Paul Alster
Israel-based print and broadcast journalist

The Great Bar/Bat Mitvah rip-off!

At the risk of sounding more than somewhat like ‘himself’ from Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, “bah humbug” say I to the circus that has become the great bar/bat mitvah rip-off!

What I have to say on the subject might very well stick in the craw of the die-hard traditionalists who believe that all the stops should be pulled out when celebrating the coming of age of your little darling, but I have had enough of the peer pressure and thinly veiled one-upmanship that has turned what should be a memorable family event into something akin to ‘The ‘X’ Factor’ or ‘Israel’s Got Talent’! I must get this off my chest and don’t care too hoots if it offends any sensibilities. In the words of the late, great Mrs Slocombe, from ‘Are You Being Served?’, “I am unanimous in this decision!”

I was warned by friends who had arrived before me at this particular juncture in one’s life, (when your tiny bundle of joy has reached the age when they can do their maths homework better than you ever could), that the novelty of the bar/bat mitzvah season will wear thin very quickly as the excesses of those around you make having a quiet family affair all but impossible. My bar mitzvah some thirty-one years ago in England was like most others; family, friends of my parents and grandparents, and about ten of my schoolfriends, who followed the shul service with kiddush before adjourning for lunch at a nearby venue.

Such an event these days is well nigh impossible. For a start, it is all but obligatory to invite all the children from your child’s class (so as not to offend anyone), which in some parts of the country can add up to 40 kids. Add to this the trend of also inviting the same children plus those from other classes in the same year to a ‘kids only’ party, and you end up with a big party in the making in addition to your family simcha. But the worst part of it all is the strain that this deluge of parties can place on the family finances.

There is no complaint on my part at the cost of entertaining friends and family and my daughter’s friends; that is, and always will be a pleasure. The big problem, (as many parents have since confessed when this matter was addressed recently at the local PTA), is the constant requirement to provide a present for every child celebrating a party that season, and the massive burden it can very quickly place on finances often already at full stretch. If you reckon that there could be over 100 parties in any one school year and you are expected to offer a cash gift of 100 shekels, you don’t need to be Milton Friedman to work out that this adds up to a significant sum even before you add in all the ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ to venues very often a long way removed from your locale.

The constant drip-drip effect that so many parents complained about prompted the va’ad (parents committee) from my daughter’s class to meet and propose that a standard amount of 50 shekels should be suggested as an appropriate gift for these bar mitvah discos and bat mitzvah parties. One parent regaled the committee with the story of a child coming home with an invitation to a bat mitzvah, having been told by the bat mitvah girl that her parents wanted it to be known that they had spent more on the forthcoming party than most others so they felt a commensurately larger gift should be the order of the day! It won’t surprise you to learn that the parent in question decided that this was one party her daughter wouldn’t be attending.

I recall watching a documentary feature a couple of years ago in which an Orthodox religious family who had many children and came from large extended families on ‘both sides of the pedigree’, explained that they usually attended an average of two simchas a week! Not surprisingly, it took a massive toll on their finances and had become a burden that was close to unbearable. Surely it would make sense for communities or families to reach some sort of informal agreement whereby these events could reflect the joy of each individual occasion without it placing people in the dilemma of exposing themselves to significant financial difficulty, or losing face amongst their peers?

I have attended events in the not too recent past that have been so completely ‘over the top’ that even the child at the centre of the occasion was clearly embarrassed at proceedings. These parties were certainly thrown more to massage the egos of the parents and make a show to the gathered guests, than to reflect the real joy of celebrating your boy now being considered a man, or your girl a young woman, as religious tradition dictates, even if modern society rightly views matters rather differently.

There will be no prouder father than me when I host my daughter’s bat mitzvah in a few months time. It will be a joyous occasion attended by our small family, close friends and my daughter’s group of best friends from school. There will be no invitation to the masses of kids in her school year, (many of whom she would struggle to put a name to if push came to shove), and I doubt very much that their non-attendance will cause even the slightest ripple of a reaction. Quite the opposite, I suspect, in that many parents will breathe a sigh of relief that they have not been placed in the dilemma of cost over suspected insult, should the invitation not be accepted.

If a family’s position is such that a massive bash makes barely a dent in their finances and they want to ‘shvitz’ till the cows come home, then that is well and truly their prerogative. Mazal Tov! Common sense though has to enter the equation for those in the rest of Israeli society for whom lining the pockets of exorbitantly expensive caterers, event planners, firework and pyrotechnics designers, and even celebrity entertainers, is not a realistic option. Let’s get back to basics and celebrate the child for what they are and who they are, not what they bring to the party.

About the Author
Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist with a special interest in the Israel/Palestinian conflict and Middle East politics. He is a regular contributor to a variety of international news websites including The Jerusalem Report, and was formerly's main Middle East correspondent. He can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster or at