Don't let batmitzvah-envy get you into debt

By Jack Shamash, May 16, 2008
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The pressure to overspend for children’s simchas must be resisted

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

    Last updated: 2:06pm, May 16 2008