I’m 53, I’ve been a Baalas-Teshuvah since June 1974, when I was 17-1/2. Since then, I’ve gotten married and had seven children (four girls, three boys, in that order) and ten gorgeous grandchildren (so far). The first generation has had six weddings (the youngest boy not yet, he’s only 19), three Bar Mitzvahs, and three Brisim (or Britot – pardon my bad Ivrit). The next generation has had six Brisim and one Pidyon ha-Ben; no Bar-Mitzvahs yet.
Believe me, I’m not setting myself up as the Letitia Baldridge Etiquette Expert for the BT crowd. This is more like that Chasidic story about somebody lost in the forest who encounters someone else who’s also lost, but who can at least share which pathways have been tried and don’t work. Let me share my mistakes. Of course, what didn’t work for me might work for you. At least, we can all have a good laugh!
The first thing is to remember the advice of Pirkei Avos: “Make yourself a Rav, acquire yourself a friend.” Get yourself a wise halachic/hashkafic authority who also has a lot of practical good sense and people smarts. Bother this Rabbi (politely and respectfully, of course) with your halachic/hashkafic problems (and there will be many) during the planning of this lifecycle event. Acquiring a friend isn’t bad advice either: you need somebody with lots of patience to bounce ideas off, discuss things with, and complain to.
The second thing to remember is that you’ll never please everyone, so don’t even try. Do the kind of wedding, Bar Mitzvah or Bris that YOU want to do (within halachic boundaries, of course) and forget about keeping up with the Hobgelters. You especially won’t please all of your non-religious and non-Jewish family members, so don’t let anyone pile on the guilt.
The third thing to remember is to try to be in general agreement with your spouse (or spouse-to-be, if this is your own wedding) in planning this lifecycle event. Two heads (and two bank accounts) are better than one. If you are divorced, however, skip this paragraph.
The fourth thing to remember is that the kids’ yeshivos still want their tuition paid even after you pay the catering bills. So think really cheap, as in how low can I go and still make a decent event? Yes, I’m super cheap and that’s horrible. But do a little thinking out of the box (come on, that’s why we’re frum today, we weren’t afraid to think differently!) and there might be more affordable alternatives to the $30,000 Bar Mitzvah or the $75,000 wedding.
I’ll start with Brisim first. After the groggy announcement of “It’s a boy!” comes the planning of the Bris Milah. (Yes, I know that the Sholom Zachor is first. Get six cases of cold beer and soda, open up a dozen cans of cooked chickpeas, and run through the nearest Kosher bakery buying all kinds of assorted cookies and cakes. Lay all this stuff out on the table after you clear off Friday night’s seuda. Next). First, your pediatrician should tell you if the little guy has any health issues that might require postponing the Bris. Second, consult your Rabbi to help determine when the Bris Milah should take place. If the baby was born by C-section or during “Bain Hashmoshos” (the interim period between sunset and nightfall), then it is not held on Shabbos or Yom Tov. Third, hire a Mohel. (That’s why you figure out the date first). Last, deal with the food and locale part. That can be very much connected to the Hebrew calendar. My husband and I had to make a Chol Hamoed Pesach Bris for our oldest son. It ended up as a table in our shul spread with boxes of (relatively) cheap Israeli hand matzohs, open cans of tuna with the label showing, jars of Pesach mayonnaise, cooked eggs, Pesachdik soda, and that was about it. A Seudas Bris on Motzaei Tisha B’av will be very different from a Seudas Bris on Shabbos Sukkos.
Next, Bar Mitzvahs. Talk to your son at least a year ahead of time. Does he intend to read his entire Torah portion or is he content to just say the brochos and let the official reader take over? Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld zatzal was unhappy at the pressure on young boys to “perform,” and so instituted a rule in his own kehillah that nobody “lains” except the Baal Koreh. A boy who plans to “lain” his whole portion has to start learning the “trup” months in advance. And find out exactly what that portion is going to be. Don’t waste time learning the Haftarah for that Shabbos when it’s actually “Machar Chodesh.”
