i’m from a little gray ranch hidden behind overgrown bushes on a steep hill.
i’m from beneath the willow tree and a field-stone wall, peopled by imaginary friends.
i’m from high expectations. from complex equations left unfinished on the backs of paper restaurant menus; from pink plastic flowers; a bedroom with curtains that matched the wallpaper and the bedspread.
i’m from praise whispered in one ear and criticism hissed in the other. from “stand up straight” and “every penny counts” and “be a big girl.”
i’m from confuzzled truths and secrets and lies.
i’m from strong Judaism watered down. from Torah and tallit and kippot, lox and bagels, noodle kugel and matzah ball soup. from a broken Borscht Belt, stories of what once was, memories of a dark pew in a fire-bombed synagogue.
i’m from want. from a hot-headed Polish Papa who once threw his plate on the apartment floor. from his ketchup and eggs, like bloody clumps soaking into the carpet. and my Nan who silently cleaned up his mess.
(don’t tell me this isn’t true. i was there.)
i’m from a fractured family of brothers who tried to make a business work. from Muriel who nurtured her garden but didn’t do as well with her children. from Ruby who spent too many hours at the store and on the golf course, and smoked too many cigars.
i’m from cracked paint and faded couches; the girl hiding under a blanket in a drafty room.
i’m from a crooked house on a steep hill that rarely houses guests. from parents who were present but also not. from powerful magic love that made me feel invisible.
for too long a sense of obligation tethered me to all that grey.
i am done trying to please them.
time to take care of me.
Where are you from? Throw me one line.
• • •
This meme was very hot a while back, but I was not confident about sharing such a personal piece. Since then, I feel less afraid.
Thanks to Jenny Hansen for encouraging me to move beyond the first sentences and to Sharla Lovelace for inspiring Jenny. If you go to HERE, you will see this exercise is based on a poem by George Ella Lyon called “Where I’m From,” and if you’d like to try it yourself, the original link is there.
If you don’t know anything about Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I urge you to read this first, as it will provide context for today’s post.
It’s always rough to find seats on the High Holidays.
This year, we found ours in the balcony.
I’d never sat up there before, above the rest of the congregation.
Above the rabbis.
Above the sacred scrolls.
It was weird.
Because we usually sit facing forward, facing the Torahs at the front of the room, normally I can only see the few people sitting in front of me and on either side.
This year’s bird’s-eye view allowed me to see all the way to the back of the sanctuary.
I could see people come late and settle in the uncomfortable green seats in the rear, rather than come farther up to find half-empty pews up front. I could see people holding their prayer books – going through the motions, standing and sitting at the right times – but whispering and laughing during much of the service. I saw people sleeping. And I saw people sending text messages. I watched as they tried to hide their devices on their laps or below their seats or behind their prayer books.
I have always wondered about people who attend temple on the High Holidays but don’t really listen to the message.
Our rabbi noted that the more difficult a holiday is to keep, the more people actually do it. He said this is why more people show up on Yom Kippur – a fasting day – than on any other regular old Jewish holiday.
I would argue it’s the life and death thing that packs the house.
For many Jewish people, there is a sense that if you don’t show up for the High Holidays, you are risking some serious bad karma: Why take the risk and stay home? Maybe some people think that just by showing up they might tip the cosmic scales.
So they come.
But why come if you are just going to talk? Or text?
Why come if your heart isn’t in it?
During his sermon, the rabbi called upon us to think about how we can be better people in 5773.
And then I was caught.
Because what was I doing but sitting there judging others?
I was ashamed.
Being a Smuggy Schmostein is rarely productive.
After temple, my husband, my son and I put on our street clothes, and walked to a nearby creek to perform tashlich, a ritual where Jews gather near a live body of water to recite a prayer in which we ask G-d to “cast our sins into the depths of the sea.”
As we emptied our pockets, removing all the lint and crud that had accumulated in the littlest nooks and crannies and shook out our clothes, I felt better. These rituals, strange as they might seem, do offer comfort. In performing tashlich, I felt like I had been given an opportunity to leave old shortcomings behind, thus allowing for the chance to start the year with a clean slate.
Standing by the creek with my long list of transgressions, I silently apologized for judging the back-of-the sanctuary-sitters, the chitty-chatters, and the temple-texters.
