Author: Sommer, Allison Kaplan
Date published: October 21, 2010
A musician marched into the glittering Tel Aviv event hall blowing on a ram's horn with all his might. Behind him followed the Santo family. Parents Lihi and Eyal, sister Danielle, and finally, the Bar Mitzvah boy, Lior, presented themselves to the guests who had come to share their celebration. The shofar blasts were appropriate to the time of year - Lior's Bar Mitzvah was taking place just before Rosh Hashanah.
The grand entrance with the shofar was just one of the special elements the Santos incorporated into their festivities - there were also family photographs of Lior projected on the walls of the event room as festive Greek music played. "We have family roots in Saloniki, so Greek music was an important part of the celebration," said Lior's father, Eyal.
As with many Israeli Bar Mitzvah celebrations, Lior's Bar Mitzvah festivities stretched over an entire week. First, he read a short Torah portion in his synagogue on Monday, putting on tefillin for the first time. Saturday, he read a longer Torah portion. Finally, his family threw a party on Sunday night, inviting more than 200 guests to drinks, dinner and dancing.
As Israel has grown more affluent and Westernized, Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations have grown larger and more elaborate. Before the Santo family made their grand entrance, drinks and hors d'oeuvres were served. As the adults sipped and chatted, the kids played at a billiards table, ping-pong, two casino tables and multiple screens with Wii video games. All are now standard issue at most Israeli Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, along with the disco dance floor, light show, confetti and DJ mixing Middle East favorites with the latest international hits.
But beyond the glitter tattoos and the thumping music, a growing number of parents are determined to find ways, large and small, to make the event personal and meaningful for their children and to find a way to stand out from the crowd.
Themed parties are not very common in Israel. The ultrawealthy sometimes pay famous singers to perform at their celebrations, but more commonly, the family is part of the show.
If the boy or girl - or any member of the family - has musical or performing talent, they are called to the stage. Lior's younger sister, Danielle, a competitive modern rhythmic gymnast, performed for the guests at the Bar Mitzvah, waving her long sash and throwing and catching her baton. At many Bat Mitzvah parties, girls who dance bring their dance troupe onstage, and those who play musical instruments serenade their guests.
At their party, triplets Eden, Hila and Yael Cohen each played a different brass instrument for an all-in-the-family band concert for the guests at their triple Bat Mitzvah, harmonizing on saxophone, clarinet and flute.
Casual dress prevails at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, as it does at most events in Israel. Even at a conventional dance party or in synagogue, jackets and ties are a rarity. Bar Mitzvah boys usually wear an open shirt - sometimes a polo shirt - and casual khakis or jeans to their big event. Girls are more likely to take advantage of the occasion to fuss over their outfits and show off with some sequins and flounce.
Sometimes, extremely casual dress is a requirement, as when climbing in a bus is part of the party. Increasingly, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and celebrations in Israel are hitting the road, providing family and guests with a memorable experience beyond a party. Recognizing that they are fortunate enough to live in a country where Jewish history and heritage comes alive, many Israelis bring their celebrations to meaningful locations. Most popular is holding a morning service in the Old City of Jerusalem, specifically the Western Wall or the city's Great Synagogue, followed by a festive brunch in a restaurant or hotel. Others choose to have the Torah reading on top of Masada or another ancient fortress, followed by dining al fresco.
"Here in Israel, because of the history, people use the rite of passage as an opportunity to connect with the country and to strengthen their child's connection to the land," said Hannah Schwartz, of Ra'anana. When her daughter Avita! recently celebrated her Bat Mitzvah, numerous members of her family came from abroad to celebrate. She rented a bus, and the party became a road trip around the country. "We definitely decided to take full advantage of the fact that we live here," she explained. "Our celebrations in Israel may be less formal than in the United States - they are less dressy and more laid-back - but they are very warm and fun, and they are often creative."
The Schwartz family invested a considerable amount of time and effort in making Avital' s celebration both creative and meaningful. Avital's Torah portion was "Shmot" or "Names." Hewing to that theme, Avital researched her family history and found the names of 12 girls in her family who were killed in the Holocaust before they were able to celebrate their coming of age.
