Daniel went home and unwrapped his bar mitzvah presents. His mom found him sitting dolefully amidst the crumpled wrapping paper and open envelopes. He was surrounded by many high-quality watches, several personal music and game players, assorted games, 12 gift certificates, and 36 checks. She wondered at his mood and asked: “What’s wrong, son?” Daniel’s answer: “I don’t know mom, but somehow this is disappointing. This stuff just doesn’t mean anything to me.” Daniel is absolutely right. There are many ways to give bar/bat mitzvah gifts that can touch a person’s spirit, not just by way of a charitable organization. There is nothing wrong and everything right with receiving a physical gift so long as it adds meaning to the experience and expands the relationship between the recipient and the giver in a healthy way.
Creating legacy gifts
Many items in life can become legacy gifts. Even if giving a check has to happen because it’s customary or sorely needed, also consider creating a special moment to give something personal and uniquely memorable. Start by looking into the contents of your life. Are there pictures of great grandparents or other ancestors that you can frame with a dedication plaque giving their names and dates in honor of the bar or bat mitzvah? Do you have stories about them to share in a one-to-one meeting with the bar or bar mitzvah student? Also write down the stories in your gift note or mount them on the back of the picture.
Consider the picture together with the student. Gifts become more meaningful to the recipient by the manner in which we convey them. Together notice details of dress, similarities perhaps between the students and the ancestor(s); if you can, explain about the period in which the prior photo was taken. Is there something around your home that has always fascinated the student? Something he or she asked about or played with during visits? That could be the perfect gift. Is there something that symbolizes a turning point in your own life that carries an important story and that you can give over as a sacred trust? This might become the cornerstone of a mentoring moment that will long resound within the student’s memory. You might also find a novel or nonfiction work that relates to your point. You can then inscribe it and give it to the bar or bat mitzvah student as a personal resource to hold on to until it is fully needed. Jason’s paternal grandfather died before Jason could remember him. His Aunt Wendy brought him one of his grandfather’s leather books of poems by Walt Whitman; complete with notes Jason’s grandfather had handwritten in the margins when he was young. The inside cover contained a dedication showing that Jason’s grandfather had himself received the book as a bar mitzvah present from his father. To Jason, this book is the greatest treasure he’s ever received. Allison’s grandmother noticed a beaded drawstring bag in the back of her closet. She had the bag repaired and added the words Allison’s tallit bag in beadwork. She presented Allison with the tallit bag at the party, with stories about some of the events that the bag had been through with her. Jenny’s cousin obtained Hadassah and Life magazines from the day Jenny was born, thirteen years before that, and thirteen years before that. As the cousins pored over the magazines together, they were amazed at the kinds of advertising events, and social changes they read about. Alice’s mom helped her encase these magazines in sturdy plastic covers to preserve this unique gift for future generations. Adam’s neighbor discovered that Adam loves science fiction. Online at JewishLights.com he found a series of Jewish science fiction books and gave Adam three as his gift, with the suggestion that they both read and discuss the works. One story discussed whether a nonhuman alien could convert to Judaism. This problem captured Adam’s curiosity and led them into a whole new level of exploration. Kerri’s tutor had a big surprise for her. She picked up a plain beige kippah at the Judaica store and with fabric paint made a scene of Jerusalem on one half and an image of an open Torah scroll on the other half. Then, with a permanent marker, she wrote a verse from Kerri’s Torah portion on the open scroll and Kerri’s name in the very center of the kippah. On the inside she wrote, “Love to my fantastic student forever — your tutor, Dona.
Many Ethiopian Jews participated in an embroidery project to raise money for food, health care, and education, before their immigration to Israel. Their high quality, brilliantly colored tallitot and tallit and pillow covers interpret many Torah portions; their mezuzot also make stunning legacy presents and support their education and training in Israel. Ari’s classmates and their parents got together to acquire the series of Ethiopian pillow covers as a present for him. This proved to be so special that many classmates are hoping the same gift will be coming their way, too. It is also possible to twin with an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant to Israel, to share bar or bat mitzvah dates, correspond, and one day even to meet. The legacy of friendship is a very powerful gift indeed. (For information, contact the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry at NOCOEJ.org.)
Special activities as gifts
Consider some activities that you can do together to privately honor this special time. Ben’s uncle gook him to the steam room at the Jewish community center and proudly introduced him to the men who gather there after the men’s weekly bagels-and-lox brunch. They joyfully welcomed him and shared stories of their own b’nei mitzvah. Sarah’s mom took her to the Judaica shop to select a set of candlesticks of her own to light every Friday night. She told Sara a secret, that whenever she lights candles, she senses the presence of her own mother of blessed memory. Also, when she blesses Sara, she senses her own mother’s hands upon her head in bless. Kate, his mother’s best friend, brought Max to a ceramics studio so that they could make a challah plate together in honor of his bar mitzvah. On the back of the plate, Kate wrote a special signed message for her heart that was sealed there for every Shabbat to come. Blaine’s grandmother is an excellent needle worker. When she learned about a German Jewish needlework tradition called whimple, she and Blaine agreed that making one together would be very memorable. The whimple involves creating a Torah belt, to be used only on the special occasions of a person’s life cycle that take place at the Torah. Traditionally, these would be started in honor of a birth, and the fabric would be derived from the baby’s swaddling cloth. The belt is made up of multiple panels and is perhaps six inches wide. As each major life-cycle event arrives, each panel of the belt gets decorated in fabric paint or embroidery with the birth date, name of child, symbols, and a verse from that week’s Torah portion or blessing. Antique and contemporary examples are on view at many Jewish museums. Another collaborative craft project is creating a Judaic blessing quilt. One person sends squares of fabric to friends with instructions to return the decorated square in honor of the person’s simcha. Nadine, the yoga partner of Talia’s mom, decided her gift would be to coordinate such a project. Not being a quilter herself, she took the squares she had received from participants to a professional for assembly. Squares can be decorated with just about any-thing: fabric markers, buttons, necklace charms, and shells. Messages from Torah, qualities about the student’s life, or blessings can be added, too. Some even sew in tiny music chips so that a melody will emerge when the curious push on the squares.
From “Reclaiming Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a Spiritual Rite of Passage” by Rabbi Goldie Milgram (Reclaiming Judaism Press).