September 18, 2019

How to throw a great party for less than $3,000

Live chamber music, canapes, games, photographs, food, food and more food, dances, drinks, sign-in card, table decorations, invitations, servers, flower arrangements, party favors and, of course, the appropriate clothing. The checklist for my oldest nephew’s bar mitzvah went on and on. So did the unbelievable cost estimates: $35,000 almost started to sound reasonable.

As the vendors called in with their “fantastic deals,” the look on my mother’s face went from elated — at the prospect of her first grandchild being a bar mitzvah — to sorrowful. We all wanted to give my nephew the bar mitzvah party to not just match but surpass all of the one’s he’d been invited to during the year.

Yet the family’s fortunes were not equal to the task. All we could scrimp together was $3,000. It could only have been divine inspiration that led us to the conclusion that this actually made the job of putting together a bar mitzvah to remember a lot easier than it seemed.

We didn’t have all that money to spend, so we didn’t have all those decisions to make, the vendors to argue with and the worries that so often attend the intricacies of event parties. For instance, since we could not afford to have colored lace tablecloths over contrasting table covers with matching napkins, we didn’t have them. We also didn’t have to spend the time, energy and, especially, the money to achieve these decorating wonders.

So knowing what we didn’t have, we set to thinking about what we did have: 200 guests were too many. We scrutinized and discussed and decided unanimously that this was to be a party for my nephew.

We were ruthless. We would not invite bosses, second cousins, divorced stepparents or people we would have invited just to be polite but knew they wouldn’t really want to come.

My nephew’s friends got priority, as did immediate family members. Since this family is quite small, this easily chopped the guest list in half.

The most costly item, which we could have done without, was the synagogue hall. Although we were advised to just go to a restaurant, there were none close by that served kosher food, so we were kind of stuck.

But as to food, our local friendly deli owner not only gave us a wonderful price on a buffet but also on wait staff.

With the hall, food and wait staff as the most expensive items, we were left with next to nothing with which to provide all those extras parents and kids have come to expect, like music, engraved invitations, menus and place cards.

It had worked the first time, so again we looked to ourselves as resources. We volunteered my sister, a member of a string ensemble, to provide music. She knew a couple of musicians who owed her, and all had been at enough weddings and b’nai mitzvahs that they knew what was expected. The whole process took some minor arm-twisting and guilt tripping, but what are sisters for?

Invitations and pretty much all printed matter — place cards, menus, even a giant sign-in card and some table decorations, vaguely reminiscent of the ones at the $35,000 parties — well, that’s where my talents came in. Give me a desktop publishing program, and I can move the world.

Actually, this did require a little help from a friend who had a paper cutter and was willing to do a whole lot of folding, measuring and envelope stuffing. We figured out everything we needed, from invitations to place cards, then designed them and printed them out. We did have to buy envelopes, but we had a little left over for that.

Flower arrangements were simple: just a few carnations in a small bowl of water. Tablecloths were plain white, and we supplemented the chamber music with a boombox, allowing the kids to pick the music they wanted to play.

All in all, it wasn’t slick; it wasn’t smooth, but the bar mitzvah boy said his haftarah flawlessly, and as for the rest of us, instead of being frenzied, we were proud because we had put this whole thing together for him.

Oh, and the reason we needed to spend such a small amount of money, well, that was because it was taken up by Dan’s surprise present from us: a trip to Israel. To this day, the party was a nice memory, but in his own words, “That trip taught me where God was.”

Anne Phyllis Pinzow is a script writer who makes her main living as a newspaper reporter and editor.