Tag Archives: Judaism

A Confused RSVPer: Bar Mitzvah Tales, Part 2

Self-made Star of David in Adobe Illustrator.

Self-made Star of David in Adobe Illustrator. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The invitations went out without a hitch.

The thank you notes arrived.

The RSVP’s immediately started to roll in.

(Which is totally fun.)

But yesterday we received one reply card that made my jaw drop.

Tech Support has friends who represent many different ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions.

Not everyone has attended a bar mitzvah before, so I expected there might be questions about what to wear to the synagogue and how long the service would last. I anticipated lots of other things, too.

But I did not expect issues with the reply cards.

Our reply card looks like this:

It seemed very clear when we designed it.

And when we addressed our envelopes, Tech’s friends received invitations with their names on the envelope.

So I was baffled when one very smart boy (let’s call him Wu) wrote six names (not in English) along with his own (in English) and then penned in the number 8 in blank line adjacent to “Number Attending.”

At first, I thought Wu was screwing with me.

But I realized he wasn’t.

I freaked out a little searched to find the school directory to try to locate Wu’s telephone number.


(Of course.)

I called the school to see if they might help me.

“We can’t give out phone numbers or email address if they are not listed in the directory,” a voice on the other side of the line explained.

“Can you call the family and have someone contact me?” I begged. “It’s kind of important.”

Fifteen minutes later, the woman from my son’s school called me to tell me that she had reached the father.

She assured me that he would call.

Any minute.

I waited by the phone.

For hours.

No one called.

Actually, that’s not true.

The phone rang constantly.

But it was never *them*.

Eventually, I composed a letter that so so awkwardly explains — while Wu’s family is welcome to attend the service and the light luncheon which will be served after the service — the evening invitation and party is reserved for Tech’s friends and family members.

And people we know.

Now I have to figure out if Tech should give my note to his friend in school and have him pass it along to his parents…

…Or if I should just send it in the mail.

I’m thinking the mail.


It’s official.

I’m flailing.

And I’m pretty sure I’m about to be considered inhospitable.

Please share your special occasion snafus here. I need a laugh.

Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson


The Blessing of Paper: Bar Mitzvah Tales, Part 1

The Ten Commandments, In SVG

Image via Wikipedia

As some of you know, I have been planning my son’s bar mitzvah.

For the last 18 million months.

I will eventually write more about the horrors and the joys of this journey.

But let’s start here with the invitations.

I know a lot of people like very traditional designs when it comes to invitations for religious events.

Me? Not so much.

I looked around and found very few invitations that got me excited.

Meanwhile, everyone kept telling me:

The invitation sets the tone for the event.

Finally I decided to get Tech Support involved.

He was all shoulder shrugs.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Just pick something cool.”

Finally, I found the invitation that spoke to both of us.

It isn’t traditional. It is actually kind of funky.

And I don’t mean that it is contemporary.

It is just right, and I got them from Rishona Beck Myers at RM Creative Events.

And I would love to show a picture to you, but I haven’t sent them out yet.

So I can’t.

But I can tell you that only after the invitations and all the coordinating inserts arrived did I realize I kind of forgot about thank-you notes.

This should give you some insight into my abilities as an event planner.

I was just about to start searching again when eInvite bar mitzvah invitations came to my rescue.

They have a fabulous thank-you card that coordinates with my son’s invitation perfectly.

Click here to see more information about this thank-you note.

Initially, I was nervous about ordering from an online vendor, but they are printed on the same high-quality Checkerboard paper on which his invitations are printed.

And no, Tech Support’s real name isn’t Kayla.

And I didn’t use this font.

I used a more masculine font that matches his invitation – so everything goes together, which is lovely.

So lovely that I can actually hear my son telling his friends that he can’t swim in their pool or have a water fight or shoot off rockets in the backyard because he is just so excited to touch these papers. I can see him holding a pen and happily writing out all his thank-you notes without a single complaint.


A mother can dream, right?

If you are looking to order bar or bat mitzvah invitations or thank-you notes online, be sure to check out eInvite.com.

Have you ever ordered something major from an online vendor? How’d that work out for you?

I received 50 Conventional Tie Die Celebration Bar Mitzvah Thank-You Notes from eInvite.com in exchange for writing this post. But all the opinions are mine. And these thank-you notes rock.

Rivki Silver is no Huffaloftus!

Here’s Rivki!

I had never heard of her before December 2011.

But I had been looking for a bunch of bloggers to write about Hanukkah and the marvelous Nina Badzin suggested I contact Rivki.

