A Double Simcha Without a Double Headache

Deborah Siegel Baker is mother to identical twins Max and Sam, who will celebrate their b’nai mitzvah in 2011. She already experienced the joys and pressures of planning a simcha with her daughter’s bat mitzvah four years ago at Hillcrest Jewish Center in Flushing, N.Y. And given that experience, the prospect of planning for two has her on edge, even though it’s still two years away.

“I’m frightened,” she said.

Siegel Baker knows Max is competitive with his brother Sam, who is older by six minutes. “I don’t want him to demoralize his brother by saying, ‘Ha ha, I’m better.’ It will be a challenge.”

She has considered holding separate b’nai mitzvah but doesn’t relish the extra work and expense that would require. Besides, “They’ve always had joint birthday parties and never had a problem with it,” she said.

Siegel Baker’s fears illustrate what the families of twins often face: what it will mean to have a teen share their moment in the spotlight. For many, a bar or bat mitzvah is a time when a child is the center of attention. Twins — whether identical or fraternal — rarely have opportunities to shine alone, even though they are often different people with different interests who happened to be born to the same mother at roughly the same time.

At a time when fertility treatments are leading to an increase in twin and triplet births — let alone octuplets — parents and synagogues are left to wrestle with issues of how to arrange the b’nai mitzvah or b’not mitzvah and the celebrations afterward so all the children feel it’s their day.

Share and Share Alike

By the time they reach bar or bat mitzvah age, twins have spent much of their time together (sharing bedrooms, classes and birthdays) and have been identified as twins for so long that a bar or bat mitzvah is often another event they are expected to share. But this expectation can lead to resentment.

Fraternal twins Maya and Ravenna Smith celebrated their b’not mitzvah on May 30 at Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley, and their mother, Iris Greenberg-Smith, initially tried to separate their celebrations.

“There is a low-grade war between them,” Greenberg-Smith said. “One of them [Maya, older by 18 minutes] walks around saying she wants to be an only child.”

Maya freely admitted that she and her sister fight about “twice a day.”

In hindsight, Greenberg-Smith said holding two separate celebrations would have reduced the tension.

But when she voiced her concerns to her daughters, they insisted that they wanted to share the simcha. “They are so used to being part of a pair that they didn’t know what I was talking about,” Greenberg-Smith said.

The sisters said they were more comfortable reading together from the Book of Ruth. Despite the fighting, the two have learned to rely on each other during stressful and difficult times.

During their May 31 party, the girls wrote speeches about one another and expressed appreciation for the other being there.

“I don’t always want to be alone,” Ravenna said. “I’m glad I did it with her.”

Maya added, “When it gets scary, I don’t know if I want to be an only child.”

The pressure to share the day can, however, reduce its importance.

For Carly Goldberg of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., sharing the bat mitzvah with her identical twin Emily on Dec. 1, 2007, at Conservative Temple Beth Torah, in nearby Tamarac, was a lot like sharing a birthday.

The “downfall to sharing a bat mitzvah” is you don’t feel special alone, Carly said.

She doesn’t refer to her bat mitzvah as the most important day of her life. Rather, “it’s the most important day of our life,” she said.

Carly is younger than Emily — and grows tired of being reminded that Emily is older by “13 long, beautiful, independent minutes,” Emily said.

The pull between wanting a solo moment on the bimah and not wanting to exclude their sibling is a conflict not easily resolved for most twins who spoke with The Journal.

But when asked if she would have wanted her own bat mitzvah, Carly couldn’t imagine a bat mitzvah without her sister.

“If I wasn’t a twin, well, yes,” she said. “But I’m a twin, so no, I wouldn’t.”

D.I.Y. B’not Mitzvah

Each synagogue and congregation has its own rules and requirements for what a bar or bat mitzvah student must do. But few seem to have plans for twins, which often leads to sharing the load on the bimah.

Since there’s just one haftarah each week, twins typically split the reading. And since there are only a finite number of aliyot, the twins often split those as well. None of the twins interviewed said they shared the maftir, the traditional final aliyah usually reserved for the bar or bat mitzvah.

For Sarah and Rebecca Elspas, who celebrated their b’not mitzvah on May 30 at Young Israel of Century City, a Modern Orthodox congregation, creating their own service allowed them to tailor the experience to their comfort level.

Since they couldn’t read from the Torah, the emphasis for their do-it-yourself b’not mitzvah fell to their speeches.

Those who know the Elspas might not be surprised. Sarah and Rebecca complement each other. Sarah’s better at math, Rebecca is the writer. Sarah is a reader, Rebecca a dancer. Each uses her strengths to help the other.

For their speeches, they were each other’s best audience, critic and supporter.

Those who heard it, mother Janis recounted, might have thought they were watching Laurel and Hardy, Mutt and Jeff or Abbott and Costello reincarnated.

“It was like a stand-up routine between the two,” Janis said.

Invitation to Creativity

Having twins does lend families an opportunity to indulge creativity when it comes to the invitations. For her daughters’ celebration at Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Berkeley, Brenda Kahn played a game by sending out an invitation that opened in the middle, like an ark, revealing the two girls — never identifying who was Rose and who was Gabrielle.

“We’re having more fun with the invitation,” Brenda said. “People are getting a kick out of it.”

And Barbara Goldberg said having identical twin daughters, Emily and Carly, had a major impact on the theme: chai squared.

“We celebrate this 13-year journey of lives doubly blessed and of living life more fully,” the family wrote on the inside of the invitation, while the outside featured several photos of Emily and Carly at various ages.

Two Kids, One Party?

Parents of twins who had older single-birth children said the cost and effort of planning a celebration for twins is not much different than planning for one, outside of getting input from two children instead of one. But that’s assuming everyone agrees.

In the cases where the twins agree to share the event, families can save money by holding one reception.

“One DJ, one caterer, one florist if you want it, one invitation — look how much you’re saving…. You don’t have to spend $50,000,” said Goldberg, who added that expenses for Emily and Carly’s b’not mitzvah totaled about $30,000.

But planning wasn’t as easy for fraternal twins Sydney and Sam Zucker of Austin, Texas, whose b’nai mitzvah were celebrated on May 2 at Congregation Agudas Achim, a Conservative synagogue. Being of different genders, they wanted vastly different receptions, leaving mother Dana Zucker to sort it out.

“Different sexes bring different things to the table,” Zucker said.

Sydney, older by 19 minutes, likes frilly things and dancing. Sam likes rough-and-tumble sports. She wanted lounge chairs; he wanted cabaret tables. They wanted different cakes. They also have different friends, so the reception had 92 children instead of the 50 Zucker usually sees at a bar or bat mitzvah.

She said her children didn’t get everything they wanted. Instead, it was a unique blend — each got their different cakes and different themes, two sets of ushers and two photographers.

But in these economic times, one local family found a way to work around the conflicts over planning a party for twins — to not have one at all.

Wendy Tipp couldn’t fathom throwing an opulent party. Instead, her son Billy, the younger identical twin by one minute, suggested a family vacation. Older twin Charlie agreed.

After the b’nai mitzvah at Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills, there was no $50,000 shindig.

“We didn’t need a party because it wasn’t necessary,” Billy said.

Instead, the family is planning to take a two-week trip — at about half the cost — to a destination like Brazil, France or Moncton, New Brunswick, site of the 2010 Track and Field World Championships (Billy’s into track and cross country, his mother said).

“I was proud of these guys,” Wendy said. “I lost sight, [thinking that family] wouldn’t want to come because there was no big party. I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said this is the way it should be.”

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