Tag Archives: Torah

Moving Beyond Where I’m From

The place I grew up. My parents still live there.

i’m from a little gray ranch hidden behind overgrown bushes on a steep hill.

i’m from beneath the willow tree and a field-stone wall, peopled by imaginary friends.

i’m from high expectations. from complex equations left unfinished on the backs of paper restaurant menus; from pink plastic flowers; a bedroom with curtains that matched the wallpaper and the bedspread.

i’m from praise whispered in one ear and criticism hissed in the other. from “stand up straight” and “every penny counts” and “be a big girl.”

i’m from confuzzled truths and secrets and lies.

i’m from strong Judaism watered down. from Torah and tallit and kippot, lox and bagels, noodle kugel and matzah ball soup. from a broken Borscht Belt, stories of what once was, memories of a dark pew in a fire-bombed synagogue.

i’m from want. from a hot-headed Polish Papa who once threw his plate on the apartment floor. from his ketchup and eggs, like bloody clumps soaking into the carpet. and my Nan who silently cleaned up his mess.

(don’t tell me this isn’t true. i was there.)

i’m from a fractured family of brothers who tried to make a business work. from Muriel who nurtured her garden but didn’t do as well with her children. from Ruby who spent too many hours at the store and on the golf course, and smoked too many cigars.

i’m from cracked paint and faded couches; the girl hiding under a blanket in a drafty room.

i’m from a crooked house on a steep hill that rarely houses guests. from parents who were present but also not. from powerful magic love that made me feel invisible.

for too long a sense of obligation tethered me to all that grey.

i am done trying to please them.

time to take care of me.

Where are you from? Throw me one line.

• • •

This meme was very hot a while back, but I was not confident about sharing such a personal piece. Since then, I feel less afraid.

Thanks to Jenny Hansen for encouraging me to move beyond the first sentences and to Sharla Lovelace for inspiring Jenny. If you go to HERE, you will see this exercise is based on a poem by George Ella Lyon called “Where I’m From,” and if you’d like to try it yourself, the original link is there.

Advertisements

To My Son, One Month After

Dress rehearsal. No cameras allowed on the real day.

By the time you read this, it will have already slipped into past tense.

I will have already sat in synagogue and listened to him chant from the Torah.

It’s a little surreal, eighteen months of talking about it and suddenly, it will be over.

At the time, I wasn’t sure what to say.

Because I didn’t know how I would feel.

Everyone always talks about the party, the theme, the food, the DJ.

But for me, the most amazing stuff happened in the synagogue, hours before.

At one point, our family stood on the bimah together, facing the Torah scrolls, the congregation at our backs. We had just finished singing and the rabbi whispered, “Now turn and face front.”

This was taken right after the “glow moment.”

As we all turned, the room came into focus. We woke that morning to a stunning blue-skies day, as we stood in shul, the sun streamed through the stained glass windows.

From my vantage point, everyone’s head seemed to be glowing, especially the men’s heads underneath the neon green yarmulkes Tech had selected for the day. I saw every row filled with people — our people — family and friends and members of the community.

It felt like G-d was touching our little corner of the earth.

I thought back to eighteen months earlier, when we learned that Tech’s bar mitzvah was going on to be on June 23, 2012, how my husband took two giant steps backward.

“No way,” Hubby put his hand on his forehead. “I made my bar mitzvah on June 23rd. In 1979.”

My son was going to become a bar mitzvah and stand on the same bimah where my husband made his bar mitzvah thirty-three years earlier.

It was definitely beshert, meant to be.

And it felt a little bit magical.

Tech’s Hebrew name is Abbe Reuven, after two of his great-grandfathers. And, on his bar mitzvah day he received his tallit (traditional prayer shawl) from one grandfather and his other grandfather (my father) presented him with a tallit bag which had belonged to his father: these are ancient rituals, traditions passed down from one generation to to the next.

Our son is the walking embodiment of our faith. He has always been proud to be Jewish. He has never complained about going to Hebrew School, the way most some kids do. Each summer he heads to Jewish camp, and he says his favorite place there is at the waterfront, by the fire circle, during Friday night services.

Tech takes Jewish Law seriously, and — as he said during his d’Var (personal reflection) during his bar mitzvah — he truly wishes everyone followed the 10 Commandments. He feels these rules were designed to keep people out of trouble with themselves, family, friends, and neighbors, and he believes if we look at the lessons of the Torah, we can figure out how to stay out of trouble and live in peace with one another.

As he stood before a congregation of over 200 people, I was amazed by his composure.

