Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners

Image: Bat mitzvah in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

You or your child have been invited to attend a bar (or bat) mitzvah. The only problem is, you’ve never been to one. The closest you’ve come was a bit of one on TV, perhaps Freddie Crane’s bar mitzvah, where his dad blessed him in Klingon. Now what?

Despite the fact that the service is often given a humorous treatment in movies and on TV, the bar or bat mitzvah is a major event in the life of a Jewish family. The young person works for years to prepare for it, and the family saves and plans for just as long. A bar mitzvah (for a boy) or bat mitzvah (for a girl) falls sometime around the 13th birthday, and it marks the beginning of ritual adulthood.  That is, once a Jew has reached that age, they are responsible for themselves in keeping the commandments and participating in Jewish life.

There are a few things to know about attending a bar or bat mitzvah.  Here are some basic tips:

1. RESPOND PROMPTLY. As with a wedding, these are complicated affairs and numbers matter. Respond to the invitation as soon as possible. Do not ask to bring extra people.

2. DRESS MODESTLY. Dress will depend on the synagogue, but do not depend on your 13 year old for the dress code. The service will be fairly formal: a bar mitzvah boy will wear a suit and tie. Dress for girls should be tidy, clean, and modest: outfits cut “up to here” or “down to there” are inappropriate.  A party dress with bare shoulders can be supplemented with a shawl for the service.

3. PRESENTS. Gift-giving is traditional at a bar or bat mitzvah. One may give money to the bat mitzvah, or make a charitable donation (tzedakah) in her name. The number 18 and its multiples are considered good luck, so a check for $18 or $36 is a nice present. Bar mitzvah money often is put towards college or study in Israel. However, no present is required.

4. THE SERVICE. Arrive on time for the service. The bat mitzvah may lead the service, and she will read from the Torah Scroll in Hebrew. She’s been studying for years for this moment. Just follow the rest of the congregation in sitting and standing. If you have never been to a Jewish service before, you may find another article on this site “New to Jewish Prayer?” useful. It’s OK to look around you, or to look through the prayer book. However, fiddling with a cell phone (much less talking or texting on one!) is not appropriate. Electronics should be turned off and put away, if they are carried at all. (In a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, the use of such devices is forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. Using one will immediately inform everyone that you are an outsider and a bad-mannered one, at that.)  For more about the service, check out More Etiquette for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Guests. Also for some disability tips, read Help: The Prayer Book is Too Heavy for Me!

5. THE PARTY. The party afterwards may be very simple or very elaborate. For dress and other specifics, check your invitation. Again, do not bring uninvited guests!  Usually there will be speeches at the party, and it is polite to listen. There will also be dancing, which is optional but lots of fun. Even if you aren’t much of a dancer, circle dancing for the horah is fun. There will be food.

6. GREETINGS. If the service falls on Saturday (or in some congregations, on Friday night) you may be greeted at the door with “Shabbat shalom!”  This literally means, “Sabbath of Peace!” and it is the traditional greeting for the day. You can reply “Shabbat shalom!” or simply “Shalom!”  If you wish to congratulate the parents or the young person, you can say “Mazal tov!” 

7. ENJOY! This is a moment of great joy for a Jewish family, a milestone in a young Jew’s life. It will involve good music, a beautiful service, good food, dancing, and new friends. Open yourself to the experience, and enjoy.

For more information on the service, check out More Etiquette for Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guests

If you have other questions about Judaism, try using the Search Bar on this page, to your left.

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It’s a Mitzvah: Save a Life!

Blood donation drive
Blood donation drive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.”  — “Do not stand by while your neighbor bleeds.”  Leviticus 19:16

If someone is in dire danger, this commandment in the Torah insists that we must act. The ancient rabbis took this commandment so seriously that they teach us that even if it means breaking the Sabbath, even if it means breaking almost any other law, we must not stand by while someone is in danger of death.  (The exceptions? We may not engage in murder, incest, or idolatry, even to save a life.)

