Throw a Party With a Purpose

“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

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B’nai Mitzvah Planning Guide

At Birth

When the child is born, start saving! It’s not a bad idea to start two savings accounts; one for college and one for the bar or bat mitzvah.

One to three years ahead

  • Set the date.

  • Set a budget.

  • Reserve the synagogue.

  • Reserve the hall for additional receptions.

  • Arrange for caterer, party planner and band or DJ.

  • Buy a loose-leaf binder or start a filing system on index cards.

Ten to 12 months ahead

  • Begin b’nai mitzvah lessons.

  • (Continue to) attend weekly Shabbat services as a family.

  • Arrange for photographer and videographer.

  • Book hotel accommodations and investigate transportation for out-of-town guests.

Six months ahead

  • Plan colors and theme.

  • Arrange for florist and make guest list.

Four to five months ahead

  • Order invitations and thank-you notes, imprinted napkins and personalized party favors.

  • Shop for clothing and shoes.

  • Purchase a tallit and tefillin, if applicable.

  • Choose a calligrapher.

Three months ahead

  • Plan Sunday brunch, if applicable.

  • Order printed yarmulkes.

Two months ahead

  • Meet with photographer and videographer.

  • Meet with florist and/or decorations coordinator.

  • Mail out-of-town invitations.

Six weeks ahead

  • Order tuxedos.

  • Take care of clothing alterations.

  • Order wine for Kiddush.

  • Mail in-town invitations.

Four weeks ahead

  • Prepare speech.

  • Finalize reservations and transportation.

  • Meet with caterer.

  • Make welcome gifts for out-of-town guests.

  • Arrange aliyot.

  • Send honorary gift to synagogue.

  • Meet with rabbi.

  • Make seating charts for reception (and dinner).

Two weeks ahead

  • Give final count to caterer.

  • Check with florist.

  • Meet with rabbi.

  • Order cake, cookies and pastries for Friday night oneg Shabbat.

A few days ahead

  • Have rehearsal and take bimah photographs.

  • Make copies of speeches, room and table layouts, and give them to a friend to hold for you.

Special day

  • Enjoy your simcha!

The Last-Minute Pajama Party

The Invitation Process

“It’s already been decided,” my 6-year-old announces with an impish smile and a green-eyed glint.

“What’s been decided, honey?” I ask.

“My first sleepover party. I invited Julia, Emma and Rachel to sleep over this weekend.”

“Noa,” I say slowly, wondering who has a slumber party in kindergarten. “Do their mothers know about this?”

“Don’t worry. Their mommies will know tonight,” she says, patting my arm.

And then suddenly I remember: I’m the Mommy: “How about asking me first?”

Her voice softens, her eyes widen and twinkle: “Can I? It will be so much fun. Please, Mommy.”

Fun. It’s not her birthday, or any special occasion, but on the other hand, I haven’t seen her look so excited since the divorce.

Her sister, Maya, light-up sneakers planted firmly in the linoleum floor, grabs Noa’s arm. “But you can’t forget about me.”

Noa takes her 4-year-old sister’s hand. “You’ll get to sleep in the middle,” she says. “And I’ll make sure no one’s mean to you.”

My mini Powerpuff Girls. They know how to work me. No, I realize at that point is not an option.

“So who is coming to this slumber party?” I ask with a smile.

“Everyone,” Noa says.

“Noa,” I say, did you ask only those three girls?”

“Well, I did mention it to Alexandra, Sarah, Rosie and Danielle.”

“Is there anyone else I should know about?” I ask her.

It turns out she invited 10 girls. Ten girls in my house for one weekend. We didn’t send out invitations, didn’t do E-vite, just a formal word-of-mouth invitation. That’s how the party begins.

The Preparations

I am no longer the lone single mother in a class of 20. Overnight, thanks to my daughter, I have become Britney Spears’ mother — aka “kindergarten corrupter.”

When you have a slumber party, you’re not only inviting the kids, but involving the parents as well. For the next few days, the telephone rings incessantly.

• Alexandra’s mother: What time do you plan to send them to bed?

• Rachel’s mother: What movie are you showing them?

• Emma’s mother: What will they be eating and drinking?

• Danielle’s mother: What happens if she wakes up in the middle of the night?

I quickly improvise the party plan, and tell the mothers that the girls will be in bed no later than 10 p.m., they’ll have pizza, cut-up fruit, drinks and some junk, I’ll rent “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and if they wake up, I’ll put them back to sleep. I feel exhausted by the list of questioning, but then I realize that if I were sending Noa out, I’d do the same thing.

The phone rings again. It’s Lexy’s Mother, who lives in a mansion with two kids, no pets, a nanny and a live-in housekeeper. I repeat all the party plans.

“You’re so brave,” she says.

How ’bout loaning me your SWAT team for a night? I want to say, but instead say, “Thanks, I was a camp counselor for 10 years. I’m sure I can do it.”

Can I? Two days before the party I run into Sarah’s mother at the gym.

“Sarah’s been X’d off the list,” she says.

I tell her that’s impossible.

“Sarah went in front of the class yesterday to tell a story about how she is taking skating lessons,” her mother says. “Noa found out the story wasn’t true, and she told Sarah that people who lie are not allowed in your house.”

I laugh to myself, secretly pleased that my words actually do have an impact.

“I’ll talk to Noa,” I tell her.

Over dinner that night I tell Noa that no one is allowed to be X’d from our sleepover.

