Oy Vey: Tips to Non-Jews About Bar & Bat Mitzvah Giving

Not long ago I received an email from my old friend. She sounded kinda panicky:

Renna:

I have been invited to go to a Bat Mitzvah in NYC for a co-worker’s daughter. What do I give? Help!

Jenna :)

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.

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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. It is a much bigger deal than any birthday party, and though people often try to compare them, a bar or bat mitzvah is not like a confirmation where a group of kids go to the front of the church en masse to receive a blessing. 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.

Good lookin’ group. Seriously, we looked good in 1979.

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.

Oy.

That’s my take. What do you think is an appropriate gift to give to a bar or bat mitzvah?

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69 responses to “Oy Vey: Tips to Non-Jews About Bar & Bat Mitzvah Giving

  1. This reminds me of a post by a Jewish friend of mine (also named Renée!) about inappropriate gifts: http://lifeintheboomerlane.com/2010/09/29/looking-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth/
    Someone thought a copy of the Koran would be an excellent gift for her son for his bar mitzvah!

    Wendy

    • Actually, I think that is kind of cool. It is a time to compare and contrast one’s own religious views to those of others. Not so crazy. (But my vote still goes to money in the bank: the day really is about investing in the child’s future – spiritually and fiscally.)

  2. In my community people give gift certificates to a book store. That’s a pretty educational and productive gift, no? Thought you might like that idea Renee, being an educator yourself.

    • Dalia: I’m kind of surprised. Are b’nai mitzvahs in “your area” smaller affairs than they are in mine? Here, they can get quite large. I have attended events where there are over 100 kids! Would you want $1000 smackers in a gift certificate to a bookstore? While I like the educational premise, I would stick to my original thoughts. No gift certificates, please. I’d rather put the money in the bank for my child’s future education. If a few people were adamant about giving him a little something, I might suggest a card to Barnes & Noble … but no – I wouldn’t want gift cards to Barnes and Noble. (And I know a whole heckuva lot of people who feel the same way.)

      Most likely scenario, everyone in the family would end up using the gift cards when they have that kind of dollar figure.

      I guess we’d all have to start drinking Starbucks’ coffee and taking daily meals at the Barnes & Noble café. ;-)

      • Usually the other kids that are attending without parents do give gift cards– $36 to Barnes & Noble was very common — and a few hundred dollars at a bookstore can be used up VERY quickly!

        I personally used to like to find something small but special for the child (a book on jewish pirates, muscians, athletes, etc) and then a check…. because if mom & dad make the kid put all the money in the bank, they still have something tangible.

        • Why don’t you feel like the party is enough? Curious. Parents can choose to take the cash and get Bar Bitzvah Boy one cool item, but if everyone does what you say, I’m just saying, unless you REALLY know the kid, not only is there nothing for the future, there are going to be a lot of returns.

  3. Dear Mrs. S-J: I think the savings bond is a perfect gift. It shows you thought enough of the child to INVEST IN THEIR FUTURE. The bond is a lasting gift that is re accepted and re appreciated a dozen years later when the now young adult uses it to buy books for freshman year in college. Or “Grandpa gave me this before he died. He said I would need a car someday….” I think several silver dollars in a presentation case is an affordable gift that becomes a family heirloom. PS I was born on June 18th. Can I get any mileage out of that even though I am an old Yankee Presbyterian?

  4. Wikipedia sums it up beautifully “In some modern communities, most notably among affluent North American Jews, this celebratory meal can eclipse the religious ceremony itself, often rivaling a wedding celebration in extravagance.”

  5. Just had to laugh about the Barnes and Noble gift card. My son loves to read and for his 13th birthday his grandparents and aunts and uncles all got him the same thing….gift cards to Barnes and Noble! He got $250 worth. He was bummed because he has just gotten a Kindle and wanted to start reading books on it! The following weekend he had his Bar Mitzvah, thank goodness he didn’t get more of them!

  6. No more gift cards! We have a pile of them!

    Our first daughter had her Bat Mitzvah a year ago and now our 2nd is a few months away.

    We can go to Barnes & Noble on any given day and get whatever we want. It was fun at first, but now it’s just weird. I almost feel like re-gifting these or donating them. And, yes, we have purchased books for book-drives with her cards. I’m beginning to think the staff has us under survellience with all the gift card purchases we’ve made!

