In 7th grade, I went to at least one Bar/Bat Mitzvah every weekend. Everyone’s party had a theme. To name a few: poodle skirts and cat-eye glasses at the 50s-themed diner, the Americana picnic, and the most memorable of all: when two girls rented out the NASA Johnson Space Center and screened an IMAX movie in which they took a (fictional) trip to space.
When it came time to plan my party, my mom made it clear that my theme was “Bat Mitzvah.” That meant no cocktail napkins would shimmer with my name, no photographer would prepare magnetic buttons, no souvenir t-shirts, and certainly no personalized IMAX movie. I got a room rental, a DJ, and balloon centerpieces.
I resented the drabness of my party, but I knew that complaining wouldn’t change anything; it would just make me sound like a brat. From my mother’s perspective, having a party to commemorate a Jewish rite of passage that had already occurred at synagogue was lavish enough.
I was allowed one small indulgence: the signing board.
During my middle school years, everyone used to have professional portraits taken that they would then tack onto a poster board for people to sign “Mazel Tov” around the photo.
I had almost that.
But instead of a photograph of me, my dad painted a portrait of me. It sounds really special now, but at the time, I was embarrassed by the anti-conformity of a painting. On top of that, the portrait only kind of looked like me, and my parents had taped plastic wrap bandaid-style around my face to protect it from lewd drawings when people signed on the canvas.
It looked tacky, which was my concern about everything at my party. There was nothing polished, nothing exciting, or different or unique about it. You could tell there hadn’t been a party planner and that it could have been anyone’s party. But no one seemed to care, because they were having too much fun dancing. It was one of the best Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties of the year.
When I think about what I would do for my future daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, I would follow the same values that guided my mother as she was planning mine. First and foremost is the religious, communal, and life cycle nature of the Bat Mitzvah service. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good party as much as anyone, but I agree with my mom that the party’s theme should be “Bat Mitzvah.” It would be wasteful to spend money on swag like personalized napkins, photo snow globes, and cartoon caricatures that are just going to be thrown out later.
Three years after my Bat Mitzvah, my father died of cancer. Now, as all the signed Mazel Tov’s fade away, only his portrait of me remains on the canvas. That kind of swag only gets better with time.
Ariela Emery grew up in Houston, TX, where she attended Jewish day school from preschool through 12th grade. Now a resident of Los Angeles, Ariela works as an event coordinator and B'nai Mitzvah tutor, often officiating the services of her students. In the fall of 2015, Ariela will begin a master's program in genetic counseling in San Francisco.