“It’s not nice,” I say, “It hurts people’s feelings — even if Sarah lied.”

Noa replies: “Well, that’s why I didn’t invite Nicole either. She lied about a library book.”

The dish in my hand falls to the sink. “Who’s Nicole?”

Pre-party Jitters

My girls and I head to the supermarket. We pick up enough junk food to feed an army and a navy. Then I remember allergies and put half the stuff back. I add products without peanuts, some lactose-free items and lots of junk.

We get home and unpack the goodies, and as I get ready to make dinner Noa turns to me and says, “Mommy, I don’t have a sleeping bag.”

Her sister: “Me either.”

Sleeping bags. How could I forget?

Noa: “And I want one that’s light blue with a big butterfly on it.”

Maya: “And I want one with a princess on it.”

Off to Target. Seventeen minutes, two sleeping bags, one with a butterfly and one with a princess. I turn to Noa, and see that the social butterfly’s eyes are tearing up.

I can’t think of anything we’ve forgotten.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“What if they don’t come? What if we buy all this food, make everything fun and nobody sleeps over? What if they don’t like the movie? What if….”

Maya wraps her arms around her older sister: “Don’t worry, I’ll be there.”

This doesn’t comfort her.

“Well, Mommy, I don’t want to have this party anyway,” she says. “It’s all your fault. You invited people I don’t like! You invited everybody!”

I glare at her, and borrow a line from a movie. “If you build it they will come.”

Her forehead crinkles: “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” I shrug. “But it sounds good doesn’t it?”

We return home. Bath, brush, book and bed. Finally, I can relax. The phone rings. It’s Molly’s mom: “Molly’s been throwing up all day. I’m sorry she won’t be there tomorrow.”

One down, 10 to go.

The Party

It’s Saturday, D-day.

What to wear? I’m opting for the authoritative-but-not-trying-too-hard look: Yes, I’m fun, but in control. I settle on slim black pants and a buttoned-down shirt. (The don’t-worry-your-daughters-will-come-back-in-one-piece look.)

6 p.m. Noa and Maya are so excited. I take a deep breath. Pizza’s been ordered, kid music is on, fruit and junk are evenly distributed around the room, the video is rewound: Showtime.

The parents arrive one by one, with nervous expressions. Three of them say they are going to pick up their kids at 10 p.m. but brought their sleeping bags just in case.

6:45 p.m. Finally all the girls are here — filed with giggles and stories. Noa is ringleader; Maya, her devoted lieutenant. Everyone is ready for pizza, movie and sweets (fruit is ignored). The night flows from food and flick to charades and freeze-dance to getting ready for bed. The girls are so unexpectedly well-behaved and fun that I pinch myself.

11:07 p.m. After telling five stories, all the girls are down. I mentally pat myself on the back: I did it. I check on the girls once again and then crawl into bed.

2:45 a.m. I am awakened by a shrill scream: “I want my mommy!” I race to get the crying girl out of the room, fearing a domino reaction. I bring her to bed, tell her a story and rub her back. She puts her thumb in her mouth and bobs her head. Twenty minutes later, she’s down.

3:30 a.m. “Where’s Poppy?” Another little girl howling for her stuffed animal. I find Poppy at the bottom of the sleeping bag, rub her back and she’s down.

4:15 a.m. Maya stumbles into my room. “Mommy, why is Sarah in your bed? She’s in my spot. Move her over.” I shift Sarah to the far side of the bed. Maya recovers her territory. Within minutes, she, too, is down.

5:20 a.m. Noa opens my crusty eyelids with her fingers: “Mommy, they all slept over. You were right.”

Me: “I know honey, now go back to sleep. Please.”

7:37 a.m. Everybody’s up and hungry. I fix breakfast: french toast, eggs (cooked three different ways), cereal, juice, milk — something for everyone. Of course, I am wrong. Everyone has a special order. I become a glorified servant.

8:30 a.m. Breakfast is over. Everyone’s happy. Dishes are thrown in the sink. Girls are engaged in a tea party with water and cheerios, which spill all over the floor.

11 a.m. Parents arrive. None of the kids want to leave.

Noon: It’s just me and my girls. The house is quiet.

Noah says, “I did it, Mommy.”

“You sure did, honey,” I say.

Maya chimes in: “Can I have a sleepover party, too?”

Noa takes her hand. “Sure you can, Maya, don’t worry, I’ll organize it. We can do it next weekend. Right Mommy?”

The 10 Sleepover Commandments

Thou Shalt Not give kids chocolate after 9 p.m.

Thou Shalt remind all parents to send their child’s favorite stuffed animal to the party.

Thou Shalt read only happy ending books to kids before bed, and no scary movies during the course of the night.

Thou Shalt Not let kids know you’re nervous about letting them sleep out overnight — your confidence begets confidence.

Thou Shalt make sure all children go to the bathroom before getting into a sleeping bag.

Thou Shalt put no child on "the end" — sleep in a circular configuration (all heads facing inside).

Thou Shalt immediately remove "crying" child from premises and "chatterboxes" after "lights out" to avoid a domino reaction.

Thou Shalt not go it alone. Have a spouse, friend or relative help with the party.

Thou Shalt call all parents yourself when children are not in the room to let them know the kids are doing great (don’t mention you’re about to plotz).

Thou Shalt sleep well the night before the sleepover party — R.E.M. during "pajama night" is simply not an option. — LF