 Right now, in the United States, we are in the midst of a critical blood shortage. Last week, the American Red Cross reported that the nation’s blood banks were down by 50,000 pints.  That is not a typo: FIFTY THOUSAND PINTS of blood — blood upon which people’s lives depend! — are simply not there.  Each of those pints could make the difference between life and death for someone injured in the storms in the East, for a firefighter injured in Colorado, or for a mother with a complicated childbirth. Cancer patients sometimes need many pints of blood and blood products to continue fighting the disease.

Today I stopped by my local Red Cross Blood Donation center, and when the nurse looked at my record, she said, “Oh! Your blood type is negative! We really need those!” I asked her about the shortage and she shook her head: “Yes, it’s really, really bad.  Now let’s get your blood pressure.”

Now I have a bandaid in the crook of my left elbow, and a sticker on my shirt. I don’t know where my pint of A negative will go, but I’m told it may save as many as three lives.

Some people can’t donate: my partner, a cancer survivor, is barred from ever performing this mitzvah ever again. A person with a fresh tattoo or piercing may not donate until 12 months have passed. A person who may have been exposed to any of several diseases may not donate. People who have taken certain drugs cannot. If you wonder if you are eligible, or you have other questions, you can find the answers on the Red Cross Blood Donation website.  That site can also direct you to the nearest place to donate, and in many areas, you can make your appointment online.

Rabbi Simon Glustrom writes in an article on pikuach nefesh, preservation of life:

The preservation of human life takes precedence over all the other commandments in Judaism. The Talmud emphasizes this principle by citing the verse from Leviticus [18:5]: “You shall therefore keep my statutes…which if a man do, he shall live by them.” The rabbis add: “That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks to Israel with a message from the Divine, and near the end he says:

I call heaven and earth to witness you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.

For those of us able to donate blood, we have a the opportunity to choose life in a very literal way. The choice before us is indeed a choice between life and death, blessing and curse.

Choose life and blessing, that you and others may live.

Afterwards, cookies.

 

10 Tips for Attending a Jewish Funeral

Image: A Jewish cemetery. Note the pebbles left on monuments. Photo by Darelle, via pixabay.com.

This is another post with which I hope to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

The sages tell us that there is no greater mitzvah than to help bury someone, because it is a favor that cannot be returned. It is also a mitzvah people tend to avoid: death is scary, graves are scary, and loss is painful.  Jewish funeral etiquette is slightly different from secular or Christian American customs. Here are my beginners’ tips for attending Jewish funerals:

1. DON’T STAY AWAY. It may be tempting to “have a prior commitment” when there is a death on the outskirts of our circle of friends, but it is a good thing to go to funerals even when you knew the person but “not very well.”  The person who died won’t know you are there, but to the mourners it is a comfort to be surrounded by their community, especially by their friends.

2. YOUR PRESENCE IS IMPORTANT. You do not need to say much to mourners; in fact, the less said, the better. Nothing you say is going to fix it. What will help most is your presence at the funeral or at shiva (more about that in a minute.) Take their hand. Say “I am so sorry” if you must, but in Jewish tradition, there is no need to say anything at all unless the mourner starts the conversation. Mostly what will help is for you to let them know that they have friends who will not disappear.

3. WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. Dress nicely, but wear sensible shoes if you are going to the graveside. Cemetery grounds are often extremely plushy grass. If it would be difficult to walk in sand in the those shoes, they will be miserable in a cemetery. All of this goes triple if it has been raining. You do not want to be the woman I once saw trapped in the mud by her very expensive (and ruined) stiletto heels.

4. LOW KEY IS THE KEY. If you find friends there, just remember that this IS a funeral: talk quietly. Once the service begins, be quiet. Turn OFF the cell phone for the service, and do not fiddle with it.

