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Inside the Invitation: Navigating the Guest List Minefield

Riva Pomerantz

It looks so innocent — a large, calligraphy-enhanced envelope. But when you’re the one addressing them, you know just how difficult it is to find the balance between good intentions, social obligations, and financial reality.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

There’s a Moment of Truth more daunting and anxiety-ridden than that weekly weigh-in at the gym. It masquerades under the innocuous banner “Guest List” but carries with it the turbulent sighs and sorrows of thousands of baalei simchah across the globe. Here we unravel the mystery and madness, the turmoil and tzuris of compiling invitation lists, looking at the social, emotional, and even spiritual dynamics that are part and parcel of crafting a simchah.

“Riva, it’s the biggest challenge of the simchah — all the emotions that go into making sure I don’t forget anybody — it’s crazy!” Batya Phillips* groans, and over the phone lines I can hear her shudder. Batya’s making a bar mitzvah tomorrow night and my innocent question about guest lists has now triggered her trauma on the subject. In fact, Batya says, she’s spent the better part of the morning agonizing over those last few people she hadn’t invited, wondering about the propriety of calling them up one day before the simchah with a casual, “Uh, sorry it’s a bit last-minute, but I’m making a bar mitzvah tomorrow night …”

Invariably, anyone to whom I mention this topic gives me an eye-roll or a sigh. “It’s like Kamtza and Bar Kamtza all over again!” says one. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done — so complicated, such politics!” is the general consensus. Contemporary weddings look and feel much different than in generations past, and perhaps for good reason. Today, we have larger nuclear and extended families, baruch Hashem, wider social circles, and often a substantial pool of business colleagues.

As our guest lists have grown, so have our adaptive techniques. Simchas chassan v’kallah, now an accepted convention at many weddings, allows baalei simchah to rejoice with larger numbers of friends and associates without incurring the often exorbitant cost of a per-plate dinner. A bar mitzvah minus the fanfare and pomp has become de rigeur in many communities, where the simchah is celebrated with a widely attended kiddush in shul on Shabbos and a smaller, sit-down meal for close friends and family. As a society, we are clearly acknowledging our financial limits, which is both responsible and necessary. But the fact remains: every name crossed off the list entirely, or relegated from the “A” list (invited to dinner) to the “B” list (invited to reception or kiddush only) is an agonizing judgment call. A real, live person, with real, live feelings, is waiting and watching behind that black-inked entry on the spreadsheet.


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