This is it. New Year is upon me. I can deny it no longer. My son is barmitzvah this year and — assuming I get my act together — it is happening in January.
Some women morph from Bride-zilla to Barm-mum-zilla the day they give birth. They book the date, venue and band as soon as their princelet starts primary school. They then obsessively change the details every six months or so for the next eight years, according to fashion and whim. The key is to be completely different from everyone else, while also being the same. It’s a fine art, and one that I cannot be bothered to master.
Of course, barmitzvah planning is not just for the mother. In some households the dad takes an equally active role. Evenings are spent table-planning, or creating a website charting every stage of the boy’s life so far. My husband is not like this. His role, thus far, is to assure me that I getting much too anxious about the whole thing and assert that when he was growing up in 1970s Prestwich, barmitzvahs were planned and prepared for in six weeks. I am sure this cannot be true, but then Manchester is a different story, as I often point out to him, especially when reading Howard Jacobson.
I have bursts of remembering that a barmitzvah is happening, vaguely murmuring: “I must do something about it”, checking the bank balance, shuddering, and then forgetting about it again. Occasionally I do something — book the shul, organise barmitzvah lessons, find a caterer — and then sink back into happy
barm-livion again, secure in the knowledge that we’ve got months.
Only the nagging of my relatives (“What’s happening about supper on the Friday night?”), and the kind but firm guidance of the caterer (“You really must decide where the party is going to be… and when…”) forced me to get on and book somewhere this week. That is, I decided where the party’s going to be. I haven’t got round to actually telling them yet.
I’m busy of course — I’m contracted to write a book by the end of December, so I fully expect to collapse with nervous exhaustion just as my son makes it down from the bimah. And it’s hard to commit to spending money on a lavish — or even a modest — simchah in an economic climate as chilly as a nuclear winter.
But my simchah-planning aversion goes deeper than that. Perhaps it brings back dark memories of the run-up to our wedding, when squabbles flared up about everything from invitations (my mother-in-law staged a guerrilla attack and invited twice as many people as she had been allocated) to doughnuts — a foodstuff which I, princess-like, banned on the basis that they somehow fell short of my aesthetic vision for the proceedings.
Perhaps I’m haunted by my own batmitzvah. As was the fashion in 1976, I wore a Victorian-style white frilly blouse and a pale blue maxi skirt. As I stood up to proceed to the bimah, I felt something touch the back of my head. My mother had chosen that moment to ambush me with a white velvet bow, mounted on a comb. More than three decades later I still take evasive action if she approaches the back of my head at formal events.
The other day the kids were watching a programme called Celebrity Wedding Planner. Channel Five, in case you hadn’t guessed. A couple had called in Russell Grant and Denise Welch to design their special day.
“Who on earth would call in a celebrity to plan their wedding?” I exclaimed, horrified, and then in the next breath: “Do you think they’d do barmitzvahs as well?”
It’s remarkably difficult though, to pick a Jewish celebrity that you’d trust with your simchah. Stacey Solomon? She’d be fun and lovely, but she might be contractually obliged to serve canapes from Iceland. Sacha Baron Cohen? He’d offend everyone except the 13-year-old boys. What idiot plans a barmitzvah around them? Alan Sugar would get value for money, but he’d probably send in a group of incompetent apprentices to do the actual work. If Maureen Lipman’s free and willing though, I’m happy to write the pitch.
The problem is that I just don’t like planning ahead. I am spontaneous and free. I write books without plot plans, I go shopping without lists, I want to be able to have a barmitzvah party that involves putting a message out of Facebook saying: “If anyone’s in the area, just pop by for a fish ball”.
Barmitzvahs never used to be so complicated. My grandfather’s barmitzvah took place at in Warsaw at the turn of the 20th century. They went along to shul on a weekday, he was called up, my great-grandfather brought a schmaltz herring and a bottle of schnapps to share with the minyan. I bet his mum didn’t even have to buy a new hat. Bliss.
So, if you think you might be invited (no, I haven’t made a list yet), take this as your save the date. I’m thinking of going retro. Schmaltz herring may well be the new sushi table, and I’m sure there are great cocktails to be made with schnapps.
Don’t tell anyone though, because I don’t want them to steal my idea.