Reb Nachman of Breslov taught: Mitzvah gedolah liheeyote b’simcha tamid - "it is a great mitzvah to always be at a simcha." Simcha can be translated as a state of happiness or a happy occasion. In Genesis 21:8 Abraham threw a feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning, and there is a midrash (rabbinic interpretive tale), in Bereshit Rabbah 53:10. which says this was when Isaac was thirteen years of age.
First mention of B-mitzvah party is in the 16th century!
The Bar Mitzvah party is first mentioned in in the Shulchan Aruch (the classic sixteenth century code of Jewish law) where Rabbi Solomon Luria rules that a Bar Mitzvah meal is a seudat mitzvah (a religiously commanded festival meal) on the same spiritual level as the wedding feast.
The most perfect party theme we've seen was developed centered upon the theme: "A Celebration of Life." The family used the numerical symbol for life "chai" as the symbol in their printed material. They wove poetry celebrating life, nature, joy throughout the occasion and set the party near a picturesque river.
Dancing, particularly Israeli and klezmer dancing is traditional for a seudat mitzvah. A "tummler", someone who can teach these simple, delightful dances and get the crowd into full joy is often a good investment, if they are not too loud or obnoxious. This is part of how Jewish culture can be transmitted from generation to generation.
Speaking of the generations, alternating intervals of music with intervals of guests getting up to tell stories and about speak about the history of the family is memorable, and a well-woven family history video of 10 minutes or less works well too.
A profound party game on the theme "A Celebration of Life" is to have people come up by tables. Each person thinks of one item in life they about which they could endlessly sing its praises:
For example: Waterfalls. Or puppy dogs. Or sunsets. Or Jerusalem.
Then the B-Mitzvah student gets to be the choir conductor and point to people one by one to begin singing praises of the aspect of life they've chosen. The student conductor can widen his/her hands to indicate the person should sing louder or softer and point to several people to be praising all at once, and then increase or decrease the number of people at will.
Centerpieces and Party Favors
Socially redeeming center piece ideas are multiplying these days.
Baskets of canned goods that will be given to a food bank after the party go a lot further than flowers. One family floated a balloon over each table that said "Why wait? Food basket already delivered to Holon House (a local home for AIDS patients.) Each table's balloon indicated a different place a food basket had been sent.
Another family put together a collection of attractive and inexpensive Judaica in the center of each table - menorah, candlesticks, kiddush cup, mezuzzah with a sign indicating these were being sent to communities in the Former Soviet Union that are rebuilding their Jewish lives.
The Jewish Women's Archive [www.jwa.org] offers ideas for centerpieces about famous Jewish women.
Are you passionate about a cause? Set the party table with mugs from featuring your favorite charity and purchase t-shirts from that cause as party-favors. Let B-mitzvah come alive with a core principle of Judaism: SHARE.
Photographers, because they are being paid by the number of images purchased, can ruin the most carefully planned life cycle event. They tend to move out in front of the participants as though thinking themselves invisible and take the energy and audience visibility right out of what is happening. Insist that photographers move about unobtrusively and take lots of candid photos with high speed film, or preferably a digital camera so you can post easily to the web and send pictures off to those who couldn't make it, and no flash, this really disturbs ritual. And emphasize to those photographers that candid shots will be the most interesting and memorable. In fact, screen for photographers who are capable of taking candid shots, it requires a different eye than set up shots.
Schedule a dress-up portrait taking session if you desire a week or more before the b-mitzvah. Think about it, how much sense does it make for a young person about to lead their first service to spend the hour before services having their picture taken? And after the service, picture-taking can take the glow right out of a person. These are precious moments which you all have been preparing for, for a very long time. Treat them tenderly! Avoid photography between the service and the party, this can push everything off schedule. The first time a photographer seems out of line to you, very firmly tell him/her to fit in as asked and be as pushy about this as needed.
What about all the children invited from religious school and secular school?
It used to be that guests would expect to entertain the bride/groom or b-mitzvah. They would put on skits, sing, recite, etc. Resurrect this tradition. Let those invited know in advance they're creative involvement is welcome. Schoolmates or/and family members can plan even their skits in advance. Some may be talented gymnasts, roll out the mat for them! Celebrate life!
And finally, save the b-mitzvah thank you speech and parent speeches until the party, services are long enough. Even the congregational present can be given at the oneg reception after services or the party. People will be able to listen a lot better after they've prayed, eaten and danced a-plenty!
It takes effort to have blessings before and after meals as sacred time. You might invite all the Hebrew school friends up to hold the challah and lead everyone in the blessing over the bread and later, similarly, the birkat ha mazon, closing blessing of the meal. It is traditional to wash hands and say a blessing for this before the blessing for the bread. You might have a basin, pitcher of water ready and a towel on a temporary stand in front of the band. Now, imagine the B-mitzvah graduate washing his/her parents' hands and drying them, saying the blessing and then they do his/hers. Now all join in saying the blessing over the bread. Have the blessings in Hebrew and transliteration on the plates on small slips as guests enter, they will want to understand and join in.
Left over food can feed lots of hungry people. A tradition of giving a percentage of the cost of your simcha to a charity that feeds people, like www.Mazon.org, means many who weren't invited will still receive some of the light from your joy.