I have always said Tech has an “old soul.” It is like some 93-year old Jewish guy died and on his way out, his soul went straight into our newborn. Tech has always understood the important things in life. He is comfortable in his own skin and with who he is, regardless of whatever others think.

[I expect to get to that place. You know, like any day now.]

I don’t pretend to know where Tech is going.

He is still becoming.

All I know is that if you can get up and sing (and speak) in front of hundreds of people at the age of 13, you can do anything.

Tweet this twit @rasjacobson

My Father’s Secret

My dad, June 23, 2012

My parents took religious school education seriously. I was never allowed to miss a day for any after-school extra-curricular activities like roller skating parties, which always seemed to fall on the same afternoons as Hebrew School. My brother and I were expected to be proficient in Hebrew, and it was a given we would study extensively in preparation for our bar and bat mitzvah services.

The weekend prior to my son’s bar mitzvah, my mother-in-law pulled out some old pictures to show TechSupport. There was a sepia photograph of my father-in-law taken before his bar mitzvah over 60 years ago.

“And there’s your daddy.” My mother-in-law pointed to a photo of Hubby, who was quite the stud in his powder-blue jacket, plaid pants, and wide collar peach shirt à la1977.

That night, I called my father to see if there might be a photo of him somewhere. I’d never seen one, but my grandmother was before her time with the scrapbooking, so I wondered if maybe there was a picture buried in the basement somewhere.

“Well, you know…” my father took a deep breath. “I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you.”

I had no idea what he was going to say.

“I mean, now that you are an adult, you should probably know…”

My mind was spinning. Was he going to tell me that he wasn’t really Jewish?

My father hemmed and hawed and beat around the bush until I shouted into the receiver. “Dad, you’re killing me! Just say it!”

“I never had a bar mitzvah,” my father said quietly.

My brain couldn’t process this new information. It didn’t fit into any information it had been given before. I didn’t know any Jewish men my father’s age that had not had a bar mitzvah. Even men who have fallen out of the faith had stood on the bimah and chanted. Meanwhile, my father is a spiritual person. He follows the laws of the Torah. He is active in his synagogue. He loves Judaism. He loves Israel. He loves celebrating the Jewish holidays. He never had a bar mitzvah?

“What are you talking about?” I stood up from my chair to pace around our family room. “How is that even possible?”

“I grew up pretty poor. Back then people didn’t have parties like they do today, but there were get-togethers.” My father paused, and I imagined him flipping the corner of his crossword puzzle. “My parents and I talked it over, and we decided that I wouldn’t have one. Because, you know, we couldn’t afford a party or anything.”

“But you could have had a bar mitzvah and just not had a party, right?

“I suppose.” My father conceded. “But I didn’t want to embarrass my father.”

I asked why he had waited so long to tell me about not having a bar mitzvah.

I asked him if he had ever wished to have made his bar mitzvah.

I asked him if it was something he wanted to do now, at 74.

TechSupport overheard me giving my father the third degree, and told me to stop.

“Grampy goes to temple all the time.” Tech said. “He is a very honest, very humble and very good man. He lives his life by the Torah. I am pretty sure that G-d is good with him.”

I felt the tears catch in my eyes when my son spoke to me. He was right, and I am sure any rabbi would have offered the same words.

The Bar or Bat Mitzvah isn’t a mandatory rite of passage; by Jewish law, a boy reaches adulthood when he turns 13 and a girl at 12, no ceremony required. Some say the very lack of necessity makes the efforts even more remarkable as concrete, hard-won, and public affirmations of Jewish identity and commitment.

And yet.

My father became a bar mitzvah without pomp or circumstance. For him, becoming a bar mitzvah was a private experience, a continuation of the covenant between himself and G-d.

Who knew?

Ever been surprised by your child’s wisdom?

Tweet This Twit @rasjacobson

Facebook Advice Before The Bar Mitzvah

A few months ago, after her daughter had just made her bat mitzvah, my friend Jill held my hands in hers and gave me some advice. She said:

“On your son’s day, don’t look in the book. I mean it. Just look at him. You can read the words and old day and you know the prayers and songs by heart. But just watch him. Watch him watching everyone. Don’t miss anything. Trust me on this.”

Jill is one of my wise friends.

Friday afternoon, I asked a last-minute question of my Facebook friends.

My former camp counselor wrote:

I love this piece of advice, how Betsy’s words echo Jill’s, and I plan to put aside my prayer-book, and just watch my son.

Admire the person he is and the man he is becoming.

