My second daughter became a Bat Mitzvah a couple of weeks ago. Would you like to know what I’ve learned after ushering two girls through this process? Of course you would.
1. Choose the date well: If you can avoid a mortifying or stultifying Torah portion, do.
2. Pay attention to who your kid is: I had one child who wanted to lead every prayer, read the entire portion (plus hey, toss her the ones from the week before and after and she’d crush those, too), and fight with the entire synagogue about gendered language. I had another kid who… did not. Respect and understand that your child is their own person. Their concerns and values may not be yours. And HELLO, this is a celebration of Jewish adulthood, so insisting on calling all the shots yourself is hypocritical. Work with your kid, rabbi, cantor and education director to figure out how much your kid can and should do in the service. Steer between the Scylla of obsessiveness and the Charybdis of slackerdom. This is not easy.
3. Do not nag: If you have a kid who puts tremendous pressure on themselves, how do you keep them from biting their nails to nubbins and spiraling off into anxietytown? If you have a kid who’d watch 47 back-to-back episodes of Rick and Morty than work on a d’var Torah, how do you avoid nagging so hard your face falls off? You do deep belly breathing and you return to rule #1. Offer distractions (ICE CREAM) and reassurances to a tightly wound kid; remind a less motivated kid that they will soon be on the bima in front of everyone, metaphorically tap-dancing, and that is on them—but don’t let yourself remind them of this more than every few days, because kids are super-gifted at tuning out hocking and hectoring. (Rope in the rabbi and/or cantor to do some of the noodging for you.)
4. Convey what’s most important: (It’s not the party. It’s not the party. It’s not the party. It’s not the party. It’s not the party. It’s not the party.)
5. Push yourself as much as you push your kid: My kids know that back before the earth cooled, when I became a Bat Mitzvah, I was not allowed to read Torah. I have now done so twice. (I know, it should be more. I have tremendous performance anxiety.) As I studied, I let the kids see my fear and perfectionism and frustration, which let them feel superior and also showed that I understood what they were contending with. We’re all who we are. No point in lying about it.
6. This is not a competition: If you and your kid want and can afford a huge blowout, knock yourself out. But if your kid is a retiring sort, or if they have a specific VISION, or if you can’t afford a giant shebang, you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. One of my kids wanted a small but elegant post-ceremony party in a bookstore. (As it turned out, I loved the sight of all these kids in fancy dresses lying on the floor reading.) The other waffled between a skating party—she does roller derby, a badass yet supportive girl-power sport—and an unarticulated “something else.” She felt that her big sister’s party was “too fancy” and wanted something “more kid-ish” but couldn’t figure out what that might be. I stumbled on the idea of going to a karaoke piano bar (where a live pianist accompanies the singers) where hammy kids could perform and everyone else could have pizza and cupcakes. The kid party was early enough in the evening that it wasn’t a huge deal to rent the space—hipster grownups are apparently not clamoring to drunkenly sing “I’ve Never Been to Me” at 6:15pm—and while I’m sure some of my relatives were dismayed that we did not invite the entire extended mishpocheh to the evening party, c’est ça. (See #4.)
7. This is not a wedding: My own wedding was a giant craft project (in a redwood grove in the Napa Valley—we lived in San Francisco at the time—with little tin milk jugs as vases and a homemade chuppah and my husband grilling and my friends sticking butterflies made of feathers into potted tulips) and Instagram hadn’t even been invented yet. I had one kid who inherited my love of crafting and one who did not. With the crafter, I crafted. With the non-crafter, I listened. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not about the mother and her aesthetic. Even if it is a totally boss aesthetic.
8. Take your cues from the parashah: How many teachable moments can you wring out of it? Long before the event itself, check out My Jewish Learning, the Orthodox Union, ReformJudaism.org, and other sites for dinner-conversational ideas about your kid’s portion.
9. What do you most want your child to get out of this expensive, stressful, time-consuming dealie? To be comfortable in shul? To learn to leyn? To know the meaning of the various aspects of the Shabbat service and be able to lead or participate? To internalize the importance of tikkun olam (through voluntary mitzvot, through donating money, through the way they choose to live their life from here on in)? You’d better answer the question for yourself before you expect your kid to do it.
10. Party favors are Satan’s carnival prizes: No one will remember them. Do not stress about where to buy monogrammed earbuds or your child’s face as a cookie.