Tell me if I’ve gone too far. And I want you to be brutally honest. I’m considering inviting Fredbird to Jack’s bar mitzvah in March. I’m not talking about Uncle Fred “Fredbird” who lives in New Jersey and has a nose the shape of a hawk’s beak. I mean Fredbird –everyone’s favorite official Cardinals mascot, who actually fits perfectly into the baseball theme of the bar mitzvah party.
At $150 for a half of an hour, the animated northern redbird, who actually looks more like a giant chicken dressed in a Cardinals jersey, is guaranteed to amuse all ages, give unlimited high-fives, and maybe sign autographs if we’re lucky. Fredbird is not my idea, of course. I give all the credit to a friend of mine, who is considered an experienced party planner after hosting her daughter’s recent casino bat mitzvah bash. The other option is bribe her husband into wearing a rented bird costume in exchange for a full-course steak dinner at Stony River.
In addition to Fredbird, her other suggestions include asking a couple of peppy high school cheerleaders to catapult plush baseballs into the crowd, using a slingshot like they do at Busch Stadium. To set the mood, my entertainment consultant also recommends broadcasting America’s most well known and well-loved song, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, at the kiddush luncheon.
I told her that I would think about it.
Sure, I want the party to be fun. After chanting the Sh’mini in Leviticus everyday for six months, my son deserves a good time. Still, I have to ask myself, “What has happened to the sanctity of the most significant childhood birthday in the Jewish tradition?” In the Talmud the only accompanying ritual associated with the bar mitzvah is a blessing pronounced by the father thanking God for ending his responsibility for his son’s observance of the mitzvot (commandments). “Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy.” (Genesis Rabbah 63:10).
Nowhere in the historical Jewish text does it mention a DJ, ice sculpture, chocolate fountain, or Mylar balloons.
By the 14th century, sources provide the first reference to a public occasion marking a boy’s coming of age. Still, no description of catered food stations, personalized t-shirts, or a deluxe photo album that contains as many pages at the Torah itself. By the 17th century, boys were expected to say the blessing and read Torah. They delivered talks, often on talmudic learning, called the derashah (devar Torah) at an afternoon seudat mitzvah (ritual meal). Again, nowhere do the rabbis discuss a country club sit-down dinner with a choreographed slide show, caricature artist, or roaming videographer.
For centuries, the bar mitzvah for boys (and more recently the bat mitzvah for girls) marks the beginning of participation in the prayer service and reciting blessings over the Torah. A tallit, or prayer shawl, is also worn for the first time at a bnei mitzvah (plural of a mixed group of bar and bat mitzvah). For the most part, the ceremony itself has remained the same for generations, although contemporary bnei mitzvahs sometimes incorporate the individual talents and interests of the student. Obviously, what has changed most over the last few decades, is how this simcha is celebrated. For many parents and their teens, the passage into adolescence means one big party that ranks right up there with a wedding.
Unfortunately, the emphasis on expensive, lavish events has the potential to shadow the purpose of the bnei mitzvah experience, which is to empower our sons and daughters to explore their Jewish identities even deeper. At no other time in a child’s life is a connection to Judaism more important than in these early teen years. As they grow up in a challenging society and face tough decisions, their Jewish culture and religion can be a valuable resource. The key is to hang onto their bnei mitzvah accomplishment and make a lifelong commitment to being Jewish at home, in the community, and in the world.
“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Currently, she is obsessing over the custom postage stamps for her son’s bar mitzvah invitations, so please feel free to send any advice to: [email protected] or visit her website at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.