And I promised not to sit in the balcony again.
Because, really, who am I to place myself above anyone else?
Who am I to judge?
Last night at dinner, we dipped apple slices in honey, and I saw we were actually low on honey.
I made a mental note to add “honey” to my grocery list.
As is the tradition, we wished each other a sweet year, one filled with good health and peace.
And I extend the same wishes the same to each of you.
We could all use a little less bitter and a little more sweetness in our lives. Don’cha think?
So what’s on your real and figurative grocery list this week? I definitely need honey, but I’ll leave judgment on the shelf, next to the Ho-Ho’s.
I know, right? You’ve had it with the bar mitzvah stuff, haven’t you.
If you want to read about the service and how we felt, read THIS.
This is the part of the show where I vomit pictures and thank people.
Two years ago, when we learned Tech’s bar mitzvah was going to be on June 23, 2012, he immediately announced he knew he wanted a science theme. Once I embraced my inner geek wrapped my brain around the whole science thing, I got excited as it was an opportunity to be creative! Tech told us added that he also wanted things to feel summery, so green became our inspiration color.
You know, like perfectly new grass. And laboratory slime.
Thanks to Rishona Beck Myers, my old summer camp buddy, for helping me with the invitations. Rish is a serious event planner down in the Philadelphia area, and I was so lucky to have her help me with Tech’s invitations. If you are down the Philly way and you are looking for some help with any kind of event, check out RM Creative Events Management, Inc.I had to futz with Tech’s real invitation by taking off his name which was in big letters across the bottom, but you get the gist of what it looked like.
We found lime-colored kippot from skullcap.com. And, I’m telling you, those yarmulkes lit up the sanctuary!
I have to brag a little. The test tubes cost $13 for 100, so I bought 300. We had enough leftover so the bartender was able to make appletinis for the adults, which was super fun way to get everyone into the science mood! Please note, the cool plastic rack which I got from Tooters, too.
But we needed more science! Luckily, my friend Dina (a professor at the University of Rochester) told me about VWR Labshop. They hooked me up with all my flasks. These Erlenmeyer flasks were on the tables as centerpieces on the kids’ tables. Notice, this was the Platinum table.
The flasks were great outside,too — filled with colorful liquid, at the bar!
I found a garage sale where someone was selling beakers. I bought six for $2. Why didn’t I buy the other 12 beakers for $4? They make such fun barware!
Oh, wait. You should look at my hair. Please, please look at my hair. Because it will never look like that again. I have to thank Dew Point and Humidity and Rochester Weather for being really cooperative. Thanks, you guys. But also, I heart Michael Livernash, the owner of Isobel. He is genius with color. And I have to thank the folks at Scott Miller, specifically my beloved Mary Kay Rox for giving me the best cut ever. (And I say that every time. Even though she’s been doin’ me for 13 years now. Oooh, that sounds naughty.) Thanks also to Kay for the fabulous finish. Because I never do that. Ever. (And that sounds naughty, too!)
I have to thank my friends at our local J.Crew for providing me with all those awesome shirt boxes last September. Sure, they looked at us like we were crazy, but we were able to get some great decor out of them. It’s hard to get a sense from this picture, but with the magic of PVC and spray-painted styrofoam balls, Lance Rightmyer of ViaComp was able to create portable structures which flanked the dance floor.
Lance also made these cool vinyl decals for the windows.
I have to hand it to my husband for making TechSupport’s Periodic Table of Cookies.
We could have spent $1,000 on special order cookies each featuring each different element from the Periodic table, but we decided that was crazy. And even though the staff didn’t quite understand how to put the cookies on the platform so it was truly representative of the different kinds of elements, whatever. It looked great. The yummy cookies from Cheryl’s came in pink, green, blue and yellow and plain chocolate. Frankly, people were stoked about the portable Abbott’s Ice Cream sundae bar, where my father made good on a 13-year bet and ate real ice cream for the first time since 1988.
