Raising the bar

Joy Sable looks back at a time when smoked salmon was the nearest we had to sushi and the fountain-pen makers were kings

November 1, 2011
Today's functions are themed down to the last biscuit

Today's functions are themed down to the last biscuit

Barmitzvahs have always been cause for celebration, but just how we have celebrated has changed considerably in a few short decades. Where once chicken soup, roast poussin and cherries jubilee were standard fare, nowadays you are more likely to find sushi, miniature beefburgers and candyfloss stands. Meanwhile, gifts such as fountain pens and book tokens have been replaced by iPads and computer games and even the formality of the traditional dinner suit has vanished as more colourful evening wear takes over.

Today, if you receive an invitation to a barmitzvah or batmitzvah it will probably be brightly coloured, with the same shade extending throughout the celebrations from matching kippah and benschers to tablecloths and balloons - a far cry from the white napkinned, black tie formal simchahs of the past.

But what was it really like all those years ago? Jerrold Moser was barmitzvah in 1952, and as a choir soloist in his shul, was set to wow the congregation. "Unfortunately, on the day I had laryngitis. I croaked out the brachot and my father had to say maftir and haftorah," he says.

A few days later, the Moser family celebrated at Selby's, a fashionable venue in Hanover Square. "There was dinner and dancing," recalls Jerrold, "and I sat on the top table with my parents and grandparents. In those days you didn't invite your own friends. It was all relatives and business associates."

For David Landau, who was barmitzvah in March 1969, what happened in shul was also more memorable than the celebrations afterwards. "I was the first boy at Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue not to wear a school cap and wear a kippah instead when I was called up. That caused a bit of a rumpus among the elders.

Fountain pens and book tokens have been replaced by iPads and computer games; even dinner suits are going

"The party was at home on the Sunday night. I remember disappearing upstairs with my friends to watch television - at the time it seemed a more exciting option. I received lots of Hagadahs as presents - my barmitzvah was two weeks before Pesach, so people probably thought it was appropriate."

By the time his daughter Zoe celebrated her bat chayil in 2005, things had moved on. For a start, bat chayils and batmitzvahs were the norm, whereas decades ago they were rare, if not non-existent. And Zoe was allowed some input into her big day. "I had a tea in a local shul hall and my friends were there to celebrate with me. I had a say in picking the invitations and what I wore – though I had to have a little jacket made to cover up when I gave my dvar Torah," she says. "I still have some of the pink sparkly table centrepieces - though they are a bit faded!"

Daniel Alter, from Chigwell, was barmitzvah in 2001. "I remember being very excited in the shul," he recalls. "The party was at the Jack Carter Pavilion in Barkingside. We had loads of family there and I had a top table of about 25 friends - a mixture of boys and girls from King Solomon High School. We've still got the tableplan in cream and navy.

Everyone who came said that it was the best barmitzvah they had been to because of the fantastic atmosphere, with everyone on the dance floor. And ever since I was a little boy I had dreamed about being lifted up on a chair, so that was amazing!"

How your event is captured for posterity has changed considerably over the past few decades. Cine films or black and white photographs have been replaced by colour photos, then videos and now dvds of the entire simchah. And photographs were once taken through a haze of cigar smoke, as cigars were routinely handed out to men after the bensching. So everyone, smokers or not, returned home reeking of cigars. Thankfully the custom petered out long before the smoking ban in public places came into force.

Where does the future lie for barmitzvah celebrations? Haftorah on the moon? Maftir on Mars? Simchahs in space could set a new trend... but guests would be bound to complain - about the lack of atmosphere.

Last updated: 3:55pm, November 1 2011