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Parent’s guide to the b’nai mitzvah experience

The learning experience

for The Brooklyn Paper

We just experienced one of the truly great joys of parenthood — our son’s bar mitzvah.

Just as it was a coming of age for our Joshua (and, vicariously, for his sister, Chana Nehama), it was a coming of age for us as parents.

No one can tell you what birth is really like. The bar mitzvah experience is similarly impossible to comprehend until you have been through it.

Being ready for the big day became a lifestyle. There was endless planning, researching, and visualizing. That was followed by looking for a site, calling caterers, photographers, hotels, DJs, invitation ladies, cake ladies, yarmulke ladies — it didn’t seem to end! And ours was a pretty low-key event, with no videographer, band, event planner, calligrapher, florist, tableclothier, or chartered flight to Israel.

It makes you wonder, if you make all this fuss for a bar mitzvah, what’s left for a wedding? Well, as a friend pointed out, a lot of people who celebrate the bar mitzvah with you might not be on hand by the time a wedding rolls around. So there’s a bit of carpe diem involved in this celebration, particularly for those of us who started our families a bit late in life.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be that fancy. In a way, the bar mitzvah is a bit of a cultural Rorschach test for the whole family. What are your values? What are you trying to say? What are you intending to share? What are you trying to prove? A generation or two back, a big bar mitzvah was a statement, a fiscal milestone.

Now, while austerity hasn’t hit as a bar mitzvah fashion, a modest, haimishe (nice) affair that centers around the religious service is nothing to apologize for. Do what is comfortable for your family, your budget, your values — not someone else’s expectations.

First things first, involve the man (or woman) of the hour in your decisions. If this is really the beginning of adulthood, a few adult decisions (with good parental guidance, of course) are appropriate. We consulted our son on the type of party, music, and guest list, and as a result he made wise choices in selecting friends for the event who were respectful and well behaved. Another reason to kvell (be proud).

The first reason to kvell of course was the celebration of Joshua’s accomplishments, both religious and secular. He worked hard with his tutor, and hard on his own. Finding the right tutor, and starting early enough to assure confidence, was important. Joshua studied his portion and researched background material to prepare his d’var torah (torah commentary). Reading from the Torah was a very important goal for him. I had never understood how strong and mystical the connection really is until I saw my son chant from the ancient scroll. It really was the Torah that Moses set before Israel, even if the specific scroll was “only” 200 years old. What a wonderful way to go through the portal of adolescence — surrounded by family and friends, and embraced by history!

Here’s a list of some of the things we learned along the way:

• Get your date early! In many areas, families are doubling and tripling up or finding creative alternatives to the traditional Saturday morning. We had a mincha service with a beautiful outdoor havdalah after a break for kiddush hors d’oeuvres. Others have chosen Rosh Hodesh or non-Shabbat holiday to accommodate Shomer Shabbat guests who need to drive.

• Put G-d on the Guest List. This is the whole point, right? One of the best books we read was Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin’s “Putting G-d on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah.” I learned as much from this book as from all my years in Hebrew School! It is also full of terrific ideas about mitzvot, creative liturgy, and dealing with complicated family situations.

• Get a support group. Seriously. I found that friends who had been through this experience were wonderful cheerleaders and crying shoulders. I also called my sister-in-law more frequently than ever and had great fun “benchmarking” over the Internet with my high school pal Adrienne. Our kids were going to be reading the Torah the same day, 200 miles apart. We checked in regularly to make sure we had covered everything on our endless to-do list.

• You don’t have to have a theme. Well, I guess you do. Our theme was bar mitzvah. We flirted with the idea of doing Noah’s Ark (Josh’s Torah portion) but decided it was too cutesy. There are lots of other themes that can reflect the Torah reading, tzedakah, Judaica, or other values you want to affirm.

• Make this family time a weekend of fun. With so many families being so far flung, it’s hard to imagine a bar mitzvah without out-of-towners. Our event included Thursday and Friday dinners and a Sunday brunch. Luckily, grandparents hosted the dinners, and we got professional help with the brunch.

• Keep a list. We never did find bar mitzvah planning software, but not for lack of trying! We needed a master list of lists. Guest lists, menu lists, music playlists, candlelighting lists, to do lists. One of the most important lists was the one of what to take with us to the service. We kept it posted by the door. And we still forgot Josh’s glasses!

• On the big day, relax and enjoy yourself — and keep your sense of humor. You will need it.

• Thank you notes. We embargoed all the gift certificates until the thank you notes were done. That way, they got done amazingly quickly.

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