Then talk to your son about the kind of Bar Mitzvah he wants to have. You probably can’t afford a lavish catered affair with five-piece band and professional photos, unless you have only one son and exceedingly generous grandparents. For our youngest son, my husband and I got away very cheaply by renting a local shul basement and ordering in glatt Chinese food on paper plates. For our oldest son, the pre-Pesach baby, we waited to celebrate until the summer and then held a barbeque out on our lawn. Some people are “machpid” (strict) that the Bar Mitzvah seudah must held on the exact night that the boy turns Bar Mitzvah. You can still save money by leaving out the professional band and photographer (that’s what CD players and camcorders are for) and opting for a limited guest list at a local glatt restaurant’s party room. Another option: Your son might enjoy much more getting a trip to Israel for his Bar Mitzvah. Send father and son only, leave the rest of the family at home to save money, and it could cost less than 7K. Don’t skimp on the Tefillin, though: a good pair will set you back about a grand.
Don’t forget to make the necessary arrangements way in advance with your shul or synagogue for the main event. How many aliyos to the Torah will your family need? Just two (the boy and his father) or will there be grandfathers, uncles and big brothers who expect aliyos also? Are there going to be two or more boys in your shul or synagogue who are Bar Mitzvah on the same Shabbos? If so, what’s the official policy (hopefully not big donor gets precedence). In all fairness, a longtime active Shul member will naturally be accommodated ahead of a stranger. How will you include, or exclude, nonreligious relatives who don’t keep Shabbos? I once went to a very nice Bar Mitzvah held on Thanksgiving Day, a Thursday when the Torah is read. Davening and the seudas mitzvah were set up at a local Glatt Kosher catering hall (and yes, we had turkey). There was no problem with driving to the event. Ditto for a Bar Mitzvah that can be held on a Sunday Rosh Chodesh or on a Sunday of Chanukah or Chol haMoed.
Last of all, I’ll mention the very special Bar Mitzvah, for a boy with special needs or special circumstances. There have been Down syndrome boys who have had beautiful Bar Mitzvah celebrations with family and friends. You definitely need the full cooperation of the Rabbi, Gabbai and shul president to make a special bar mitzvah happen. Other boys with physical or mental challenges have had Bar Mitzvahs. Say it again: ADVANCE PLANNING!!
Weddings – I’ve already gone on at length on Bar Mitzvahs and Brisim, and I think I could easily run on another ten thousand words or so about weddings. Instead, I’ll just briefly mention six very helpful hints. One, network network network with other people in your community who have just made weddings to get some of their good ideas on how to save money but still make a lovely simcha. Two, keep a notebook and write down important addresses and phone numbers. This can be a useful resource for the next wedding in the family. Three, rent instead of buy whenever you can: gowns for the ladies, centerpieces for the tables, etc. etc. etc. Four, leave out wasteful extras like the Viennese table. Fifth, keep the guest list way down as much as possible on both sides (casual acquaintances and distant cousins will understand if they’re not invited). Sixth, knowing in advance that lots of people will be screaming about your choices will help you to get through it all with your sanity and sense of humor intact. Of course Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Max will complain loudly about separate seating. Smile and concentrate on getting the happy couple halachically hitched. I’ll just mention here that my husband didn’t invite any of his many co-workers to our oldest daughter’s wedding. Instead, he got permission from his manager to bring in the wedding video and show it during lunch hour in one of the conference rooms. His co-workers were quite nice about it, and they enjoyed the video very much. Sending a copy of the wedding video with a lovely note attached could be a welcome alternative to inviting those obnoxious relations who ruin every party they attend.
I’m no maven or macher, and I’m certainly not a Posaik. These hints, tips, suggestions and stories are simply to start the conversation. Your lifecycle event is going to be as individual and unique as you are. If you were brave enough to become frum, you’re brave enough to make your own kind of celebration!