I recently had a lovely email exchange with a young person who had been hired for his first job working as an artist for a bat mitzvah. He had a lot of questions, and I thought that the answers might be useful to others. Thank you, Benjamin, for asking good questions, and making me think of other things that might help!
What is a bar or bat mitzvah? A bar mitzvah (bat for girls) happens when a young person turns 13. It actually happens whether there is a celebration or not; a Jew over age 13 is bar or bat mitzvah regardless. The usual celebration in North America has two parts. First, a synagogue service at which the young person leads the service, or reads Torah, or both. This is serious business and requires years of study and preparation. Secondly, there may be a party, which can range from a very low-key affair at home or the synagogue to something quite fancy at a hotel or other venue.
How big a deal is it really? For the young person, the synagogue service requires a year or more of preparation. For a Jewish family, this is a life event on a par with a wedding. Relatives travel from far away to attend, and most families save for a long time to pay for the party.
What is proper dress for a bar or bat mitzvah? Dress professionally. Unless you have heard otherwise from the parents, a suit and tie for men, a professional dress outfit for women.
What terminology should I know?Bar mitzvah is for a boy. Bat mitzvah is for a girl. B’nei mitzvah is plural, unless there are only girls involved, in which case it is b’not mitvah.
Is there a customary greeting that I should know? As a non-Jew, you are not expected to know any Hebrew. “Hello” and “Congratulations” are fine. However, these are nice phrases to know:
Mazal tov!– (MAH-zel tov) – “Congratulations!” suitable either for the young person or for family members.
Shabbat Shalom! (Shah-BAHT shah-LOHM) – “Happy Sabbath!” – suitable from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday.
Who is actually in charge? In the synagogue, if the rabbi or cantor (clergy) tell you to do or not do something, you are wise to comply. During the service, ushers may remove someone who doesn’t follow the rules set by the congregation. (If they tell you no photos, or no flash, during the service, believe them.) At the party afterwards, the hosts are in charge.
Good luck!And if you are reading this and have other questions, I hope you will ask them in the comments, so I can continue to improve this resource!
I’m going to attend a bat mitzvah next weekend. A young woman from my first student pulpit is being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, a “daughter of the commandment.” While I’ve been growing up as a rabbi, the little girl who used to call me “Wabbi Woot” has been growing up into a young woman of great intelligence and dignity. She will lead us in prayer and read to us from the Torah scroll.
I’m excited, because this is one of those moments in the rabbinate when I can see something that is often invisible: the chain of tradition. Rebekah has learned some of her Torah from me: not her portion, but the lived Torah that is the fabric of Jewish life. I’m going to watch her ritualize her movement into adulthood in the Jewish community, knowing that some of my Torah goes with her. Not mine alone, by any means: she has internalized Torah from her parents, her grandparents, and her many teachers. But for me, as a relatively new rabbi (ordained in 2008) it will be a very solemn moment, watching a bit of my Torah pass to the next adult generation of Jews.
Where did I get my Torah? I got it from the rabbi with whom I converted, Rabbi Steven Chester. I got it from my mentor and friend, Dawn Kepler. I got it from the cantor who taught me Torah trope, Cantor Ilene Keys. I got it from my first study partner, Fred Isaac. I got it from the rabbi I worked for at the URJ, Rabbi Michael Berk. I got it from all my teachers at Hebrew Union College. I got it from the elders at the Home for Jewish Parents in Reseda, CA. Today, I get it from colleagues and yes, from my students.
100 years from now, I don’t expect anyone to remember Rabbi Ruth Adar. But I know that just as the chain of tradition goes back behind me into the mists of history, to the teachers of my teachers all the way back to the Chazal, the great rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, so too the Torah I transmit will be alive and well in 5875 and however far into the future Jews continue to exist. Rebekah and my other students will teach their children, and their students, and a little of my Torah will travel with them far into the future.
Every moment, every encounter, each of us has an opportunity to teach Torah. We teach it most strongly with our behavior, with the tone we take in dealing with other human beings. We teach those with whom we interact and anyone who happens to be watching. The majority of the transmission of Torah does not happen in the yeshivah: it happens in the marketplace, in the parking lot, in the casual conversations of everyday. This is true for every Jew, not just the professionals.
Hold that Torah gently. Do not try to hold it alone.
No matter what the holiday or special occasion, there’s an important mitzvah that should be part of our preparation. That mitzvah is tzedakah, money given for the relief of the unfortunate.
It is part of Jewish tradition to see to it that all Jews, no matter their income, are able to observe the mitzvot and enjoy the holiday. It’s also part of Jewish tradition to include non-Jewish people in our giving. My holidays always seem sweeter when I’ve remembered to perform this mitzvah.
Some options for giving tzedakah before a holiday:
— send a check to your synagogue, earmarked for the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, or for any fund designated for assistance. The rabbi or synagogue are required to use those funds – you can feel secure that the funds will go to help someone. The Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund might pay for dentures for an indigent member, or help with someone’s rent, or pay the fee for a child to go to Jewish camp who otherwise cannot go.