When it came to getting people to their tables, I was a little stumped. I originally planned for the test tubes to serve as seating cards, but the stoooopid stickers kept coming off! Thank goodness for the Internet! I Googled “chemistry inspired bar mitzvah,” and found Angela from Invites & More. Angela could tell I was desperate sent me the exact template she used for the Chemistry bar mitzvah. For free. Seriously? Who does that? If you are looking for great ideas, Angela is your girl. And if you live in New Jersey, you are ever luckier. Look at Angela Shafer’sFacebook page. Angela can make anything. Below are the name badges I created by using Angela’s template. This is the palette from the kids’ tables…
…and we used the reverse palette for the adults! Some people actually wore them!
Once inside, people saw the centerpieces made by Jimmy from Kittleberger Florist. Jimmy understood our theme immediately and suggested we use green table runners which gave us major impact. He also had an idea for how to integrate live flowers in a minimalistic way, which was tricky as my son didn’t want flowers. Jimmy nailed it with these funky, masculine orange whatever-they-ares. People couldn’t tell if they were real or not! They were!
Jimmy popped one giant purple allium in each rock-filled flask. Talk about pop!
The Bar Mitzvah Boys & Turner Music Productions kept everyone hopping. The party started at 6:30 pm and people were still on the dance floor at 11:30 pm! Our dancer, Eva, was one of Tech’s former babysitters!
Bar Mitzvah Boys also provided us with a Photobooth and captured some hilarious candids!
Our friend David from Proforma made sure the kids had great-looking bags to hold all their crap giveaways. He delivered the box filled with green drawstring backpacks featuring Tech’s logo right to my door. Whaaat? He did! Okay, he lives one neighborhood away, but still! That is service, people!
I used Einvites thank you notes to coordinate with Tech’s invitations. Interested? Check out the post, I wrote about them HERE.
Hopefully you can appreciate how awesome the decor was. Our photographers from Kracke Photography did a nice job helping us to capture some very special memories.
The day felt wonderful spiritually, and everything looked beautiful, and tasted delicious, too.
Who could ask for more?
“Best weekend of our lives!” Hubby said.
I can’t disagree.
Ever plan a huge bash? What went right? What went wrong?
“You don’t have to wear it,” I said. “You can save it…”
But Tech had already put the silver chain around his neck. He squeezed it in his hand and then let it dangle loose.
“It’s just like Grampy’s,” he said.
I repeated myself. “You don’t have to wear it.”
Tech ignored me.
“I love it, and I’m never taking it off.” Tech hesitated. “Starting after camp. Because at camp, this could get lost. Or broken. Otherwise, I’m totally wearing it.”
He went to look in the mirror.
But he wasn’t looking at himself.
He was looking at the gift his grandfather had given him.
“So cool,” he mumbled.
My father has worn his silver piece of Judaica since he was 13-years old. The pendant is battered, and some of the symbols have fallen off. It is even a little dented.
I know when he wears it, my father feels a connection to G-d. And he remembers his parents who gave him the gift when he turned 13-years old.
When Tech was young, he received a miniature Torah from our temple. Covered in blue velvet, it rests in a white box. My husband and I were asked to write our hopes for our child inside the box flap. I penned a few wishes:
May you continue to grow big and strong.
May you continue to learn and find the things that have meaning to you.
May you always be true to yourself and do the things you know are right – even if they are difficult.
May you continue to love being Jewish and honor all our traditions.
May you love always, and remember to put people before things.
I think he’s got it.
Have you ever received a highly symbolic gift? What was it?
In 1995, when my husband and I married, I remember dancing to the hora. At some point, someone brought out two chairs. As the traditional music played, we sat down as friends and family members held the legs of our chairs and raised us gently into the air, turned us in circles, together, my new husband and me. I remember staring at my husband from my chair. Noticing his wedding ring glinting on his finger, how foreign it looked.
Over the last several years, I’ve been to a lot more bar and bat mitzvahs than weddings. I’ve danced the hora at least nineteen-hundred forty-six bazillion times. To the uninitiated, the hora is a dance where everybody forms a circle and holds hands. You are supposed to step forward toward the right with the left foot, then follow with the right foot. The left foot is then supposed to be brought back, followed by the right foot. In my experience, almost no one dares to do the crisscross thing with their legs because dance floors are generally jammed so everyone mostly just goes around in circles.
At bar and bat mitzvahs, it is customary to raise the honoree, and sometimes his or her family members, on a chair during the hora.
