Putting The Simcha Back Where It Belongs
By Chandrea Serebro
The other day I was helping out a friend who was due to be the master of ceremonies at an upcoming wedding. We decided he should start his speech with a joke. Have you heard the one about the guy who wanted to make his daughter the best wedding ever? One couple he knew hosted their daughter’s wedding on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and other friends booked out an entire island in the Indian Ocean. Desperate not to be outdone, he decided to make the wedding on the moon. On his return, a friend asked him how it was, and he couldn’t lie, “There was absolutely no atmosphere”. Rabbi Yossi Salzer prefers the one about the wedding flowers that were lovingly picked and expensively arranged…and wound up lasting longer than the marriage. Unfortunately, it’s not such a funny joke these days and more a reflection of the times we live in. People have gotten so caught up in the look, feel, and details of their celebrations that they’ve almost forgotten what and why they’re celebrating. This had led, in part, to Rabbi Salzer encouraging his community to tone down their simchas and cut down on much of the gashmius (materialism) that has become part and parcel of simchas these days, including weddings, bar mitzvahs, bas mitzvahs, you name it. The obvious, unstated goal is to try and rid the community of the dangerous culture of keeping up with the Goldbergs, which only gets endlessly harder and more stressful, putting more and more pressure on people’s bank balance, their relationships, their self-esteem, and their health, until something has to give.
Rabbi Salzer hit on the idea after he experienced a very well-monitored system at work in Manchester known as ‘Kol Sossyn’ which set out specific guidelines for the purpose of avoiding unnecessary costs at a simcha. It followed the lead of a declaration which came out some two decades ago in the USA, signed by a host of esteemed Rabbonim, who all agreed that something had to be done to curb the growing extravagance of simchas. In this declaration, the Rabbonim refuse to participate or attend a wedding which does not subscribe to the guidelines they set out – which include, among other things, a maximum head count of 400 guests, no more than a three-course meal with a regular dessert (ie no Viennese table), and a maximum of a five-piece band.
But what’s all the fuss about? Surely, if you have it, you have the right to enjoy it, right? Although weddings are happy affairs and simchas are certainly a time to share the joy, Rabbi Salzer explains that so much money is being wasted on superfluous things that it’s becoming increasingly unbecoming, un-Jewish, and excessive. People are trying so hard to keep up with what their neighbours are doing that they even feel guilty if they don’t give their child something on par with everyone else; the ‘perfect’ simcha. People also do such things because they feel they have to maintain their status in the community, which often comes at a tremendous cost to the well-being of the family finances and even the family ties. And perhaps, says Rabbi Salzer, that’s the most important part of it all. Too much devotion is being put into the menu and not enough into the marriage, and just because a simcha is fancy doesn’t make it a happy one or a recipe for a successful life together. People need to focus on the commitment and the love rather than the rest, and leave comparisons to the Goldbergs out of the equation. Without any formalised initiatives or rabbis refusing to be your guest here yet, it’s up to each community to get on board for themselves, says Rabbi Salzer – but the mood to tone it down generally is definitely growing.
Alcohol Free Bar Mitzvah campaign
It was in a similar vein that Choni Liknaitzky decided that something needed to be done to curb the consumption of alcohol at bar mitzvahs, where boys imbibe with or without the knowledge and permission of their parents. So, together with a sponsor who wanted to show these kids that it’s possible to have a successful,
enjoyable simcha without alcohol, to help point the thirteen year olds in a positive direction by sponsoring a large-scale initiative, they enlisted the help of Rabbi Micha Kaplan and formed the Alcohol Free Bar Mitzvah campaign. The campaign offers R1000 to any boy who signs up to have zero tolerance for alcohol at his event (he has to agree to display a banner to this effect at the door, and no exceptions can be made, not even for cousin Larry from America), as well as an additional R500 for his school.
“This initiative is by no means a solution to the larger problems that lurk out there, but offers the youth a universal message that is both positive and meaningful. We want to show the kids that they can make positive and informed decisions for their simchas now, and thereafter, positive choices for their adult lives going forward. But at the same time, the reality may not always be in check with this, and we want to stress that to sign up does not give anyone license to judge others, or alienate themselves from those that do drink.” The initiative is to spread awareness, to encourage good choices, and is inclusive of all boys – “our aim is to educate, not pass moral judgment.” And the response from parents, and even the boys themselves, has been overwhelming. Some felt it allowed them to do what they wanted to do, but didn’t have the strength to pull off, while, interestingly, even those parents who felt that they didn’t want to sign-up were educated nonetheless, hosting events where alcohol was barely seen or only available on the main table for close friends and family. Indeed, in the pilot stage of the project, some 80% of the bar mitzvah class signed up, which bodes well for the future success of the project, which Choni and his partners hope will be rolled out in schools and shuls in the near future. Choni and company encourage all the potential candidates out there to sign up and “raise the bar”. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or to sign up visit: www.afbarmi.co.za