January 1, 2006

Bar mitzvahs and weddings don’t have to be extravagant affairs.As an antidote to the $100,000 bar mitzvahs that have become de rigueur in certain American Jewish circles, I would like to recount two Israeli life-cycle events I recently attended.

Roi’s family is living for two years on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Desert. For his bar mitzvah, roughly 30 guests were invited down to this desert oasis which was settled, by and large by Americans, in the 1970s. Most of the guests stayed in the kibbutz’s modest guest houses.

On Friday evening, the bar mitzvah contingent was invited to join the regular kibbutz members for Shabbat services in the kibbutz’s synagogue and then the traditional Friday night dinner in the communal dining hall.

Afterwards we were invited to the adjacent hall for coffee and cake prepared by kibbutz members as a bar mitzvah gift for Roi and his family. Toward the end of the evening, Roi made a brief and humorous speech comparing his Torah portion to American baseball.

Saturday morning, as part of the regular Shabbat morning service, Roi, was called up to the Torah where he read the week’s portion and the haftorah, and gave the sermon. After some brief congratulations, he sat down and the service continued. His parents each made a quick speech, and with very little pomp and circumstance, we all walked across the green lawns back to the same dining hall where a bar mitzvah lunch including some special foods and, of course, a cake, were served.

After lunch many of us went back to our rooms to nap. Others, mostly Roi’s friends, went to the field to play soccer. Another group went for a walking tour of the experimental orchards of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies set among the stunning red hills surrounding the kibbutz.

That evening, there was an outdoor reception (Kabbalat Panim) where tables with snacks were set up on the lawn behind Roi’s house. After the havdalah ceremony to mark the end of Shabbat at sunset, Roi presented a slide show he put together himself. Then family members and friends gave short talks about and for Roi.

The beauty of the whole affair was that it was not detached from Roi’s every day reality or the every day functioning of the kibbutz itself. It was a kind of Judaism organically woven into the fabric of the lives that these particular Jews have chosen to lead.

What struck me most was the lack of fanfare, noise, music, and rigmarole that have come to be associated with the bar mitzvah ritual. No Austin Powers look-alikes, no vodka slides, no gambling tables, no professionally produced historiographies of the young star, and no highly paid, underdressed ambience makers. No message, basically, that this bar mitzvah was the last Jewish thing expected of Roi until he is to stand under the huppa however many years down the line – as if it were some sort of graduation party from Judaism.

The message for Roi and the rest of us, rather, was that this was the beginning of his Jewish journey and the celebration was proportional to the Jewish achievement it was meant to commemorate.

Total direct out of pocket costs (made so little, in part, because the community covers some of the costs) for Roi’s bar mitzvah including invitations, decorations, cakes, etc? $1,000.

The message for the bar mitzvah boy and those fortunate enough to attend? Priceless.

Allison, an American woman who made aliya less than two years ago, is our babysitter of choice. Although she is a graduate student at Hebrew University – almost 30 years old – our girls have become quite close and she honors us with her time.

One Tuesday night, not too long ago, Allison called inviting us to her wedding to Alon, a gentleman she’s been dating for less than a year.

“That’s fantastic, Allison. When?” I asked, expecting to mark off a date in my calendar some months into the future.

“This Sunday night,” she replied.

“Are you serious?”


“I guess we weren’t high up on your list.”

She laughed. “No, we just decided a few days ago.”

“Cool. OK? This Sunday night? Well, I suppose you can’t baby-sit.”

The wedding was at an Indian restaurant – Almora – on Moshav Even Sapir on the outskirts of Jerusalem. About 65 friends and family members surrounded the huppa on a crisp, lovely night December night. The traditional ceremony was accompanied by the not-so-traditional ringing cell-phones, cigarette smoking, chattering and shushing family and friends.

After the breaking of the glass the restaurant’s exterior served as the party’s dance floor. After swirling and dancing the bride, groom, families and assorted rabbis repaired into the restaurant to eat some of the best Indian food I’ve have ever tasted.

The bride’s father, for left-leaning Berkeley-type ideological reasons, had, until the wedding, refused to set foot in Israel before. Still basking in the glow of his successful delivery of the prayer under the hupa, he admitted how astonished he was at the warmth, hospitality and haimish feel of the Israeli wedding. Same love, same intentions, same simcha – just a lot fewer issues and frills.

Clearly moved, he confessed that he had believed all the terrible things CNN had said about the place and its people. He promised to visit Israel and his new family many more times.

Total cost of wedding including meal, wedding dress, ring, wine, invitations, cake, and band. Less than $4,000!

Total cost for one father of the bride’s feeling about Israel, her customs, beauty, warmth, values, and people? Priceless.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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