5. MOSTLY, JUST LISTEN. There is very little required of the congregation at a funeral. Your job is to be there. There will be a few prayers, some psalms, a hesped (eulogy), and the traditional prayers  El Maleh Rachamim [God Full of Mercy] and the Mourner’s Kaddish. Say “Amen” [Ah-MAYN] when the congregation says it, if you wish. The payoff for listening is that you will learn things about this person that you did not know. You may hear some wonderful stories.

6. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. The funeral director will give directions before and after the service. Do whatever he or she tells you to do: park here, sit there, stand, don’t walk there.  Complying with directions is one way to support the mourners and give respect to the dead.

7. AT GRAVESIDE. Some funerals move from a chapel to graveside, some are held at graveside. If you do not know the family well, it is OK to attend the chapel service and then skip the graveside service; it’s assumed to be more private. There will likely be chairs under an awning facing the open grave. Those chairs are for mourners; you do not want to sit in them unless you are a member of the family or disabled. There will be a few prayers, the casket will be lowered, and the officiant may assist the family in the ancient custom of shoveling earth into the grave. One or three shovelfuls is typical, and after the family, other attendees may assist. It is a symbolic way of participating in caring for the body by putting it safely in the earth. Again, follow directions; this is an extremely sensitive time for the family and you don’t want to disrupt the flow of the service.

8. SHIVA. There may be an announcement about shiva, the gathering at the home for (traditionally) seven days after the burial. If the family announces specific times, go only at those times. At the shiva house, remember that your presence is what matters. You cannot make their pain go away with words. Mourners need time and space to mourn, and it is an act of kindness to give them the opportunity to do so. Usually there is a short service at the shiva house in the morning and evening. You can linger, but do not overstay: when people start leaving, go. Keep in mind that this is not a party, the mourners are not “entertaining.” Sending or bringing prepared food is a very nice thing to do; when in doubt, send kosher food.

9. DONATIONS.  Most families will designate a charity to which donations (tzedakah) may be made in memory of the dead, and most non-profits are happy to send a card to the mourners telling them about your gift. This is not required, but it is a very nice thing to do. Which brings us to:

10. THINGS YOU WILL NOT SEE OR HEAR AT A TRADITIONAL JEWISH FUNERAL: 

  • Flowers – instead, Jews give donations to a memorial fund. (See #9 above)
  • An open casket – We don’t look at a dead person unnecessarily, since they cannot look back at us.
  • A fancy casket – Traditionally, Jewish caskets are plain, unfinished wood.
  • Talk about the afterlife – Most Jews focus on doing good in this life. We don’t know for sure what happens after death, and we tend not to worry about it much. Some think there is an afterlife, some don’t.
At a somewhat less traditional Jewish funeral, there may be a fancy casket, or there may have been a cremation. Do not comment about anything that seems unusual. The mourners may be honoring a request of the deceased, or something may have been the topic of a disagreement in the family.  These people are already in pain: this is not the time to appoint yourself the Jewish Tradition Cop! If you have questions, call or email a rabbi later (or leave a question in the comments here!)
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In my work as a rabbi, I find few things more spiritually enriching than a funeral. It is a sobering thing to stand by an open grave. Many silly things that seemed terribly important shrink to an appropriate size in the face of death. Being with a family and friendship circle as they comfort each other is a reminder that love is indeed “stronger than death.” (Song of Songs 8:6) The whole experience puts me back in touch with the beauty of life.
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Of course, there is much more to learn about Jewish funerals and mourning practice, but this is intended to be a guide for those who are about to attend a Jewish funeral for the first time. I hope that it is helpful as you perform this mitzvah.
More articles about Jewish Mourning customs:

Other People’s Opinions

Today I saw the following message on twitter:

I feel like everyone is always mentally judging moms when they’re out with their kids. Like they cannot mess up, w/o being visibly judged.