  7. Agreed, an investment in the child’s future is a gift that keeps on giving.

    Those gift cards are superficial and the items purchased with them will be forgotten in a few years.

    Cashing in savings bonds when the child turns 20 or 30 is a sentimental event; going towards a big purchase, such as education, a car or a home is MUCH more meaningful. [Aunt so-and-so cared enough about me to plan ahead].

    • JENNIFER: It is very agreeable to me that you agreed. For me as a parent and grandpa (I prepaid for college for the little grandchildren with part of my lump sum retirement money) the most comforting thing is to know our children, nieces, and nephews and grandchildren will be able to sustain themselves in life when we are gone and that we played a part in that with love and foresight. .

  8. Just love the insight! Having never been to a bar/bat mitzvah, knowing the background can help make gift giving easier. And I have no problem investing in anyone’s future. Good blog today.

  9. This was fascinating for me. My adult bat mitzvah at age 73 is scheduled for this January. Gifts are far from my mind, as I just hope I won’t be too twangy. (I am basically tone-less as a singer.) At this age, gifts are not as relevant. I am just proud to finally have the opportunity to become a bona fide member of the Jewish community.

    • Mazel Tov!!!!!!

    • Marlene:

      Congratulations in advance. It’s true; having your bat mitzvah as an adult does put a different spin on things. It ISN’T supposed to be all about the gifts and the party, but that seems to be what it has become with the 12 and 13 year olds. (As I said to Carl earlier, it is never too late!)

      Mazel tov on your soon-to-be amazing accomplishment. And if everyone is older than you, don’t worry about being twangy. They probably can’t hear you very well! ;-)

  10. Well….OK….So I am throwing a wrench into the soup. I am a believer of gifts. Not necessarily for everyone, but I like giving gifts. So guess what one of the lessons we learn as we mature is that gifts are not only about receiving they are also about giving.

    For those of us that really like to shop and make a serious effort in doing so, a gift is a wonderful gesture. I have always taken the time to really think about what I am getting for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. I am a big shopper of Tiffany’s (they BTW have an AMAZING customer service dept) and they have really helped me tend to find what often comes out to be the perfect gift. Often the girls wear the jewelry to the service or to the party on their special day. Well, I know I must have made them happy, and that makes me feels so good. I take the time to find something meaningful to them and their life and take try to the time to write a note that ties in all the meaning.

    Do I give cash/checks sometimes? Yes. Do I give gifts sometimes? Yes. Do I give gift cards? No/never.

    I do agree that this is not a just a birthday celebration. The child has put in far to much effort and energy and endless time studying and preparing. Us as parents have also put in a tremendous amount of time planning for the day, actually for the weekend. No, it is not a mini-wedding, but there can be as much involved as planning a full blown out wedding. It is about a time of gathering family and friends together for celebration of a big moment in a child’s life. I remember my special day. I hope my kids will carry their memories forever as well.

    That being said, okay, now I am going out on a limb, yes the monetary amount does kinda matter. It is not about always keeping up with the Jones’ or in this case the Steins’, but if you are invited to an affair there are certain guidelines in gift giving. Old rules say, spend as much on the gift as the cost of your attendance. Well, that may be far out of your budget. No one wants anyone to spend more than they are truly comfortable doing. However, it would seem reasonable to at least consider what you would feel that you would pay to go out for dinner. So, stick to the rules of 18 as described above, and find your comfort zone. Keep in mind what your are attending and who are these people in your life. Remember, and believe me (at least in my case) that invitee list was done with real consideration. If you received an invitation, there was someone else who did not. There were cuts. There had to be.

    • You must be an amazing shopper. And possibly it is my lack of shopping skills that colors my response. I know I am hard to shop for. I know what I like, and if someone else tries to get me something, it usually goes back — just ask my mother. She’ll tell you.

      So I guess I assume others are similar.

      That said, I have sat in people’s homes, as children open their gifts – even beautiful, well-intentioned gifts from fancy shops like Tiffany’s – where the parents sigh and the child sighs and everyone knows, it’s going back.