The last time I sat in the chair was nearly seventeen years ago, when my husband and I were married.
Let me tell you something: the wedding hora is different from the b’nai mitzvah hora.
First of all, by definition, there are waaaaay more kids at a bar mitzvah than there usually are at a wedding.
I don’t think any of our friends had kids when we married so our wedding hora was pretty sedate.
During certain parts of the hora at my son’s bar mitzvah, I felt like I was in a mosh pit. All those circles going in all those directions. And then all that going in and going out. I was digging our DJ’s version of Hava Nagillah and feeling pleased that I was managing to move so easily in my four-inch heels when some kid gave me a pretty good elbow to the chin.
I wasn’t going to let a blow to the face ruin my night. In fact, I barely felt it.
As the mother of an only child, I knew I needed to pay attention. After all, my husband and I recognized this would be our one chance to experience everything. I watched friends pull a cushioned chair onto the dance floor. Surrounded by cheering friends and family members, Tech went first and made it look easy. He laughed and smiled as the strongest men in the room bounced him around in a circle.
“Hold on, Mom!” Tech warned as we traded places.
I now understand why some friends had warned me before the fact:
I don’t know who was holding the legs of my chair but who put all the tall guys on one side and all the short guys on the other? I was positively crooked. At one point, I bounced so high off my seat, I thought I was going to have an emergency landing.
Listen, I have no fear of being lifted by people who are scampered. I just wasn’t prepared for the “let’s-try-to-eject-the-momma-from-the-chair” thing that was happening beneath me.
This video is every Jewish mother’s nightmare:
Someone snapped this picture and posted it on Facebook.
Someone asked me: “What were you thinking about while you were up there?”
You wanna know know what I was thinking?
That I needed to keep my legs together like two tightly twisted vines.
Because there would be no “junk” showing at my son’s bar mitzvah.
Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat.
That night, I couldn’t stop smiling.
I am pretty sure I was radiating something close to pure joy.
All day, my son amazed me with his comport, his flexibility, and composure; I could have danced all night.
And once I got off that chair, I did.
What is the happiest dance you ever remember doing?
By the time you read this, it will have already slipped into past tense.
I will have already sat in synagogue and listened to him chant from the Torah.
It’s a little surreal, eighteen months of talking about it and suddenly, it will be over.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what to say.
Because I didn’t know how I would feel.
Everyone always talks about the party, the theme, the food, the DJ.
But for me, the most amazing stuff happened in the synagogue, hours before.
At one point, our family stood on the bimah together, facing the Torah scrolls, the congregation at our backs. We had just finished singing and the rabbi whispered, “Now turn and face front.”
As we all turned, the room came into focus. We woke that morning to a stunning blue-skies day, as we stood in shul, the sun streamed through the stained glass windows.
From my vantage point, everyone’s head seemed to be glowing, especially the men’s heads underneath the neon green yarmulkes Tech had selected for the day. I saw every row filled with people — our people — family and friends and members of the community.
It felt like G-d was touching our little corner of the earth.
I thought back to eighteen months earlier, when we learned that Tech’s bar mitzvah was going on to be on June 23, 2012, how my husband took two giant steps backward.
“No way,” Hubby put his hand on his forehead. “I made my bar mitzvah on June 23rd. In 1979.”
My son was going to become a bar mitzvah and stand on the same bimah where my husband made his bar mitzvah thirty-three years earlier.
It was definitely beshert, meant to be.
And it felt a little bit magical.
Tech’s Hebrew name is Abbe Reuven, after two of his great-grandfathers. And, on his bar mitzvah day he received his tallit (traditional prayer shawl) from one grandfather and his other grandfather (my father) presented him with a tallit bag which had belonged to his father: these are ancient rituals, traditions passed down from one generation to to the next.
Our son is the walking embodiment of our faith. He has always been proud to be Jewish. He has never complained about going to Hebrew School, the way most some kids do. Each summer he heads to Jewish camp, and he says his favorite place there is at the waterfront, by the fire circle, during Friday night services.
Tech takes Jewish Law seriously, and — as he said during his d’Var (personal reflection) during his bar mitzvah — he truly wishes everyone followed the 10 Commandments. He feels these rules were designed to keep people out of trouble with themselves, family, friends, and neighbors, and he believes if we look at the lessons of the Torah, we can figure out how to stay out of trouble and live in peace with one another.