TheKnottyBride‘s tweet hit a nerve for me. I was a new mother thirty years ago when I discovered that every stranger had an opinion on my parenting. Was my baby wearing the right kind of shoes? Was I dressing him properly? Was I feeding him properly? One woman looked at me sternly and said, “You don’t want to be a Bad Mom, do you?”

Later on, I heard about it when I let the boys watch TV (Bad Mom!) and when I got rid of the TV (Bad Mom! Kids need TV or they will not be able to socialize with other kids!). I was a Bad Mom when I restricted their movie watching to only G movies (other parents said, “That’s kind of ridiculously strict!”) and when I made an exception to the rule, of course, I was a Bad Permissive Mom. When I divorced, I was definitely a Bad Mom, and as a divorced woman, I received even more unsolicited opinions.

As I’ve discussed in another post, there were a lot of folks who were sure I was a Bad Mom when I came out as a lesbian.

Eventually I learned to listen only to people I had reason to trust: our pediatrician and most of their teachers.  I had a circle of friends with whom I’d consult about parenting decisions.  I paid extra attention to parents of adults who’d turned out well. I learned to tune out everyone else. The “Bad Mom” theme became a family joke.

Later, when I became a Jew, the experience fielding other people’s opinions was handy. I converted with a rabbi who is still my model of a mensch and a rabbi. He is a Reform rabbi, so mine was a Reform conversion. I went before a beit din [rabbinical court], I immersed in the mikveh [ritual bath], and I threw in my lot with the Jewish People. I continue to grow in the observance of mitzvot, and hope to grow Jewishly until the day I die.

And yes, there are people who will insist that I am not a “real” Jew, or that I’m not as Jewish as a born Jew. I give them exactly the same amount of attention as the people who thought I was a Bad Mom. When I am having a low self-esteem day, it can get to me, but for the most part, I pay them no attention at all.

There are issues of interpretation of halakhah [Jewish law]  that I understand and accept. In Orthodox settings, most of the things that a non-Jew cannot do are forbidden to me anyway because I am a woman, so  really isn’t much of a problem. I’m already married, and I don’t expect an Orthodox rabbi to bury me.  Not all Jews understand the Covenant in the same way; I accept that. What I don’t accept is the opinion that the only “real” Jew is a born Jew.

Just as with the parenting, I have teachers and friends whom I trust.  I take their tochechot [rebukes] very seriously; I do my best to listen humbly and to make teshuvah [a return to the right path]. By doing so, I learn and grow as a human being and as a Jew.

There are people for whom I will never be a Good Mom, and people for whom I will never be Jewish Enough. It was a great and liberating day when I realized that I cannot change those people. Most of them are speaking from insecurity or some pain deep in their own souls.  It’s their problem, not mine: I can’t fix it.

So I will close by giving my own Free Advice to new moms and new Jews. In Pirkei Avot, the sage Joshua ben Perachyah says, “Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.” Find people you can trust to give you good feedback. Listen to them. As for everyone else, assume that they are being rude out of pain or insecurity or a misguided desire to help, and don’t worry about them. Do your best and LET IT GO.

It’s June: Thank you, LGBTQ Pioneers!

King David Street, Jerusalem, June 2003

This blog post originally appeared on Tzeh U’Limad, the Blog of Continuing Jewish Learning published by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion as part of its Continuing Alumni Education program. I follow that blog, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in “continuing Jewish learning!” 

It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.

Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mom. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome.  An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.

1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977.  I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.

Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot [shuttle] from Ben Gurion Airport and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really?  How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.

I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation, & Gender Identity, first of its kind in the Jewish world.  There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.

I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.

To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah, thank you very much. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories.  And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.

Bother the Rabbi!

Red phone
Call your rabbi!  (Photo from Wikipedia)

I work primarily with unaffiliated Jews: Jews who have chosen for now not to have a congregational home. So, when someone contacts me about study one of my first questions is, “Are you a member of a congregation?” Sometimes people say, “No,” and we go on to talk about what they want to learn. Sometimes they say, “Yes” and then my next question is, “Why don’t you give your rabbi a call about this?” Inevitably, the answer is, “I don’t want to bother the rabbi.”

