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Before I signed the contract for the place where we would have our son’s bar mitzvah, I needed a rough idea of the size of our group so I could let the venue know the number of people we would guarantee. I started a spreadsheet with names of family, friends, and acquaintances: anyone I could think of that we possibly wanted to invite.
I wasn’t concerned that the list was big. It’s a destination bar mitzvah, and the destination isn’t a beach in the Caribbean or the mountains of Colorado or lakeside in Maine; it’s our son’s Jewish overnight camp outside of Waco, TX. An incredibly special place for our family, especially our son, but not a location where most people will be eager to travel. Except for our son’s camp friends who would jump at the chance to spend a weekend at camp, I assume that 40-50 percent of those invited will send regrets.
My family accounted for 20 people. My husband’s extended family is large, and we see all of the cousins in the summer and on Christmas Eve when we visit Vermont. These family members know our son, know he is being raised Jewish and I thought they should be invited to the bar mitzvah. I added 50 people to the list.
By the time I was done, I was at just under 300 people. I reviewed the list with my son. I told him it was preliminary; it would be refined and tweaked over the next year. With a few minor comments, such as, â€śBy the time I have my bar mitzvah I will probably want to invite some girls,â€ť he was OK with what I put together.
Then I went over the list with my husband. “We don’t need to invite my family. Just my parents, sister, her boyfriend and son,” he said.
What?!? The bar mitzvah was a significant milestone in our life. I wanted to invite the entire world to be part of our simcha (joy)! I wanted our family to be part of it. I explained this to my husband.
â€śTheyâ€™re not going to come,â€ť he said.
â€śSo what? We can invite them so that they feel included,â€ť I responded.
â€śThey wonâ€™t know what a bar mitzvah is.â€ť
â€śSammy and I are not the first Jews your family has ever met. They have heard of bar mitzvahs, and if they havenâ€™t, they know Jewish people to ask.â€ť
â€śThey will think that we are asking for gifts.â€ť
“That’s ridiculous. People don’t assume they’re invited to a wedding just so the marrying couple can get a gift. Guests know the hosts want them to be part of the celebration. Plus, we’re going to encourage people to make a donation to a cause Sammy chooses in lieu of gifts.”
â€śI donâ€™t want to invite them.â€ť
Exasperated by my husbandâ€™s response, I said, â€śIâ€™m calling your parents!â€ť I assumed theyâ€™d be more reasonable.
They weren’t. My in-laws’ response was similar. My mother-in-law said she “didn’t even know how to think” of a bar mitzvah. I said to think of it like a wedding. I thought that would help. After all, all of the family members in question were invited to our wedding reception. Still, my mother-in-law insisted on just the immediate family.
I contrasted my husband and his parentsâ€™ response to my motherâ€™s. While I was trying to convince my husband and in-laws to include more family, I was telling my mom she couldn’t invite her network of friends in New Jersey.
“I just want a few,” she said. Yeah right, I thought. “I’ll pay for them. I’ll pay for Friday night dinner.”
My answer: None of the grandparents were inviting friends. This event was about family and the people who knew our son well.
I wonder if the difference in approach to celebrating is religious. Certainly, a joyous celebration is a big part of Jewish ritual and culture from blessing the wine on Shabbat to raucous Purim parties to shouts of L’chaim and dancing the hora. But these things aren’t part of Christian celebrations.
Maybe it’s cultural. My husband is a New Englander, and I’m from the less genteel New York Metro area. The difference is probably a combination of both.
I grudgingly accepted my husband and in-laws’ little family guest list. My son did not. He reminded me that the bar mitzvah was about him, and he wanted to invite his Vermont cousins. I put them back on the list in a “maybe” column.
With plenty of planning ahead, we’ll see if father or son wins the battle of the guest list.
Our son will become a bar mitzvah in about a year, and I imagine that this will be the first in a series of posts about our family’s interfaith bar mitzvah journey. Since he is our oldest and only child, the bar mitzvah and its planning are new territories.
Neither my husband nor I have ever planned a bar mitzvah. For my bat mitzvah, I was responsible for learning my Torah and Haftorah portions, and writing my speech. My husband grew up in an Episcopal home. But more than the planning, it’s that for the first time in 14 years we’re confronting big religious questions, and I feel that same uncertainty that I felt in the early part of my relationship with my husband.
Itâ€™s strange to feel this way because for the last dozen years, it has been relatively smooth sailing in the Larkinâ€™s interfaith and Jewish home. Sure we’ve had issues with some extended family members (mostly my Jewish ones) and some challenges around Christmas, acceptance in non-Reform segments of Judaism and dealing with prejudice, but we haven’t had the difficulties that some mixed faith couples have to navigate. Mostly, our decision to have a singularly Jewish home, made before we were engaged, has guided our choices and parenting.
Maybe it’s the significance of the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that makes the questions we must address seem bigger than before. Maybe the questions themselves are more significant. Whatever the case, they weigh heavy on my mind.
Over the years, my husband has said on numerous occasions that if he decides to convert it will be around our son’s bar mitzvah. What always felt like a far off decision point is now upon us. I have never asked my husband to convert, and I don’t care if he does or not, but I understand the weight such a decision has at this moment in our lives.
There are rituals and traditions that my husband will be able to participate in if he does choose to convert before our son’s big day that he would not be able to be fully a part of if he doesn’t convert. For example, he will be able to hold the Torah. I get teary thinking about passing the Torah to my husband and then watching my husband pass it to our son during the service.
I wonder how my husband will feel if he doesn’t formally choose Judaism before the bar mitzvah. Will he feel excluded because he can’t fully participate in the service? Will he be angry and will his anger change how he engages in our Jewish life going forward? Will he regret that he didn’t convert before the bar mitzvah after he experiences the power of the tradition as a parent rather than a spectator?
I suggested that it was time for my husband to talk to one of our rabbis. He agreed but said he would wait until we find out which one will work with our son. Apparently, he is not yet ready to deal with these questions either, and I know that he will be more willing to discuss them with a clergyperson. Sometimes when a spouses poses a question, we feel there is an agenda. When a third party asks the same question, it is just a question.
I’m also concerned about how our Christian family members will participate in the service. I know our synagogue’s clergy are all experienced in working with interfaith families. I know they work to craft as inclusive an experience as possible. But I wonder if some family who are not Jewish will feel hurt, ostracized, excluded or left out? How will we make them feel a part of and the significance of the moment? I already sense a gap.
These are just some of the questions circulating in my mind. Iâ€™d feel much better if I knew the answers and could see the outcomes. Instead, I need to navigate these uncertain waters, work with my husband to make thoughtful choices, and let this part of our family’s story unfold. That’s a lot easier said than done.