Location: The Ilayev residence
Time: 7 P.M.
In the neighborhood: Elongated apartment buildings line a snaking street in a predominantly residential area of the city of Or Yehuda, about a 10-minute drive east of Tel Aviv. A young couple patters along on the sidewalk in the oppressive heat, two small dogs in tow, as a man in a white button-down shirt and black kippa chats on his cell phone while riding a bike. In the distance, a tall building blushes in the setting sun.
Venue: A grey apartment building, narrow porches sticking unevenly out of each story. On the first floor, the site of today’s festivities, a long, T-shaped table is set up in a small courtyard, packed with paper plates, cups, and beading bottles of soft drinks. Colorful balloons hang from a red string stretched overhead, as DJs Arik and Gili set up their booth, complete with bubble and smoke machines.
Simcha: Bat-El Ilayev’s bat mitzvah
Number of guests: 50
A brief history of time: Bat-El is the second child of Natan, 41, the chief coffee-machine engineer of a major Israeli coffee shop chain, and Zhana, 35, a bookkeeper, making her little sister to Mariel, 13, and big sister to Ori, 6, and little Lital, 3. Coming only one year after her older sister’s bat mitzvah (Natan: “We did it in a reception hall, with all the mess that comes along with it”), Bat-El opted for a smaller celebration, in exchange for a possible trip to the U.S. with her mom (San Diego, Las Vegas, and a wedding in New York).
Festivities, however small, were nonetheless toned down further, since Natan’s uncle passed away only days before the events, prompting Bat-El’s parents to cancel their invitations for most family and friends, and leaving it a kids-only affair. Natan: “Her grandfather wanted her to have her party.”
Bat-El Ilayev’s bat mitzvah
Bukhara: Both Natan and Zhana were born in the central Asian city of Bukhara, now part of Uzbekistan, once part of the famed Silk Road, and a hub of Jewish life for many centuries. While both parents made aliyah at a relatively young age (Natan 4, Zhana 12), Bukhara’s culture plays a significant part in their lives and in their simchas. Natan: “Every event, you have all the traditional foods, and music.”
Rites: Kids begin walking up to the Ilayev’s home, as Zhana, all smiles in a white top and a pair of jeans, scurries around the courtyard, making sure everything is set up right. As base-heavy music begins blazing from the oversized speakers, upstairs neighbors pop out onto their small porches, to wonder at the spectacle just meters under their feet. One story up, an off-duty prison guard still in uniform collects his laundry, smiling at his upstairs neighbors: in: little girls crowding the banister in the neighboring balcony, trying to get a glimpse of the party.
Down at floor level, DJ Gili struggles with the smoke and bubble machines, with the wind taking all bubbles and smoke into the neighboring building’s yard. With more and more guests walking in, most of whom are girls, a very clear gender-based division is formed: The girls, predominantly in pink and purple, amass in one corner, fiddling with their iPhones around a couch-swing, while the boys, in jeans, sneakers and clipped hair, gather around Natan as he lights up the grill.
Navigating the various groups, Bat-El, wearing a peach-pink dress with a black flower ornamenting her shoulder, smiles and says hello to everyone, as Zhana and her sister Mariana try, albeit unsuccessfully, to get the groups to mix.
As the fire gets going (Natan: “You won’t find kebab like this anywhere in the country!”) a group of boys, hanging out near the white plastic fence, form a discussion group of sorts. The topics are varied, ranging from weight loss (“Who are you calling a teddy bear!?”) to global geography (“Is Bukhara in Yemen?”).
Finally, the music (and some more of Zhana’s persuasion) works its magic, as the dance floor fills up with young feet of all genders. DJ Arik announces Bat-El’s majestic entrance to much applause, as well as instructs the girl-of-the-hour as to her proper dance location (“No! You go in the middle!”).
Smoke and bubbles fill the air, and drift over to the neighboring yard and into the empty street, colored by green and red laser beams. Out on the street, the few people taking evening walks under the orange street lights look over at the smoky display.
Natan, for a moment, deserts his meat-on-fire duties for a short dance with his wife and daughter.
Over to the side, Avi, Bat-El’s 15-year-old cousin tries to shoot video of the event (as per Zhana’s orders) while his friends tease him and push him toward the dancing. Inside the circle, some of Bat-El’s more religious cousins dinning long-sleeved dresses dance away, urged on by the ever-present DJ Arik (“Don’t worry! Everyone’s kosher here!”).
Next, Arik announces the food break, as the music is turned down to a quiet roar and steaming meat is served to the packed table. Overheated air-conditioning units from the upper floors drip gently onto the ceramic tiles.
With everyone seated, Zhana offers a small toast to her daughter (“May we see you all only in simchas!”), and the eating begins, or, more precisely, continues in earnest. DJ Arik takes the opportunity to switch things up, blasting some old Bukhari pop favorites, which prompts the adults to hop on to the now kid-free dance floor and bust a move.
Suddenly, a cop car pulls over on the street. Apparently a noise complaint brought them there, with Natan and Arik, not breaking a sweat, walking out to negotiate the situation. After a short talk, the police moves on, and the music remains mostly unchanged.
With the food wrapping up, Natan and Bat-El take to the floor to perform the rudimentary father-daughter slow dance, with Zhana hovering proudly around with her handheld camera. The dance is up, and the music returns with a bass bang.
Outside, an elderly woman in a yard across the street is moving her hands excitedly to the music “What can I say,” she says, “it makes me feel good.”
Music: Contemporary dance anthems, as well as a touch of Bukhari music for the handful of adults.
Food: Assorted salads, and grilled meats (shish kebab, kebab, steak, etc.).
Drink: Soft drinks and juices for the kids, beer and coffee for the adults.
In my spiritual doggy bag: That it’s still possible to have what used to be called “birthday parties” in 2013 Israel and that there should be a lot more. A lot.
Random quote: DJ Arik, at the beginning of the evening, regarding the possibility of laying some Bukhari music: “Are you crazy? We have Ashkenazim here! I don’t want to scare them away!”
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