— go online and donate to the charity of your choice. It doesn’t have to be a Jewish organization; one of my favorites is my local Community Food Bank. To locate the website of your nearest food bank, click here. But there are also many worthy Jewish funds; take the time to find an organization that speaks to your heart.
— Help a relative who is having money troubles. Yes, that counts as tzedakah, too. Just be sure not to hurt feelings or embarrass the recipient.
Not all needs are physical. Donations for education are tzedakah, too.
Important: The ancient rabbis emphasized that a small gift from a person who themselves were in need was just as important as a big check from a macher (big shot.) Everyone gives according to their means, so that all can enjoy the holiday. Don’t give beyond your means, though!
I hope that the upcoming holiday is sweet for you and your household!
You’ve just said a Torah blessing, or given a drash [short speech about Torah] or helped with something around the synagogue. Suddenly people are sticking their hands out to you for a handshake and saying “Ya-sher KO-ach!” with great enthusiasm. What the heck?
Don’t worry, you haven’t done anything wrong; just the reverse, they’re congratulating you on a job well done. “Yasher koach!” translates, literally, “May your strength be firm!” but it’s an idiom meaning, “Good job!” and it carries with it the hope that this mitzvah will give you the strength to carry on to future mitzvot. Think of it as a cheer.
It has a lot of variant pronunciations: YA-sher KO-ach, Y’Sh’KOICH, YA-sher-KOYch, and so on. The grammatically correct form when addressing a woman is “Tashiri kohech” but usually you’ll hear the masculine. I do not correct the grammar when friends say “Yashar koach” to me – it’s a compliment, just accept it!
The polite thing to say in return is “Baruch Tihiye” (Ba-rooch tih-hee-yeh). That means “blessed you will be,” which might translate colloquially as “Back atcha!”
So, you’ve been invited to a bar mitzvah. You’ve answered the invitation promptly, you know to dress modestly, and you’ve decided what you are going to do about a gift. All those things were covered in an earlier post, Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners. One kind reader pointed out to me that I hadn’t given enough detail about how to behave during the service, and I’ve decided to add more information. After all, if you are bothering to read this before you attend the service, you care! Thank you for caring about behaving well at a service that is, for a Jewish family, a major life event.
1. YOU ARE A GUEST. One important principle to keep in mind: you are not just a guest of the family at this event. You are the guest of the synagogue at which it occurs. A bar or bat mitzvah at a synagogue at a regular service will include not only people who attend because it is Suzie Cohen’s bat mitzvah, but regular congregants who attend because it is Shabbat and they want to pray. The party that comes afterwards will be a private affair, but the service itself is for the congregation as well as for the family and their guests.
2. NO ELECTRONICS. It’s rude to play with your cell phone, or to allow it to make any noise at all. Turn it off, or make sure it is absolutely silent. Keep it out of sight. This is particularly important in a synagogue on the Sabbath, a day when Jews refrain from a number of activities in order to experience the holiness of the day. A “ding” (much less a ringtone made from your favorite pop song) will mar the day, no matter how quickly you squelch it. So turn it off, and put it away. If you are a physician on call, set the thing to the least annoying possible setting and sit on an aisle near a door, so that you can easily move outside to deal with it.
3. NO PHOTOS. For the same reason as the electronics, photography during a Shabbat service is disrespectful. Depending on the family’s observance and the synagogue rules, there may be a videographer or a professional photographer present, but they have been given very strict boundaries for their work; you do not have that information. Don’t assume that because the videographer is there, it’s OK to whip out your iPhone and take a few shots. Do not take photos during the service, and ask before you take any photos before or after the service.
4. NO APPLAUSE.This is a religious service, not a performance. Applause is inappropriate and unwelcome. You can best express your appreciation for Bobby’s Torah chanting skills by sitting quietly and attentively and not dozing off. The best appreciation you can give: remember some aspect of his drash (speech) to comment on it to him or his parents later.
5. YOUNG CHILDREN & INFANTS.If you have a very young child, it is fine to bring something to keep them quietly occupied. “Quietly” is the operative word: books are fine, but toys that inspire or require noise are not. Electronics are absolutely out (again, see #2 above.) If your child is going to be miserable in the service, you may want to consider getting a sitter for the occasion (if you let the family know ahead of time that you are considering getting a sitter, you may be able to share a sitter with another family in your situation.) If you bring an infant, everyone understands that babies sometimes fuss. Everyone also expects that in that circumstance, a parent will immediately scoop up the baby and head for the nearest exit. Many synagogues have “crying rooms” that allow parents to see the service while dealing with a fussy infant – if you think you may need such a place, ask one of the ushers where it is when you enter.
