If you have ever wondered to what extent a shy teen might go to avoid the stress of a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony and the lavish celebration which follows — Amanda Panitch’s It’s My Party and I Don’t Want to Go is the book for you. Ellie Katz is terrified at the prospect of her bat mitzvah. In fact, she suffers from a social anxiety disorder which causes her to have frightening physical symptoms even thinking about the upcoming ordeal. It’s My Party and I Don’t Want to Go presents the awful consequences of when a young adult’s emotional needs clash with the expectations of her family.
Conflicting messages about what it means to be a Jewish adult dominate Ellie’s family and community. When her father warns her with tactless humor, “Better enjoy the four months you have left of your childhood,” it is clear that he has failed to understand either his daughter’s personality or the significance of her milestone. Even her older sister’s bat mitzvah had been a torture for Ellie; the memory of lighting a candle on a giant cake in front of a huge crowd had caused a panic attack. Fortunately, she is able to rely on her best friend, Zoe, for empathy, but the plan which they concoct is not an answer to Ellie’s dilemma. “Operation Surreptitious Shellfish,” a carefully staged food fight, and faking her own demise are the only solutions she can imagine to her plight.
There are many references to specific Jewish practices and organizations, from the Conservative Kadima youth group to Sabbath prohibitions, which are unevenly observed in her community. Ellie herself misunderstands many of these customs, which form a hazy background to her personal anguish. She believes mistakenly that the bat mitzvah ceremony itself “makes” one a Jewish adult, instead of realizing that it only marks that point in her life. A painful conversation with her synagogue’s kind cantor about the central point of her bat mitzvah ceremony reveals similar confusion: “To be honest, I still don’t know exactly what a cantor’s job description is.”
Panitch shows that Ellie is caught up in an environment where people value an expensive production over other Jewish values related to coming-of-age. Early in the novel, Ellie remarks on the hypocrisy of an expensive extravaganza for a reluctant thirteen-year-old: “B’nai mitzvah cost a lot of money…But why spend all that money on a big party when we could put it to better use?”
When Ellie’s plans are finally exposed, the inevitable family confrontation takes place. She has her first honest discussion with Hannah, her older sister, about how her well-intentioned encouragement has only made her more fearful. The subdued exchange between the sisters reveals sides of both their personalities which had been obscured throughout Ellie’s string of attempts at sabotage. The novel is most successful in these quiet moments of reflection. Panitch sheds light on the need for recognizing anxiety disorders and asking for help; a shy girl’s wish for a low-key friends- and family-centered celebration offers a meaningful approach to Jewish adulthood.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.