Theme to end them all: the shtetl bar mitzvah

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The Washington Post recently informed me that, if it is to qualify as “a state-of-the-art New York bar mitzvah,” the celebration my wife and I are planning for our youngest son’s upcoming entry into Jewish adulthood needs a considerable dose of “theater,” including “props.”

The Post article, on the “glam makeover” that bar mitzvahs have reportedly undergone in recent years, stressed the importance of themes. Among those highlighted: a “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” bar mitzvah, a “guitar” bar mitzvah, a “casino” bar mitzvah, a “Yankees” bar mitzvah (complete with a film of the new Jewish adult joining the team during spring training), and other themes best left unmentioned here (actually, anywhere).

My goodness, I exclaimed to myself. Mere weeks from our dear son Menachem’s assumption of the yoke of the Torah’s commandments, we were utterly themeless.

Whatever would we do?

Sure, like other parents described in the article, I suppose we could (after taking out a third mortgage) hire some “motivators” to drag guests into dancing circles, some acrobats and even a bartender or two to oversee a “vodka slide” — a “massive block of ice with a groove down the middle” — for the adult guests.

The bar mitzvah boy (thank God) would boycott his celebration if he saw any of those things, but at least we would have done something meaningful.

What, though, about the all-important theme?

As Orthodox Jews, we couldn’t really go the route of the corporate CEO who recently flew in a number of rock and rap stars to regale the masses at his daughter’s multimillion-dollar bat mitzvah. But I know well that we Orthodox are hardly beyond our own acts of immature excess.

Think, I thought. But of course! The possibilities were endless.

We could have a “tefillin bar mitzvah,” with tables in the shape of the leather phylacteries. Or a “Talmud bar mitzvah” with tractate volumes made out of chopped liver.

How about a “Mount Sinai bar mitzvah,” with centerpieces rigged to erupt in simulated lightning after the bar mitzvah boy’s speech. There’s the “manna from heaven bar mitzvah,” where, in keeping with Jewish tradition’s teaching about the miraculous nourishment’s ability to taste almost anything, each guest could order whatever food he or she wanted. (We’d need both meat and dairy kitchens for that one, but hey, who said successful excess was easy?)

Then, though, it hit me. No, none of those themes was right; the perfect bar mitzvah theme was something else, and I had it: the “shtetl bar mitzvah.”

We would recreate a pre-Holocaust Eastern European small-town bar mitzvah, precisely like those my son’s grandfathers experienced when they turned 13 in 1930s Poland!

It wouldn’t be easy, but we could do it. We’d have to find the appropriate venue, of course, something that captured the ambiance of a true shtetl synagogue. I’ve seen old photos. It shouldn’t be hard. There are a number of establishments in certain New York neighborhoods that would fit the bill; they might lack actual dirt floors, but their floors are certainly dirty.

The cuisine might be trickier, I thought. But after intensive historical research, I came up with just what the theme demanded: kichel (a primitive precursor of the cookie) and herring, with a shot of schnapps as an accompaniment for those of age (drinking, that is, not Jewish adulthood). No main course and no dessert — for authenticity’s sake. A truly unique bar mitzvah, one not seen for 60 years!

I imagine there may be some strange looks from guests unaware of all the careful thought and planning that went into our son’s chic, minimalist bar mitzvah theme. Even when I explain it, some may not realize how “state of the art” our celebration really is. It won’t be their fault, of course. It takes a certain sophistication to recognize true style.

I even hope to start a trend — an avant-garde, deceptively low-key approach to bar mitzvahs. Aside from the sheer coolness of it all, the simplicity of the affairs may just make it easier for the bar mitzvah boy (or bat mitzvah girl) to remain focused on the true theme of the moment, their entry into the circle of Jews who are now responsible to humanity, to their fellow Jews, and above all, to God.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. For his son Menachem’s bar mitzvah celebration, he and his wife planned to serve a modest chicken dinner for family, a handful of their closest friends and their son’s yeshiva classmates. The grandparents were to serve as motivators, in the deepest, most Jewish sense of the word.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization