A practical guide to coming of age

By: Batsheva Lea

Mazal tov! Your son is now becoming a Bar Mitzvah or your daughter a Bat Mitzvah! Until I did my own, I had no idea how much was involved and how stressful it would be. At times, I even felt myself unable to breathe from the stress. I know people who have even become physically sick from the preparations.

Part of the stress comes from not knowing what is involved and what is expected. Your child will come of age with or without massive fanfare. A boy is a Bar Mitzvah at the age of thirteen and a girl is a Bat Mitzvah at the age of 12, whether or not we do anything to mark the occasion. The aim of this article is to give you things to think about so that you can try to be as organised as possible, and so that the actual day can be as stress-free as possible, allowing you to enjoy it.

Getting wrapped up in it

I’ll start with Bar mitzvahs, as they are more involved. Ideally, your son will need his own pair of Tefillin. These can cost between a few to many thousands of Rands, depending on the quality. Despite daily use, if taken care of, your son will only need this one pair that you buy for him for the rest of his life. Make enquiries relatively early, as the person you buy them from may need to bring them in from overseas. Check to make sure that they are kosher before you buy them. You may also want to allow some time to pay them off. The common practice is for boys to start wearing their Tefillin 30 days before their 13th Hebrew birthday. There is also a Tefillin gemach in Joburg if finance is a problem and, if you are looking to give tzedakah related to your son’s barmi, this is a good cause.

Joining the club

The next thing to think about is the shul, if you are doing it locally. If you don’t belong to a shul, now is a good time to join. Depending on how the shul works, you will need to meet with the rabbi, shul secretary, and gabai (in no particular order). You will need to work out what your son’s Bar Mitzvah parsha is. You’ll also need to find out what the shul policy is regarding who can do what if you have musical family members, or in terms of Aliyas, or, if there is more than one function that will fall out on the big day, will you share or will you postpone until the following week. How much is your son going to do? Is your son is willing and capable of davening from the beginning of Mincha on Friday until the end of Maariv on Saturday night and doing all the leining (reading from the Torah) and the haftorah? (Most boys aren’t.) Or, maybe he is just going to get up and get his Aliya and that’s it (he’ll still need to learn how to make the brachot before and after). Try and do this at least 18 months before the event, as you then need to find a Bar Mitzvah teacher, and if you are expecting your child to do a lot of the leining, he may need this amount of time to learn. Most shuls will set up times in the interim to test your son – if he isn’t shul-ready, the shul may restrict what he can do.

Getting down to business

And then comes the simcha part, where you need to decide how much you can cope with. In the past, there was a cake for whoever was at shul, and then it was over. Be realistic and be kind to yourself, your family, and you child. If you know, for whatever reason (financial or emotional), you can’t do a big thing – don’t. Whether your child dreads or relishes all of the attention, you may not be able to afford it or be up to project-managing it.

The average Bar Mitzvah comprises the Friday night supper, the shul Kiddush (book in advance and find out if you are required to invite the whole community and what else you are required to provide – decorations, serviettes), the lunch following the Kiddush, and then possibly a separate function. Most people do a Kiddush at a minimum. I have been to functions done in small shuls on a Sunday so that the Kiddush was just for the invited guests and others where the guests were invited to a Kiddush at the host’s home afterwards, so if you go this route it doesn’t have to be big or expensive. Some people have been doing the lunch as the formal event, but then, if you do this, people who can’t drive or may not be able to walk may need accommodation organised, or may not come.

A litany of things to consider for either occasion

Discuss with your child, shul, and school if you want your child to do a Bar or Bat Mitvah programme for the year. There are several good ones around and your child’s school may even have one.

You will need to decide if you’re doing the catering yourself or ordering in. Are you doing your own décor with items borrowed from a gemach, or getting professional decorators? Try and get to the gemach early, as your preferred items may already be booked. Remember that you have to get the items back in the condition in which you received them. Meet with caterers well in advance (like a year if possible) and discuss options – do your guests really need 5 choices of meat? Do you just want dessert and dancing? Some of the venues may be booked for your preferred date. Do you want a Sunday or a weekday function – at the catering hall/the shul hall/in your house/marquis? Some times are also very busy – after the Omer and at that end of November/beginning of December period. You also need to decide if you want: music, live or a DJ; a photographer; someone to record the video and all the extras; and if you will be getting friends to do these things or paying professionals.

