Much is made of your bat mitzvah day. As a 12 or 13-year-old girl, it’s the day you’re called to the Torah to declare, in front of your friends and family members, you are now a woman. There’s so much about that day that’s likely out of your control: your Torah portion, how many people you get to invite, where it will even be — but hopefully, there’s one extremely important thing in your hands, and that’s your bat mitzvah theme.
For the uninitiated, your bat mitzvah theme is sort of your thesis statement for your bat mitzvah party (following the service); it dictates your decorations, table settings, and giveaways. Even more importantly, it’s often a way of telling the world: This is who I am, and this is the thing I care about the most in the world, so much so that I want the biggest party of my adolescence to revolve around it. But how likely is your theme to be indicative of who you grow up to be (you know, when you actually reach womanhood, not just bat mitzvah-style womanhood)? For some, it’s spot on. For others, less so.
When Lisa Grossman (then of Metuchen, New Jersey), was 8 years old, she fell in love with space. “We did a unit on planets in school and I was like, this is the coolest thing ever and I want to know all about it,” Lisa told me. It’s a love that stayed with Lisa in the years that followed, so when it came time for her to pick her theme, of course she went with space.
“The thing I remember best was that we had a big long table for all my friends,” Lisa said, in the shape of the constellation Cassiopeia. The centerpieces had stars and “gold floofy stuff” that represented comets and jets, and Lisa wore a navy blue dress — the same color as the centerpieces. She even gave out CD cases with her friends’ names written in the style of constellation letters on each of them — perhaps the most 1999 party favor there is.
Now, a little over 20 years later, Lisa still feels as though her bat mitzvah theme is “totally consistent” with who she is and she’s still “very much in love” with space. She majored in astronomy in college, before ultimately becoming a science writer. She works at Science News, and has written for New Scientist and WIRED Science.
For tween-age Nat Silverman, who grew up in New York City, having a bat mitzvah was not something she would’ve elected to put on her agenda, but her parents sold her on it. They told her, “You might not want to have a bat mitzvah now, but someday you’ll be glad you had this experience because it’ll make you feel connected to your Judaism.” Plus, they said, you like Lord of the Rings, what if we did something Lord of the Rings-related?
“At the time, I was so embarrassed by the whole experience,” Nat said. “If I could make it happen in silence or darkness, I would’ve.”
While silence or darkness might not have been viable themes, LOTR was, with a side helping of Pirates of the Caribbean. Everyone who attended Nat’s bat mitzvah received a drawstring backpack with a t-shirt inside; the drawstring backpack had a ring on it, with the date and “Natalie” written in an Elvish-style font. However, it was only winners of the dance party who got to take home a Pirates of the Caribbean DVD.
“It was such a specific time capsule of what teen girls cared about back then,” Natalie said, then, of course, being 2004.
However, Nat does think her chosen theme reflects who she is today. “I’ve not changed in being a stupid nerd, for better or for worse,” she said.
Not unlike Nat, when Jane Garfinkel was choosing her bat mitzvah theme, she also leaned into her 2006 pop culture tastes, ultimately picking Gilmore Girls.
“Gilmore Girls is not a party theme. It makes no sense,” Jane said. She can’t quite explain her rationale for her decision, “but obviously I really liked the show.” Each table at the party, which took place in West Caldwell, New Jersey, had a requisite Gilmore Girls character, and each guest went home with a coffee mug featuring a picture of Rory and Lorelei Gilmore on it.
“If you didn’t know what Gilmore Girls was before going to my bat mitzvah, you wouldn’t have learned anything about it based on my theme,” Jane said.
Still, Jane has no regrets. “I’m happy with the choice now because it’s an easy, fun fact… My theme reflects who I am in the sense that I’m obsessed with television and don’t necessarily have the best taste.”
For Megan Pope, a bat mitzvah theme was more than just a way to tell the world “this is my whole deal;” it was a way to make her feel more comfortable with the concept of a bat mitzvah as a whole. Because her bat mitzvah was in August 2009, a warm month in the San Francisco Bay Area, she chose “pool party” as her theme.
“Big fancy parties where I’d have to wear a big fancy dress and dance with boys at a big fancy hotel scared the shit out of me,” Megan said. “I hated events that solely revolved around dancing and sociality — ‘pool party’ allowed for a variety of activities and options (swimming, dancing, ping pong, eating hot dogs, etc).” Plus, Megan was a springboard and platform diver from ages 8-22, so the party venue not only reflected that, but also allowed her an opportunity to show off some cool flips.
And then for other Jewish women, the choice was not what theme to have, but if they should have a bat mitzvah at all.
When Janie Stolar was of bat mitzvah age, she tells me, “Everyone in my town was having massive b’nai mitzvot blowouts,” she said “I had the absolute best time at the parties dancing my ass off with my pals, but I also knew for sure what we were doing was removed from the religious meaning of the event. We were all too young to appreciate it!”
Had her hand been forced, Janie said, “My theme would have straight up been ‘leave me alone and let me think about Judaism quietly,’” — a theme she would still choose today.
“I am literally the same person.”
As for me, my theme was New York City, a place where I proudly grew up and continue to live today, a city which I host a monthly show about, where I volunteer at a local museum called City Reliquary… so like Janie, I, too, might literally be the same person.
Header Image design by Grace Yagel. Image via OcelotsGriblit/Pixabay.