My Big Fat Hasidic Bar Mitzvah

My Big Fat Hasidic Bar Mitzvah

Above: Ilana Danneman’s twin boys were bar mitzvah’ed in November

By Ilana Danneman

You’ve seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Yeah. It’s funny.

I lived through it. I consider myself a BMS: bar mitzvah survivor. My twin boys had their bar mitzvah in November, and this is how it went.

It was my big fat Hasidic bar mitzvah.

A twin bar mitzvah. Baruch Hashem. That’s what “frum” or religious people say in between breaths so often it sounds like “brush him.” It’s like the code word to “I’m part of the group,” but it really is a phrase of extreme gratitude meaning “thank G-d.”

I needed G-d’s help and am extremely grateful for the help He sent my way. A few years ago, and I said, “I’m not going to do one of those big bar mitzvahs. Let’s just have an open house on Sunday. Come have a bagel.”

I dreamt about that. It just got complicated.





Hasidic husband.

I was told I was experiencing PBSD (pre-bar-mitzvah stress disorder), and I had a few things on my mind:

  • Menus. How much would bulk herring cost? How many hot dogs were we to order for the hot dog bar? As I write this, we still have plenty of hot dogs.
  • Would the black hats (two each) and long coats (four each because you need one for each part of Shabbos, holidays and weekday davening) that we bought during the summer still fit? We somehow started our boys on growth hormone three months before their bar mitzvah — after purchasing their clothing.

As I sat in a store in Monsey, N.Y., surrounded by more black hats than you can imagine, I quietly but firmly asked, “Uh, honey, don’t you think we should get the hats just a bit big, maybe a half-size too big? Isn’t it like buying shoes?”

“No. That’s not how it’s done. They need to fit just right”

P.S. The hats were a bit snug.

  • How would I be sure there was enough of a mechitza (separation) to keep my husband happy but not too much of a mechitza to freak everyone else out?
  • Would my dog get enough attention over the weekend?
  • Would my mother be happy?

Oh, yes, and the video montage. We didn’t want to pass that up. Everyone needed to see each moment of our twins growing up. I’ve suffered through enough of them, and it was our time. Plus, we have two kids, so the video had to be twice as long, right?

Oh, and what about those gargantuan pictures that you blow up so everyone can sign. Our firstborn son has one sitting against the wall in our basement. He’s holding a trumpet that he doesn’t play anymore. He is so taking the photo to his apartment — when he gets one. It’s the first thing I’m shipping out. He gets the trumpet too.

I got smart with my daughter and made her a collage. It’s hanging in the bedroom she uses when she comes home from school about twice each year.

Nope. No big fat photo, and no collage. I went for the photo books; iBook to the rescue. Now each boy has a book full of his fondest moments along with 250 signatures tucked away on his shelf.

I do learn.

I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, from ones that look more like weddings — actually, they look better than most weddings — to ones that are quite simple.

I once was at a bat mitzvah celebration where the entire synagogue was turned pink. Pink chairs, pink ceiling drapes, pink, pink, pink. It was like we had stepped into a bowl of cotton candy. It was quite breathtaking.

I went to another one where they had shopping bags for each table because shopping was the theme. You could choose the “store” (table) you wanted to sit at.

Of course, you haven’t lived if you haven’t been to a sports-themed bar mitzvah with a huge 3D stand of the bar mitzvah boy holding a basketball.

Our invitation lady asked what theme/style/color I was looking for on the invitation. She said, “Well, I see you like color (it was a tie-dye day). Maybe let’s splash some color on the invitation.”

“Color?” I asked her. “Have you seen my other half?”

My husband and boys wear two colors, which aren’t technically colors: black and white. She looked at a photo of my husband and said, “Oh, I see. Well, we can work with that.”

Our black-and-white invitation was a hit. Thank you, Robyn!

I once had an acquaintance of mine (not Jewish) remark that he thought it would be nice to have a “bar mitzvah.” That’s when you know we’ve all missed the point.

A few weeks before our big fat event, one of my twins asked me what his theme was going to be.

“Uh, Jewish.”