Here’s the deal, folks: your rabbi LOVES to be “bothered” by people who want to learn. He is also waiting for the call that says you need a rabbi because you are sick or your aunt died or your kid is driving you crazy and you don’t know what to do. She is busy, yes, but these conversations are the reason she studied for the rabbinate: she wants to help / hang out with / learn with / listen to Jews like you!

People join congregations for lots of reasons. Many join with a particular kid-centered project in mind: religious school for the kids, bar or bat mitzvah, or something similar. There’s nothing wrong with that. But keep in mind that when you join you get other things with that membership besides religious school. One of them is a network of people and resources when you are in trouble, and when you want to learn. Then all you have to do is give the office or the rabbi a call and say, “Hineni [here I am!]”

If you want to learn, or you are in trouble, and you have a congregation, you are in luck: you already have what you need. (If you don’t have a congregation, by all means call me. I can use the work.) But don’t ever worry that you will “bother the rabbi.” Your rabbi is waiting for your call.

Mysteries of Judaism

 

Image: A Jewish man prays from a prayer book. Photo by 777jew.

Sometimes it may feel as if Judaism is full of secret codes and handshakes, and for a newcomer, it can be overwhelming. You may have seen someone gesture over Shabbat candles, or do a little bobbing thing during prayer, or hold a tallit [prayer shawl] in an unusual way, and wondered, “Why are they doing that?”

Judaism is full of small rituals, and sometimes those little rituals can make newcomers to the community feel like outsiders. If you are the one who doesn’t know why the person you are talking with suddenly breaks out with “Pooh, pooh, pooh!” it can be alienating.

The most important thing to know about most of these is that like the many mysterious rituals of the Passover table, a lot of these rituals exist to encourage questions and discussion. They get started somehow (some we know, some we don’t) and then various explanations attach to them, and we’re off and running with a tradition. Some of these are quite lovely, for instance:

If you watch me during the section of the daily service called the Shema and its Blessings, you will notice that during a certain prayer, I gather up the corners of my tallit [prayer shawl], wrap the fringes around the fingers of my left hand, and then use that hand to cover my eyes as I say “Shema Yisrael!  Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!” [Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!]

I was taught to do that by Rabbi Ben Hollander, z”l, when I was a first year student in rabbinical school, in Jerusalem. He taught me that there are words in the prayer which refer to the gathering in of all the scattered Jews of the world, so I should gather up my fringes and hold them during the Shema, as if gathering up the Jews myself. As for covering my eyes, I do that because there is a story in the Talmud (Berakhot 13b) where Rabbi Judah the Prince covers his eyes to concentrate while he says the Shema prayer. Since then, we cover our eyes at that point – either to concentrate, or to emulate a great rabbinic soul.

Are any of these things necessary in order to be a good Jew? No.

However, when you are curious about something you see someone do, ask!  If you find the practice meaningful, you may want to adopt it yourself. Learning is a mitzvah.  Rabbi Hillel said in Pirkei Avot, “The shy will not learn.” So ASK!

At the same time, “monkey see monkey do” is not a good rule of thumb for learning Jewish ritual. For instance, there are certain places in the service where tradition dictates a bow, but it is forbidden to “multiply bowing” – so choose your role-models carefully. It’s better to do too little than too much.It is a good idea to learn why you are doing a particular piece of choreography in the service, not just to copy the person sitting in front of you. (If you are a newcomer, follow them for sitting and standing and that sort of thing. But if they suddenly start doing a lot of other stuff, just watch and ask them about it afterwards.)

If there’s a ritual you’ve seen and wanted to ask about, feel free to ask here! If I don’t know, I will have a good time looking it up or … asking someone!

P.S. – There may be things you wonder about in this article. I have tried to link each of them to a good explanation. Just click on the link to learn. If you still have questions, ask!