      I do believe the BM is about recognizing the accomplishment. And I appreciate you going farther out on the limb to discuss dollar figures. I couldn’t do it. I can’t say: Hmmm, family of four, let me put that in my Bat Mitzvah calculator. Um, it says, $218 – oh, and get a pair of candlesticks.

      I guess I go with the idea that anyone who is invited to our event is there because we really want them there. And we want them there even if they can’t afford to give the biggest gift. I’m not willing to “cut” someone from my invited guest list because he or she won’t be able to give the big check.

      And everyone’s idea of a “reasonable” dinner is different.

      • No one is ever cut because of what gift they can afford. Oh I hope I did not give that impression. I was emphasizing that people are invited as you say because they are special and therefore it isn’t a throw away invite and should not be a throw away gift idea – financially or as an actual wrapped gift.

        I just know that I have been asked directly before and have given the answer re: the rule of 18s and the response has been: “So $36?” My only intention was to explain that if $36 is what is right for the giver, fine. I do however want those to understand that this is not just a birthday party (like you said originally) and a lot of planning and cost goes into everything. If you go out to dinner and think nothing of spending $218 (I’ll use your number) then keep that in mind.

        I do love the answer from Beth.

        I still also think that learning the idea of being gracious as you accept a gift is a good lesson learned. You write often about lessons learned. Unfortunately, there will be times, probably more than we all want, that we get what we are not hoping for, want or need, and then still have to say thank you.

        I will again reiterate, put thought into it – a lot of thought into it – if you decide to buy the gift.

      • I understood what you meant.

        I love Beth’s answer, too.

        Maybe I should have had Jenna talk to Beth, eh?

        As I said (somewhere), if you are going to buy a gift – you’d better REALLY know the family because mom and dad may not want daughter to have a Juicy Couture bag. ;-)

        But you are right, one always has to be gracious and appreciative. And we will be. (Even as we stand in the line, returning items my child will never use.)

  11. Hi Renee,

    I really enjoyed this blog and that you tried to get to the heart of the matter of something so complicated to answer! Looking back, since my daughter was a Bat Mitzvah four years ago, and my son a Bar Mitzvah, two years ago, I must reflect and say that they appreciated cash gifts.

    They each used a portion of the money they received to make a contribution to the charity of their choice and they also each bought a laptop. The rest is invested for things may may need/want before they go off to college (a new laptop, down payment on a car, or other big ticket items which Mom and Dad will likely not be footing the bill for).

    On the other hand, they each received some very special gifts, tallit from my father, special jewelry for my daughter and a yad for my son, that they will cherish always and hopefully pass down to their children. So, in the end, I would say cash is nice, but if a gift is preferred, make it something special and from the heart.

    • Andrea: Like you, we plan to take the money and invest some, donate some – but also allow our Monkey to select one item that he would really like. He doesn’t even have to decide right at the moment. When he decides, he can let us know.

      I am sure he will receive some gifts as well. But I imagine, as you say, they will be “special” and come from family members of close friends who know him best. I really hope we don’t receive hundreds of dollars in gift cards.

      In fact, I’d rather have people give him bonds – more than anything else. I wish wish wish that people would go back to that wonderful tradition of delayed gratification which we seem to have lost today.

  12. Since I work with teens post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah, I thought this conversation was really interesting. Two other ideas for B’nei Mitzvah.

    1. There are some great websites out there that you give the teens money and they can donate it to any charity of their choice. I know this is not necessarily what the teen themselves might want for his or her gift, but it is continuing the idea of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). By giving the teen the money and then allowing them to choose where it goes, it gives them an active role in deciding what they are passionate about instead of sending a planted a tree for your in Israel postcard which seems disconnected and might not be what the teen is interested in.

