Category: Family

The Big Bar Mitzvah (Part 2)

If anyone reading this has been on the Bar or Bat Mitzvah circuit in Toronto, you can probably tell someone who doesn’t know any better what to expect at a typical evening reception for a 13-year-old kid:

  • Gender stereotypical themes like Tiffany boxes and fashion labels for the girls, pro sports teams and rock n’ roll for the boys
  • Obnoxiously loud pop music, flashing lights and a couple of sweaty dancers charged with enticing reluctant self-conscious pre-teens on to the dance floor by baiting them with made-in-China giveaways
  • Barely teenaged girls in barely there dresses, high heels and Kardashian-style smokey eye make up
  • A sit down dinner for the adults who attempt to exchange pleasantries but can’t hear each other over the thumping bass music
  • A buffet of fast food favourites for the scores of kids that generally include burgers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs and french fries
  • A photo booth with tacky feather boas, sparkling cardboard top hats and wacky glass frames for accessories that dole out pictures not meant for any photo album
  • A kids’ candy buffet overflowing with gummies, gum balls, sour keys and every other sugar-laden treat imaginable the adults secretly covet

We decided to forego the serial (and predictable) evening reception for something a little different. I call it a 13-year-old boy’s birthday bash extraordinaire.

Mere hours after the brunch reception that followed the Bar Mitzvah service, we changed out of our fancy duds for jeans and cozy sweaters and headed down to the William P Wilder Arena at Upper Canada College.

We rented one of the ice rinks for an hour and a half for the kids (and any adults who wanted to) to skate and play some shinny. We hired a former hockey trainer of the boys’ to do some fun games and activities on the ice–we did have giveaways for the kids, but they didn’t know it. We slipped the trainer some gift cards to give to kids who participated in the activities.

On the ice……

We also rented out the lounge that overlooks the ice rink–this is where non-skaters and the few adults invited could hang out and watch the skating.

My son likes music but isn’t into dance parties, so he made a playlist on Spotify to play over the sound system inside the rink. I had my playlist going over the speakers in the lounge.

I hired Jacqui, who owns TWSS Balloons, to do a big balloon display over the entrance to the lounge as well as a couple of balloon bouquets inside the room–nothing crazy, but definitely festive.

Balloon display by TWSS balloons

I also brought some board games from home for those who didn’t want to skate and were looking for something to do. I was glad I brought them because it kept some of the younger kids entertained while the adults could enjoy a drink and conversation.

My son’s favourite colour is red, so I purposely decorated the tables with inexpensive red table cloths with a small stack of hockey pucks and a votive candle for a centrepiece. This was a kids’ party after all, so any effort on decor was for my benefit–not the kids’.

Red table cloths and coordinated balloons

I got lots of praise for the dinner menu, but credit really goes to my son, who asked for his favourites; burger sliders, chicken wings, caesar salad and penne in a pomodoro sauce. The food was catered by my neighbourhood friend, Suresh, who owns Avondale Foodworks. He’s catered for us before and he consistently produces delicious and flavourful meals that are always crowd pleasers.

Before dessert was served, the kids all gathered at one end of the lounge and were treated to a show by Magic Dan. He was great with the kids, held their attention, encouraged lots of participation and kept everyone, young and old, entertained. My youngest was particularly freaked out when Magic Dan made him float in the air!

Magic Dan performs to a rapt audience

Dessert was probably the most fun. I asked Suresh to order donuts and chocolate milk from Tim Hortons because what kid doesn’t like donuts and chocolate milk? And yes, there was another cake! I actually wanted to order a cake from a bakery because I really didn’t think I’d have the time or the energy to do another cake, but I made a deal with my husband that if I baked the cake (and prepared the icing), he would decorate it. So I baked four marble cakes, recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart. Then I left it to my husband to ice it. You can see the results below–a cake that looks like a giant hockey rink.

Hockey rink cake, anyone?

I did end up doing a candy table for the kids, but I had my rules: no bowls of open candy that grubby, germy paws could dig their hands into. I ordered retro candy and gum from a wholesaler and set it all up in galvanized metal trays and buckets. Kids would take a loot bag and fill it with their candy loot.

At the end of the candy table, kids picked up their parting gift: a red and white trucker-style baseball cap with a custom design embroidered on the front.

Nifty trucker baseball caps

All in all, it was a great party with lots of variety for the kids and the adults. The vibe was just right. There were still plenty of details to remember and lots of elements that maybe others would have happily left to a party planner, but I really enjoyed researching all the options and coming up with a party concept that I knew would be emblematic of my son.

The Big Bar Mitzvah (Part 1)

This post has been a long time coming…13 years to be exact! Although I didn’t know it thirteen years ago.

My oldest had his Bar Mitzvah just over a month ago and I feel like I’ve just recovered from the big event.

He did an amazing job reading from the Torah, giving his speech to our guests, and maintaining his confidence and composure the entire day. He really shone like a star that day and was deserving of all the accolades and attention.

