The Candle Lighting Ceremony: A Moratorium | MitzvahMarket

The Candle Lighting Ceremony: A Moratorium

The Candle Lighting Ceremony: A Moratorium


The Candle Lighting Ceremony: A Moratorium

By. Drew Isserlis Kramer

“Grandma Yetta and Papa in Heaven, please come up to light candle number 7.” Rising to the tune of “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder, Grandma Yetta shimmied over to an enormous sheet cake to light a candle on the occasion of her grandchild’s b’nai mitzvah. Once the photographer captured the moment, the newly minted b’nai mitzvah proceeded with the next poetic tribute until all 13 candles (and one for good luck) blazed with the blessings of family and friends.

In a religion that routinely ignites candles in ritual and prayer, the b’nai mitzvah candle lighting ceremony is not rooted in spiritual significance. Like the b’nai mitzvah itself, the poetry and cake lighting tradition is unique to American Jewish culture. Beginning in the 1950s, catering halls up-sold the cake moment to families looking to enhance the theater of their event and honor the child’s nearest and dearest family and friends. Warming hearts and entertaining guests as they cut into the prime rib, families embraced the formula for the next fifty years. 

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Amy Kupferman, a nice Jewish doctor raised in Old Westbury, New York, recalls her 1990s candle-lighting ceremony as “a good way to remember relatives who passed or who traveled from far away to celebrate the milestone.” Still reveling in the quality of her poetry and the beauty of her cake, she pauses to caution that the tradition comes with risk. Learning from experience, she shared, “when you start including some friends and not others, it can cause rifts in relationships.” At her bat mitzvah, she called every child in the room to the cake for a shared friendship candle, ensuring that all felt important in the room. 


While Ms. Kupferman appreciated the creative expression of appreciation for guests, for others of her generation, it was another anxiety-provoking public speaking moment in a loaded day of chanting Torah and awkward interactions with distant relations. Teenage angst for candle-lighting ceremonies amplified as divorce rates climbed in the 1980s and 90s. For families that no longer resembled a 1950s sitcom, the formula began to feel uncomfortable and out of touch with modern family structures. 


Rather than conform with old constructs, the Gen-X and Millennial generations raised in that era of rapid sociological and technological change covet disruption. Across all religions, this might translate to reduced interest in faith-based traditions. However, even for very secular Jewish families, the b’nai mitzvah persists as an important life cycle moment that cements the future of the ancient religion. The longevity of the milestone continues through every generation’s willingness to inject novelty and change. For this new generation of parents, b’nai mitzvah became a forum for individuality and innovation.  


Casey Kaufman, a busy event planner based in Westchester, NY, sees the shift. Once regularly tasked with hiring writers to craft perfect poetry, she reports that today’s clients “never request a candle lighting ceremony.” Asked why she thinks the tradition faded, she jokes, “this generation felt so traumatized by it at their own b’nai mitzvahs that they decided to spare their own kids.” In earnest, she attributes the change to the redundancy of the tradition and the drive to create an event that feels modern and unique. 


While the old formulas fade, families still want to honor their guests and their essential role in raising the child. Sheet cakes and cringe poetry set the stage for today’s multimedia tributes to the village that helps raise a child. Professionally produced montages, replete with baby pictures and video testimonials, invoke the happy tears quintessential to this coming-of-age celebration. 


While the lust for individuality and innovation continues to inspire new trends in b’nai mitzvah party planning, the spirit of love and Jewish tradition remains constant. In every generation, when a Jewish child crosses the bridge to adulthood through a b’nai mitzvah, families will rally to celebrate the journey and reflect with awe on the miracle of watching that child grow. 

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