    2. This answer is less for the giver as it is for the parents of Bar and Bat Mitzvah teens out there. We have a great project here (which I know other cities do also) called Teen Philanthropy. This is for teens the year before or the year after their bar or bat mitzvah. The way it works here is that each teen donates $500 from the money they received as gifts for their bar/bat mitzvah and we have a donor who matches this money. We take up to 25 teens each year (for a grand total of $25,000). Organizations here, throughout the US and in Israel (Jewish and non-Jewish) submit grant proposals to this group for up to $6000. The group begins the year by learning a little about philanthropy and reading through the proposals. Then they pick four organizations they want to learn more about. Throughout the year they go on four site visits where they learn about the organization, the project and ask (A LOT) of questions. At the end of the year they have an allocation meeting where they donate most of the $25,000 to these projects. The remaining money goes into an account for them to continue to donate and use as alumni (we have an alumni group as well for teens throughout high school where they donate $36 each year and the donor gives $150 for each teen.) It is amazing to see, as an adult, how they consider where they donate the money and the questions they ask. It is also amazing for the teens to see the power of pooling their money together and donating to causes while thinking through all the issues presented to them. They are asked to make tough choices of which group is more deserving and they rise to the challenge. The fact that this is “their” money makes them feel a sense of responsibility. I would highly recommend this for any parent who has a teen this age if it is available in your community.

    I remember at my Bat Mitzvah I also received a lot of money gifts. My parents asked me to put it all in a bank account and allowed me to choose one thing I wanted (anything) to buy with part of it. The rest was for savings (for something undetermined.) I used the money at the time to buy a TV :-) However, a few years later I really wanted to go on my youth groups trip to Israel and I convinced my parents this was a great way to spend the rest of the money. They finally agreed. The money paid for the trip and my job at the time paid for half my spending money (my parents said they would match what I saved for spending money). Looking back on it, it was an AMAZING way to spend that money (and very relevant.)

    Just my thoughts….

    • I love this response. All of it. We have every intention of doing some investing, some donating – and, as I said earlier, allowing Monkey to select one special item that he wants. His party is his gift.

      I am pretty sure he gets that.

      I would love for him to go to Israel, and I am hoping he’ll do that with his friends from summer camp, but – if not – that would be another great (and very appropriate) way to spend the money. In fact, maybe he could treat the whole family! ;-)

  13. Poor Jenna! She just wants you to tell her how much to give. (And it’s not just non-Jews who struggle with this dilemma.) Renee, I loved what you said about a monetary gift being an investment in the child’s future. That’s a wonderful way to look at it! I’ve often felt lame when writing a check, beating myself up for “why can’t I think of something cool, unique and personal to give this kid?” But I have now adopted your view, and I can feel good about my check – whatever the amount!

    The kids often do like to give actual items, not money, because it’s more personal. At least that’s the case with girls. Necklace, earrings, bracelet, watch, picture frame with a special photo of the recipient and the giver at summer camp, purse/wristlet, and yes, even gift cards to B&N, Starbucks, Panera. But you’re right, Renee. Just how much jewelry does a 13 year old need? (An unlimited amt, if you ask them!) But it all depends on how many kids are invited. If there are 100 kids (really??? who is really friends with 100 kids?), then yeah, 100 pieces of jewelry/gift cards/etc. is way too much, and the cash would be a better investment. Our daughter only invited 25 kids, girls she actually feels are her friends. I think it’s nice that she has a few tangible items from her friends; she can think of them now and for the next several years when she wears the item from that person. But certainly a hundred necklaces would become meaningless!

    Other appropriate gifts could be Judaica items. A menorah can be used now, the kid will be able to take it with her to college, and use in her first apartment, in marriage, etc. Or an artsy tzedakah box – enables the child to perform a mitzvah and have a tangible item to specifically remember Great-Aunt Sarah.

    Now back to monetary amounts. Some people say that you should take into account what it cost the hosts to have you at their event. I understand this theory, but I disagree. The guest shouldn’t have to give a bigger gift just because the hosts wanted to have a fancier party. And then there’s the issue of whether or not you are attending said party. And did you need to incur travel expenses in order to attend? Maybe those questions shouldn’t matter, but in reality, they may. Your own personal financial situation will also be a contributing factor in determining your monetary gift. People will understand if you need to give a smaller amount, especially in today’s economic climate. We were very surprised by some people’s generosity, and felt that it was above and beyond what is necessary. But we never thought of a smaller gift as not enough. We truly felt that any amount was a very nice gesture of love and support. And yes, what we enjoyed most of all was to have our family and friends celebrating with us.