What a find!

Rivki writes a blog called Life In The Married Lane.

An observant Jew, she writes some fabulous (and often funny) posts of Jewish interest where she demystifies a lot about the seemingly mysterious world of Orthodox Jewry in America. She has a great piece about why she covers her head here and here.

Her mission is to inspire others to find meaning in the mundane.  She shares household tips, parenting advice {and foibles}, relationship stuff, menu planning and more. She also loves garden gnomes and…um, she likes to lie on a carpet and smell the fibers. Right. Also she has this weird thing she can do with her tongue.

Okay bazinga.

Why am I going on and on about Rivki Silver?

And is all that true?

Well, the part about her being a very good writer is. I don’t know about the gnomes. Or the carpet. And I have no idea what she can or cannot do with he tongue. (You would have to talk to her husband. Or maybe her dentist.)

I’m writing about Rivki because she won the “What the deuce is a Huffaloftus?” poll by a landslide! And telling all my readers about her greatness was the prize.

So check out her blog. And her Facebook page. And you can stalk her on Twitter @RivkiSilver.

Guaranteed her posts will teach you something new.

Now it’s your turn to spread a little mischievous fun.

Write 25 words about a favorite blogger. (Be sure to tell us the name and URL of the blog to which that person is attached.) Oh, and don’t be afraid to fiction it up a little. After all, it is April Fools’ Day. And be sure to direct that person to the words you leave here. That person might have a thing or two to say about you!

Tweet this twit @rasjacobson

I Knew It My Heart: A #LessonLearned from Alexandra Rosas

Even her shirt sounds Jewish!

Way back in December, I asked Alexandra Rosas of Good Day, Regular People the question in a tweet. “Are you Jewish?” And while she said she responded that she wasn’t, she told me bits of the story featured below.

I knew I had to have her share it here.

Those of you who follow Alexandra know she is normally pee-in-your-pants funny. This piece is special because it reveals another side of her writing repertoire.

Alexandra is the oversensitive mother of three who, in a surreal twist of life, found herself named as BlogHer ’11′s Voice of The Year for Humor. She has been a mother since 1994, which means she hasn’t been right about anything since. Besides trying to go unnoticed in her small town, she fills her days blogging of the sweet and the funny at her humor site Good Day, Regular People. Alexandra claims to be socially awkward and that the Internet was created for her — but I don’t buy it.

Folks can read her blog, follow her on Twitter at @GDRPempress. Or if you do the Facebook thing, you can find her here.

Now! Pay attention! Because this is history and personal narrative rolled into a ball of fabulousness!

Click on the teacher’s arm to see other people who have written in the #LessonsLearned series.

• • •

I Knew It, My Heart

In the seventh grade, one of my favorite places to spend the weekends was my friend Lisa Seraphim’s house. Everything felt so instantly familiar there, especially the things her mother would do.

Lisa and I would help her mother clean up and cook. I’d watch as she’d sweep the kitchen floor from the corners first, and then gather the dust into the center of the room. I’d look at her mother and say with astonishment, “That’s how my grandmother taught me how to do it too!”

Her mother would start dinner and the first step was to always rinse the meat, being sure to remove all the nerves before soaking it in salt water. Just like home, I’d think to myself. In the mornings, as we’d crack eggs for breakfast, her mother would instruct us to throw out any eggs that had blood spots in them. “My grandmother tells me the same thing,” I’d answer politely. Just like home, even though Lisa’s home was Jewish, and mine was Colombian.

Mrs. Seraphim would cook with garlic, cumin, olive oil, and tomatoes. Always tomatoes, like my Spanish grandmother’s dishes. The meals at Lisa’s house were identical to the meals at my house; I never had to worry about whether or not I would like what she would serve.

Lisa had younger brothers, the same as I did, with long, curly hair. They had to wait until the boys were at least three years old before they could cut their hair. My family had done the same thing with my brothers.

I never thought much about all the similarities between my family and Lisa’s. I was attracted to them and felt comfortable in the things that the Seraphim’s did. Beyond that, I never thought further.

Did I think it odd that Lisa was Jewish and I was a Catholic that had come from South America, yet we had too much in common to be a coincidence? I didn’t. It wasn’t until years later, while in a college World Religions Class that my mouth and eyes opened in an aha moment when the professor began to cover The Spanish Inquisition and told us about the Jews that escaped from Spain to avoid persecution and found safety in The Canary Islands. I felt dizzy in my chair.

State flag of the Autonomous Community of the ...

