Don’t let bat­mitz­vah-envy get you into debt

The pres­sure to over­spend for chil­dren’s sim­chas must be re­sisted

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT & ANALYSIS - JACK SHAMASH

MY DAUGH­TER is hav­ing a bat­mitz­vah later this month. As a re­sult I’ve made two im­por­tant de­ci­sions: I’m go­ing to try to take my re­li­gion more se­ri­ously and I’m go­ing to avoid get­ting into debt. When peo­ple hold bar­mitz­vahs and bat­mitz­vahs, they of­ten put on a tremen­dous dis­play of ex­trav­a­gance — even if they can’t af­ford it. In some cases they end up hav­ing se­ri­ous debt prob­lems. I even know one per­son who, shortly af­ter giv­ing his daugh­ter an elab­o­rate bat­mitz­vah party, ended up em­bez­zling money from a char­ity for which he was a vol­un­teer.

I at­tended the party. His crime seemed par­tic­u­larly sad­den­ing, partly be­cause of the pa­thetic size of the sums that he had stolen — a cou­ple of thou­sand pounds in to­tal — and also be­cause of the fact that it was com­pletely un­nec­es­sary: he didn’t need to spend all that money.

I can un­der­stand how peo­ple get into this sit­u­a­tion. There’s huge peer pres­sure: if your chil­dren’s school pals are hir­ing the Grosvenor House Ho­tel and a suc­ces­sion of top-flight bands, you feel obliged to book a big venue and keep the wine flow­ing.

For a lot of Jewish men, the bar­mitz­vah or bat­mitz­vah party is a mea­sure of their man­hood. If they can’t af­ford a big bash, they feel they’ve failed in life.

Un­for­tu­nately, you can never re­ally com­pete: there’s al­ways some­body richer than you. Philip Green, for ex­am­ple, hit the head­lines when he spent £4 mil­lion on his son’s bar­mitz­vah. He flew 300 guests to an exclusive ho­tel at Cap D’An­tibes, where the en­ter­tain­ment was pro­vided by pops­tar Bey­oncé.

A cousin of mine, who has never been short of cash, had two Arse­nal foot­ballers and a con­tin­gent from the band of Cold­stream Guards parad­ing through his son’s party to liven things up a bit.

Now the trend is spread­ing to bat­mit­vahs too. Even among the chil­dren at my daugh­ter’s He­brew classes, some par­ents are splash­ing the cash. One fam­ily is hold­ing a bat­mitz­vah with a Harry Pot­ter theme. The in­vi­ta­tions, on real broom­sticks, were couri­ered to the lucky guests.

I sup­pose th­ese peo­ple feel that if you’ve got the money, you might as well spend it. But if you haven’t got the money, it seems a ter­ri­ble shame that a joy­ous oc­ca­sion should leave you mired in debt.

Some­times ex­trav­a­gance can even de­tract from a bar­mitz­vah or bat­mitz­vah. I dis­cussed the mat­ter with Rabbi Tony Bay­field, head of the Re­form Move­ment. He pointed out that a bat­mitz­vah or bar­mitz­vah is not like a birth­day party — it is sup­posed to have a spir­i­tual di­men­sion. Celebri­ties, march­ing bands and danc­ing girls can dis­tract from the sig­nif­i­cance of the event.

When we thought about our daugh­ter’s bat­mitz­vah, we con­sid­ered the op­tions. A three-course kosher meal for 200 at a good Lon­don ho­tel would be around £100 per head. Add to that a good band (around £4,000), fill the place with flow­ers and we’d be lucky to see any change from thirty grand.

Be­cause we don’t have that kind of money, we’ve ar­ranged to put a small mar­quee in the gar­den — it will cost about £1,000 in­clud­ing chairs. We’ve got a good DJ — £400 — and we’re get­ting a caterer to pre­pare sal­ads, salmon, tea and bis­cuits and three wait­resses to dish out food, pour wine and col­lect the emp­ties. The to­tal cost will come to about £3,000. I re­gard this as pretty fru­gal, but to some it would be the height of lux­ury.

We’d love to have a big party, we’d love to have cor­don bleu cook­ing and danc­ing till mid­night with a good band. But if we could only af­ford a glass of wine and few sand­wiches, we’d still have a good time. And if any­one isn’t happy with our hos­pi­tal­ity, then that’s a shame: they’ll just have to go and find some richer friends.

Jack Shamash is a free­lance jour­nal­ist

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