  14. I love you, Faith. Seriously, why aren’t we BFFs? I agree with you on all points.

  15. AnonymousNewlywed

    With the disclaimer firmly in place that a wedding is very different than a bar or bat mitzvah, I think it’s appropriate to draw some similarities in terms of the gift question.

    As a newlywed (anonymous for the sake of manners), Faith’s recommendation of Judaica as an appropriate gift resonated with me. Both a wedding and a bar/bat mitzvah are momentous days for the individuals involved and mark a distinct step into adulthood and a personal connection to one’s faith.

    While I may have gotten caught up in the excitement of the scanning gun at Williams-Sonoma, a year later I don’t necessarily remember who got me lobster crackers, asparagus peelers or wine glasses. I DO remember who gave us the framed wedding invitation, the picture frame with a photo from the wedding and the antique silver fish serving set (so that my husband and I could host a traditional Italian meat-free Christmas Eve like my parents do).

    My memory and appreciation have nothing to do with the cost of the gift, and I am certainly grateful to everyone who bothered to acknowledge my special day– much less get me a gift to commemorate it. The gifts that I remember the most are the ones that seemed to say, “This event is about your love, your future, and your promise to God and each other. Here is a building block for the house you’ll be building together for the rest of your life.”

    While a 13 year old may be excited by Best Buy gift cards, the latest i-gadget or jewelry, a gift that will give them a deeper satisfaction in the years to come may be a better choice– regardless of the dollar amount.

    • While I agree with you (and Faith), no one needs four menorahs, five fancy dreidels, or three pairs of candlesticks. Overkill happens quickly. My best advice for the person who likes to give gifts is to ALWAYS ask the parents before making a personal purchase because it is possible that someone else has already been asked to make a special purchase (the grandmas and the grandpas). In fact, there might already be a kiddush cup that was Great Grandma Bertha’s sitting in the cupboard just waiting for the bat mitzvah girl to have when she is old enough!

      I am with you in that my memory and appreciation have little to do with the cost of the gift. I was only trying to answer my friend Jenna who had a question about what is the BEST way to go.

      I still say it is the gift of cash. (And despite Jeff’s making fun on the savings bond idea, I still think it’s cool to have the money sit around for the child to discover years later. I also know that no-one does that anymore.

      Kids don’t need more stuff. And Jewish kids especially don’t need lobster crackers! ;-) They are still living at home with good ole mom and dad, and we continue to take care of their needs. This event is about continuing a tradition. It is a big undertaking, a major accomplishment. We’re thrilled for them, but it’s not like a wedding in terms of the kids NEEDING stuff to create a home.

  16. Cash is king!!! However, iTunes gift cards always get used and never collect dust. You can load them right into the iTunes account. I cashed all my bonds for weed in college. Uhhh, can I get 25 bucks for this 50 dollar bond? Yes? Sweeeeet!!!

  17. What an interesting blog, Renee. I enjoyed everyone’s opinions. Yes, give from the heart, all are acceptable. I always felt it a privilege to be invited to a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

    I, for one, try to always think of the child and what he is interested in if giving a gift. If not, an investment with money for the child’s education is superb.

    I must say, this was a very interesting blog. Congratulations for writing it so nicely.

    Also I want to tell Marlene congrats on her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. I did it as an adult, and it was so rewarding. So enjoy it. Mazel Tov!

  18. As a Jew, I have always been taught that education is number one. So for a bar mitzvah the number one gift is money money money. the money goes directly into an account to be used for college. The gift to the child is the event and knowing they can have an education. If you want to buy the child a gift as well, that is lovely, but money is the typical gift. Gift cards are the worst gift in my opinion. That translates to no money for college. They become another trivial birthday gift, which is fine for a birthday but that is not what this is about.

    • Agreed. Education is #1; that’s why I say the money goes in the bank. The gifts are generally about investing in one’s future, and what better way than to help provide for an education. I don’t understand how people are even talking gifts. Just sayin’.

  19. As a person with absolutely zero knowledge of those things Jewish, this was a really interesting read. I found the info about the #18 especially intriguing. Why 18? I know that three and four are symbolic numbers in many cultures, but what is the history of 18 that makes it special?

