Now that you’ve got a little background about my passion for life-changing parties, you will understand why I was a little intimidated when my daughter’s bat mitzvah approached. How was her bat mitzvah going to stand out from her birthday party?
After a lot of sleepless nights, of toiling over what we were going to do for her bat mitzvah, I decided to shift the responsibility to my eleven year old. Her response was classic: ‘I trust you mama. You make the best parties’. Her faith in me was probably the most pressure of all. For a couple more nights, I sweated. How was I going to compete with myself? I went between taking them to the moon or having a down to earth bring and braai (South African barbecue). And then it hit me. I wanted this bat mitzvah to stand out in a different way. I wanted my daughter to be the focus. I decided the bat mitzvah would celebrate my daughter through her most precious name, through Saffron.
Saffron spoken of with the highest reverence as ‘red gold’, is the rarest and more precious spice in the world. Its flavour is like no other, infusing dishes from French bouillabaisse to Spanish paella to Italian risotto Milanese with the most heavenly scent. Saffron is expensive because from flower to fragrance it undergoes a lengthy and intricate production process.
If you look at a magnificent purple crocus sativus (also known as saffron), you will see warm, rusty orange stigmas protruding from the middle. The saffron spice is made from these stigmas. I mean…who needs the paella! Just looking at this flower can get your heart racing and your mouth watering with its shy beauty. Everyone talks about the famous stigmas but no one talks about the beautiful flower that HOLDS it. It’s difficult to grow and takes a tremendous amount of work to hand-pluck each stigma. As I learned more about saffron, I decided that Saffron’s bat mitzvah ritual would centre on a particular saffron festival that is celebrated every October in a little village in La Mancha, Spain, the land that reverberates with the grand tales of Don Quixote. At that time the saffron is harvested and the little village comes to life. I dreamed of transforming our home into a European late summer festival, centred around La Mancha with a sugar-paste cake ‘train’ transporting people through the saffron fields of Europe.
From an educational point of view, the cake was everything: The cake was central to the story of the party. If we, the party guests were in the village eating dinner, the train cake was the train from which we had just disembarked, and it showed the journey we had just traveled through the countryside. The parallels were in every detail. The adults’ seating area at the party mimicked the dining compartment of a train. The long table was covered with fine, white linen tablecloths and adorned with napkins embroidered with Saffron’s initials and dotted with saffron-hue coloured glasses. But back to the cake: my favourite cart was the dining cart, but each cart had people in the train doing different things.
I designed the train and together with a long-time and brilliant mentor of mine called Maxie, it became reality. As I studied all the places that grow saffron in France, Italy and Spain, I thought about the train as a metaphor. On the one hand, the train took us on a journey through saffron fields, but the train ride was also a journey into adulthood for her and I included lots of children on the train to resemble the wonderful children who have accompanied her on her life journey. The train was my gift to my daughter, I wanted to bless her saying, ‘have a beautiful journey my baby!’
From a spiritual point of view, we wanted to learn about saffron in Judaism and I found just the right bat mitzvah teacher through our cousin Kim. As I think back I recall Kim saying, ‘Karen you’ll love her’. And she was right. Adina was by no means your ordinary bat mitzvah teacher. A writer and psychologist herself, she really jumped into the imaginative wonder of our interest in saffron. As we set out to create Saffron’s bat mitzvah ceremony, we were delighted to discover there were so many links between the history of saffron and Judaism. It felt so serendipitous. Saffron is one of the precious spices used in an incense in the ancient temple. And saffron is also one of the sweet spices mentioned in Solomon’s beautiful love poem, Song of Songs. The three of us went on a journey to learn about the mystical significance of my daughter’s name. We would come into Adina’s little study where there was room for her and Saffron. I would sit on the floor with my I-Pad, taking notes while the three of us spoke. We didn’t only learn about the spice in theory. We inhaled its fragrance, we immersed it in water to watch it change from a burnt orange to a deep yellow and we appreciated more and more why its purveyors call it red gold. It’s no wonder that saffron is an aphrodisiac and that Cleopatra used to bathe in it.You could feel the excitement in the room as we discovered more interesting facts about saffron, read more about its history and started to uncover why saffron is so important not only in food but in things that are sacred. I later found out that I was the only bat mitzvah mom she’d ever taught who attended every single lesson with her daughter!
From the Jewish history of the spice, to the La Mancha village festival, a ritual and a party started to form in my mind. We would start the night with the Havdalah ceremony which marks the end of the Jewish Sabbath using wine, candles and spices. I commissioned havdalah candles to be braided in the colours of the royal purple petal and the crimson crocus stigma. I asked Yudi Cohen, a superbly talented and accomplished cantor and opera singer who was last seen on a gondola in ‘Venice’ (at our Venice party) to lead the Havdalah with the backing of a flamenco band called CH2 who I sourced to be the background music for the La Mancha village festival. We worked together to integrate a beautiful flamenco-Jewish sound into the Havdalah ceremony. With the Havdalah Kits ready and the Havdalah band deep in rehearsals, Saffron and I put our heads down to work on our speeches about saffron and bat mitzvah.
Look our for Part II of Saffron’s Bat Mitzvah, coming soon.