As he stood before a congregation of over 200 people, I was amazed by his composure.
I have always said Tech has an “old soul.” It is like some 93-year old Jewish guy died and on his way out, his soul went straight into our newborn. Tech has always understood the important things in life. He is comfortable in his own skin and with who he is, regardless of whatever others think.
[I expect to get to that place. You know, like any day now.]
I don’t pretend to know where Tech is going.
He is still becoming.
All I know is that if you can get up and sing (and speak) in front of hundreds of people at the age of 13, you can do anything.
My parents took religious school education seriously. I was never allowed to miss a day for any after-school extra-curricular activities like roller skating parties, which always seemed to fall on the same afternoons as Hebrew School. My brother and I were expected to be proficient in Hebrew, and it was a given we would study extensively in preparation for our bar and bat mitzvah services.
The weekend prior to my son’s bar mitzvah, my mother-in-law pulled out some old pictures to show TechSupport. There was a sepia photograph of my father-in-law taken before his bar mitzvah over 60 years ago.
“And there’s your daddy.” My mother-in-law pointed to a photo of Hubby, who was quite the stud in his powder-blue jacket, plaid pants, and wide collar peach shirt à la1977.
That night, I called my father to see if there might be a photo of him somewhere. I’d never seen one, but my grandmother was before her time with the scrapbooking, so I wondered if maybe there was a picture buried in the basement somewhere.
“Well, you know…” my father took a deep breath. “I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you.”
I had no idea what he was going to say.
“I mean, now that you are an adult, you should probably know…”
My mind was spinning. Was he going to tell me that he wasn’t really Jewish?
My father hemmed and hawed and beat around the bush until I shouted into the receiver. “Dad, you’re killing me! Just say it!”
“I never had a bar mitzvah,” my father said quietly.
My brain couldn’t process this new information. It didn’t fit into any information it had been given before. I didn’t know any Jewish men my father’s age that had not had a bar mitzvah. Even men who have fallen out of the faith had stood on the bimah and chanted. Meanwhile, my father is a spiritual person. He follows the laws of the Torah. He is active in his synagogue. He loves Judaism. He loves Israel. He loves celebrating the Jewish holidays. He never had a bar mitzvah?
“What are you talking about?” I stood up from my chair to pace around our family room. “How is that even possible?”
“I grew up pretty poor. Back then people didn’t have parties like they do today, but there were get-togethers.” My father paused, and I imagined him flipping the corner of his crossword puzzle. “My parents and I talked it over, and we decided that I wouldn’t have one. Because, you know, we couldn’t afford a party or anything.”
“But you could have had a bar mitzvah and just not had a party, right?
“I suppose.” My father conceded. “But I didn’t want to embarrass my father.”
I asked why he had waited so long to tell me about not having a bar mitzvah.
I asked him if he had ever wished to have made his bar mitzvah.
I asked him if it was something he wanted to do now, at 74.
TechSupport overheard me giving my father the third degree, and told me to stop.
“Grampy goes to temple all the time.” Tech said. “He is a very honest, very humble and very good man. He lives his life by the Torah. I am pretty sure that G-d is good with him.”
I felt the tears catch in my eyes when my son spoke to me. He was right, and I am sure any rabbi would have offered the same words.
The Bar or Bat Mitzvah isn’t a mandatory rite of passage; by Jewish law, a boy reaches adulthood when he turns 13 and a girl at 12, no ceremony required. Some say the very lack of necessity makes the efforts even more remarkable as concrete, hard-won, and public affirmations of Jewish identity and commitment.
My father became a bar mitzvah without pomp or circumstance. For him, becoming a bar mitzvah was a private experience, a continuation of the covenant between himself and G-d.
Apparently, there are 7 different store-bought cards a boy can receive for a bar mitzvah.
And don’t get me wrong; they are all lovely.
Friends and family wrote wonderful messages to Tech, who insisted on reading each note before looking at the gift.
After a while, we did start to keep a little tally to see which card would be designated the “most popular card to receive on your bar mitzvah day.”
This was the one.
Tech got a lot of those.
There were waaaay more cards for a girl celebrating her bat mitzvah.