State flag of the Autonomous Community of the Canary Islands (source: Wikipedia)

My grandmother’s family had come from The Canary Islands.

My grandmother rinsed the meat from the butcher to free it of any blood, my grandmother lit candles in a closed off room on Friday nights, my grandmother would not buy fish without scales.

This was before the days of home computers, so I spent that night after class poring over the books in the campus library. There were books on this subject! The group of Jews that had gone to live in secret were known as Crypto-Jews. I found a list of questions called “Fifteenth Century Spain and Crypto-Jewish Customs.”

As I raced through the questions, answering yes to over half of them, my mind couldn’t believe it. Does your family fast during la semana santa? Yes. Does your family celebrate El Dia Puro? Yes. Does your family clean the house on Fridays during the day? Yes. Are biblical names common in your family?

Every other uncle in my family was named Moises.

But the next bit of information I found made me clap my hand over my mouth to keep quiet. There was a list of eight, ONLY eight, Crypto-Judaic family surnames from The Canary Islands. I read through it holding my breath.

My grandmother’s maiden name was on it.

Was I a descendant of Crypto-Jews? I’ll never know; sadly, my grandmother has been gone twenty-five years now (we clipped locks of her curls, and wrapped them in tissue paper). I prefer to think of this information as the reason why I have always been drawn to and had an affinity for the Jewish friends in my life. It’s as if my heart already knew.

Have you ever heard of Crypto-Jews? Tell me something fantastic about your ethnic background? If you could be of a different ethnicity, what do you wish you could be?

Tweet This Twit @rasjacobson

And The Winner Is…

My #HanukkahHoopla winner is…

Alison Greenhouse Bronstein

Her comment was chosen after all interested participants’ names were placed in a medium-sized tin bowl. Tech Support did the picking.

(Sorry, Craig. I know you wanted this!)

What did Alison win?

  • Mama Doni’s 2011 Parents’ Choice Award-winning CD, Shabbat Shaboom
  • a Mama Doni poster
  • a Download card for free Mama Doni songs (1 Chanukah song and 1 Passover song)
  • a Bag of Streit’s chocolate Hanukkah gelt.

HUGE thanks to our sponsors, Streit’s and Mama Doni, the lead singer/songwriter of The Mama Doni Band.

And thanks to everyone for helping me spread a bit of Hanukkah Happiness around the web. I loved meeting all these new Members of the Tribe (#MOT), one of whom happens to live pretty darn close to me! Who knew?

Congratulations again to Alison! Not a bad way to kick off the New Year, eh?

A Little #HanukkahHoopla

Immediately after Thanksgiving, the blogosphere became crammed with posts about How to Find the Perfect Christmas Tree, and Elves on Shelves & What To Get Your Man for Christmas and lots of stuff about Why We Need To Keep Christ in Christmas.

And that’s all cool and everything.

Except I thought: I want some #HanukkahHoopla!

So, I telepathically contacted Jewish bloggers from across the globe.


No, seriously, I am good, but I can’t do that!

But with a little networking via Twitter, I was able to connect with fifteen other Jewish bloggers, each of whom agreed to write something Hanukkah-ishy.

Taken together, you will see we represent a broad range of Jewish experience.

Some of us are Reform. Others are Conservative. Some are Orthodox. Some of us have converted to Judaism.

Two of us are rabbis!

Some of us keep kosher; others, not so much.

We have enjoyed getting to know each other, and this was truly a group effort.

So look for our button.

This is the button!

And leave us comments that will make us kvell.


Because we are fortunate to have sponsorship for our series! Streit’s and Mama Doni**, the lead singer/songwriter of The Mama Doni Band, have provided each of us with a little #HanukkahHoopla gift pack including:

•Mama Doni’s 2011 Parents’ Choice Award-winning CD, Shabbat Shaboom
•a Mama Doni poster
•a Download card for free Mama Doni songs (1 Chanukah song and 1 Passover song)
•a Bag of Streit’s chocolate Hanukkah gelt.

(**Note: That’s Mama Doni doing her thing in the video above. Isn’t she cute?)

I don’t mean to point out the obvious but that’s sixteen chances to win, people!

You’ll find more information about winning our #cyberswag on individual blogs.

So look for our button.

If you click on it, you should will be magically transported by Jewish unicorns to this page and then you can figure out who has posted and who will be posting next.

For those of you on Twitter, look for the hashtag #HanukkahHoopla because we’ll be tweeting each others’ tushies off between December 20-28.