    I should have sought your guidance with language that a Jewish character was using in a book by Jordan Sonnenblick called Notes from the Midnight Driver that I was reading to my 8th grade classes. (The book is excellent, by the way. If your son likes realistic fiction, music, and humor, Sonnenblick’s books (Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie is another title) would be perfect for him.)

    Personally, not a big fan of gift certificates or cards. We still come across those which we received for our wedding…12 years ago. There is no trace of the money we received, however. We put it to good use.

    Take care,

    Chase

    • Chase: Did you not see my explanation? (Maybe I didn’t explain that well enough.) In Hebrew, the related word “chaya” means “living thing” and is derived from the Hebrew word chai (חי), meaning “life.” So people often give in denominations of 18 because, at a special event, one is making a gift to celebrate, honor or commemorate another person’s life. Kinda cool, right?

      I’m glad to know you put your wedding cash to good use. In this area, I shall make you an honorary Jew. ;-)

      • Yes, I read the explanation, and I re-read it. I understand that 18 is significant so gifts are given in increments of 18. But my question is why is it the #18 and not 5 or 12 or 29 that is important in Judaism. But then I found this at About.com:

        Question: What is the significance of the number 18 in Judaism?

        Answer: 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 and yud together, equals 18. Giving money in multiples of $18 is symbolic of giving “chai” or life. Many people give money in mulitiples of $18 as presents to someone celebrating a birth, a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding.

        Now I get it (if that info is accurate). Hey, are you the one giving rabbit ears in the picture?

        • Ohhhhhh! Yeah, I guess I forgot to mention that every Hebrew letter has a numerical value associated with it, so “chai” is kind of like a weird mystical, mathematical number that people like because of its positive connotation.

          I am one of two people not looking at the camera. I am the one kinda in the center, sitting down. (Probably looking at a boy.) ;-)

  20. I was already impressed enough with your English skills but Hebrew too? I’m terrible at picking up other languages. This piece is educational for me. Think mini-wedding and go with 18. Also, I’m a country mouse. :-) The check does seem to make sense though.

    • You realize I’m doing the “bad thing”? A Jewish person writing about money? In such a public way? Oy! How will I go to the grocery store? Note: There would likely be a mob if you went to a BM with $18. Think increments of 18. ;-)

  21. Interesting stuff – for other occasions too.

  22. I agree with the money concept, but with a twist. If the whole family is invited, or it’s a good friend of your child, it is nice to give a two part gift. For girls it might be a necklace or nice piece of jewelry AND money. The total amount spent is very personal, but the mini wedding comparison does go in the right direction. Boys are a little harder. It helps to know their interests. The point is that it is nice to give something that the B’nai Mitzvah child can have, keep, and remember you and their big day with (along with a little sumthin-sumthin to help his or her future).

    • Have you had one of these events yet? Let me know how many necklaces you get. ;-) I’d go with the let her take some of the money to select one special necklace to commemorate the event. Otherwise, your daughter WILL have a boatload of jewelry. Just sayin’.

  23. Since I was born, I’ve always celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah. Being brought up in a Protestant household, but still going over to my Jewish grandmother’s house every December 19 never seemed odd to me. To others, on the other hand, it was something completely out of the ordinary. I’ve always been asked the question “Does that mean you’re a Jew?”, “How can you celebrate both holidays?”, and my favorite “Are you going to go to Hell?” I don’t think I’m going to go to Hell any time soon, so I simply tell them I do both because it makes my grandma happy.

  24. In my community, the boys still get the much larger affairs (I personally didn’t even have a party, but a small meal gathering with my family).

    The presents I see given most are,

    1) Seforim (Judaic books) this is where a boy picks up all his basic texts, like Chamisha Chumshei Torah, Nach, Mishnayos, and other assorted “basics”

    2) MONEY (which usually gets saved for – well, not necessarily college, but for when the boy goes to study in Israel and the like)

    3) Judaic items like silver bechers (silver, sort of goblets I guess – my brothers have great collections of them – we save them for Pesach to use for the daled kosos), silver menorah (usually only one, and as a collective gift, because they’re very expensive these days),

    And then there are the odd Judaic items who’s designs are obviously Judaic-themed, and not just ornamental and pretty, usually from less religious relatives ;)

    • Hi! As you can see, I wrote this over 2 years ago — and I think i have some revisions I might make to this piece and repost. I TOTALLY forgot the gifts of Judaica which are always wonderful – though I would argue, no one needs five sets of candlesticks or six menorahs. I’d still say to check with parents to make sure that kids aren’t getting these things from relatives, etc. Our shul gives the children some “basic” books as well as a kiddush cup and a certificate good for a trip to Israel with a specific group.