My job was to set the scene for our guests after the pomp and circumstance and for that I spent many months planning, plotting, “pinning” and preparing. There were so many details and so many checklists, but here, I will give you a brief glimpse into the celebration that followed the ceremony.

Our brunch began by welcoming our guests to “the cottage.”

Welcome to the Cottage
This was the seating chart for the luncheon

I hired a graphic designer, gave her the guest list in a spread sheet with the table assignments along with some suggested fonts and icons and the dimensions for the foam core board. She was amazing to work with and had the poster delivered right to my front door. We simply mounted the board on an easel right inside the entrance to the reception room.

As people wandered in and found their tables, there was a slide show playing to music projected on to a drop cloth that I had hung on the wall, with patio lights framing it.  The “screen” was flanked by red plastic Muskoka chairs that were draped with wool camp blankets and throw pillows with wildlife imagery such as owls, deer and moose.

All the photos in the slide show were of the family at various family cottages in both summer and winter. Putting together that slide show was a labour of love. I also printed all the photos on to 4″ x 4″ paper, which were used as part of the centrepieces.

Each photo from the slide show was part of the centrepieces

My mother, my husband and I did an assembly line, punching holes into each photo and tying jute twine through the holes. These photos were then hung on the young birch branches in the centrepieces.

Speaking of the centrepieces–these were probably the cheapest DIY centrepieces ever and yet the most personal. I got little red socker plant pots at Ikea–there was a lot of red in the decor because that is my son’s favourite colour–filled them with pea gravel and off cuts of birch branches from my girlfriend’s cottage in North Bay, and the young birch branches were from my mom’s cottage on Georgian Bay.

We stood the pots on round wood “coins” that my husband cut with his chainsaw from fallen trees in the ravine in our neighbourhood. I just had to schlep them all to the car!

And the final touch were the rocks around the bottom of the pot, which were collected by me and my son from the harbour near my mom’s cottage.

So I think all told, we spent about $5 on each centrepiece and the biggest expense was the printing of the photographs.

The additional expense came with the guest keepsakes that I put on each table. These were maple syrup candles in tins. They certainly didn’t come cheap, but I thought it was important to give guests a small memento from the day as a thank you from us.

Each guest received a maple syrup candle as a memento

The brunch was delicious, catered by L-Eat. Niki and Tony did a fabulous job and the presentation of the food was simple and elegant. We made sure everything that was served were things we would typically eat for brunch: french toast with maple syrup, quiche, bagels with all the fixings, yogurt with granola and berries, and as a special treat we arranged to have smoked trout from Kolapore Springs trout farm up near my parents’ cottage.

But the best part of brunch was the dessert table! This is where I truly got to showcase my baking skills, with the help of my mom, sister and mother-in-law. First, I decorated the table with objects that represented my son and the cottage–Scrabble pieces that said “Help Yourself”, antlers, a red model sports car, an old cribbage board, a vintage waterski, red oil lanterns, and a photo of my husband holding our son as a newborn.

All the baked good were displayed on red tin trays, big glass cookie jars with red lids, even the waterski was used to display the homemade butter tarts.

There were homemade salted chocolate chunk cookies, s’mores bites, butter tarts, honey cake, shortbreads, poppy seed cookies, ginger cookies and also chelsea buns from the Thornbury bakery (the only thing I didn’t bake!).

The Dessert Table


It wouldn’t be a celebration without a cake, right? Of course I baked a cake! It’s the giant, incredibly chocolatey cake recipe from Deb Perlman’s Smitten Kitchen. It’s the same cake I baked for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, except this time I made marshmallows, charred them and put them on the cake. I also made banana chocolate chip cake “logs” and I made flames from melted red and orange lollipops. A candy maker I am not!

Campfire cake

I can’t say the cake turned out as nicely as I would have liked from a visual perspective, but it tasted damn good.

Credit for all the photos goes to Julius Ding of Julius and James Photography. This was their FIRST Bar Mitzvah photo shoot, and they really did capture the essence of the celebration, rather than the staged photos of the family and Bar Mitzvah boy that we all too often see. This was a celebration in real life and I’m so glad Julius was there to capture the moment.

There is so much more to tell you about the day because it didn’t end with the brunch! But I think I’ll save those details for another post. I’m starting to get tired just thinking about it again. Phew!

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or want to learn more about what I did and how I did or where I got my ideas from.

Some thoughts about my dad

Peter Andrew Grunwald November 6, 1945- July 22, 2016
Peter Andrew Grunwald
November 6, 1945- July 22, 2016

