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Jewish Journal

More Meaning, Less Material

by Rabbi Jack Riemer

September 9, 2004 | 8:00 pm

"Danny Siegel's Bar and Bat Mitzvah Book: A Practical Guide for Changing the World Through Your Simcha," by Danny Siegel (The Town House Press, $12).

This is a book that we have long needed. I wish that it had been around when my children were becoming bar and bat mitzvah.

Bar and bat mitzvahs are now widely observed. There was even a story in the Wall Street Journal a while ago about how non-Jewish kids are pestering their parents that they want one, too, since they are envious of their Jewish friends who get to have such big parties. However, children and their parents are bewildered and confused over how to make these events meaningful. Children wake up the morning after, after the out-of-town relatives have left, and before the mountain of waiting thank you-notes has to be attacked, and they ask themselves: What was this event which took over our lives for the last six months or more really all about?

Was the party that we threw only a way of reciprocating for the ones that our kids were invited to? Were the adults whom we invited really there only for business reasons or for social ones? Was this haftorah that our kids broke their teeth learning how to chant for so many weeks connected in any way to the world in which we live? And what message did we send our kids about our values by holding such a lavish bash?

Danny Siegel's new book is filled with wise and helpful suggestions on how to avoid the letdown that the child and the family so often feel after such a simcha. First of all, it provides the child and the family with a whole different perspective on what this event means. And then it provides the family with a plethora of ideas on how to make this turning point in the life of the child and the family a genuinely meaningful event.

Siegel, the founder and chair of Ziv Tzedakah Fund, provides a definition of what it means to become a bar or bat mitzvah that I think puts everything into perspective. He says in some cultures the stages of life are: infant, toddler, child, teenager, young adult, adult, midlife, empty nester, retiree, etc. In Jewish thought, the stages of life are: infancy, childhood and then mitzvah manhood or womanhood. The whole point of the day is to understand and accept the status of one who is now capable and obligated to do good deeds.

If you accept this perspective, then everything else begins to fall into place: What you say on the invitation; if you buy your kippot from Guatemala women who live in utter poverty and desperately need the work; what the child says in his or her speech; what kind of party favors to give out; who you honor and how you honor them; and what happens with the leftover food after the party all flow directly from this understanding of what the event is really all about.

Here's one example of what Siegel proposes you can do if you have imagination and good will:

Everyone has a challah at the dinner, right? Technically, you don't need a challah except at the Shabbat or the holiday meal, but, for some reason, almost everyone has a big challah at the banquet table. And usually we call upon Uncle Herman -- who is still sober this early in the evening, gave a pretty good gift and is one of the few at the meal whom we can trust to recite the "Motzi" by heart -- to do the honors. But what more can be done with this ritual?

Level 1: At most parties the caterer takes the challah away the moment Uncle Herman recites the "Motzi." It disappears through the swinging doors that lead into the kitchen, and it comes out some time later, neatly sliced and ready to serve. At some parties that I have been to, the family does it differently. They all gather around the challah, and instead of cutting it with a knife, each member of the family tears off a piece. It involves everyone in the mitzvah, and it is much more informal and haimish than having one person do it, and then having the people in the kitchen do the rest. And it is certainly easy to do.

Level 2: Consider baking the challah yourself, as a family project. Baking it is literally a hands-on mitzvah. And believe me, knowing how to make a challah is a very useful skill to have, something that will come in handy for years to come in the life of the boy or girl who learns how to do it. In this egalitarian age, who says that only girls should know how to bake a challah? Every Jewish wife will be delighted if she finds out that the man she has married knows how to and likes to bake challah, believe me

Level 3: Ask the rabbi for a list of members of the congregation who are in the hospital and bring them each a challah in honor of Shabbat. If you have ever been in the hospital, you know that it is a lonely and a scary experience, and it feels especially lonely if you are there on Shabbat. Imagine what it would mean to a patient to have someone come in, smile, wish them well and leave them a loaf of challah to enjoy in honor of Shabbat.

Level 4: If you have a challah, you have to have a challah cover. You can assign the honor to one of your relatives or friends who sews. They will feel honored and delighted to be given this mitzvah. Or you can go on the web and find lots of places where you can purchase a challah cover and help the poor at the same time. My favorite is Yad Lakashish, Lifeline for the Old (www.lifeline.org.il), where you can not only pick up some beautiful challah covers, but you can give honor and dignity to the elderly who make them.

Level 5: What if you went to a senior citizens center, nursing home or assisted- living center and asked if anyone there still remembers how to sew and knit? If they do, then offer them the mitzvah of making the challah cover for the simcha. You will have a work of art that has been specially commissioned for your simcha. How many people can say that?

Level 6: Invite the senior citizen who has made the challah cover to the dinner as your guest, and introduce her to everyone as the artist who made the cover. If you do that, you will have two mitzvot for the price of one: You will have added a lovely new work of ritual art to the simcha and you will have fulfilled the mitzvah of bringing out the radiance in the face of our elders.

And the challah cover that made its debut at this event can become a family treasure to be taken out again as the engagement party, at the wedding and, if we are fortunate, at bar mitzvah's child's bar mitzvah.

This is just one small example of the kind of innovative thinking that is found on almost every single page of this book. If even a simple challah can provide so many different opportunities for "mitzvah-izing," then so can every other detail and every other aspect of the experience. Everything -- the invitation, the mitzvah project, the d'var Torah, the centerpiece, etc. -- no matter how small a detail it may be, has the power to become a method for doing good and, if it does, then the benefits to the bar or the bat mitzvah child, and to everyone else present, are very great.

There is an old joke that explains why we need this book so much. An exhausted parent says after his child's simcha: "If having a bar mitzvah is going to get any more expensive, I hope that the next one runs away and becomes a bar mitzvah at a justice of the peace!"

For that parent and for all those who understand what he is saying, this book is a precious resource. If you know a family that will soon approach this event, run, don't walk, to get them a copy. They will bless you for it.

For more information on purchasing the book, visit www.ziv.org .

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