      I guess I took it for granted that everyone got these things! Duh! (Or I forgot.) Look for a revision in June. And I will incorporate some of your lovely ideas! ;-)

  25. Lotsa thoughts.

    1. You wrote: “a celebration of achievement. It is a spiritual rite of passage that connects one generation to another.” I would demur. I think it’s a celebration of arrival through an entryway. An entryway to life as a responsible Jew. The “achievement” hasn’t actually happened yet, and a child becomes bar or bat mitzvah when they have their (Hebrew) birthday on the thirteenth (for girls twelfth) birthday of their lives – this is an upgrade in spiritual status, that, according to the Jewish sources, takes place whether they are reading from the Torah, vacationing in St. Martin, asleep, or converted out. It happens to you. How you celebrate it is entirely optional and has varied greatly by community and history.

    I recognize that this is radically different from how most Jews think about bnei mitzvah, but it’s what the sources say.

    2. Gifts are so subject to community. In my community, $18 is completely appropriate. As a mom of three bnei mitzvah so far, I will tell you that we truly appreciated every single gift but I taught my kids to expect none. A mix of cash (to bank and donate a percentage), gift cards (my kids loved these), and actual gifts (ok, some were more on the mark than others) was awesome.

    • Ruchi as I just said to the person above, I wrote this post over 2 years ago, and I have had time to rethink some of the things I said in this original post, especially as my son began to prepare for his bar mitzvah.

      I would like to revise this a bit and repost it in June, and I agree with you that the bar or bat mitzvah is absolutely a threshold. It represents a moment where the child has to make some choices. We help prepare them to chant a portion for a particular day, but (hopefully) the lessons will last a lifetime and we will have created a responsible Jew. I’m not sure if I agree that the “upgrade occurs no matter where you are.” I’m not sure I can wrap my head around becoming a bar or bat mitzvah in St. Martin. To me, the bar or bat mitzvah is a rite of passage. Something difficult must be done in order to earn the respect of the community. I would love a link to the “sources” to which you refer (and singing in public during puberty qualifies, if you ask me). I don’t see how just turning 12 or 13 inherently has any meaning at all.

      And I agree, gifts are subject to community. Honestly, I really believe one should invite people who you would want there even if they were NOT giving you a gift. Sometimes that can help re-frame things as people are making out their long lists. If you are looking for a gift from an invitation, you will always be disappointed. We tried hard to invite the people who have had a role in our son’s life. It didn’t work in every case. There were some requests from extended family and some obligations, but truly I feel like our friends’ presence will make the best presents. ;-)

      How’s dat?

      • One source: Rashi on Talmud Tractate Nazir 29 writes that Levi is called an “ish,” a mature adult, when he was 13 years old, as we see in the verse describing the battle of Jacob’s children against Shechem: (Genesis 34). Rashi (primary commentator on Torah) explains that the number 13 is fixed and that you pass over into that category whether aware or mature or not.

        It makes me wonder: What about all the generations of Jews who were running for their lives or living in poverty and made a small l’chaim in synagogue at best? Were they not considered Jewish adults?

        • Hmmm. It is something to ponder, indeed. It is my understand that people still had small ceremonies even during the Holocaust. But you have certainly given me something to consider. I have always tought about the b’nai mitzvah as a rite of passage. I am no scholar. And, as a girl who was raised Orthodox in the 1970s, I received little formal education. There is much for me to learn. Thank you for teaching me and making me think. I like this dialogue.

  26. I don’t have a source like Ruchi, (can probably track one down), but I grew up with that same knowledge. When you turned 12 or 13 you were bar/bas mitzvah. You didn’t have to celebrate, and the bigger the shebang, the better you leined from the torah, or how difficult you’re p’shetl was up to you, but didn’t change your status or make you a better or worse version of it.