She decided to dedicate her Bat Mitzvah to their memory and designed a garden area in the yard of their Kfar Saba Conservative synagogue in honor of the girls. "She chose the imagery of the garden and the tree because they represent the continuation of life," explained her mother.
During their visit to Jerusalem, visiting family and friends were invited to a special ceremony at Yad VaShem, where a small ceremony was held in which Avital and her family commemorated the girls.
"It was incredibly special and moving. When you ask Avital, that is what meant the most to her when she remembers her Bat Mitzvah," said Hannah.
It isn't only the ceremonies that are being taken outside the synagogue. In many cases, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah party is emerging from a standard event hall, restaurant or hotel ballroom. Instead of a conventional dinnerand-dance event, many families choose an unconventional setting for the party as well.
With the glories of the Mediterranean so accessible, a popular choice is to celebrate by the sea or, better yet, on the sea. Ra'anana Bar Mitzvah boy Chen Binyamin's parents chose to take to the waves for their celebration, inviting their guests on a rented yacht for a party.
"We cruised for three hours. There was food, drink, DJ entertainment, and a special net on the bottom of the boat, where the kids could feel the water. It was amazing and different, and it broke the routine of disco parties," said Chen's mother, Tali.
A disco party wasn't an option that the Artzi family would have even considered. Yael Artzi, an educator and professional nature guide who resides in the Negev town of Yeroham, with her husband, Yohanan, was determined that her children's comingof-age celebrations would reflect their family's outdoorsoriented desert lifestyle.
Her eldest son, Nitzan, held his Bar Mitzvah party under the stars, in a Bedouin tent in the evening set up in the midst of the desert. Guests were invited to glue stones together on a special mosaic in his honor; in between dinner and dancing, each guest laid a few tiles. The massive mosaie they created now hangs on the wall of their synagogue.
The itinerary of the celebration of her second son, Raviv, was even more ambitious. Early in the morning, guests met in the desert for an open-air breakfast served in Bedouin tents as they readied for a Jeep ride and hike. The guests then climbed into canopied vehicles that took them deep into the desert for their trek. Once they reached their destination, a spring located near the town of Sde Boker, the Bar Mitzvah boy acted as tour guide, explaining the historical significance of the destination to his guests and teaching them about the flora and fauna. The day closed with a late lunch of fresh pita baked on outdoor ovens with various salads and spreads.
The Artzis' daughter, Salit, chose a Bat Mitzvah celebration date that coincided with the annual blooming of spring anemone flowers in southwestern Israel. The party was held mid-morning in a state park near Sderot, carpeted with the red flowers. Brunch was served, and bicycles were provided for riding along the paths for the more adventurous guests. Those who stayed behind took to a more artistic pursuit. In Israel, it is forbidden to pick the rare, beautiful anemones. So to preserve their memory of the flowers, every guest was provided with a small canvas and oil paints, and they painted as they chatted and relaxed among the fields.
Salit's celebration took place after she read from the Torah with a woman's prayer group, a growing phenomenon in the Orthodox community, where women reading from the Torah is still a rarity. Non-Orthodox Israeli Bat Mitzvah girls reading from the Torah, common in the United States, is still limited to the small minority of Israelis who are affiliated with Reform and Conservative synagogues.
For those girls who don't read from the Torah and merely mark their Bat Mitzvah with a party, several organizations have created programs in order to give the milestone more meaning, gathering the girls into groups where they learn about the lives of Jewish heroines, and culminating in a ceremony that marks their passage into young adulthood.
Steve Burnstein, a member of Kibbutz Gezer, a kibbutz affiliated with the Reform movement, said he has seen the comfort level among secular Israelis with nonOrthodox Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies grow over the years.
"It used to be that they would see our female Reform rabbi, Miri Gold, officiate at the ceremonies, and they would sit in the back skeptical, their arms crossed. These days, there are far fewer people who cross their arms. More Israeli families are open to the idea of a non-Orthodox Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony."
And how do they celebrate on the kibbutz? Burnstein says that where he lives, most members choose to make the swimming pool the focus of the party.
"The 'in' thing these days is to have a pool party with all kinds of inflatable slides, and sometimes mechanical bulls. It's a real festival around the pool with music and cotton candy and popcorn. Everyone has fun."
Allison Kaplan Sommer is an Israel-based freelance writer.