Raising the Bar (Mitzvah)

The subject of Bar Mitzvahs has been in my mind lately.

You see — I’m a bar mitzvah tutor for my synagogue. This means that I work with specific 12 year-old kids who are preparing for their own special days. I work with them one-on-one learning the specific tunes for chanting certain parts of the religious service — as well as coaching them on the many lines of Hebrew they have to practice over and over and over again.  I meet with them one hour a week, and the true payoff is seeing how much they’ve accomplished over the months when I attend a student’s bar mitzvah.

But it also means I’m usually invited to the party as well — which is pretty cool, too.

And the topic was raised by Rachel of I See What You Meme when she posted a link to a segment of American Public Media’s Marketplace which discussed the trend of “adult bar mitzvah parties.”  This is a different phenomenon than adults who have decided, later on in life, to engage in the bar mitzvah ceremony at the synagogue. Nope. This is more of a theme party for adults who want to relive the bar mitzvah party experience.  Marketplace cited a Boston Globe cover story from last week about this entitled Let’s Do The Time Warp Again.

The author takes a look at a bunch of hip, trendy, Jewish 26 year-olds who have decided to be nostalgic and host their own theme events where they decide to party like it’s 1998. That was their original bar mitzvah year (when they hit age 13), and this being their thirteenth anniversary of that year, they felt it would be a hoot to relive the bar mitzvah party experience (calling it a Double Bar Mitzvah). Only this time they had more creative control instead of their parents (as they were the ones footing the bill).  There would be sign-in boards for guests to sign. Jewish circle hora dancing intertwined with Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5. And the inevitable candle-lighting ceremony where they would thank Great Uncle Lester and Great Aunt Mimi who couldn’t be there in person but are there in spirit nonetheless.

This got me thinking on quite a few different levels: I’m not 26 anymore. And I’m far from hip and trendy.  However, I just celebrated by 39th birthday a week ago.  That means that I’m celebrating the thirteenth anniversary of the thirteenth anniversary of my bar mitzvah — an even which took place on April 20, 1985!  I could, theoretically, throw a triple bar mitzvah!

But wait — is this something I really want to do? What does a bar mitzvah entail anyway? I think the definition has really become unfocused due to the pressure of throwing a great party. So before we go any further, I present a helpful guide for those of you who may be unfamiliar with this coming-of-age ritual.

The “Hey! That’s My Hummus!” Bar Mitzvah FAQ


Q: What does the term bar mitzvah mean, anyway?

A:Bar” is Aramaic for “son.”  “Mitzvah” is Hebrew (and Aramaic) for “commandments.”  The bar mitzvah is a coming of age ritual where a Jewish boy comes of age to be bound by the Jewish commandments. Simple as that. The counterpart for Jewish girls is a Bat mitzvah, where “bat” is Hebrew for “daughter.” Same general idea.


Q: What’s included in the ritual? How does a Jewish boy become a bar mitzvah?

A: He must adhere to the following steps:

  1. He becomes 13 years old.


Q: You’re kidding me. There must be more to it than that. Doesn’t he have to give a speech? Read from the torah? Sing stuff in Hebrew? Wear one of those prayer shawls? Dance with his grandmother at a party?

A: Nope. He just has to turn 13.  Once that happens? He’s bound by the Jewish commandments as an adult. None of the other stuff is necessary for the transformation — but it usually takes place because he can finally take on the obligation of reading from the Torah. Or leading services. Or taking on a more adult role in one of many ways.


Q: What about girls? Do they also just have to turn 13? I heard somewhere that the age for them is 12?

A: The tradition of the bar/bat mitzvah is a relatively recent one (hundreds of years, not thousands of years), and the ages of 13 for boys and 12 for girls was chosen because girls would physically and psychologically mature earlier than boys. In the twentieth century with a more egalitarian acceptance in popular streams of Judaism the age just became 13 for both boys and girls in many communities. You will still find many communities, however, where girls will become bat mitzvah at age 12.


Q: So — what’s the deal with the tradition of the lavish bar mitzvah party?

A: Look — not all of them are like this. It’s a milestone with a celebration. For some families, it’s an all out celebration where the parents want to make sure that it’s the event of the season with a special appearance by 50 Cent. For others? It’s a buffet luncheon at the synagogue with plenty of sponge cake to go around. There’s no specific way one is mandated to celebrate the bar mitzvah. I’ve seen a lot of variations — DJs. Live bands. Klezmer Bands. Free t-shirts for the kids. In 1983 I went to one where the family rented out a Winnebago filled with arcade games.  Nowadays one of the perks appears to be paid dancers who accompany the DJs and get the kids up dancing. There could be karaoke. Or a caricature artist.  It’s a party — but with a whole bunch of family and friends who usually don’t come together in the same circles. Which makes displays like these all the more fun:


Come to think of it — If I had this going for me at my original bar mitzvah? I’d certainly do it again 13 years later…


  1. FaiqaApril 28, 2011

    Dude. You guys will throw a party over pretty much ANYTHING, won’t you? 😉

    1. shinyApril 28, 2011

      Hey — not anything. We draw the line at…

      Okay. Yeah. Pretty much anything. 🙂

  2. MeganApril 28, 2011

    I never even had a Sweet 16 party. Although if I had it would have been a lunch buffet and sponge cake because we didn’t have tons of money.

    1. shinyApril 28, 2011

      I recently attended my niece’s bat mitzvah — it was very modest compared to the huge parties I’ve seen out there. But it was quite wonderful. She did a wonderful job leading the service and speaking to the congregation the day of (and the evening before), and this tied into the theme very well. I’m proud of those parents who are able to create a good balance between the bar mitzvah and the afterparty.

      And have you seen the price of sponge cake lately? For shame…


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