    My three brothers actually didn’t lein from the torah – they didn’t want to. The first being shy, the second tone-deaf, the third lazy. Didn’t change the fact that they were now bar mitzvah.

  27. Renee, I love your forum. It really makes me think. Thanks :) It’s a shame you received little formal education. You woulda made a rockin’ student.

    • I love to learn! And I consider myself a lifelong learner, so it’s never too late to learn more, right? I’m STILL a rocking’ student.

      I’m so happy to meet you. Do you know the story about how I confused you for Rivki? ;-)

  28. No, I don’t think so…would love to hear it though!!

  29. What do you think about gifts to out of town B’nai Mitzvahs for the daughters of family friends from my husband’s child hood? We’ve never me the girls, but received an invite. Is a gift necessary/expected in this case?

    • If you we’re invited, it is customary to give a gift to the b’nai mitzvah child. It doesn’t have to be huge, but yes. If you were invited, generally that means that there is some relationship. It might not be a reciprocal feeling, and if you aren’t going, you could simply send a note and $18 to commemorate the day. But often people have never met the child: parents have old friendships or colleagues from work, etc. who are still included on the celebration. If you are going, I would say $18 is not enough. But you will need to look into your own hearts to do what you feel is right in that situation. Hope that helps a little.

  30. There has been no discussion of the expenses for out of town visitors for attending a bar/bat mitzvah. They have to possibly pay for plane fare and hotel for the weekend at least. Do you think this is a reasonable consideration when deciding how much to give for the gift, even for the celebration for a neice or nephew?
    Also, I feel the invitees are giving a gift, not paying to attend a reception. As many of the writers have said, usually what will be remembered is the ceremony and reception/party (if there is one) and not who gave you how much as a present. Though I am justifying being cheap.

    • I can only tell you as honestly as I can that people keep lists. On Excel spreadsheets. Forever.

      My recommendation?

      Don’t give the gift right away. Go. See how people treat you. Did they make you feel welcome? Or were you just a number in the crowd? It’s a two way street.

      That said, think about how much you would be willing to spend for a very nice dinner. Everyone’s dollar figure is different here. Usually you are provided several meals when you are an out-of-town guest to help offset the cost of travel.

      I can tell you that several out-of-town friends gave us more than some close out-of-town family members, which was a little shocking.

      And yet.

      Gift giving is a very individual thing. So, as I said before, go to the shebang and see how you feel. If you had the time of your lives, and the hosts went above and beyond to make you feel fabulous — well, see what you think that is worth. ;-)

      Can’t wait to hear what you do!

  31. We are ONE stinking week away from our only son’s Bar Mitzvah. I am stressed enough to go on top of the Texas Book Depository and we ALL know how that turned out last time! Thank you for making me laugh. Our non-Jewish friends have been asking me this all year…and I’m betting we will have 9 million Game Stop gift certs. Oh well. Maybe I’ll learn to play X-box, too!!! Shalom and Namaste!

    • There’s still time to send them the link! Then it’ll be my fault! ;)

      Mazel tov on your upcoming simcha. I wrote a whole bunch of posts about my son’s bar mitzvah on my blog. (If you click, “So? Nu? She’s Jewish” you can read other posts and see what his Bar Mitzvah looked like.

      Meanwhile, one unsolicited piece of info: when your son is chanting, don’t look at the prayer book; look at him. You can look at the book any ole day. But on that day, look at him. Afterwards, so much changes so quickly. Someone told me to do this, and I’m so glad I did. You’ll see.

  32. Hello
    Can you tell me an appropriate sentiment to write in a card for a classmate’s bat mitzvah? Thank you. Sam

    • Hi Sam:

      It can be very short. Something like:

      Congratulations on making your bar/bat mitzvah. (Bar is for boys; bat is for girls.) You did a great job up there. (Assuming he or she did. Don’t lie.) I’m sure your family is very proud of you. Thank you for inviting me to share your special day with you.

      That’s it! Easy peasy! If you go to camp together or do a sport or club together, you can make some reference to the thing thst connects you. You know, like: See you at wrestling on Monday. You may be a man now, but I’ll still pin you. It’s fine to add a personal touch.

      Hope that helps! :)

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