My informant is a member of the Russian Jewish community in Los Angeles. She explained how her community celebrates special parties like graduations, bar mitzvahs, and significant birthdays. The particular Bar Mitzvah party that she told me about was similar to many of the parties within the Russian community in Los Angeles.
Normally invitations for such parties are mailed to the guests. For a wedding and Bar Mitzvah invitations would be mailed. But for a birthday party or graduation party, the hosts typically call the guests and invite them. And once they say they are going, there is no backing out. So much planning goes into the parties that it would be inconsiderate to back out.
I asked if the Bar Mitzvah had any different religious practices or traditions. But my informant explained that it is not so much the religious ceremony or even the fact that the event was a Bar Mitzvah celebration that is important. In fact, many of the party’s attendees did not attend the religious ceremony. My informant said, “Bar Mitzvah means nothing. It’s a party.”
My informant said that the parties like her friend’s Bar Mitzvah celebration are extravagant. Prior to the party, women get their hair, makeup, and nails done and wear cocktail attire made by high fashion brands such as Alexander McQueen and Dior. They were fine jewelry. The men wear suits. It is not so much the question of what are you wearing, but who are you wearing. My informant explained that many attendees make such an effort to look good because all of the party’s attendees are talked about after the party. Word spreads fast. My informant has even heard about Russian American parties that have happened in New York. She said, “All of the Russian grandmas are going to hear about me and talk to their grandsons. I once had a guy fly down from San Francisco to go on a date with me.”
These Russian parties typically take place at people’s homes or restaurants. This particular Bar Mitzvah celebration took place at a Russian restaurant called Romanov. The party begins with about an hour of greetings. “The first hour is basically just saying hello, kissing, and talking. Then the hostess tells everyone to sit down.” The attendees then sit at their assigned table and are greeted by top-shelf vodka and tequila. The attendees then rotate between eating, toasting, and dancing.
My informant explained that every inch of the table is covered with food. The food is served family style. While most of the food is Russian fusion, my informant said that every party will serve the Russian staples: crepes with red caviar and butter and pickled vegetables. There are several courses to the meal and almost no one eats the main course because they are already so full by then.
During toasts the guests stop eating. There are several toasts throughout the night given by family members and close friends.
My informant’s favorite part of the night is dancing. “There is always good music–everything. ABBA sometimes. Songs that you love. It’s very rare that you get electronic music. It’s fun music.” She explained that there are no traditional or choreographed dances.
The older guests sometimes dance but it is more likely that they sit, talk, and gossip with one another. Having learned what older guests do at the party, I wondered what younger guests do. My informant explained that if a couple has a baby they will bring the infant and a babysitter. The babies are a part of the party. They even have their own seats at the dinner table.
The only “traditional” dancing she has seen was performed by professional dancers hired for entertainment at the party. Having performers at these parties is not uncommon. There are always performers at Romanov, the restaurant that commonly hosts the parties. She has seen performances featuring snakes, dancers, aerial artists, DJs flown in from New York. She shared, at one Bar Mitzvah a woman popped out of a cake and danced sexily!
My informant explained that within this social circle are different kinds of Russians. They are all in a wealthy group, but some are more wealthy than others. She explained that her family is not in the group full of socialites. Rather, her closest family friends within the community are more down to earth; they came from poor cities in Russia. So rather than pouring money into extravagant performances, it is a tradition in her family and her family friend group that the children put on a performance at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. One year the children performed skits from Grease. Another year, Austin Powers. They all dressed up in costumes and performed “full-blown” skits. The parents of the group also take part in the tradition. For a family friend’s 40th birthday party, all of the parents organized a skit based on a scene from Grease. A guy even rode in on a motorcycle! At another 40th birthday party, all of the wives dressed up as old Russian women wearing a giant plastic butt and giant fake breasts. The women did a whole Russian song and dance, and the performance ended with a toast to the birthday boy.
At the end of the night, guests leave the party having had fun. Though it is customary to say hello to everyone at the beginning of the party, it is common to leave the parties without saying goodbye to all the party-goers.
Gifts are common at such parties. Almost everyone brings checks. It is very rarely a gift. In the case that someone receives a gift, they are perhaps more meaningful but also the recipient would most likely just prefer the cash. It would be unheard of to not bring a gift. My informant said that diplomacy is the most important aspect of Russian culture.
My informant expressed that the Russian American community in Los Angeles is superficial. I asked my informant if members of the community were trying to one-up each other with each party. She first agreed with me but then said the parties were more like a display of taste and wealth than a one-upping. Taste seems displayed through the venue, type of food, type of alcohol, appropriateness of performers and women’s dresses. Wealth seems displayed through the venue, the amount of food, the amount of alcohol, the extravagance of the performers, and the designer of the women’s dresses.