If you are doing anything at home or at a shul hall – are you getting waiters, chairs, tables, and hiring crockery and cutlery? If you are getting disposables of these items, try and get them and the serviettes in advance, as it is then one less thing to think about closer to the time.

Don’t forget your family

You and all your family members will need clothes. I only realised as my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah started that she did not have any formal shoes, so she wound up going in her crocs!

Try plan in advance what the entire family will need – is your son wearing a suit or is your daughter getting a dress made? You can get clothing on sales a few months before, or choose to wear existing items. Don’t plan on anything “spectacular” for yourself or your home to coincide with your function. Rather make changes in advance and stick with them if you like them. That amazing hairdo or shaitel colour change or renovation may not work out as planned. Things may also be hectic on the day, so try and minimise the last-minute things. We were in an accident on the day of my daughter’s bati. I know someone whose house was flooded a few days before her son’s barmi. Don’t wait until the last minute because you may not have it.

Try to also plan the day in advance as much as possible – Are you getting your make-up done? And your other family members? How is it going to work out timing wise on the day? What about photos?

Who, what, where, when, why, and how of guests

And then, there is the guest list. For Bar Mitzvahs, many of the schools require that you invite certain boys from the school – often all the boys in the grade and in matric (which can be a lot of people). The boys normally come home for lunch, but most times the other moms will send stuff to help. If your son has been invited, offer to send something. I was so appreciative of people who knew we were having a barmi, and even if they weren’t invited, offered to make something, transport elderly relatives, help me set up, choose décor/shtick, lend trestle tables, etc. If you have capacity to do this for someone else, it will mean the world to them.

The choosing of guests can be very nerve-wracking, as you don’t want to get to the other side with too many faribels. How are you inviting people (we used Microsoft Publisher)? How are you keeping track of who’s coming? Who are you inviting to each part? Make a list of all of the potential people – family members, friends (yours, your parents’, your child’s, your child’s friend’s parents, your other children’s friends), your child’s teachers, shul congregants, work colleagues, etc., and then make lists. Have an ‘A’ list, a ‘B’ list, and a ‘C’ list. And then invite the ‘A’ list people relatively early. Decide who is coming to supper/lunch/the main function. If you are considering older people, they may need transport and it may be too much for them to be part of the whole weekend’s festivities. Ask them up front. While your function is your current main life event, some of your potential guests may be juggling many other things, so if you think they may forget, maybe send reminders closer to the time. There will be people who will call on the day with tummy bugs or headaches, so expect it.

Some people only invite the children in the class and the current teachers, others only close family friends. See what the culture is in your group and tailor it to your needs. If you are the one being invited, please reply as soon as possible, so that the host knows if they can invite people who haven’t made the ‘A’ list. Some caterers allow for people to come for dessert and dancing and others don’t. If you have been invited and have said you will come, please realise that whether you do or don’t pitch, the host has paid for your meal. As hard as this is, if you have not been invited, try and be happy for the family and if they are at your shul, go and be part of the simcha. Some people are omitted due to poor planning, others because functions are really expensive.

Odds and ends

Decide if you are ordering personalised benchers. Some places require the order to be a few weeks to months in advance. Also decide how much shtick you want for dancing and entertainment. This can also be bought in advance.

And then, there are the speeches. Your simcha is not a conference. Limit the speakers to the minimum needed – and the minimum time needed. You will need to have a format for the event – please consider allowing people to eat during the speeches, especially if the meal is being served – many of us practice eating and talking every evening with family members, we should be quite good at eating and listening too.

Unless your child is very articulate, he will, most likely, need help with his speech, especially the many thank yous and a short drosha (some words of Torah). This can be an area of conflict for obvious reasons, so deal with it earlier rather than later.

The last things you need to decide are the seating for the tables (and how you’re going to display it), and if you want to give people a potential gift list.

Finally, try and enjoy the event. Things may not (and almost certainly will not) go exactly according to plan, but the chances are that people won’ t know or notice. Try and remember that the day is about your child, and, hopefully, if well prepared, it will be a wonderful, enjoyable event to remember.

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