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!