Below is the schedule for who will be posting and when as well as everyone’s Twitter handle. You can comment on anyone’s blog all the way until the end of the 2011. Winners will be posted on our own blog pages, but they will also be posted here!

Chappy Chanukkah!

Candle 1:

12/20 Leah’s Thoughts @leahs_thoughts Winner: Caryn Statman

12/20 Ima On (and Off)The Bima @imabima Winner: Lisa Goldstein

Candle 2:

12/21 Nina Badzin’s Blog @ninabadzin Winner: Lisa Aronauer

12/21 Diary of a Paper Princess @RishonaMyers Winner: Cari Chartock

Candle 3:

12/22 The Monster in Your Closet @deb_bryan

12/22 Kvetchmom @jlweinberg Winner: Paprika Furstenburg

Candle 4:

12/23 Lessons From Teachers and Twits @rasjacobson Winner: Allison Greenhouse Bronstein

12/23 Life in The Married Lane @rivkisilver – Winner: Meghan @aMegaliLife

Candle 5:

12/24 TheJackB @thejackb

12/24 Erin Margolin @erinmargolin Winner: Andrea Bates @GoodGirlGoneRed

Candle 6:

12/25 These Little Waves @galitbreen Winner: AskDoc

12/25 CiaoMom @ciaomom – Winner: Meryl Ain

Candle 7:

12/26 The Culture Mom @theculturemom Winner: Gigi Gervits Schwartz

12/26 I wish my mom @sharistein – Winner : Sara Hawkins

Candle 8:

12/27 Frume Sarah’s World @frumesarah Winner: Bible Belt Sarah

12/27 Aprons & Blazers @OpenRoadMama Winner: Danielle Kolko

Congratulations to all our winners, and thanks to all our readers!

The Book Is Closed. Or Is it?

When I was a little girl, a Sunday School teacher told me that on Rosh Hashanah, G-d opened a big book that had everyone’s names in it, young and old.

My teacher explained how, each year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d decided who would live and who would die in the upcoming year. And how. By fire or by water; by plague or by earthquake. The list went on forever.

I remember imagining a really old, wrinkled guy in white robes sitting at a silver desk perched on top of clouds. In his smooth, shaky hand, he held a gold pen that he used to cross-out people’s names.

On The High Holy Days, I dressed in the fancy clothes that my mother had laid out for me and sat in temple all day with my family.

And as the adults chanted words in English and Hebrew, I played nervously with the knots on my father’s prayer shawl.

And I looked around and wondered who was not going to be there the next year.

Because it was a pretty scary idea: that G-d was making decisions all the time based on how we behaved.

(‘Cuz I wasn’t always the best little girl.)

But there was a lot more to that prayer: a part that I didn’t figure out until years later.

The prayer reads:

But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree! This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. G-d, it is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live.

Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You (314).

Those words are a gift.

An exhale.

They mean that if we really have open hearts and want to do right for all the messed up shizz we have done throughout the year, through prayer and acts of love and kindness, we can change a course previously set in motion.

Jews have ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to try to set things right.

And G-d is reasonable.

Like a good parent.

For example, when your kid messes up and you calmly explain: “Listen, I asked you to clean your room, but you ignored me. If you clean your room, take out the garbage, wash the dishes, and walk the dog, you can have your iPod back tomorrow.”

G-d is cool like that. G-d does not say:

You were bad so I’m putting you out of your house, buddy. Nothing you can do about it now, sucker!

Not at all.

G-d wants us to recognize and admit that we have goofed up during the year.

And we can fix these things.

We can apologize.

To have that chance, to be able to fix what has been broken, is something I take pretty seriously.

There is a scene from the movie The Jazz Singer (with Neil Diamond) that I can’t watch without crying.

It is a scene that shows a little of what Yom Kippur is about.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the film, Yussel Rabinovitch, the son of an Orthodox cantor, decides to leave his religious tradition and follow his heart.

He leaves his synagogue and the expectations of his family to continue as a cantor. (Whaaat?)

He leaves his childhood sweetheart, Rivka. (Unheard of.)

He drives across country because he wants to sing popular music. Non-religious music. (He’s meshuganah.)

He changes his name, loses his Jewish identity, and becomes Jess Robin.

He meets another woman. (Oy.)

She’s not Jewish. (Double oy.)

They fall in love.

At some point, Jess is in New York and he runs into one of his father’s old friends who tells him that his father has been ill.

The doctors won’t let Cantor Rabinovitch sing on Yom Kippur due to his high blood pressure.