Like this one.
Tech received this card from his grandmother.
I don’t think she was trying to be funny.
But it was extremely funny. *smiles*
Hands down, the best card, came from one of my husband’s oldest friends.
Neil is known for his kooky gifts. It’s his thing. He once gave Tech a sushi stapler; the child looked like he had won the lottery. Another time Neil had just returned from a trip overseas and gave our son a black baseball cap that had “Fukuoka” embroidered in white on the back. Wearing it, made Tech feel like he was getting away with swearing when really he was simply advertising a city in Japan located 1,100 kilometers from Tokyo. More recently, Neil brought us an enormous jar of Polish pickles.
So of course, it should have been no surprise when we saw Neil’s card.
Yup. He penned it on a rubber chicken.
It was awesome.
Especially this part:
When I told Neil how awesome it was that he took the time to find a rubber chicken, that he even had the idea to write on it, he waved his hand dismissively.
Like it was no big whoop.
Except it was.
He found a way to make Tech’s bar mitzvah – which was already amazing – even more memorable.
In Judaism, we are taught to be mindful and pay attention to the smallest details because G-d is everywhere and in everything.
Though Neil would shrug and call me meshugganah, I believe that in paying attention to the smallest details, Neil helped remind us even the most seemingly insignificant act can be something that connects us to G-d, to the rest of humanity, even the universe.
The chicken card was a small detail.
It was hilarious.
I know Tech will never forget it.
None of us will.
What little things have people done for you that have stuck with you?
A few months ago, after her daughter had just made her bat mitzvah, my friend Jill held my hands in hers and gave me some advice. She said:
“On your son’s day, don’t look in the book. I mean it. Just look at him. You can read the words and old day and you know the prayers and songs by heart. But just watch him. Watch him watching everyone. Don’t miss anything. Trust me on this.”
Jill is one of my wise friends.
Friday afternoon, I asked a last-minute question of my Facebook friends.
My former camp counselor wrote:
I love this piece of advice, how Betsy’s words echo Jill’s, and I plan to put aside my prayer-book, and just watch my son.
(I will look and look and look at my boy even if it freaks him out.)
I will also breathe, enjoy the moment, keep my legs crossed during the hora, enjoy the moment and remember the significance of the moment.
Maybe I’ll even have a little something besides my standard Canada Dry Ginger Ale with a lime.
And what was that other thing?
Oh yeah, enjoy it.
Thanks to everyone for your comments emails and sweet tweets — from the ridiculous to the sublime — wishing our family well.
I promise I will write you something fun after I get Tech packed and shipped off to summer camp have had a little time to clean up my kitchen process. It’s amazing how many of my brain cells have been reallocated from writing to other creative endeavors like cutting hundreds of triangles and making elaborate stickers and stuffing test tubes with M&Ms.
It will not involve masturbation.
What do you think? Is this advice good for any event where friends and family will collide? Anything you would add?
A version of this post originally ran back in 2010, but so many people have asked me what is appropriate to give for a bar or bat mitzvah in the last 6 months, I thought I would revise it and post it again. The timing seemed right. Or really, really wrong.
On October 25, 1979, I celebrated my own bat mitzvah in Syracuse, New York. Back then, my family attended an uber Orthodox synagogue where it was uncommon for girls to get the full bat mitzvah treatment. My neighbor (and most favorite babysitter) was the first girl at her Conservative temple to become a bat mitzvah, and I was only a few years her junior.
At our ultra-traditional temple, I wasn’t allowed to have a Saturday morning service for my bat mitzvah; girls had to wait until sundown on Saturday to get things started. I wasn’t allowed to touch the Torah. Or use a yad (pointer). Instead I read from the Book of Ruth, which had been laid on top of the Torah so as to appear that I was reading from the Torah. Mine was a pretty portion. I liked the symbolism of women taking care of other women, and I can still recite the words in Hebrew today.
Thanks to the Reform Movement, today, girls march right up on the bimah, just like their male counterparts. Girls chant their Torah portions beautifully (usually even more melodically than the boys), and congregants have come to celebrate the special days of both sexes with equal parts joy and pride.
