It’s time to end the era of extravagant parties

'While the glitzy, over-the-top events were fun and gratifying for the minority who could genuinely afford them, they were destructive for everyone else — and for the community as a whole.'

August 12, 2020 18:24

The comedian Ashley Blaker joked on Facebook that he hoped the government would keep the rule allowing only 30 guests at weddings until he had married off all six of his children.

Anyone who has ever held a simchah will get the joke. Jewish weddings typically include hundreds of guests and cost a fortune. If you can get your children married off this year, you could save tens of thousands of pounds.

To which I can only add, this is a good year to hold all your children’s bar- and bat-mitzvahs as well!

I thought of Ashley’s joke last week, when I was on a Zoom panel hosted by Hampstead Synagogue. Asked what positive things our community can look forward to as a result of the coronavirus situation, I could only really think of one — and that is the dramatic downsizing of our simchahs.

Immediately after lockdown, barmitzvah parties and synagogue services had to be cancelled. Families had to make do with hastily improvised Zoom broadcasts and in time, a new genre of socially distanced receptions on people’s driveways emerged.

Weddings were, for a while, completely impossible, but recently small events have been allowed. In Israel, where weddings of 400 people are considered small, families started broadcasting live-feeds of chuppahs with just a minyan attending.

Overwhelmingly, the participants seemed relieved to discover that these minimalistic events were highly emotional, meaningful and beautiful.

I expect that this sense of relief will, over the coming months, transform into a mature communal understanding that a fulfilling simchah does not require the large halls, fancy caterers and extravagant entertainment that became expected in many circles.

You need the people you love around you —and very little else.

Not one expects families to do away with celebrations entirely, once regulations allow larger parties once again. But small, modest simchahs need to remain the norm in Anglo-Jewry.

While the glitzy, over-the-top events were fun and gratifying for the minority who could genuinely afford them, they were destructive for everyone else — and for the community as a whole.

It’s easy to say that everyone should only spend the money they have. But in a small, tight-knit community like ours, the proliferation of these expensive dos created social pressure which too many people found impossible to resist.

When everyone around you is spending a fortune to celebrate their child’s barmitzvah, it takes an extraordinary personality to make do with a small kiddush at shul. Cultural norms can feel like obligations. Your children, who have been to all their friends’ events, pressurise and guilt you to conform. If it’s a wedding you’re holding, there are the in-laws’ expectations to consider as well.

Many people stretched themselves financially to pay for one-night parties they could not really afford. Countless families have extended mortgages to afford these exorbitant events.

It was utterly obscene.

These over-the-top simchahs have helped turn leading an active Jewish life into an expensive business. (There’s also the fact that our main communities are situated in some of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the country, and that the cost of kosher food, synagogue membership and festivals like Passover all adds up.) Who knows how many Jews looked at these costs, calculated that they could never compete, and quietly opted out of the mainstream community. I would guess the answer is “many”.

This was already the case during relatively good times. But now we are entering the greatest financial crisis of our lifetimes. Many members of our community will doubtless emerge financially unscathed. But many others are about to become unemployed, experience severe financial pressure and even dip below the poverty line.

We simply cannot afford to have extravagance as part of the price of participation in communal life any longer. The cost of Jewish life must come down.

In the JC recently, one kosher caterer reported that most of his clients were holding off booking their weddings until they were allowed 200 guests once again. I suspect that by the time that’s possible, these hold-outs will be a relic of a time gone by, and that even those who do host hundreds will be anxious not to be seen as crass or excessive.

Covid-19 has normalised a more modest approach to simchahs, finally breaking a pernicious cycle which communal leaders often recognised was a problem — but could never figure out how to solve. And that really is something to celebrate.

August 12, 2020 18:24

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