Someone Else's Simcha Sharon Shaya's Bat Mitzvah – Logging Off Long Enough to Grow Up

She may be Google-generation, but one girl shows that rites of passage, and the values they represent, can still matter.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Hallelujah reception hall

Time: 7:30 P.M.

In the neighborhood: A cool winter's breeze blows through a busy commercial street in the city of Petah Tikva, about 15 minutes east of Tel Aviv. In an area of upscale appliance shops and small-time hummus diners, the reception hall's rectangular structure and bright neon sign dominate. Its bulky supremacy is challenged only by a batch of swanky residential towers under construction across the street. Muscular palm trees tower over the parked cars, bathed in orange light from the aging streetlamps.

Venue: A wooden lion stands guard at the hall's entrance, as bright lights reflect on checkered marble tiles like artificial planets surrounding a formidable cut-glass chandelier. Inside the main hall, square tables are set around a dance floor, each decorated with a bunch of purple and white balloons.

Simcha: Sharon Shaya's bat mitzvah

Number of guests: ~250

Home: Sharon, 12, is the eldest child of Dafna, 36, a special education teacher, and Dotan, 38, a lawyer. There are four younger boys in the family's national religious home in Petah Tikva: Shahar, 10; Elei Sinai, 7; Morag, 3; and Itamar, 2.

Family history: Despite past experience, Dotan and Dafna felt they were graduating into the big leagues with Sharon's bash, noting that the contemporary fad for pizzazz is nothing like the simple parties of the past. Dotan: "My parents had big events, but nothing like this;" Dafna: "My bat mitzvah was more like an upgraded birthday party." Preparations for Sharon's shindig continue until the last minute (Dafna: "There's the dress, the hair, the skyrocketing pressure"), with the finish line in view for the happy, proud yet spent parents. Dafna: "It won't be over until the first guest arrives;" Dotan: "It won't be over until the last guest leaves."

Hasidic jams blast through the speakers, with the women and girls rushing to their side of the dance floor.
A large overhead projector switches on, flashing the Shayas' version of 'Groundhog Day,' starring Sharon.
Despite past experience, Dotan and Dafna felt they were graduating into the big leagues with Sharon's bash.
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Hasidic jams blast through the speakers, with the women and girls rushing to their side of the dance floor. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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A large overhead projector switches on, flashing the Shayas' version of 'Groundhog Day,' starring Sharon.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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Despite past experience, Dotan and Dafna felt they were graduating into the big leagues with Sharon's bash.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Sharon's bat mitzvah

However, the intense preparations don't even begin to chip away at the pride and joy the parents both feel. Dafna: "I don't think I was this excited before my own wedding. I was really nervous and tense ahead of my wedding, and here there's a kind of enthusiasm. In the wedding I was starting something really new, and here Sharoni is starting something new. Crazy excitement." For Dotan, who lost both his parents in a car accident when he was just an infant, the excitement includes the joy of appreciating those things family has to offer. David, Dotan's uncle: "He's the world champion when it comes to taking care of his family."

Rites: After striking that last items off the "to-do" list before the big show (Sharon: "I got the day off from school"), guests start filing into the spacious hall, with green, blue, red, and yellow party lights bouncing off wine glasses. Sharon, wearing a white dress with black floral decorations, is rushing from spot to spot, accompanied by a merry band of school friends. To the side, grown-ups mingle and chat away near an elongated buffet table. The women present a wide variety of head covers, from the more traditional black dress hats, the free flowing white scarves, the half-covering ribbons, the odd beret, and the albeit rarer head that is uncovered entirely. On the masculine front, diversity seems a bit low-key, with most donning mid-sized knit kippot.

Eventually, the guests all sit down for the first course, as soft music plays in the background. A few of the hall's attendants scurry to assemble a separate dancing area for women using white-cloth partitions. A few of Sharon's friends escape the watchful eye of the event's manager ("Guys! Sit down at your table") to sign the oversized guest book placed at the entrance near a heart-shaped cake.

As the eating dwindles, the hall's younger constituency sits at the front of the dance floor, singing birthday songs. Soon enough, Inbal, of Hallel Productions, takes the microphone to introduce the evening's feature event. House lights go down, with a large overhead projector switches on, flashing the Shayas' version of "Groundhog Day," starring Sharon. In the film, accompanied by segments performed by the bat mitzvah girl, Sharon keeps waking up in the morning of her 11th birthday, excited about her upcoming bat mitzvah. In her attempt to understand how she can break the wicked spell, the flesh-and-blood Sharon interviews friends and family members, trying to understand what she was doing wrong, or what was the change due to take place before she was mature enough to have her bat mitzvah.

Finally, Sharon understands that she must shift her focus away from herself and superficial concerns and onto helping others and volunteering. Thus, the feature documents Sharon's real-life venture to help first-graders with their homework, a project she envisioned, and which now includes several more classmates. Dafna: "We wanted volunteering to be the theme of the party, to highlight that value."

Looking for other ways to stress the worth of helping others, the Shayas purchased candy for the event from Tal Haim, an NGO which donates proceeds the needy. They also decided they would donate any party favors used in the celebration to girls who cannot afford to purchase them for their own bat mitzvahs.

As the movie concludes (spoiler alert: Dotan and Dafna pulled a fast one on Sharon, making her believe she was stuck at 11 until they felt she was mature enough), Hasidic jams blast through the speakers, with the women and girls rushing to their side of the dance floor. The men, slower to respond, eventually also take to the floor as well, dancing away until the main course arrives.

Music: Hasidic and Israeli. Dafna: "Fits our guests;" Dotan: "Fits us too, at least some of us."

Food: Early-bird buffet (Dafna: "For all those inexperienced enough with these events to actually show up on time"): fried dumplings, herring, schnitzel, kebab, beef tortillas. First course: Selection of either tilapia fillet with herbs or lamb-meat eggroll. Main course: Either a kosher version of Cordon bleu (chicken breast stuffed with goose breast and mushrooms), beef roast, or honey chicken.

Drink: Lemonade, soft drinks, and red wine by the barrel.

Word in the ear: David, on how the family feels about Dotan's family events: "Everyone chips in. My kids will leave work, whatever it is they're doing to come and help. When something's up with Dotan, the entire family enlists. What happened makes what would be distant family in any other setting to a very close one. He's raised a family to be proud of."

In my spiritual doggy bag: That despite the ever-growing demands of the Google generation, rites of passage, and the values they may provide, can still matter.

Random quote: A middle-aged man approaches a buffet stand with a smile, one hand on a slightly protruding belly: "What do you have to offer for us cannibals?"

Want to take part in Someone Else's Simcha? Want to invite Haaretz to your family celebration? Send word to: ron.bent@haaretz.co.il

Sharon, wearing a white dress with black floral decorations and accompanied by a merry band of school friends. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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