I’ve thought a lot about how to tell you about my father. Some of you knew him longer than I did. Some of you only knew him through stories you’ve heard about him.
Everyone has a story and my dad definitely has a good story.
My dad’s story began in Hungary–the only child of Lily and Leslie Grunwald born at the end of the Second World War.
With few surviving relatives, they remained in Hungary until the revolution in 1956.
At 11, my dad became a refugee—he and his father escaping through the night time with nothing but a suitcase and a Hungarian winter salami to bribe the Austrian border guard. This was all a great adventure for Peter.
He would joke with friends and family that he, too, went to camp as a child–refugee camp–even learning to ski in the Swiss Alps where all the children were taken for a 3 month “holiday.”
He and my grandparents eventually made it to Toronto when my dad was 13.
There was no such thing as ESL back then so he relied on the good graces of his new Canadian friends to teach him the language, which he picked up quickly and over the course of his life, mastered, probably better than some whose first and only language was English.
He lived down in the Annex for the remainder of his childhood attending Huron Public School, Harbord Collegiate and the University of Toronto.
While in university he took up international folk dancing, where he met the lovely and diminutive Maxine Solsberg.
The courtship was only about a year long–especially after Maxine’s father asked Peter whether or not he was going to ask his daughter to marry him.
Maxine accepted his proposal, with Peter sealing the deal by tying a string around Maxine’s finger in place of an engagement ring.
The wedding took place in the Solsberg’s backyard after a blustery late-August storm. On the menu was chateau Briande.
The next day the newlyweds were in Windsor where my dad began law school.
Over the next seven years my dad graduated law school, began practicing civil litigation and most importantly, became a father to a boy and two girls.

The 1980’s began with a move back to Toronto.

For my father, the next two decades were filled with the peaks and valleys of being both a parent and a child.

He was never shy about sharing his opinion and did so readily, especially when it came to the choices we were making.

From university courses to our life partners, he freely shared his views.

As young adults we may not always have appreciated or welcomed his thoughts, but they were always well-meaning and showed he deeply and truly cared.

My mind is full of images that epitomize my father.

I can picture him sitting behind his desk at work with the dictaphone held close to his mouth.

I can hear his conversations with my grandparents in a mysterious language that I can now recognize a mile away—even though I don’t understand a single word of Hungarian.

I can hear his nasal inhale when he picks up the phone and says, “Good morning, how are you?”

I see his night table covered in books by the likes of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Leo Tolstoy.

I can see him on his hands and knees tidying up the flower beds in the backyard on Digby Court.

I can see him watching my gymnastics performances from the sidelines—his pride practically oozing from his pores.

I can picture him watching a soccer game on TV or poring over the Globe and Mail Style section on weekends while munching on a box of matza. Yes, matza! Or a giant bowl of shelling peas.

I can see the top of his balding head as I stand on his shoulders and hold his hands in the waters of Georgian Bay, as I prepare to somersault into the water.

Holding his hands…I can see myself climbing on to his thighs and flipping around on the dance floor at simchas I don’t remember. But I remember dancing with my dad.

I remember dancing with my dad at my wedding. In our backyard. This was as much my dad’s wedding as it was mine. His involvement in the planning of the details was extraordinary.

And of course I can picture him at the head of the dinner table on Friday nights asking us how our week went and who wanted a glass of wine.

He’d eat my mom’s homemade chicken until there was a pile of cleanly picked bones on his plate.

Friday nights were less about religion and more about tradition for my father. He wasn’t a religious man. He never read a word in Hebrew, but he respected following a Jewish life.

2004 marked a seminal moment in my father’s life when Quinn, his first grandchild, was born. This is when he became Pete. Not Zaidy. Not Nagypapa. Just Pete.

Pete would see his love for music, books, food, theatre, sport and travel personified, not only in his children, but also in his grandchildren.

Five grandchildren! Quinn, Ezra, Annie, Levi and Jackie.

News of Pete’s cancer came on New Year’s day 2012. I’ll never forget it.

As we prepared to welcome Levi and Jackie into the family, my father was staring down his own mortality. How cruel life is.

If cancer was a bull, Pete planned to grab it by the horns and ride it out as long as possible.

Only two months after Levi’s arrival and Pete’s surgery, he was on a plane to Florida.

And that was just the beginning of Pete’s travels over the past four years.

He also made it to Argentina, Spain, Italy, Colorado and most recently a road trip through the Southern States with my mom riding shotgun.

But some of his best trips happened right here at home.

Trips to the hockey rink. Trips from daycare back to the house with the kids safely loaded into the car. Trips to school concerts and ballet recitals, soccer games and graduations—some as far away as Denver. Trips to the cottage. My father never missed an opportunity to spend time with his grandkids and celebrate a milestone.

What most people would consider banal, my father considered a true gift. Time with his grandchildren and children—something he knew was in limited supply for him.

Just this past February he was back on a plane to Vail, skiing with his children and grandsons. Even his oncologist marveled at his stamina.

Bike riding, tennis and skiing helped him stay strong these past four years.

But it was also my mother who cared for my father when he was at his worst that gave him strength.

Even through her own cancer battle, my mom has been a rock. A matriarch in every sense of the word, my mom has rode this physically and emotionally exhausting rollercoaster with my dad in her own quiet way.

I am deeply saddened by my father’s death. We all are.
I dissolve into tears at the thought of a world without him.
His influence on my life, the life of my siblings, my children in particular was so profound that he leaves behind a void that cannot be filled.

I can torture myself and let my mind wander to all the moments in the future where he will be greatly missed.

But I have to try my hardest—we all do—to wander back in time to all the vivid memories we shared with him of a life well lived.