While the Bar Mitzvah party can take many forms, one Bar Mitzvah ritual has only a few variables: the oneg. Proper name: oneg Shabbat, pronounced OH-neg. It is the not-so-gently suggested tradition -- read: requirement -- to "make" oneg Shabbat following your child-turning-into-an-adult's B'nai Mitzvah.
You don't "make" oneg with tools. Though its literal meaning is "joy of Shabbat," "Oneg Shabbat" is the Chosen People's way of saying "provide lunch." This is how you "make" oneg.
That I'd never heard of oneg Shabbat until this year is further evidence of the many holes in my Jewish identity. I probably skipped Hebrew school the day they taught us about oneg Shabbat, either for baseball practice or to take some blonde goyishe girl somewhere on a date.
So many times in the past eight years, since beginning kindergarten at Brandeis Hillel Day School and accelerating tremendously in the past year, I've run up against Jewish traditions I've never heard of. Calling our trademark little scullcaps "kippot" was one such occasion. Finding out that you are required to buy lunch after your Bar Mitzvah and then call it something that ironically sounds a bit like eggnog, a Christmas tradition, was another.
It happens so often that I just assume nobody else in my immediate family has ever heard of this stuff either. I knew my father had been Bar Mitzvah'ed, but save for dressing as Moshe Dyan every year for Halloween, it wasn't until he hit retirement age that he starting ramping up his Jewish identity, and that was mostly out of solidarity with Israel.
To me, his being a Zionist was a logical extension of his emphasis on justice in all facets of life. There didn't seem to be anything particularly Jewish about it. It wasn't until about ten years ago when I heard him reciting the Sh'ma as they wheeled him away for an agioplasty, that I thought about his connection to the faith itself.
And of course I never bothered to ask my mother about her upbringing. If I had, I would have discovered that she'd been raised in an Orthodox house. The only reason she wasn't Bat Mitzvahed was because in 1953 Orthodox girls weren't allowed. Her mother had hers, if I'm remembering correctly, right about the same time my cousin David had his, in 1977.
If my Jawa wanted to learn about growing up Orthodox in the 1940s and 1950s, he need only ask his grandmother, something I've started doing when these oddball (to me) Jewish traditions suddenly appear. Who knew that she joined her cousin Alice at Passover every year to change out the dishes and silverware, then go around the house removing all the trayf (non-Kosher food and leavened bread items) to properly observe the holiday? One year, she told me, they were left alone, Alice and she, on the day Passover was to begin. Though this happened right in the wheelhouse of her rebellious teenage years, the two of them dutifully went through the house, removing the trayf.
And yet, despite my growing sense of my mother's strong Jewish identity, I was still surprised that she knew exactly what an oneg was, the first time the word fell from my non-Jewish wife's lips.
I wish they could call it something else. Like most Hebrew and/or Yiddish words, it sounds nasal and full of otherness to me. If we could just refer to it as "brunch," I might be more on board. And "oneg" is just too close to "egg," or "eggnog," two words I abhor. As you may have guessed, my oneg buy-in is not required.
At Temple Emanu-El, your oneg responsibility is simple: you choose one of three levels of oneg and then you pay for it. Being resolutely middle-class, I assumed we'd opt for the mid-level oneg before even knowing what that spread out in the hall after the Bar Mitzvahs was called. And even though Sandra Bullock has become something of a self-styled oneg critic, I am unmoved. The middle option is the best.
My wife likes to keep tabs on these onegs. It's part of her overall effort to gather as much information as possible before our turn comes. What have we been to now, a dozen Bar and Bat Mitzvahs? Every week, during the service, she makes sure to mention that she wants to stay for awhile afterwards to check out the oneg. Not to partake; we've only done that a few times. She just wants to feel it out, to measure one oneg against another, to get ideas. She won't say it, but I know that if she could, she would assemble a file folder titled "ONEG." In it would be small bits of food, taken from each oneg.
I like to break up the service -- which is usually two-plus hours long -- by stepping out for a bathroom break about two-thirds of the way through. After the Torah portions but before the speeches. Every time I go, as I pass my wife, she whispers, "Check out the oneg while you're out there." When I return, she says, "How was the oneg?"
Which is pretty funny, given that all of the fact-gathering missions in the world won't change the fact that at Emanu-El we're limited to one of three oneg options. A few weeks ago, while attending a Bat Mitzvah in the main sanctuary, we learned that Temple Emanu-El uses two caterers for their onegs. Which one you get is determined by date. It's a crapshoot, in other words.
Well, I thought the oneg at that particular Bat Mitzvah was pretty awesome. They had pita and hummus, which I'd never seen at an oneg before, alongside the usual bagels and caesar salad. "Hey," I said, thinking Sandra Bullock would be pleased to see me show an interest in the oneg, "This food looks great."
"I know. This is the other caterer," returned my wife.
"What other caterer?"
"Emanu-El rotates caterers every week."
"How do we guarantee we get this caterer, then?"
"No way to do that."
"You're telling me we could pay just as much as we would have for this good caterer and end up with the b-list caterer?"
I probably won't eat at our oneg, anyway. I didn't eat at my own wedding. Annie Fergerson ordered pizzas back at the suite, where we'd invited everyone after the reception. But I won't eat at our oneg because, frankly, onegs are complete chaos. Take 200 people who got up early on a Saturday, came to temple and sat through a two-plus hour service, open the doors at 12:30 and show them two long tables covered with food. See what happens.
It's not an optimum way to dine, which might be why it's not called a brunch. Brunch is relaxing. You sit at a table, you drink a Mimosa. Even if it's a buffet, the trips to the buffet line are unhurried. There are no worries about running out of food. You take as much as you want, then casually return to your seat.
Oneg isn't like that. Oneg is a mad rush to the buffet table. It's a combination receiving line, cocktail reception (with no alcohol) and cafeteria lunch. Oh, and those 200 people who were until recently lounging about in a giant sanctuary? They're now crammed into a tiny entrance lobby. At oneg, you learn to eat standing up with your arms wedged against your chest. Oneg experts only move the part of their arm from the elbow down. The upper arm stays in tight.
Forget beverages. There's simply too much of a chance that your tiny plastic cup will get knocked from your hand by an enthusiastic well-wisher or someone snaking their way through the crowd, desperately looking for air and escape.
And yet there it is: the (required) oneg. Anyone seeking a more personal oneg Shabbat experience can log onto www.oneg-shabbat.org, where they will connect you with people with which to "make" oneg shabbat. Why are they looking so hard? All you've got to do is show up at a temple at 12:30 on any Saturday.
When you order your oneg at Temple Emanu-El, you order enough for your party plus 75 more. I take that to include the "professional Bar Mitzvah-goers," who show up every week and attend whoever's Bar or Bat Mitzvah happens to be going on. "They do it for the free food," my mother says. I'd like to think they're getting more out of the experience, especially since I also see them at our Saturday morning "Family Torah" classes. They don't have to be there. They could just show up at noon, slam a few bagels (and hummus, if they're savvy enough to have marked their calender in advance) and totter off down Arguello Street, fat and happy.
That's okay. They can come to our oneg. Even that lady in the dirty ski jacket who always drags a little box along behind her. She can come, too. We're getting option #2, so there'll be plenty of food. But I won't know until we get closer to August 21 if we're on the right week to get the hummus.