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Oy Vey: What To Give (& 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’s a bigger deal than a birthday party; Jewish children have studied for seven years, including months of tutoring to get them prepared for their few hours alone on the bimah.

That said, I have decided to boldly go where no Jew has gone before: I’m going to suggest what you maybe-might-possibly consider giving (or not giving) to the b’nai mitzvah child.

(*Insert deep breath here.*)

When trying to determine what to give, you have to first ask yourself: How well do I know this person/family? That’s probably the single biggest factor that goes into the decision. You also have to consider how many people are going to attend to event: One adult? Two? The entire family? It matters. Because you have to consider that your host is feeding you. Are there two people attending or seven? Think about what you might pay to have that same group go out for a nice dinner — complete with appetizers and drinks and desserts.

SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS. The #18 in Hebrew means “chai.” (No, not like the tea.) To create the proper sound to pronounce the word “chai” you have to know that the “ch” sound something like an elderly man trying to clear his throat of an enormous ball of phlegm. The “ai” rhymes with the word “hi.” If you can put that together, you’ve got it! For all the math teachers out there, you might be interested to know that in Hebrew, each letter has a numerical value. Cool right? Kinda like a secret code.

The word for “life” in Hebrew is “chai. The two Hebrew letters that make up the word “chai” are chet and yud. Chet = 8 & yud = 10. Chet + yud = 18 or “chai”. Giving money in multiples of $18 is symbolic of giving “chai” or life, so Jewish people often give denominations of chai. In our community, children attending parties alone often give chai in increments: $18 + $18 = $36 (for double chai), $18 + $18 + $18= $54 (triple chai). Sometimes people get creative: a family might give $118 or $236 or one bajillion and eighteen cents — depending on whose special day it is and the nature of the relationship between the giver and the receiver. Family members generally give more than the average party-goer. That said, in some communities, giving $18 may be considered appropriate. It really depends on where you are how the community celebrates.

Some people say they find it helpful to think of a b’nai mitzvah like a mini-wedding, 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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