“Oh,” he said. “Well that makes sense.” He’s smart. Stick with the family theme. Don’t rock the boat.

The invitation list.

Just creating the list was enough to cause a migraine. And my husband wanted to be sure everyone was dressed appropriately, keeping Shabbos, and that it was noted on the invitation. Well, that eliminated about three-quarters of the guest list. I nixed all of that.

Our list contained friends, family and those we felt compelled to invite, covering just plain Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Conservadox, Conservative, Reform, non-Jewish, just plain Jewish and Hasidic. Though anyone was welcome to attend our event, as our shul is always open, my husband suggested that I send invitations only to those friends and family members who clearly identify with their birth sexual orientation and know on which side of the mechitza they belong.

How boring.

I suppose it was simply a logistical issue, along the same lines as choosing which bathroom to use.

We were told our crowd was too large for the synagogue Kiddush committee. So we decided to basically hijack the shul Kiddush for a Hasidic-style Kiddush with a mechitza, which should have sent just about everyone — the vilda chaya (wild kids), candy hoarders, cake stuffers and plate-over-fillers — into a tizzy, and that included the guy who constantly peeks over the mechitza.

Well, the mechitza was not approved for the Kiddush. Apparently, we were too Orthodox for our Orthodox shul. It was complicated, but then again Orthodox shuls are just that way. Well, shuls are just that way.

Food, yes, it was a necessary part of the long weekend, but somehow it got out of control. And, honestly, it made me sweat.

And decorations. I thought about just throwing up some balloons. I had one person suggest I make mini-Hasids out of scarecrows and put two on each table (one for each boy). Yep, that’s cute. Did not happen.

I was rescued by an overachiever party planner, G-d bless her. And I stuck with the balloons tied to picture frames with photos of my boys inside. I now have 40 Dollar Tree photo frames.

You see, it’s not that I don’t like a good party. I just don’t like planning them. I like going to other people’s parties. I’m just being honest.

But I suppose this was all good for me, for everyone, for our community and of course for my boys. Because in the end our Friday night dinner, Kiddush, lunch and party were a huge success, noted by the smiles and comments such as “That was such a nice bar mitzvah, and it really felt like a bar mitzvah.”

I’ll let you interpret that.

I suppose it was the pshetel (long-winded, not-so-easy-to-follow bar mitzvah boy speech) and siyum (completion ceremony on a tractate of Gemara), and my speech rocked. And, of course, the hot dogs were a hit.

My boys, like many other bar mitzvah boys around the world, did not culminate their learning with a bar mitzvah. This was the beginning for them. They have stepped into a world where they wrap tefillin daily, pray three times a day, are counted among a minyan and are required to uphold most of the 613 commandments. They (G-d willing) will continue learning Torah, Mishnah, Gemara and many other books of Jewish thought.

So I, as their mother, savored the end of their childhood. I still adore their sweetness, which I pray sticks around under all their new clothes. I am not sad. I am honored. I am in awe. It is a precious moment to see someone take responsibility for his place among the Jewish people.

Though there are many sects of Judaism and interpretations, we all depend on “the keepers of the book” to keep us grounded. It’s the Torah that, after all, calls us all back home.

May these boys grow up kind, strong, fearless, dedicated, respectful and honored to be Jews.

Now back to the food: I was torn over ordering beef, turkey, chicken or Polish hot dogs for our hot dog bar. We went for beef. And I did invite cousin Clara. But I did not put out those cards at the party that say, “Table 20: I DID NOT RSVP.” Instead I said, “Of course you can come with your family of eight. We’d love to have you!”

I suppose at certain points I lost focus as to what was important: twin boys becoming responsible adults in the eyes of Jewish law and the Torah. Even Oprah realized the importance of this day when she featured a young boy, Mendel from Budapest, on the day before his bar mitzvah on her show “Belief.”

I’m thinking a bar mitzvah in Budapest might not have been a bad idea.


Ilana Danneman is a mother of four plus a dachshund, Cloe, “wife of a Yid,” physical therapist, author (“A Tale of Two Souls”), and freelance blogger for various special needs communities and at

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