(I will look and look and look at my boy even if it freaks him out.)

I will also breathe, enjoy the moment, keep my legs crossed during the hora, enjoy the moment and remember the significance of the moment.

Maybe I’ll even have a little something besides my standard Canada Dry Ginger Ale with a lime.

And what was that other thing?

Oh yeah, enjoy it.

Thanks to everyone for your comments emails and sweet tweets  — from the ridiculous to the sublime — wishing our family well.

I promise I will write you something fun after I get Tech packed and shipped off to summer camp have had a little time to clean up my kitchen process. It’s amazing how many of my brain cells have been reallocated from writing to other creative endeavors like cutting hundreds of triangles and making elaborate stickers and stuffing test tubes with M&Ms.

It will not involve masturbation.

Probably.

What do you think? Is this advice good for any event where friends and family will collide? Anything you would add?

Tweet this twit @rasjacobson

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.

Google Images

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?

Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson

What We Are: A Hanukkah Post

When my son was a l’il dude, I tried not to bring him to the grocery store if I could avoid it. But one year, it was our turn to host the annual family Hanukkah party and twenty-four people were coming over that night, so I found myself in the grocery store for the eleventy-seventh time that week.

As a result of poor planning, I had to bring the l’il dude along.

As I zoomed down the aisles – grabbing applesauce and sour cream for the latkes — we rushed past rolls of wrapping paper featuring snowflakes, ornaments in every shape and color, lighted-reindeer for the yard, artificial garlands and wreaths, tree skirts; boxes of 100-count multi-color lights; enormous platters embossed with angels sporting sparkling halos; floppy red, velvet hats with fluffy white pom-poms at the ends; pillar candles in red and green and gold; Godiva chocolates wrapped in boxes with bows and six-packs of chocolate Santas wrapped in silver foil.

It was full-blown Christmas in that grocery store.

My 4-year old – who had spent the last 18 months of his life at a Jewish Community pre-school surrounded by other children who did the same things in their homes that we did in ours — sat trapped inside the grocery cart. He eyed the Christmas fixins with curiosity; his head whipped from side to side, taking it all in.

“Know what’s weird?” my son started tentatively.

I heard his words, but I didn’t.

I needed to find the tuna fish.

And another carton of eggs for the egg salad.

I needed jelly filled donuts.

And I needed more oil. More oil for the latkes.

“What’s weird is that there is so much Christmas stuff because almost nobody celebrates it.”

I stopped pushing the cart.

I looked at my sweet, innocent son.

I thought:

How do I explain that Jews make up 0.2% of the world population?

That in the United States we comprise 1.7% of the population.

That when he starts kindergarten in September, he will likely be the only Jewish kid in his class.

That people might not like him because he is Jewish.

That, once, store owners wouldn’t allow me to clean my clothes in their laundromat because I was Jewish.

That millions of people have been killed throughout history because of their love of Torah. Because of their desire to preserve generations of religious and cultural traditions.

I rubbed my son’s spiky crew cut and I told him this:

“There are many people in this big world and you will find that people celebrate things in lots of ways. Hopefully, when you get older, you will have friends who will invite you to their houses to celebrate Christmas. And a hundred other holidays that you don’t even know about yet. Because there are a eleventy-million-bajillion ways to celebrate what is close to our hearts. And each way is wonderful. Hanukkah is just one way. But it’s ours.”

My son smiled.

And like the wish that it was, it has come to pass.

My l’il dude is now 12 years old. And he has celebrated Christmas with friends. And Kwanzaa. And Eid. And Diwali. He loves being invited to experience how his friends celebrate their assorted religious and cultural traditions. He feels proud to have tasted everything from stollen to chickpea curry. He has sampled poori, spicy khaja, and sweet and nutty desserts like atte ka seera. My boy’s ears have heard many dialects, and he is fluent in laughter. He can understand a smile in any language. He has learned the stories behind why people do what they do, and he understands their beliefs are as right and precious to his friends and their families as ours are to us.

He has sampled many different ways to be.

But he has never wanted to be anything other than what he is.

Other than what we are.

• • •

Now go read Life in The Married Lane by the amazing Rivki Silver.

I would like to thank Streit’s and Doni Zasloff Thomas a.k.a. Mama Doni, the lead singer/songwriter of The Mama Doni Band for providing each of the 16 bloggers involved in #HanukkahHoopla with a little cyberswag.

Click on the button below to be connected to the other bloggers involved in the #HanukkahHoopla project!


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.

Google Images

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.

Oy.

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

tweet me @rasjacobson