You have just received an invitation, a cream-colored cardstock embossed with golden lettering providing the details of the upcoming event. You hang up the invite on your refrigerator, and mark the date on your family calendar. The weeks pass, and the night of the party finally arrives. As you enter the hall, you notice how everything has been coordinated just perfectly. The lighting creates an aura of elegance. The tables, draped in silk cloths, have magnificent flowers in long crystal vases at their center. The music is both soothing and uplifting, and the family is dressed impeccably. After a few hours, you return home, and reflect on what was a splendid evening. You recognize that an event such as this one must have taken months of preparation.
So, what really goes into planning a simha? Whether you are a new parent planning your first berit, or the parent of older children planning your first bar mitzvah, engagement party or wedding, the prospect of organizing a celebration may seem like a daunting task. But there are several simple measures you can take to ensure that your event will go off without a glitch and that you and your guests will enjoy an unforgettable celebration.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The first step to take when you are planning your first event may sound simple, but it is imperative for maintaining your peace of mind: take a deep breath, pull out a piece of paper, and write down everything you need to get done. “Remaining organized is key when planning your first party,” shares aspiring party planner Sarah Nuseiri. “The way to do this is to make a list of all of the tasks that you will need to do. This way, you will stay calm and collected as you check each item off your list.”
Robin Haddad, a talented and creative community woman, also emphasizes the importance of multiple lists. “When people ask me how they should go about planning their first affair, I tell them to make a few lists! Each list should cover a specific topic: one for whom you’ll invite, one for what will be on the menu, one for what you and your family members will wear, and one for any other tasks that you need to accomplish. You will know that everything is written out on a list, and you’ll feel less overwhelmed.”
Keep in mind that every party that you will plan will follow a similar pattern, but will usually be on a different scale than the others. For example, you would probably invite more people to a wedding than you would to a berit, and you would most likely have an engagement party in a smaller place than you would a wedding. Also, after delivering a son you might not be ready to go out on shop for something new to wear to the berit, as you would for your child’s wedding. At the same time, however, each celebration can look pretty similar in the planning stages, as each requires a list of the people you will invite, a venue, a menu, and appropriate attire. And of course, at each of these events you will need an experienced photographer who will capture the precious moments with pictures that will last a lifetime. So it’s a good idea to have one generic “simha to-do list” which you can use as your starting point every time you are planning an affair.
With this list in hand, you can then proceed to draw up a second list of things that this particular affair calls for. For example, when making a berit, you must reserve a mohel, and for a bar mitzvah, your son must be prepared to read his parashah and will need a set of tefillin.
When you sit down to make your lists, you should have a basic idea about how big you want your event to be and what your budget is. Once you know how much you can spend, you will know approximately how many invitations you should send out. “Our community has become so large, Gd bless us, and when you are inviting people to your party, you might have to scale down a bit,” says Robin. “You may want to invite everybody, but that might not be so reasonable. Be conscious of who you will invite and ask yourself how far out you can and will go. Will you invite family and just close friends? Or will you invite acquaintances, as well? I have a rule of thumb that I like to share with people: If you’ll see someone in the supermarket the day after the party, and will feel embarrassed that you didn’t invite that person, then he or she gets an invitation! That’s how you know that a person goes on your list.”
Another factor that must be considered when drawing up the guest list, Robin adds, is accepted community protocols. “You have to remember that there is a way that things are done in our community. If you are having an affair, you must always invite all of the consuegros. Even if you don’t see them all the time, they get an invitation.”
It might be a good idea to ask relatives for lists of people whom they have invited to their parties in the past. After having your first baby or having your oldest child get engaged, you may be too overwhelmed to remember Great Aunt Sally and your neighbor from when you were growing up, but your mother can remind you about all those important people whom you would have otherwise forgotten.
Once your list is complete, you can think about who you will hire to design and print your invitations, and whether you will send the invitations by mail, or if you will hire someone to hand deliver them for you in order to make sure that your invitations get to your guests in one piece.
Now that you know how many people you’re inviting, it’s time to decide on a place. If it’s a berit or engagement party, will you be hosting the party in your home? If you’re planning a wedding, do you want to book a shul, or would you rather have it in a hotel? While selecting a venue, it is important to remain conscious of both budget and size. It should be financially feasible, but spacious enough to accommodate the anticipated number of guests. And before deciding to host the berit or engagement party in your home, do some quick calculations to determine whether this will actually save you money at the end of the day.
Whether your party will be in your home or elsewhere, it is important to plan a menu carefully. “When I am having a party in my home, I write down what will be on the menu,” Robin reveals. “Immediately, I make a second list, detailing all the ingredients that I will need to cook the foods that are on the first list. I make sure that before I begin, I have all the necessary ingredients.” Sounds like good advice, especially for those of us who have had the maddening experience of realizing we had no more eggs left while we were right in the middle of making a cake! Having all the ingredients on hand before you begin helps avoid these kitchen disasters and also makes the whole process smoother. And when cooking for a large number of guests, it is important to know just how much food you should plan to make, and whether or not Great Grandma Norma’s apple cake recipe doubles or triples well. It is also important to remember that set up, serving and clean-up will probably take lots of time, and that you may want to hire a waitress or two to help you get the job done.
Some shuls and halls have a contract with a specific caterer, whereas others allow you to choose your own. In either case, pay close attention to the caterer as he tells you what will be on your menu, and ask for a copy that you can keep and refer to afterward. Make sure every item on the menu is clearly specified before you finalize the price. If you later ask for items that were not included on the original menu, the caterer will likely charge you more.
IMITATION: THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY
If you attend a simcha while planning one of your own, pay close attention. The best way to get ideas is to see what has worked at other parties. If you really loved the music at the last wedding you attended, find out who the DJ was, or go over to him at the wedding and ask him for his card. If you loved the flowers on the huppah, ask about the florist, and plan to use her at your own events. “If you really loved something at a party, and you are comfortable asking, it is okay to ask the person who made the party whom they used for flowers, music or centerpieces,” says Robin. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Thank Gd, we have a very benevolent community, and “gemachs [free loan societies] have been set up for virtually everything and anything,” says Terri Haddad, community wife and mother. There are Gemachs for the pillow and gown that are used at a berit, for wedding gowns, and even for silk flowers that are just as beautiful as real ones. There are table and chair gemachs that you can borrow from when hosting a party in your home. Take the time to check out what’s available. Community gemachs can really relieve a lot of the burden of planning and making a party, and also save you lots of money.
You can always hire a party planner to help guide you through your event. “A party planner gives you guidance, and is there to answer any questions you may have,” Terri shares. “Even if you do hire a party planner, however, don’t be afraid to share your thoughts and ideas, and to give your input.” It is your party, after all!
The party that you have been planning for months comes and goes before you know it, so the most important thing to do is enjoy it. “With any affair, if you have planned properly, you are not frazzled when you are finally at the party,” Robin notes. “If you have given yourself enough time, you can actually enjoy yourself!” Remember to keep the lists that you made for your party, since they will come in handy when you are, Gd willing, planning future parties. Then, you won’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you can just refresh your memory and see what worked in the past.
Your party is here at last! Put a huge smile on your face, and dancing shoes on your feet, and enjoy every beautiful moment!
NOTE: Robin Haddad has a Swanee Gemach, where people can borrow display pieces to showcase Swanee items, and Robin is available to help those who cannot afford to hire a professional to set up. She can be reached at 917-497-7954.