I was 100% ready for my bat mitzvah. I have always been a quick study when it comes to language, and Hebrew was no exception. Add a tune to the Hebrew, practice that tune a gazillion times, promise me a receptive audience, and hellooooo… let’s just say, I was ready to perform.
This is not the case for everyone. For some kids, preparing for “the big day” is really strenuous. For introverted kids, it can be a real challenge to get up in front of hundreds of people and not only speak but sing or chant in another language! And then there is a d’var torah where students prepare speeches meant to explain not only what their specific Torah portion is literally about, but also what it means symbolically, philosophically, and how they connected to the portion personally. I always say if a child can get through his or her bar/bat mitzvah day, there isn’t anything he/she can’t do. It’s a crash course in language study, philosophy, essay writing, public speaking and etiquette lessons – all rolled into one.
For months leading up to my bat mitzvah, people kept asking me what I wanted. When I was 12, the only thing I wanted was a horse, so I just smiled a lot. And anyway, I knew what typical bat mitzvah gifts were. Besides engraved Cross Pen sets and Webster’s Dictionaries, everyone I knew got the same thing: money, usually in the form of U.S. Savings Bonds. But it wasn’t polite to ask for money, and I would have sounded redonkulous if I had asked someone to buy me a horse.
As my regular readers know, my son’s bar mitzvah is next Saturday, June 23, 2012, and lately everyone has been asking: What does Tech want for his Bar Mitzvah? It’s a hard question to answer. I have to be mindful. I don’t want to say the wrong thing or get myself in trouble.
Whenever anyone asks me about what is appropriate to give as a gift for a bar or bat mitzvah, I feel weird because there is no short answer. I can’t just say, “Buy him a pair of new pair of jeans,” or “Jewish girls love scented candles” because the bar or bat mitzvah is not like a birthday party. It is the recognition that a child has passed through an entryway to life as a responsible Jew, a spiritual rite of passage that connects one generation to another. The day marks a beginning. The ceremony signifies the crossing from childhood into young adulthood and the emerging responsibility to fulfill the commandments and obligations identified with the Torah, the sacred laws and teachings written on parchment by hand in Hebrew. It’s a bigger deal than a birthday party; Jewish children have studied for seven years, including months of tutoring to get them prepared for their few hours alone on the bimah.
That said, I have decided to boldly go where no Jew has gone before: I’m going to suggest what you maybe-might-possibly consider giving (or not giving) to the b’nai mitzvah child.
(*Insert deep breath here.*)
When trying to determine what to give, you have to first ask yourself: How well do I know this person/family? That’s probably the single biggest factor that goes into the decision. You also have to consider how many people are going to attend to event: One adult? Two? The entire family? It matters. Because you have to consider that your host is feeding you. Are there two people attending or seven? Think about what you might pay to have that same group go out for a nice dinner — complete with appetizers and drinks and desserts.
SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS. The #18 in Hebrew means “chai.” (No, not like the tea.) To create the proper sound to pronounce the word “chai” you have to know that the “ch” sound something like an elderly man trying to clear his throat of an enormous ball of phlegm. The “ai” rhymes with the word “hi.” If you can put that together, you’ve got it! For all the math teachers out there, you might be interested to know that in Hebrew, each letter has a numerical value. Cool right? Kinda like a secret code.
The word for “life” in Hebrew is “chai.” The two Hebrew letters that make up the word “chai” are chet and yud. Chet = 8 & yud = 10. Chet + yud = 18 or “chai”. Giving money in multiples of $18 is symbolic of giving “chai” or life, so Jewish people often give denominations of chai. In our community, children attending parties alone often give chai in increments: $18 + $18 = $36 (for double chai), $18 + $18 + $18= $54 (triple chai). Sometimes people get creative: a family might give $118 or $236 or one bajillion and eighteen cents — depending on whose special day it is and the nature of the relationship between the giver and the receiver. Family members generally give more than the average party-goer. That said, in some communities, giving $18 may be considered appropriate. It really depends on where you are how the community celebrates.
Some people say they find it helpful to think of a b’nai mitzvah like a mini-wedding, butI don’t think one should think about a b’nai mitzvah like a wedding when it comes to providing a gift for the child. Wedding couples receive gifts because (in theory) they need items to furnish their new home together. Unless you have had a serious heart-to-heart with the parents of the child regarding a specific gift, in general, kids definitely don’t need more stuff.
