As many people know, one of life’s greatest opportunities to express your family’s commitment to faith and tradition is the bar mitzvah.
For people fortunate enough to be born Jewish, it is a mere 4,745 day wait from your son or daughter’s birth until it is your turn to honor your child in a moving coming-of-age ceremony at your synagogue. And then, later that day, to throw a party designed by Moses to say, ‘Here, world, is an approximation of our portfolio.”
“Upon ye child’s thirteenth year,” commanded Moses to his people,
“ye shall goeth into thine heavily decorated event space,
where each of thy child’s friends shall drinketh the remains
of every vodka tonic lefteth on the buffet table, after which
they shall barfeth in the parking lot.”
Tales of amazing, over-the-top, fabulous bar mitzvahs abound in Private School New York, and yet nothing really prepares you for your first time.
For me, it was a few years ago when the gold, confetti-filled envelope arrived in the mail. Ian and I and were invited to a bat mitzvah for Betsy, a girl in our son’s school. The party would follow a two-hour temple service, and would be held at a space in the Flatiron District called Gotham Hall.
Not to be confused with the Taj Mahal.
When Betsy’s bat mitzvah day arrived, Ian and I decided to attend the service, and were glad we did. It was held at a temple in our neighborhood, and was touchingly sweet. Betsy made a speech about how much she loved her family, and she was so poised and sincere for a 13-year-old, it made us both cry.
After the service, we went home to change from our conservative temple clothes to festive attire for the party, where we would arrive two hours later, underdressed — the result, mostly, of a conversation we had minutes before leaving home.
“I don’t need a tie do I?”
We entered Gotham Hall, Ian in his tieless shirt and me in my bargain store dress, and I immediately uttered a sentiment expressed by countless others upon arrival at a deeply religious gathering.
There were hundred-foot high, gold-colored ceilings, velvet drapes, and a grand ballroom with columns that looked like they were imported from the Parthenon. The dining tables were covered in roses and centered around a crystal chandelier the size of a palm tree.
A long buffet table ran down one side of the ballroom, and it was covered with lobster, prime rib, julienned carrots.
The waiter who let our glasses
of Perrier Jouet get below half-full.
In the back of the ballroom, past the dining tables, the stage, and the dance floor, were two chocolate fountains and a sculpture made of real fruit. It soared ten feet high.
All that, it seemed, was just for the adults.
The kids had their own area, heavily stocked with chicken fingers, fries, and ice cream. There was indoor basketball, ping pong, skeeball, and a photo booth/retouching station where a team of photographers would take your picture and then retouch it onto the “magazine cover” of your choice.
Ian and I chose Seventeen magazine,
in the hopes it would make us look
thirty years younger.
I stood near the buffet table, nibbled on some extremely tender beef, and chatted with the other guests. Before long, I realized, we had been there for half an hour and still hadn’t spotted the guest of honor. Where was she? Would she be making a grand entrance soon?
As it turns out, yes, she would! Suddenly the music started up, and a hush fell over the crowd. All eyes turned to the dance floor, and there, in the middle of the room, as if from heaven itself, she appeared, looking drop-dead gorgeous in a tight red dress.
That’s right. I’m talking about the real star of the party. The birthday girl’s mom. Denise. (Betsy and Denise’s names have been changed.)
While the Black Eyed Peas song I Got A Feeling blasted over the sound system, Denise was carried onto the dance floor atop a chair held high by four smiling and heavily perspiring men. Denise waved to the crowd and grinned. Wait a second. Did she just wink?
I found myself watching Denise and thinking the whole thing was pretty interesting. Not just because she was the center of attention and her daughter was yet to be seen. But because Denise and her husband, Betsy’s dad, had recently separated. The ink was not yet dry on the divorce papers, but Denise seemed to know an opportunity when she saw one: sure this party’s for my kid, but it’s also an opportunity to meet someone!
Judging by the tightness of her dress,
Denise was not ruling out
some of the 13-year-old males in attendance.
The men brought Denise’s chair down to the floor, and the party guests fell all over her, showering her with appreciation for creating such a spectacular event.
I inched my way closer to the hostess. “Beautiful party,” I said to her, “Just lovely.”
And then I did what any person would do at an event they would never have the means to host. I consoled myself by consuming two pounds of shrimp, a magnum of Dom Perignon, and three feet of fruit.
I considered putting my entire face
under the chocolate fountain and opening my mouth,
but realized that would be a bit too conspicuous.
Boy was I caught off guard. For one thing, I was born to a non-Jewish, lower middle class family in New Jersey, where turning thirteen was no different than ten, eleven, or twelve: You go bowling, then head to a pizza place, where your friend bestows upon you a video store gift card worth ten dollars, which your mother later re-gifts.
And that was extravagant. Most years, we stayed home and played pin the tail on the donkey. I’d hardly even imagined a party as extravagant as Betsy’s, let alone expected to ever be invited to one.
Little did I know, out on the dance floor at Gotham Hall, things had just begun. Because exactly half-way between the appetizers and the main course, a group of five people would make an appearance. A contingent of the human race so transcendental as to cause an epiphany: My life could now be divided into two halves:
Before Party Motivator.
After Party Motivator.
A party motivator, as people well-versed in event planning world know, is a man or woman who will act astonishingly interested in your party or event in order to get people dancing and having fun. Their goal is no less than: “Make sure everyone has the best time of their life.”
Party motivators succeed because they look gorgeous, have serious moves, and flirt with everyone, even Aunt Alice from Boca, who just had the hip replacement. They dance to every single song and their sheer magnetism encourages others to do the same. These geniuses work the crowd like Shecky Green in the Poconos, only instead of jokes they’re using rock-hard thighs and black button-down shirts made of poly-spandex.
Party motivators are capable of performing miracles and do so on a nightly basis. At Betsy’s bat mitzvah, the 13-year-olds danced along side their 80-year-old grandparents for three hours.
I came home that night feeling jazzed-up and super optimistic about life. What if party motivators were everywhere? On line at the DMV. In the toothpaste aisle at Walgreen’s. What a fantastic world that would be!
And then, I thought, why stop at stores and government offices? What if we replaced principals and teachers with party motivators? Surely, a man who can get a kid to do The Cupid Shuffle with his 93-year-old grandmother can get a child interested in math more effectively than a middle-aged man with a masters in Geometry.
Oh, I’d had a grand old time at Betsy’s bat mitzvah. Such a grand time, in fact, I completely lost sight of what the night was: A birthday party for a teenager. With a price tag that was more than most people earn in a year.
And yet I had bought into the whole enterprise as deeply as every thirteen-year-old on line for the photo booth. Not only did I have a total blast, I’d actually been jealous of the hostess.
Once again, came the tugging feeling and the confusion — both of which began shortly after my son started kindergarten at private school.
Betsy’s bat mitzvah, while touching and steeped in tradition, was also the very definition of excess, ostentatiousness, and one-upmanship. Everything I’d promised myself my family and I wouldn’t embrace just because we were members of the private school world. On the other hand, it was fun! And what was wrong with having a little fun? Couldn’t I do that and still honor my promise to stay grounded?
It was a question I faced over and over again in the world of the private school. Fancy trips, dinner parties, tickets to hot events, second homes in the Hamptons. I’d become not just surrounded by privilege and excess, but had actively participated in it.
Was I now a privileged person myself? And if I was, what did that mean? What was my responsibility to having so much luxury when much of the world did not?
Luckyish is a series by Lori Campbell.
Please follow me to receive Part 4 of Luckyish.
Click here for Part 2.