What makes for great bar mitzvah? Definitely not the food, nor the catering hall, nor the "theme", nor the knock-your-socks-off entertainment. It may or may not be the band. That depends on what the real essence of the bar mitzvah is. So how do you properly, and I mean properly, celebrate a bar mitzvah?
What does Judaism think?
The answer depends on what question you ask yourself. If you ask yourself "what will really make an impression on all the friends and family we are going to invite", you will have wasted your money on a meaningless bar mitzvah. I have been to too many such affairs. A bar mitzvah is not about showing off your wealth and taste.
But if you ask yourself, "what will make this day the most meaningful day for my child that he will carry with him for the rest of his life," then you are on the path to an incredible bar mitzvah. Let me say this as clearly and loudly as I can:
A BAR MITZVAH IS NOT A BIRTHDAY PARTY.
It is not a celebration of the end of childhood. It is not a celebration of the bar mitzvah child. It is a celebration of a new adult, a celebration that looks forward, not backward. It is a celebration of responsibility, and of membership in the Jewish people. The more those aspects are present in the bar mitzvah, the better.
The other day I attended a bar mitzvah in a synagogue that I happened to attend. I did not know the bar mitzvah child. But even I, a nonrelative and non-friend, walked away strangely impressed with this young man and his family. They didn't feed me, at least not beyond the obligatory cake and grape juice at kiddush. What impressed me?
The young man himself. He read the entire Torah reading, and read it perfectly. He had clearly worked hard to prepare for the day, and was clearly a talented child. His performance excelled that of many adults that I know.
Today's bar mitzvah is most often a mockery of what it is supposed to be. The kid is completely focused on the party, as are the parents. They feel that they need to be the classiest act in town, each family trying to outdo the other. As a result, the actual bar mitzvah ceremony is little more than an afterthought.
How often have I been in synagogue and heard a child, for a bar mitzvah, completely embarrass themselves. They can barely read even the three or four verses of the maftir, the short final aliya at the end of the Torah reading. Never mind reading the entire section, they can even get through something that should take a few hours to prepare. I won't even begin to describe the anguish I feel when such a child is clearly so unprepared and UNDISTURBED about not being able to demonstrate the most fundamental Jewish literacy.
I studied for my bar mitzvah for at least nine months, and only read the first two aliyas and the maftir and the haftara. It wasn't everything, and to this day I regret that I didn't do more. Because, you see, I have almost no recollection of the menu at the party. I don't know what songs the band played, or even their names. I remember the catering hall, and that the party was on Super Bowl Sunday. I remember trying to dance the "hustle" with my sister, and that there were standard party games. It's all sketchy, but it hasn't disappeared altogether.
But every year, when the chapter of Shemot comes around, I not only read the entire chapter, but I vividly remember EXACTLY how I learned it. This is my Torah reading, it is part of my essence, my identity. It symbolizes the moment I became a full-fledged member of the Jewish community. That inspires me every single year.
So how do you make a great bar mitzvah? Forget about the "bar", and put all your energy into the "Mitzvah". Resist the temptation to hire the incredible musician, magician, sports hero, multimedia mind-blowing spectacle, dancing girls, whatever. Forget about the over-the-top catering hall, don't have it on a cruise ship. It's really not important. Don't try to make the neighbors jealous, don't make your own other kids jealous. Keep it simple.
Put the emphasis on the aspect of responsibility and membership in the Jewish people. Make sure your kid not only reads the Torah beautifully, but gives a bar mitzvah speech that will be talked about for years. Literally, bar mitzvah means "he has reached the age when the Commandments are incumbent upon him." That should be the only theme of a bar mitzvah. I'm not saying it shouldn't be fun, I'm not saying that there isn't any aspect of birthday party in it. Such an occasion requires a festive meal and song and dance.
But what song and dance? Ever consider going klezmer? Having something really really Jewish? I have trouble with the bands at some religious weddings. They're playing all this Hebrew stuff to this disco and trance rhythm. It's Jewish in that it's Hebrew, but it sure doesn't feel like it. At my wedding, we decided to hire a klezmer band, and that decision made for a wedding that was a home run.
Do the same for your bar mitzvah. Make it as Jewish an event as you possibly can. That's what it's all about, the Mitzvah. It's about being part of the Jewish people, so put that on proud display!