Oy Vey: What To Give (& What Not to Give) For a Bar or Bat Mitzvah

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.

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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, 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 is a bigger deal than a 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 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, but 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! *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.

Done deal.

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.

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

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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40 responses to “Oy Vey: What To Give (& What Not to Give) For a Bar or Bat Mitzvah

  1. My daughter really enjoyed some of the special gifts that she got… there were probably ten necklaces, but four-and-a-half years later she still remembers who bought her each. She asks to use her Menorah for Hanukkah,and has her very own mezzuzah on her bedroom doorframe. One of my friends got her a scrapbook/ autograph book for her party,and I think that was a real favorite. Money is great, but so are memories. Oh,and she did not return anything. I may have bought her dunkin donuts card from her though…

    • Blanche: Before I reposted, I reread every comment, and I saw that you had said these things about your daughter. I LOVE the scrapbook idea — for a girl. That would not go over big for a boy. You know? Also, I don’t think the day is supposed to be about physical gifts. I grew up in a slightly different tradition, so a lot of that is deeply embedded in my DNA or something. I can’t imagine someone giving a child a Dunkin’ Donuts card. That just seems very off as far as commemorating the spirit of the day.

      I do think Judaica is a wonderful gift to give — but parents should be consulted first. No one needs six pairs of candlesticks or four kiddush cups or eleven menorahs — even if they came from Israel. So I guess I stand by the cash is best rule because many synagogues give some of these items as gifts to new members of the congregation. Tech has a tallit from his grandpa, a tallit bag from his great grandpa (of blessed memory) and he’s got a mezzuzah on his bedroom door. I suppose it could be argued someone could give him a few more mezzuzot which we could hold onto until he has a home of his own, but really? I’d rather not hold onto his stuff for the next 20 years. I’d rather see an investment in my son go into the bank and (hopefully) grow so that he can one day buy the Judaisca that tickles his fancy. Or his wife’s. ;-)

  2. As an outsider, I find this helpful. I know you don’t want to appear greedy by asking for money, so this must have been an uncomfortable blog to write. But for those of us who have not grown up in the Jewish faith but know Jewish people and understand that this is a momentous day in a person’s life, it’s good info to have. As a person who has had occasion to receive gifts, I always appreciate cash over other things, including gift cards. As you say, it always fits. By the way, I love the picture from your bat mitzvah.

    • Hi Meghan: I know that not everyone will agree. And the fact that I am posting after midnight will likely not give this post much traffic, but I had to put it up again. Thank you for your kind words. And just so you know, in that photo, I’m the one in the middle NOT looking at the photographer. ;-) Digital photography has changed everything!

  3. Loved this post and explanation of what goes into preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah, the significance behind it, and how to gift give. I think most of the kids at the orthodox school where I teach give/receive money too. I know this was generally the case when I was growing up as well.

    If I don’t “see” you before next week, congratulations to your son and to you and your husband :).

    • Thanks Carrie. It is definitely an Orthodox thing to give money or Judaica. There are other reason, too — which I didn’t get into here. For example, you can’t smuggle a bomb into a synagogue in an envelope. But that was a very real concern at one point.

  4. I still haven’t figured out what to do with the Cross pens I received 23+ years ago. Wish they had been an ipod.

  5. Will you still love me if I tell you that you crossed into young adulthood two weeks before I was born? Heheh. :)

    I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to put this advice into practice, but I absolutely loved hearing more about what goes into a b’nai mitzvah. I have always admired the richness I’ve glimpsed of my Jewish friends’ religion. This is one more beautiful piece to add to my picture.

    Blessings and joy to you, your husband, and especially to Tech on his bar mitzvah. xo

  6. Ok, you’re probably not going to like what I have to say but I’m an honest kind of gal. So I apologize ahead of time, I’m not trying to be nasty, just want you to see it from another angle. We live in the Rochester suburb of Brighton (no I’m not Jewish lol) and my 3 children are 18, 15, 13. My children have been to COUNTLESS bar and bat mitzvahs. It was nice of you to explain the chai/18 symbolism, that would make a nice gift because of the meaning. But I think putting down gifts came off almost as… ungrateful. My girls gave their friends gifts of clothes or jewelry and later saw them wearing them at school.

    Gentle suggestions that cash might be better than gifts is nice, but lengthy dismissiveness of anything but cash seems a little, well… greedy or ungrateful. I’m sorry. Be grateful you have a fine young son who is becoming a man. Be grateful your son has so many friends and family that are willing to surround him in his journey. Be grateful you have the means to throw such a large, elegant party. Be grateful you have a loving family and a roof over your head.

