January 19, 2020

Twin peaks: Tips for planning a double b’nai mitzvah

Having two b’nai mitzvah on the same day in the same service is common at my temple here in Los Angeles, and it comes with a unique set of challenges. I have seen my friends who have had children called to the bimah on such occasions cringe at the competition that can follow and the inevitable comparisons that take place.

But what do you do when both b’nai mitzvah are your children? That’s what happens when you are lucky enough to have twins.

My partner and I spent more than a dozen years learning, practicing and honing our skills to be parents who treated our children, Harrison and Juliette, as separate individuals. We put them in different classes at school, encouraged them to pursue unique hobbies, and we gave them equal but separate time with their doctors. Most important, we tried our hardest never to compare them to each other — we never even referred to them as “The Twins” (a phrase they hated).

They are completely different people and yet when the time came this past year to plan their b’nai mitzvah, the pressure of preparing one ceremony for the two of them made it easy at times to forget that. (And, even worse, it allowed us to fall into the age-old trap of “compare and despair”!) Think about all the distractions: Your mother is texting you lists upon lists, out-of-town guests are coming, bubbes are kvelling, the rabbi’s assistant is calling, tutors are rescheduling, caterers are emailing, the whole shtetl is giving mountains of unsolicited advice — and all twice as much as for a single bar or bat mitzvah!

So how do you stay centered and not compare? How do you keep both children on track and make a meaningful, unique experience for each?

Start at the beginning with their religious learning experience. My kids learn at different speeds and in different ways. One is more linear in thinking and the other more abstract and creative. Try scheduling separate times — not even back-to-back, when they might overhear one another while waiting — for them to meet with the Hebrew teacher or tutor so that their learning styles can be accommodated. 

Harrison wanted to be lifted on a chair during the horah, while Juliette declined; Juliette and Harrison were both on the dance floor at their party.

This will add more shlepping time to your week and may require extra help. However, it is important for the kids to have that one-on-one time, and make separate mistakes, so they can learn on their own and feel a sense of unique accomplishment.

Watch out for potential pitfalls related to the service as the learning process continues, and adjust course as necessary. It’s not uncommon, for example, for some children to read more verses from the Torah than others, as they are able. That’s fine — some kids are faster learners and have an easier time with languages or melodies. I found it important, though, to then give the other child an extra prayer or task in order to make it equal and avoid hurt feelings.

I allowed the children to go in totally separate directions when it came to their speeches  about their portion, which includes Moses at Mount Sinai and the golden calf. My daughter was more polished and had a more scholastic approach. My son, who enjoys video games and draws cartoons, was more comical. It was like “Downton Abbey” versus “South Park.” 

There are other little things you can do, too, outside of the service itself.

Invitations: To make sure the invitation reflected both kids’ flair and taste, I asked them to pick colors to incorporate into the invite. The result was one invitation that reflected each child’s style. Juliette and Harrison created their own list of friends to invite, and although some names overlapped, it gave them a sense of ownership of the event. You could also ask them to choose a preferred postage stamp when mailing the invites to friends. 

When in doubt … alternate: I kept a tally and alternated which child’s name went first for every element of the b’nai mitzvah. That included invitations to the morning service, evening party and Friday night dinner; the temple bulletin; video montage; cake; programs; kippot; and balloons.

Clothes: Take your children clothes shopping a few days apart. It may be more practical to go binge shopping in order to check off multiple items from your to-do list, but that makes it more likely you’d loose sight of the fact that this is a special moment. Also, you will be more present and can help your child make the right decision on attire that will feel comfortable, look good and reflect who they really are.

Party: I had Harrison and Juliette pick a favorite dessert item, hors d’oeuvre and separate song list for the DJ (it couldn’t have been more obvious — think Green Day versus Lil’ Mama). I even had my friends who are bakers create two different cakes: chocolate and salted caramel.

To individualize the event, have each child choose a favorite dessert for the party.

In the end, for us, everything worked out great. The morning services left me joyful. When the evening party was just beginning, I looked at my kids and couldn’t believe that these separate and unique young adults were the same ones who sang the Shema in unison while getting ready for bed after returning from Jewish summer camp so many years ago.

Then the moment was broken with a tap on my shoulder from my daughter, who informed me that “under no circumstances” would she be lifted on a chair, as is tradition, during the horah.

I started to sweat! What would people think? Could one child be held up and the other not? Was it bad luck? Would it look wrong? And most important: What would my mother say?

Then, a miracle: I took my own advice, turned to my daughter and said, “You know what? You and your brother are separate people. You don’t have to go up on the chair just because he does. Your brother can go on the chair, and you and I can watch. Moses didn’t go up on a chair — why should you?”