Over the last few years, my wife and I have been to a total of 15,462 Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, which seems about average for our peer group. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” on how long it takes to achieve world class expertise, I believe I passed the minimum requirements for a PhD in the Bar Mitzvah Arts about 23,000 hours ago.
An exaggeration? Perhaps a bit. But as the male head of household of a Jewish family in the Northeast United States, it’s fair to say that I’ve been to my share of Bar Mitzvahs. Perhaps you have too. But if not, I believe you could benefit from my store of knowledge, especially if you have a 13 year-old child. Be forewarned: all 13 year-olds and their families in certain geographic regions enter a Twilight Zone-esque parallel and confusing universe known as “The Bar Mitzvah Circuit”. This will require not only a complete commitment of your free time, energy and financial resources, but also a twisted understanding of human nature that you’ve never seen before, and likely never will again. Before you or your children step one foot out of that Volvo and towards the synagogue doors, learn from me. I’ve assembled the definitive rookie’s guide, which I’m calling YOUR FIRST HORA: THE 90 (GIVE OR TAKE) THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ATTENDING YOUR FIRST BAR MITZVAH.
I’ll work roughly chronologically through an average experience. Feel free to jump ahead if you’re stuck in any one category.
- Several weeks before the event, a printed invitation on paper stock roughly as thick as a strip steak and with enough stamps on the envelope to kill George Constanza’s wife 20 times over will arrive at your home.
- Pay careful attention to the opening of the invitation: the amount of enjoyment you will ultimately experience at the event is inversely proportional to the amount of glitter that falls out of the envelope when you open it.
- There will likely be a reply card included in the invitation. Pay no mind to the fact that the RSVP date is only two days away and is a clear indication that you are on the party’s B List and are only invited because Aunt Martha can’t make it in from Chicago because her rheumatoid arthritis is acting up. Make a note to order premium spirits at the open bar later.
THE RELIGIOUS SERVICE
- While a very specific time is listed for the beginning of the service, you should not arrive until at least one hour later than the time listed. There is no reason for this other than to encourage Jewish women to ask each other “What time are you getting to the service?”.
- The length of service will ultimately depend on the movement of Judaism that the family practices. Reform Bar and Bat Mitzvah services will run about 90 minutes to two hours. Orthodox services are roughly similar. Conservative services at my synagogue last 14 hours and require two naps and intravenous fluid injections to prevent fainting and scurvy.
- If you are unsure of what kind of service you are attending, check to see whether the Rabbi or Cantor is playing a guitar. If there is a guitar present, it is 99.99% likely you are at a reform service, and can breath somewhat easier.
- Regardless of service length, bring mints, as it is likely that you and/or your fellow worshippers will at some point end up suffering from some form of synagogue breath, which is potentially fatal.
- You will notice that for the first half of the service, the boy and/or girl being Bar/Bat Mitzvah’d is not doing anything, besides sitting on stage (called the bimah) in an oversized chair looking vaguely uncomfortable. This is so that the family can conduct last minute mobile stock liquidations to help pay for everything that follows the service.
- Eventually, the young man or woman will take center stage for some preliminary prayers in Hebrew and English. It is likely that they will hit puberty during the third or fourth verse of the second prayer, in which their voice will crack and an angel will receive their wings.
- When it is time to read directly from the Torah (the most sacred of Jewish texts), a succession of family members will take the stage to recite a blessing before and after the reading. Inevitably, the highlight of the service will be watching Uncle Herb butcher the blessing despite hearing it thousands of times over the course of his life. Aunt Nancy will then elbow him in the ribs and look visibly mortified. The Rabbi will smile and silently wonder why he chose his given profession.
- After the Torah reading, the Bar Mitzvah boy or Bat Mitzvah girl will read an essay they wrote on what the Torah portion meant to them. This despite the fact that the literal reading of most Torah portions involve either the ritual slaughter of a goat or the subtle endorsement of polygamy. The kids will skip over those parts, and instead relate the moral lessons of the portion to their recent travel soccer match.
- This is the time in the service where several false endings occur. Do not sigh audibly, although it is likely that someone else will.
- Warning: the Haftorah portion that follows does not represent half of a Torah portion.
- In fact, the Haftorah portion is sometimes long. Brutally long. This is your cue to consume a breath mint, count the number of bald heads in the rows in front of you and possibly nod off (although you’ll later compliment the child’s parents on their child’s breathless take on the material).
- There is no applause after either the Torah or Haftorah reading, in order to allow sleeping congregants to continue their slumber.
- At some point, the parents will take the stage. The mother will recite an exhaustive list of the reasons why they love their child. She will then cry on cue. Be aware that if these summations are to be considered statistically valid, then 100% of Jewish 13 year-olds are “kind, curious, thoughtful, and capable of great things”. No study has been commissioned to confirm or refute these assessments.
- When the Rabbi reads a list of synagogue announcements about next week’s adult learning seminar on Jewish Identity In Africa After The First World War, you will think the service is over. This is false ending #6.
- But it is also your final one. Enjoy the final blessings, sing your last Jewish hymn, throw some elbows to grab that last piece of eggy challah and run out of the synagogue before you’re asked to pay membership dues.
- Because Jews love to contradict stereotypes, the only acceptable gift to give at a Bar Mitzvah is cold hard cash. Checks are fine too.
- All gifts must be given in increments of $18, which is both good luck and requires math, which is apparently good for you.
- In fact, calculating the appropriate amount to give to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah child requires expertise in quadratic equations, chaos theory and a light dusting of quantum physics. Give an ill-considered amount at your own peril.
- Historical trends must also play a key part in the gifting decision. Parents keep meticulous records of gifts given to their children at these events, and all gifts are entered into a searchable database to properly and expertly match gifts for future events.
- If you give a gift that is more than the amount given to your own child, you will be considered a snob. If you give a gift less than what was given, a special investigation will be launched at the next Hadassah board meeting. It’s best just to make things match.
- The end result is that, in exchange for approximately 12 hours of studying Hebrew in front of the television set, most 13-year-olds will earn more that year than the average resident of Idaho.
- Regardless, you will end up losing one friend because of what is considered to be an “inconsiderate” gift. This person will most likely hail from Long Island.
- Once an amount has been determined and the check has been written, you’ll need a card. Thankfully, CVS has conveniently placed retail locations within 3 blocks of most reception halls and event locations. These locations are open 24 hours specifically to serve Jewish procrastinators, and you’ll have a nice opportunity to socialize with fellow party-goers in the stationary aisle.
In PART TWO – you’ll learn all about the party, perhaps the most perilous part of your journey. Read it here!
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