For a Jewish family, a bar or bat mitzvah can be as significant a lifecycle event as a wedding. At such a time, we invite the people who are important to us to be with us. By inviting you to join them in their synagogue on their important day, your friends have told you that you are important to them. Thank you for honoring them by taking the trouble to educate yourself about how to behave in the service!
I’m writing this for the unaffiliated or secular Jewish parent whose child has just announced that he or she wants a bar or bat mitzvah. You were not dreaming of this, or planning for it. Perhaps your own bar mitzvah was a bad memory, or never happened at all. Perhaps no girl in your family has ever had a bat mitzvah. I’m writing this to suggest some things to think about as you ponder your response.
1. BASIC INFO: For a basic article about modern b’nei mitzvah (that’s the plural) check out Bar and Bat Mitzvah 101 from MyJewishLearning.com. That site is generally a good source of info. They are friendly and respectful of all movements of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.)
2. WHY DOES YOUR KID WANT TO DO THIS? Your first response to your child might be to ask “Why?” The answer may surprise you. It might be that they want a party and presents, but it might also be that they want to explore their heritage.
“A Party and Presents!” – It’s reasonable, then, to say, “You realize there is a lot of work involved?” Typically, preparation for a bar mitzvah involves at least 2 years of study with a teacher. Most kids are not willing to take on a two year project with a steep learning curve just for a lark. If after learning what’s involved, they still want to do it, something more is going on, maybe:
“I want to learn more about Judaism.” or “I’m a Jew, I want to be Bar/Bat Mitzvah!” – Your child is asking you for a grounding in a key aspect of their identity. This is an opportunity, not only for them but also for the rest of the family. Learning is not a commitment to particular kinds of observance; it is simply gaining information so that you can make informed choices about observance. If you have always thought Judaism was bunk, or worse, what’s the harm in actually checking it out? If your experience with it was bad, think about exactly WHAT was bad, and then you can avoid those issues (more about that in a moment.)
3. BUT WHAT IF I AM NOT RAISING MY CHILD AS A JEW? If your child is being raised in another religion than Judaism, then Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not appropriate for them. Talk with your child about why you made the choice to raise them as (fill in the blank here). Share your values and your feelings with them honestly. Own your choices. Parents make many choices for children when they are little: religion, medical choices like vaccination, schools, bedtime, where we will live.
4. HOW DO WE EXPLORE THE POSSIBILITIES, IF WE WANT TO MOVE FORWARD? Your first step should be to call some local synagogues. If your child is ten or younger, most synagogues have regular programs that you can enter. If your child is older than ten, still call the synagogues and talk to them about your options. If there is no local synagogue, then you need to find a rabbi or Jewish teacher to help you. For help locating a rabbi, read Seven Tips for Finding Your Rabbi. If your own experience with Jewish education was miserable, make an appointment to talk with your rabbi or the educator at the synagogue. Share your worst fears with them. Talk to them about how the two of you can partner to make sure this is a good experience for your child. (Keep in mind, though, that “good experience” is not necessarily “effortless” or “easy.” We value the things for which we make an effort.)
5. ISN’T IT EXPENSIVE? I can’t give you an exact figure. You may need to join a synagogue. Lessons of any kind cost money. However, a Bar Mitzvah party does not have to be a Hollywood blow-out. Again, what you are really buying is a learning opportunity for the whole family to explore your roots. You may be pleasantly surprised with what you discover along the way. If money is truly tight, then you should know that many synagogues provide “dues relief” for those who cannot afford a full membership. Membership in the right synagogue can actually be a wonderful deal. For more about why anyone might want to belong to a synagogue, read Why Join a Synagogue?
6. BUT I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT JUDAISM! HOW WILL I KEEP UP WITH MY CHILD? Many people do the bulk of their Jewish learning as adults. When you are looking for a place for your child to learn, ask about the adult learning opportunities there. Also, if you join a synagogue, you will meet lots of other families who are following their children on the learning curve. One of our greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva, did not begin learning until he was an adult. It’s OK to be an adult beginner! (And for more information on topics for adult beginners, you can click on “Especially for Beginners” to the right on your screen. Teaching adult beginners is the heart of my own rabbinate.)
7. MY SPOUSE IS NOT JEWISH! WILL PEOPLE BE MEAN TO US?– Many American synagogues of all denominations reach out to interfaith couples and are ready and waiting for your family. Be honest about your concerns when you look for the right place for your child to learn. If you don’t like what you hear, call a different place. Your entire family deserves to be treated with respect when you are educating a Jewish child.
Parenting is one surprise after another. One of the life-enriching aspects of parenthood is that our children will lead us into learning experiences we never expected to have. My own sons have led me to learn about electronics, to improve my Spanish, to learn about mental illness, and to learn what it takes to survive as a working musician. Some of those things were fun. Others were hard. I hope that if you decide to take your child up on this challenge to engage with Jewish life, that Torah enriches your life and that of your family beyond your wildest dreams.