We learn that a Rabinovitch has always sung on Kol Nidre for — like — 912 generations. (Or at least 3.)

But Jess Robin humbly returns to his roots and becomes Yussel Rabinovitch for Yom Kippur.

Even though his father has declared him dead.

Even though he has been excommunicated.

He goes back to apologize the only way he can.

In song.

(Note: I start crying at 1:24.)

This is what we are supposed to do.

(No, not the singing thing!)

We are supposed to humble ourselves — to those we have hurt, to G-d — in that kind of honest way.

The High Holy Days give Jews a chance to reflect on the wrongs we’ve committed to those around us, to make amends for those wrongs, and face the new year with gratitude, and hope that we’ve been given a chance to start anew.

Bottom line: We have all sinned.

We are human.

This year, the fasting is over.

The table has been cleared.

What’s done is done.

The Book is closed.

I’ve done what I can.

I guess this is where the faith part comes in.

Now the trick is to be a better me in 5772.

Now listen to Babs sing and tell me what you feel when you hear her voice.

Stern, Chaim. Ed. Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe. 2. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1985. 313-4. Print.

© Renée Schuls-Jacobson 2011

If You Think I Take Grammar Seriously, You Should See Me On Rosh Hashanah

A shofar made from a ram's horn is traditional...

A shofar made from a ram's horn is traditionally blown in observance of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish civic year. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, I am sitting in temple for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

I’ll be thinking about the wrongs that I have committed this year and praying for forgiveness.

I assume I have hurt people this year.

I am positive that I ticked someone off.

You know, for being too quick to speak.

And for that I am sorry.

Because sometimes I say stupid stuff.

And I am working on it.

Every year.

I am working on being slower to act on impulse.

That is a tough nut to crack for me.

When I perceive an injustice, it is hard for me to shut up about it.

But sometimes, these are other people’s battles and not mine.

And sometimes the things we view as major problems are just obstacles to which we must adjust.

I’m learning that it is not my job to make everyone around me change.

I am trying to be more loving (and tolerant) towards the people who are the greatest blessings in my life. I need to thank the person who always takes my morning phone call; the person who dances with me on her driveway and brings me baskets of pears fresh off her trees; the family member, with whom I don’t seem to speak the same language, but I like to believe would be around for me if I ever really needed help.

I am trying to be more mindful of the sick. There are people around me who have been struggling, either physically or emotionally. Or both. Because, while writers may be willing to admit feelings of overwhelmedness in the blogging world, it is sometimes harder for people in real-life to share when they are melting-down. I am watching for signs, so I can be a more supportive friend.

There is a lot of symbolism regarding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

If you are interested in learning more, you can click HERE.

Tomorrow, I will wander down to the Erie Canal and drop little dried flower petals into the water as I speak my transgressions aloud.

That’s right, I will admit to all the things that I have done wrong.

Because Jews are encouraged to make amends with anyone we have wronged and to make plans for improvement during the coming year, I will also bring a list of things with me: action steps — people to whom I need to apologize as well as thoughts on how I’d like to live my life differently in the next year, 5772.

I will say these words:

Who is like You, God, who removes iniquity and overlooks transgression of the remainder of His inheritance. He doesn’t remain angry forever because He desires kindness. He will return and He will be merciful to us.  He will conquer our iniquities, and He will cast them into the depths of the seas.

From the straits I called upon God, and God answered me with expansiveness. God is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? God is with me to help me, and He will see my foes.

And then I will shake out my pockets, symbolically removing all the old stuff. The lint and the crud that accumulates in the littlest nooks and crannies, so I can start fresh.

Rosh Hashanah is all about making peace in the community and striving to be a better person.

So each year, I try to be a little bit better.

Later, I will come home to dip an apple in honey and wish my family a sweet year, filled with health and peace.

I wish the same for each of you.

Check out this happy video.

Now for a minute, pretend you are standing beside the water with me. What is one little thing that you would like to change about yourself to be a better person?

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

Lessons From My Father

Note: Part of this piece was originally posted one year ago on Father’s Day 2010, when I had very few followers. I thought I would post it again this year, in honor of my father. Please note, these items are listed in no apparent order, which will – no doubt – drive my father nuts.

Dad & Me

The men in my life have to accept my flaws. They basically have no choice. When it comes to Father’s Day, everyone knows I’m bad at it. For a while I think I had Monkey fooled, but now I am pretty sure even he’s on to me. I think. Anyway, this is my last minute sincere attempt to tell my father that I love him in a song. Sorry, I lied. It’s not even in a song. It’s just words. Unless you can find a smooth groove that works along with my prose, then I meant it as a song. Totally.