Traditionally, Jewish people give money to the bar/bat mitzvah child. Why? Because cash is always the right color, the right size, and it goes with everything. (Ba da bump! *snare*)
On a more serious note, historically the bar mitzvah was a way of helping to establish a young man with some money so that he might eventually be able to afford to make a home for his future wife. Yup, back in the old days, 13-year old boys were starting to think about marriage. These days, parents don’t marry off their sons or daughters quite so young. (We kind of like to keep them around, at least until they finish high school.) But once we move beyond that, the b’nai mitzvah became a way to save money for college. That’s just the way it was. All money went into the bank.
Some party-goers have told me they don’t like hearing that all the money goes into the bank; they fret that the child gets “no real gift.” Trust me. Jewish children understand that their gift is the party. They get to invite and then enjoy being surrounded by the people who mean the most to them. They understand that the party is in their honor and that it represents all their years of hard work and study. They understand that they are considered adults (by Jewish Law), and as such they can consider how, and to what extent, they plan to carry out the 613 Mitzvot which cover everything that one might ever do during one’s life. And for a few hours, they get to enjoy being the center of attention.
SO WHAT ABOUT GIFT CARDS? People often ask if it is appropriate to give the b’nai mitzvah child an iTunes card, a piece of jewelry, or a gift card to a favorite store.
At the risk of sounding ungrateful (which I am decidedly not), I’m going waaaay out on a limb on behalf of all Heebs out there and asking you (in the nicest of ways) to please refrain from giving b’nai mitzvah kids gift cards.
Consider this: bar and bat mitzvah celebrations tend to be large, so…well… if even 20 kids give the bar mitzvah boy $25 gift cards to GameStop, that child would have $500 to GameStop. Would you want your son to have $500 in store credit to GameStop? Who even knows if GameStop will be in business long enough for a kid to spend that credit! I have heard plenty of horror stories about stores going out of business to convince me to never give anyone a gift card for a bar or bat mitzvah.
WHAT ABOUT GIFTS? Gifts are trickier. I know a lot of people who love to shop to purchase special gifts, like jewelry for girls. But would you want your daughter to have twenty-five pairs of earrings? Or twenty-five “Juicy Couture” handbags? If you give a gift, you have to understand it might end up going back. If there is something you’d like to give a child, the best bet is to ask the parents. They might be able to advise you against getting the kid who doesn’t play sports that cool basketball jersey that your son loves so much.
I know I am not speaking for everyone, but I believe the idea is to save the money for the child to use later — maybe not for an impending marriage — but for something significant, like education or perhaps future travel to Israel.
I know bonds are no longer en vogue because interest rates have taken a dive, but back in the 1970s when that stack of savings bonds went into my parents’ safe deposit box, I understood that the money that had been so generously given to me was to be saved for a time in my life when I would be able to use it for something important. And as my bonds came ripe, many years later, my husband and I were grateful to be able to use that money to pay for our first home!
THE REAL ANSWER. The real answer is there is no right answer because there is no right or wrong when it comes to gift giving. The thought behind every gift is appreciated. Jewish parents don’t plan these celebrations hoping to make money. We plan them to celebrate the years of hard work our children have put in to make it to their special day; because by the time our sons and daughters make it to their b’nai mitzvah day, they have clocked hundreds of after-school and weekend hours learning prayers, blessings, rituals, rites, symbols – even a whole other language while juggling academics, musical instruments, sports, and other extracurricular activities. It really is quite an accomplishment.
Bottom line, when it comes to gift giving, you give from the heart. If you are invited to a b’nai mitzvah, know that the people who invited you really want you there. They really do. People should never give more than they are comfortable giving. Invited guests shouldn’t feel like they are competing with anyone with regard to what they give.
Honestly, the best gift really is money.I know, to some people, writing a check seems like a cold, impersonal gift, but if the day really is about transitioning into adulthood, well… it makes sense that part of the event involves learning about deferring gratification and learning fiscal responsibility.
(Even if the parents aren’t practicing for the moment).
So I’ve talked about the verboten subject. How ungrateful do I sound? What do you think about my advice? And how many U.S. Savings Bonds do you think Tech is going to receive?
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