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.
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?
I used to practice yoga, but when I started teaching again — I stopped.
I was too busy. I had papers to grade. I had lessons to plan.
Blah blah blah.
Recently, I found my yoga mat and attended an outdoor yoga session.
It felt good for a hundred reasons.
But especially because I did feel a mind-body connection that I haven’t felt in a long time.
I’ve been running on auto-pilot for a while now, planning my son’s bar mitzvah, schlepping to and from fencing lessons, to and from religious school, to and from meetings about things that feel important but really aren’t.
Going through the poses made me slow down and focus on my hands, my hips, my breath.
At one point, I started weeping and I curled up in a ball and just let it come out.
I didn’t even know I had all that sadness trapped inside.
The instructor encouraged me to just be with it, so I allowed myself to cry. In public. I wasn’t exactly quiet. But I wasn’t embarrassed either.
Later, I felt lighter. Ad I decided I’m going to try to continue my yoga – even if it means practicing alone at home to a DVD.
Not long ago I received an email from my old friend. She sounded kinda panicky:
I have been invited to go to a Bat Mitzvah in NYC for a co-worker’s daughter. What do I give? Help!
That Jenna. She brought me right back to October 25, 1979 when 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 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 – for months – students prepare speeches for the congregation 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, (to be saved for college) 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.
So what’s the problem?
And why don’t I just answer Jenna?
I don’t know.
These days, I have an 11-year-old (with a bar mitzvah date already set for 20 months away), and suddenly this question is coming up near daily, and I have to be mindful. I don’t want to say the wrong thing or get myself in trouble.
Maybe it’s that bar and bat mitzvahs seem different to me now that I am an adult. These days there is so much more of everything. Everything has gotten super-sized. Even proms and graduation parties have become bigger-er. And b’nai mitzvah “after-parties” can get overblown and seem to have lost what the celebration is supposed to be about.
(Can you visualize me squirming around in my chair? Well, I am positively squirmy, Jenna. I’m sorry. I’m trying.)
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 celebration but a celebration of arrival through an entryway: an entryway to life as a responsible Jew. It is a spiritual rite of passage that connects one generation to another. Jewish children have studied for seven years, including that one intense year of tutoring to get them prepared for their few hours alone on the bimah.
I thought about Jenna’s email and all my non-Jewish friends who have asked me this same question for years, and 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.
I told Jenna about:
SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS. The #18 in Hebrew means “chai.” (No, not the tea. Stay with me, darlin’.) For those interested in pronunciation, to create the proper sound to recreate 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, each Hebrew 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. In Gematria (the numerical value of Hebrew letters), chai is equivalent to 8 and yud is equivalent to 10. So “chai” — chet + yud = 18. 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 often give $36. But people can get creative and give $100.18; big spenders may give $318 or $418 or $518 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. Sometimes people add chai in increments: $18 + $18 = $36 (double chai), $54 = triple chai, $72= quadruple chai, and upwards from there.
(I know that’s a big range, Jenna.)
I explained that when it comes to monetary gifts, City Mice typically give waaaaay more than Country Mice, but I told her not to get hung up on that. While I know some people have said they find it helpful to think of a b’nai mitzvah like a mini-wedding, I 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!) 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-years 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. Done deal.
Party-goers have told me they don’t like 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 bar/bat mitzvah child an iTunes card, a piece of jewelry, or a gift card to a favorite store. 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 gifts or 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? Would you want your daughter to have twenty-five “Juicy Couture” handbags? Or twenty-five pairs of earrings? Probably not. So think of the returns? It is actually emotionally awful for b’nai mitzvah kids to have to decide which earrings or necklaces or handbags to keep and which have to be returned when they know their friends have worked hard to find them “just the right thing.”
I would never be so bold as to speak 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 a college education or perhaps a future trip to Israel.
I know bonds are no longer en vogue because interest rates have taken a dive (plus one has to have all kinds of information about the kid handy: social security number, address, age, weight, favorite color… well, it’s not quite that bad, but the folks at the bank definitely don’t make it easy to get bonds, that’s for sure), but back in the 1970s when that stack of savings bonds went into the safe deposit box, I didn’t feel upset. I completely understood that the money had been given to me 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 psyched to be able to use the money to help pay the down payment for our first home!
Okay, so I have pretty much worked poor Jenna up into froth. She just wants to know what to give. Enough already.
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. Jewish parents don’t plan these celebrations hoping to “break even” or “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 children make it to their b’nai mitzvah, 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.
And the party isn’t supposed to be a “Phew, we’re done!” moment. The day is supposed to mark 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.
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. But the best gift really is a check. 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 only makes sense that part of the event involves learning about deferring gratification and learning fiscal responsibility (even if the bar/bat mitzvah parents aren’t practicing for the moment).
I know. I know, Jenna. I haven’t answered you.
You still want to know how much.
I don’t know, sweetie. I mean, I have a number in mind but … I’m just not comfortable.
We’re a complicated people, Jenna.
That’s my take. What do you think is an appropriate gift to give to a bar or bat mitzvah?
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