• • •

Dear Dad:

I know that I never send a card. I mean, sometimes I manage to pull it all together, but not usually.

And I hope you know it is not because I don’t love about you, because I do. It’s just… what can I say to you in a card that I haven’t already said to you in one of our two-hour marathon phone conversations?

Even though we can’t be together today, please know that I am thinking of you. And in the meantime, here are a few things that I have learned from you. I thought you should know, I have been paying attention.

• • •

Turn Off The Lights When You Leave A Room. My whole life I have heard my father utter this refrain, but you know what? He is right. It is wasteful, and we can each do our part to try to save a little energy.

Be Neat. Neatness matters to my father. Before middle school, he sat me down and taught me to color-code my subject areas: How about a red folder and red notebook for math? he suggested. And how about a blue folder and blue notebook for English? And later, when I graduated to a three-ring binder, my father taught me about the benefits of dividers with rainbow-colored tabs. He likes my penmanship to be impeccable, my numbers to line up in straight columns. Errors made because of sloppiness drive him crazy.

A Crossword Puzzle A Day Will Keep The Doctor Away. At 73, my dad is sharp as a stick. He does a crossword every day, and – as people who do crosswords know – the puzzles increase in the level of difficulty as the week goes on. By Sunday, I am usually stumped. My dad is not a quitter. He works on those suckers until he beats ’em. A few years ago, a study came out that indicated doing crossword puzzles routinely helps delay Alzheimer’s disease. Wouldn’t you know, my dad was ahead of the curve on this one, too?

Leave For The Airport No Less Than 2.5 Hours In Advance of Your Departure Time. I don’t actually do this, but whenever we are going on vacation, I hear the echo of my father’s words in my head chiding us all to “hurry up,” because “we don’t want to be late and miss our flight.”

Stay Active By Doing the Things You Love To Do. My father loves all things associated with his alma mater, Syracuse University – especially sports: basketball, football, even lacrosse. He loves parking at Manley Field House, taking the bus to the Carrier Dome, jumping into the fray with the all other fans, and – win or lose – screaming for his favorite team. It reminds him of his college days, I’m sure. He also plays table tennis regularly, and sells real estate in Syracuse. These are all things he loves to do, and I am sure they help keep him feeling young.

Do Not Do Anything Less Than Your Best. He would say, “Everything you do is a reflection of you. If you don’t care about the product, why should anyone else?”

When You Think You’re Done, Check Your Work. Yep. This is the man who taught me to revise. To find the errors. To make the changes. To not be afraid to rip things apart and start over. To dissect and rework. While my English teachers certainly helped, it was my father who gave me an editor’s eye.

Be good to people. Always.

My Mom & Dad

Family first, then friends.

Don’t live beyond your means. I grew up modestly, but comfortably. I never wanted for anything, but I didn’t get everything I wanted. My father talked about saving for college, and saving for retirement. He’s a saver. He taught me not to covet what other people have, but to be happy with what I’ve got.

Avoid Doctors, But if You Have to Go, Listen to what the Doctor Says.

Do Not Expect Special Treatment. That way you can be surprised and gracious if you get it.

Don’t Forget Your Roots. I grew up in a modest house with a pretty backyard. Though we could have had more stuff, mostly, we kept to the things that were necessary. We played board games: lots of Scrabble and Monopoly. Holidays were spent with my father’s side of the family, who lived nearby. We didn’t take fancy vacations, but visited my mother’s side of the family – my grandparents, aunt and uncles, and cousins – in the Catskill Mountains. We practiced our Judaism quietly but consistently, and we continue to do so.

Overnight Camp Rocks. That is a blog unto itself.

Your Health is Everything. Over the last few years, I have watched friends struggle with and succumb to cancer too young. Other friends have developed chronic illnesses with which they wrestle daily. These things make me feel sad and more than a little helpless. When I was in college, my father had one scary episode that involved shoveling snow, passing out, and waking up in a pile of freezing cold, slush. Suddenly, he had a stent and a whole set of new dietary habits. No more steaks (he eliminated red meat), and no more tall glasses of 2% chocolate milk (he cut out nearly all dairy). These days he looks and feels fantastic, and I pray he is around for a long, long time.

My dad has taught me a zillion other things too.

And I know he’s always got my back.

I love you dad.

(I know. I forgot the comma.)

For better or for worse, name one thing you have learned from your father.

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:


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. 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.


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

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