or batmitzvah is as much a developmental milestone for the family as it is for the child, says author and psychologist Dr Judith Davis, who is an expert in the psychology of bar- and batmitzvahs.

“The bat-/barmitzvah is the first occasion in which the parents - as adults - present themselves publicly in relation to their religious tradition, their child’s development, their family’s evolution, and to everyone most important to them, all at the same time,” she says.

In the mother’s ability to arrange this communal celebration of her child’s coming of age, she herself, at some level, is tested and comes of age. A job well done - as facilitator of food, relationship builder, hostess and general balabosta - results not only in a successful celebration, but also in an elevated standing in the extended family and community. For the father, the celebration is also a statement about his economic success, says Davis. 

The pressure to plan successful parties begins well before the pre-teen period, though. Already with toddlers who are brought up on Cinderella, Barbie, and Power Rangers, there are extremely high expectations for birthday parties. From cakes to themes, décor to entertainment, children want the dazzling kingdom of Disney recreated in their living rooms.

When I turned 12 at King David Victory Park Primary in the mid-‘80s, we all had our batmitzvah ceremonies together in shul, and that same day, celebrated with a modest tea or cocktail party with our own family and family friends. Our school mates were having celebrations of their own and the parties were fairly simple.

Today it seems quite different for both bar- and batmitzvahs, with more emphasis on making it a grand affair. In North America, the most vulgar, obnoxious bashes might cost as much as $1 million.

One Toronto boy had pop band Maroon 5 flown in to perform at his barmitzvah. Another flew to Las Vegas with his friends and a film crew to make a seven-minute spoof of the popular film, The Hangover and boxer Mike Tyson had a cameo role.

A magazine article described a New York City batmitzvah girl who descended from the ceiling of famous restaurant, Cipriani Wall Street, harnessed to a wire and dressed in a cat suit.

Such boggling possibilities can send currents of anxiety or revulsion through our intestinal systems - depending on our own ambitions and available budgets for our children.

But perhaps we all need to regain some much needed perspective. It is surely worth remembering in all the anxiety that bar-/batmitzvah planning might induce, that the beautiful essence of this ritual is celebrating an important milestone on our children’s journey to adulthood.

At the age of 13, a boy, and at the age of 12, a girl, become responsible for fulfilling the Torah’s commandments. The term “barmitzvah” literally means “son of the mitzvah” or batmitzvah, “daughter of the mitzvah” - one who is obligated in mitzvah observance. Both boys and girls now take responsibility for acquiring Torah knowledge and for doing mitzvot.

In fact, in very observant families, the emphasis at the celebratory meal is on the more meaningful events like the boy’s Dvar Torah - where he speaks before his community and family, showcasing his Torah learning.

I think when most of us - from less religious backgrounds - look back on our own celebrations, with braces on teeth and the beginnings of puberty, although the kernel of meaning is there, this special time is shrouded in unnecessary anxiety and materialism.

We may remember a funny comment from a speech, the anxious pangs of being up on the bimah, or who gave a large gift; but not too much else. It is probably the same with our children and their friends.

Let us, as parents, focus on the symbolism and spirituality of the bar- or batmitzvah process so that our children have a chance to focus on it also. It is not about the quality of the DJ, the variety at the sushi food station, or if the décor and venue were up to scratch; it is really about marking the amazing journey of our children into adulthood; their acceptance of moral responsibility for their actions, and sharing this sacred ritual with family and 

2 Comments

  1. 2 Tabby Katz 04 Jun
    With respect to you Ms Valkin, the generalisations which proliferate your editorial are about as valid as the supposition that all blondes are peroxide-abusers. Your article appears to imply that those who throw what are considered lavish events to mark bar or batmitzvahs are lacking in spirituality. Simchas are in essence a celebration of life. However as we are all too painfully aware, life is an unpredictable series of occurrences, so why do you sit in judgement of those who choose to seize the opportunity to celebrate when the moment presents itself? Seriously, - does  spectacular décor and a mouth watering menu really dilute a child or a family's spiritual beliefs? Are the bar and batmitzvahs of children from observant Jewish families always low-key events? Do the Beth Din certified functions of secular Jews make the parents and children any less Jewish? Surely if children are raised in environments of high moral standards that teach them how to take responsibility for their actions and uphold their proud Jewish heritage, one fabulous party extravaganza is not going to change that?
  2. 1 David Fachler 05 Jun
    It is quite baffling to understand Ms. Katz's hyperbolic reaction to a very well written editorial. Nothing in this piece suggested that the bar/batmitzvah celebration should not be well catered, Indeed all the examples were of over-the-top themes. More importantly the underlying idea was totally misunderstood. The purpose of a bar/batmitzvah
    is to mark the period when Jewish children become part of the nation. It is a national religious ceremony; not a time for parents to flaunt what they have.  No one is against creating a memorable and fun occasion even while commemorating a significant ritual. However focusing on all the latest fads and trying to make a spectacle of one's family or son or daughter is completely missing the point. And yes, on the whole the more religious events are lower key, and this itself teaches the child a dose of humility. Grandioseness can only breed narcissism. 

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