When I was a kid, a bat mitzvah consisted of reading a Torah portion followed by a nice nosh in the temple social hall where people slipped envelopes into your pocket. Maybe your grandparents flew in from Miami and your very best friend from camp got to take a plane by herself from L.A., but other than that, there weren’t too many out of town guests. There was a DJ, and all your friends took their shoes off and did the Electric Slide. Your mom stressed out over the planning and seemed relieved when the last lily centerpiece was given away to the leaving guests.
So when I married into what may be the largest, loudest Jewish family in the South, I was confused. A blessed event, say a bat mitzvah or a wedding or even a funeral – is not simply ONE day. It is a series of fantastic functions attended by hundreds of well-dressed, genteel people hailing from Raleigh to New York to Tampa to Atlanta who treat these occasions as opportunities to celebrate life like nothing I’ve ever seen — have you ever been outdanced by people in their 70s?
A quick tour of the family tree: My husband’s maternal grandmother — still kickin’ at 96 — had four sisters, born and bred in Tampa, FL. Though I continually ask, I can’t seem to get a straight answer as to what Eastern European country their grandparents hailed — according to Grandma Florence, someone came from Lithuania way back to become one of the area’s first Jewish settlers around the 1870’s. She and each of her sisters had two to three to five children, who, as my father-in-law says, took it upon themselves “to populate the South with Jews.”
That’s why places like goyishe places like Macon, GA and Winston-Salem, NC have historic, solid Jewish communities. Once you start adding spouses and another couple of generations, things get LARGE. It’s a close family of around 300 people, and everyone gets invited to everything — even third cousins by marriage, like me. It’s kind of awesome. Although when it came time to plan my wedding, my mother was dumbstruck — I don’t have any first cousins and just a smattering of kin on either side. We’d thought 150 was a nice, generous guest list until we found out that only covered one puny branch of El Yenta Man’s family tree. We had to cap the list at second cousins, which apparently hurt some feelings but good Lord, I thought my mother was going to have a stroke. That’s when I found out that a Southern Jewish wedding isn’t just a union between to nice kids starting a life together, oh no. It’s a meshing of families á la feudal times where clans unite to form a stronger nation so that wherever one goes to college, one will inevitably date a cute coed for several weeks before realizing he or she is somehow related.
Of course, these being Jews, there’s food at these things. A lot of it. Bagels, lox, egg salad, whitefish. Brisket, chicken, roast vegetables, mashed potatoes. Kugel, rugelach, cookies and cake. And these being Southerners, there is plenty of wine and beer. And scotch. And whiskey, rum, gin and vodka. It’s comfort food and indulgence and an excuse to start drinking as early as you like. At last Saturday’s bat mitzvah I found myself with a pinot grigio in one hand and a plate with tuna and donuts in the other — at noon. Forget trying to keep up with the aunties in their 70s — those women can knock back a scotch, tuck down a rueben sandwich, then play a game of tennis before it’s time to change into their Louboutins for dinner.
As I mentioned before, at a Southern Jewish simcha, the party starts days in advance. If it’s a wedding and there’s a rehearsal dinner on Friday night, everyone’s in town by Thursday, which means a casual buffet for at least 150. For any event, Friday night is a sit-down, multi-course affair before or after Shabbat services, and then there’s Shabbos lunch after the bar or bat mitzvah earns the right to wear a tallis and have a few slugs of Manischewitz. Then there’s the Saturday night after-Havdalah extravaganza, oriented to the tweenagers with a team of high-energy DJ dancers spinning Lady Gaga and dipping into an endless goodie bag of giveaway hats, flashy rings, sunglasses and these crazy giant plastic clown shoes that your children will insist on wearing to school the following week.
And it doesn’t even stop there: the gracious hosts of the weekend stay up to party Saturday night and then invite everyone over for a full-on, omelet station brunch on Sunday morning! This I never heard of before my own wedding, when I was absolutely appalled that we had to get out of bed on our very first day of being married to shmooze some more!
Plus, just in case you’re hungry or thirsty in between, there is something called the Hospitality Suite in the hotel where all the out-of-town guests star, stocked with snacks and sweets and beer and soda and liquor where everyone can lounge between meals. This is where children’s cheeks get pinched and the old men compare stock tips, where you update the aunties about your life and your poor mother-in-law, who hasn’t been able to come to such things in a while because of the dementia but you don’t dwell on how she’s getting really bad because this is a HAPPY time for the family and you don’t want to be the only one bringing people down. Even if someone’s getting divorced or has cancer or had been laid off for over a year, the mood is always convivial in the Hospitality Suite, because we’re there to celebrate.
Because this family is so big, I tend to forget who I met at the last wedding or 90th birthday, so I introduce myself to everyone. Usually I receive more than one gracious “I know who you ah, dahlin’, I was at your wedding!” Ooopsh.
Being a yenta, I’m always curious about how these gargantuan fêtes get funded. I don’t mean to be tacky, but wow, weekends like this cost a ton. It turns out many in the generation who populated the family also had a knack for business, which is a wonderful blessing. It also sets the bar rather high, but what else is money for than to spend it on showing your loves ones a good time? I keep telling Yenta Boy that his bar mitzvah will be just as big, but we’ll be serving homemade falafel and that his father will be the entertainment (“What?” says EYT. “I’ll play guitar and give out kazoos – it’ll be great!”)
It really is such a marvelous gift to be invited to these simchas, and I always tell my husband how lucky he is to come from such an enormous, generous family. Like my Brother the Doctor and I growing up, my kids don’t have any first cousins (no pressure, BtD) but they have — I am not kidding you — over 25 second and third cousins whom they adore. Watching them on the dance floor with their floppy hats and plastic clown shoes together, I felt my heart surge for them because they’re part of this huge family tree, as steady and strong as one of the ancient oaks on the Southern countryside. I marveled that every over-the-top wedding, bar or bat mitzvah and yes, even funeral, is a joyous testament to American Jewish life and tradition and enjoying and sharing all of the delicious and delightful parts of it.
Then I was struck by a terrifying thought: I’ve got a bar mitzvah for hundreds to host in three years. I think I’d better start baking the rugelach now.