    My one daughter went to 2 bar/bat mitzvahs where the children said, “in lieu of gifts, please make a donation to x charity” and had donation cards at the event. I thought that was a very nice idea.

    • Dear Margaret: I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. In fact, I even used to word grateful several times! I was just giving one person’s recommendation about the best gift to give. Like I said, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.

      I didn’t mean to imply gifts are bad or wrong, just that the giver had better really know the child because I can’t tell you how many homes I’ve sat in during the Sunday brunch the next day where the child makes a pile of gifts that are going back. Or going to be re-gifted because they didn’t come with a gift receipt. So I stand by my statement that it is always best to check with parents before giving specific gifts. Even when it comes to Judaica. Because how many candlesticks or menorahs does a kid need?

      I DO think your idea of making a donation to a charity is a wonderful thought, and that is ALWAYS a wonderful gift. I think I didn’t think of it because we tend to do that during the year for birthdays and anniversaries and even in memory of those who have passed away! I do appreciate you honesty and find it super refreshing.

      My son is a wonderful person, and we are fortunate to have a supportive community. We never take these things for granted. I was simply trying to keep an already long post short. Perhaps I should have just posted the original. It is funnier.

  7. growing up I did npot meet many Jewish people, I was never invited to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but last year my son was and we were in a quandry – what to give, what is appropriate. I would have loved the advice, I’ll file it away for future reference for O – my daughter as my Tech has passed his window…. I know tech will appreciate all of the gifts he recieves – even if he gets some odd things, they’ll be from the heart. Thanks for the advice.

    • And those things are appreciated! Truly! I didn’t mean to imply that that aren’t. One of my beloved former elementary school teachers gave me a plaque that I still have with the words to the poem “Footsteps” on it. It came from a Hallmark store and was likely not very expensive. But he knew I loved poetry. And I adored him. But I think my parents would have freaked out if I had received fifty of those. ;-)

  8. The real problem with Cross pens is that they are not Montblancs.

    This is a great, informative post. #4 just went to a bat mitzvah last week and we had several conversations about what a big deal it was. The night before we did a text survey among our friends and settled on $72, in the form of a check. Even though I’ve never actually met this particular friend, I was pretty thrilled that it was THE FIRST bat mitzvah any of the kids have been to. Plenty of bar mitzvahs though. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. This was really interesting, Renee. I have never been to a bar/bat mitzvah, so I had little idea what was involved. Thanks for sharing, and I hope the last week of preparations for the big day go smoothly.

  10. I agree that money is a nice gift but I have given tz’dakah boxes after checking with parents to see if the young teen has one or not. I love teaching, through the gift, that throughout their lives, the bar/bat mitzvah should always think of others and put away some money to donate to others less fortunate. I am happy to say that it is obvious through his book donation project that Tech already understands this. But I know that getting multiple Judaica items can be a bit much. I taught my non-Jewish friends the symbolism of 18 and they all appreciated it. So, while I got many savings bonds and used them to help buy my first car many years later, I agree that a check is best and not ungrateful at all.

    • Absolute agree that Judaica is a fabulous gift… so long as the kid doesn’t already have the item you are intending to give. I didn’t mean for this post to sound ungrateful. I am just one person stating my thoughts about giving.

      There is another reason Jews traditionally give money. Do you know?

      Not too long ago when people were more anti-Semetic, temples were being fire-bombed. If you brought a box into a temple, well…that was suspicious. When I was growing up, no one would have dared to bring a boxed gift into a temple. In fact that was how we could tell if the gift was from someone non-Jewish! Jews knew you couldn’t fit a bomb into an envelope.

  11. I received several gift certificates to book stores when I became a Bat Mitzvah back in 1984. In each book that I selected, I wrote the name of those who had given me the gift certificate so that I could remember the gift-givers. I still smile when I see those names…especially those who are no longer living.

    I think you nailed it when you said that it depends on the relationship one has with the celebrant and/or his/her family.

    Mazal tov on Tech’s reaching the age of ritual majority..

    • Hi Rebecca! I loved gift certificates to bookstores, too and did the same thing! But with iTunes now and with everyone reading on Kindles or Nooks — and not knowing which device a kid has, it’s risky. Plus bookstores are risky. I know someone who lost $200 when Borders was going out of business. They didn’t have one in their area (another problem) and by the time they realized the store was going down, there wasn’t much left to choose from.

