13 Tips for Throwing a Bar or Bat Mitzvah

How to survive throwing your first mitzvah, according to a deli maven

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Ziggy Gruber knows a thing or two about throwing a great bar mitzvah!

Having had a bar mitzvah of my own some time ago and with the bar mitzvah of my deli, Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen Restaurant in Houston, coming up next month, I wanted to share 13 mitzvah tips with you. Here it goes!

1.  What is your budget? It’s the first question that you should ask yourself and your spouse and you should stick with it. Commit to a price and stick with it. Hard as it may be, don’t go beyond it. Don’t break the bank because, heaven forbid, college is right around the corner. 

2.  Get the caterer on speed dial! This is tied for first with the above, but before you go calling the caterer, you better set your budget or else… so we move this to number two. And sure, you could do the cooking yourself, but do you really want to cook for 150 or more people? No, you don’t. You want to enjoy yourself. So pick your favorite catering company or restaurant and let them handle the food. Now, if you live in a community setting and people want to do potluck, that’s on you. Just remember, when the dust settles and everyone is home, it is the food they will remember and talk about the most. That goes for both good food and bad food. People are still commenting 30 years later about the baby lamb chops served at my cousin’s bar mitzvah — they loved ‘em. If the food is great, they will talk about it for years. If the food is bad, they will talk about it forever.

3.  Pick a theme. Do you want traditional or a theme? In all my years in the business, I have seen have a full gamut, from luaus complete with candy-makers flown in from Hawaii, hula dancers, and fire-torch twirlers to traditional celebrations with a Klezmer band. Personally, I like a traditional mitzvah, because I think it is really a theme of its own. But hey, if you want a theme, go for it! If you do go with a theme, pick something that is meaningful to you and your child. 

4.  Pick the venue. It goes without saying: location, location, location. Pick a venue convenient for locals and out-of-towners, and one with good parking and/or valet, nice facilities, and enough space for a good dance floor. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but a Shriners hall might not be special enough. If you pick a venue that is also doing the food, make sure that their food is excellent; otherwise you will be hearing about it — for a long time.

5.  Let them eat cake! Hands down, every mitzvah has to have a great cake. Gone are the days of the cake made to look like a Torah, with blue and white icing — cakes have gone to a whole new level these days. And sure, you want it to look good and fit your theme, but really it has to taste great. 

6.  Details, details, and more details. We all know planning a mitzvah is much like planning a wedding, and every detail counts. Pick everything to go with your theme, but don’t tip over into cheesy. Invitations, decorations, flowers, music, balloons and such — there are a lot of things to select. Maybe this is another reason I prefer a traditional mitzvah! Really do a knockout invitation to get people in the mood. It is traditional to have a memento or gift for guests to take home. I like personalized yamaka — in fact, I just ordered them for my wedding from Jessy Judaica. They have a great selection — everything from traditional to whacky — and they do a great job.

7.  Photography and videography. So you can "oooo" and "aaaah" for many years to come over what a great mitzvah you planned, you want to hire a great photographer and videographer for the event. You want someone that can capture not only the ceremony but also the party, so they need to be versatile. No one wants just stiff portraits from the event. The addition of a photo booth is also a fun idea. Make sure and have plenty of props so your friends’ and family’s personalities to really come out!

8.  What am I going to wear? You have the caterer, the cake, and the venue, the invitations are in the mail, and the DJ is booked. Now you have to start thinking about what to wear. So, start shopping! Mom needs a new dress, new shoes, and hair and nail appointments. Dad will go pull a shirt out of the closet and make sure it fits, and send his dress pants to be let out a smidge.

9. Shabbat dinner. And now back to food. It’s not bad enough that you have to feed a village the mitzvah itself, but it is customary to have a Shabbat dinner for your out-of-town guests on the night before the mitzvah. Now, you can go about it a couple of ways. One, you can let your favorite restaurant or caterer do the food. Maybe Italian or your favorite sushi, or what about a place like Kenny & Ziggy’s that serves traditional Jewish food? Think brisket, matzo ball soup, potato pancakes, and all the trimmings. Two, depending on the number of fressers (big eaters) you have in your group, you may want to do it at home and either cater in, do a potluck, or do the cooking yourself. My matzo ball soup is always a hit, so I’m sharing it with you. And, one thing the Shabbat dinner must have is a ceremonial challah.

10. L'chaim! Jewish people are usually big drinkers, but when there is an open bar at a mitzvah, that all goes out the window. Make sure and have some small bites for people to enjoy right as they arrive. There’s no reason to have Aunt Bessie get a DWI.

11.  Speech! Speech! It is customary for the parents of the child being mitzvahed to say a few words of love and congratulations at this very special occasion. You want to be positive and make your child feel like they are on top of the world. Don’t push the jokes or sense of humor too much — you’re probably not as funny as you think you are, and this is not the time to make your kid the butt of a joke. I’ve heard some speeches that have gone south really fast and it wasn’t pretty. This is not the Friars Club, you’re not Don Rickles, and this is not a roast, so just be brief, loving, and sincere.

12.  The morning after. And it comes back to food again. You’ll want to have a small brunch for your out-of-town guests… and those that enjoyed the open bar the night before. You can get as elaborate as you want really, but after a weekend together, a nice casual brunch buffet at your home to reflect on the events and swap stories is a nice touch. I suggest traditional smoked fish platters, bagels and cream cheese, blintz soufflés, and various kugels, like my Day After Kugel. 

13.  The end. The big day is over, the brunch is over, and cousin Morty has finally vacated the guest room. It’s back to reality but boy, are you tired. You realize that all of this was on mom’s shoulders and she is stressed to the max. Treat her to a spa day with a facial, mani/pedi, and a well-earned massage, and charge it to dad. All he did was help out at the open bar.


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