Presumed Origins of American Bar and Bat Mitzvah Traditions -The Toast

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Clara Rotter-Laitman’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

When it comes to Jewish-American Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties there are some traditions that lay far outside the logic of a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony: the montage, the candle lighting ceremony and others. Nonetheless, these kitsch traditions have found their place next to the religious ones and will not budge. It’s hard to know exactly where they came from, but here is one Bar/Bat Mitzvah aficionado’s best guess.

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The Montage


The Montage is a five to twenty-five minute slide show of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child set to clean and upbeat music. Traditionally the montage starts with indistinguishable-from-other-newborn photos and continues onto nearly nude bathtime photos. Then, stilted who-is-that-cousin-anyway pictures and finally on to glamour shots of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child and their adolescent friend-crew, set, of course to “I’ll be there for you.”

Presumed origins:

Somewhere on Long Island a mother watched a Judy Garland tribute on E! and suddenly realized how her Power-Point skills could be used for her daughter’s special day.

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The Candle Lighting Ceremony


A portion of the glitzy Bar or Bat Mitzvah “Saturday night party” where an enormous cake is rolled out to the middle of the dance floor bearing six to thirteen unlit candles. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah child stands before the cake and reads a few facts about their relationship with each honoree from a plastic-covered folder before calling them up to light a candle. Clever overachiever Bar or Bat Mitzvah kids will write these in rhyme: “I always have so much fun at your house in the cape… Cousins Marnie and Jon please come up and light candle number eight.”

Presumed origins:

A Jewish Bar or Bat Mitzvah DJ was looking for a way to give himself a break from the Black Eyed Peas and take a much needed smoke break. While packing up the DJ booth one night, he had an idea and shared it with his next clients. “Wouldn’t you rather Bube and Zeyde plant a kiss on Zachary and light a candle instead of making a speech?” “Yes,” they said. “Yes we would.”

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Coke and Pepsi


A party game where adolescents dressed in their finest choose a partner and stampede them when the DJ says “Coke” or “Pepsi.” Prizes for the winner determine the wealth of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah kid’s family. In Westchester during 2005, a cheap prize was a $5 Blockbuster gift card and a fancy prize was an iPod Nano. Common injuries include: broken toes, nose bleeds, and minor concussions.

Presumed origins:

One Reform rabbi from the Main Line did not like the “grinding” he saw on the dance floor at recent Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. As his own son’s Bar Mitzvah approached, he sat at his desk thinking of ways to delay the DJ from playing the dance music. He took a sip of his Pepsi and had a brilliant idea.


Friend Speeches


The part of the “kids party” when friends and frenemies of the Bat Mitzvah girl come up and give speeches about “all the good times they’ve had with her… More good times then you’ve had with her! Seriously, remember when our families when to Martha’s Vineyard and you lost your tooth? And that dog named Patsy?! HAHA!!! But really, we’ve been friends forever, and I love you and you look so beautiful tonight. And it’s so awesome you got your braces off for this weekend, (my mom would never let me do that.) But seriously, I love you more than anyone. (ANYONE! Hear me Eliza?)”

Presumed origins:

Friends have nachas too! Long before Facebook and Instagram, friends of Bat Mitzvah girl Marissa decided to take to the mic and show the world just how BFF they were. They even made her a cryptic/sentimental gift, i.e.: “memory glass”  or a Mason jar with sparkles and inside-joke-related charms inside.


The Rehearsal


The Thursday before a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah when the family goes to the synagogue dressed in “the” Bar or Bat Mitzvah outfits to pose with one another and the child in question holding a Torah. The photographer is usually paid for the amount of time, not the number of photos, so there can be up to one thousand pictures taken of Jeremy, skinny arms trembling under the weight of the sacred scroll.

Presumed origins:

Puberty is kind to none, but one kvelling parent decided it was crucial to have photos of her son’s special day. The rabbi refused paparazzi during the service, but could be persuaded to open the ark for the rehearsal.


Bathroom Gift Basket Raid


A free and unmonitored basket of toiletries put in the synagogue bathroom for guests, and an absolute free-for-all for middle school girls. During the part of the service that is boring or the part of the kids party when the boys start playing keep-it-up with a yarmulke, the girls descend into the bathroom to open tampons, pads and pantiliners to fulfill dares and curiosity.

Presumed origins:

Bubbe thought it would be nice to offer the guests some toiletries.

Clara is a theater director and pop culture enthusiast from White Plains, New York.

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