      I love that you had the presence of mind to write the names of people in the books. THAT is super special and I will encourage Tech to do the same! Thanks for the tip.

  12. Well I’m glad that you got a chance to chant some Hebrew in front of a lot of people. By luck of the calendar, I had to chant an entire column of Torah. It was tough going, but rewarding since I was forced to learn the trope notes instead of just memorizing my maftir like most of my classmates. After that, I was able to prepare any Torah portion.

    One of the cooler gifts I got as a Bar Mitzvah was a booklet of 50 one-dollar bills. I kept it in my sock drawer and would make withdrawals whenever I needed to, peeling off only a dollar or two at a time. It was like having an unlimited money source, and I lived the life of a celebrity until I ran out of bills and was left with just an empty gummy binding.

    I personally think checks are better than savings bonds. Nothing like instant gratification. Mazel tov to Tech on one of the few remaining coming of age trials.

    • Tech has Korach which is one of the longest passages. It is 8 minutes. EIGHT MINUTES. Dude, yesterday I fell asleep at temple while he practiced! But, as you said, he knows the trope so he can chant any time he wants. So, you know, the temple gonna be calling him like every week.

      I love that you had a booklet of fifty singles. Who gave you that? And do that even know how cool they were? And do they even do that anymore? These days checks are definitely better than bonds. No doubt. But it was fun many years ago when they all matured at the same time. My dad was all: “Your bonds are ripe.” I had no idea I even had any left!

  13. Good job with a touchy subject, Renee. Less aptly stated, it could have sounded like a crass appeal, coming from the mother of the subject, but you handled it beautifully. May you and your family take home a lifetime of treasured moments from this bar mitzvah.

    • David:

      I’m not so sure how well I handled it. It is just one woman’s opinion, but I seriously don’t think kids are supposed to get killing games for their game systems. I’m pretty sure that that is not what this is about.

      PS: Tech doesn’t even have a gaming system.

  14. Howdy Renee! Like Peg, I’ve never been to a bar/bat mitzvah either. I think money is always an excellent gift and it’s a great idea for Tech to save it for his future endeavors.
    I watched the best documentary this week called “Praying with Lior,” Have you seen it? (If you haven’t, I suggest it and I also suggest a large box of tissues to go along with it.) It really gave me a better understanding of the preparation and traditions involved in a bar mitzvah.
    I wish your family and especially Tech the very best for his special time! :)

  15. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    I don’t know. I always thought a Kalisnikov was pretty neat myself.

    Just don’t include the ammunition.

    Seriously thought, I’m not Jewish, but I agree. Money is the best answer, except for really close family (parents, grandparents) who know the child super well, and with whom he/she has already placed their orders.

    Yes, the noise that is coming from Tech Support’s room really is oinking. He wanted a Vietnamese Pot Bellied Pig…

    Don’t worry, they are easy to house train.

    Wayne

    • A Kalisnikov sounds cool, but Jews are not known for possessing a love for the gun rack. It would have to come with lessons at the shooting range.

      I have never shot a real gun, but it is totally on my bucket list.

      By the way, thanks or the pig. I regret to inform you i had to give it to a neighbor. It wasn’t kosher. LOL!

  16. Ricky Anderson

    Thanks for the glimpses into a world I’m not familiar with. I appreciate it.

  17. Once I realized you could get money for savings bonds before they matured it was over…. I cashed in all my saving bonds for big bags of green leafed fun. Can I get 25 bucks for this 50 dollars bond? Yes? Sweet!!!!

    I still think gift certificates to concert ticket places like ticketmaster and stub hub are good gifts.. Not as good as colds hard cash but cool.

    • If you have a kid who likes music and the parents are okay with letting their kid go to a show, getting a gift certificate to Ticketmaster is an awesome idea! I’ve never thought of that! Tech hasn’t gone to a real show yet. I don’t count the Steely Dan concert hubby dragged him to last summer.

      I love that you cashed in your bonds for weed. Classic. ;-)

  18. We always give cash and I wish I’d known about the significance of 18 in the past.

    So thanks, Renee. Going forward, I’ll keep it in mind.

  19. I’m glad you laid it out there, Renee! There really are some similarities to a wedding. Is Tech Support nervous? I suddenly got nervous for him reading this post! Although seeing him do the book giveaway, I know he’ll do great! :)

  20. Pingback: Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners « Coffee Shop Rabbi

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