Moving to Melbourne just as our daughter Abby turns 12 has been quite an experience. From living quite on the physical and spiritual periphery of the Jewish community in Perth, we are now more in the shtetl and Abby goes from one celebration to another, not to mention preparing for her own. In Australia, as in the U.S., the process of “planning the bar/bat mitzvah” has often meant planning the party. Only once so far has Abby been invited to actually be attend the service (outside of our shul) or ceremony itself.
In the wonderful book Putting God on the Guest List: How to Claim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (or the equivalent book he wrote for children), Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin tries to bring us back to the original purpose and meaning of becoming bar/bat mitzvah: to recognise the coming of a child to an age at which s/he is a Jew in his or her own right, not just because they are the child of Jewish parents (or at least one). Salkin discusses ways of “putting the mitzvah back in bar and bat mitzvah,” and of “keeping the party in perspective” that resonate with much of what our progressive community aims for.
Clearly, 13 (or 12) is not today what it used to be. Although our children are (with any luck) still a long way off from marriage, it is still a rite of passage and time for celebration. And these come in all kinds – small, large and lavish – sometimes dwarfing the spiritual passage entirely.
One of the ways we can affirm the Jewish nature of the event is in what we give the bar/ bat mitzvah. Not having attended many of these events as a child or as an adult, I have found myself asking friends. More often than not, they’ve told me they’re giving the youth money or a gift card. “From Gold’s?” I ask. But in fact, mostly the cards are for Smiggles, Itunes, Myer, and the like.
That’s fair enough for a birthday. But the way I look at it, our kids have the rest of their lives to receive gift cards. Someone becomes a bar or bat mitzvah once in a lifetime and I prefer to honour that simcha with a Jewish gift.
One way to do this is to give a gift of tzedakah in honour of the bar/bat mitzvah. That could be a gift to a Jewish charity or to other organisations whose mission is consistent with Jewish values as the bar/bat mitzvah understands them. Salkin also makes the case for the bar/bat mitzvah to give a gift of tzedakah in honour of reaching this rite of passage – an expression of the blessing of shehecheyanu.
There is of course an important role for material gifts. And in case you’re like me, and seek a wider range than our local Gold can provide, I thought I’d share some websites I have found that offer options in a price range all of us can afford. (Disclaimer: The author has no stake in the companies named in this article.)
People of the Booko
Jewish books abound on every aspect of Jewish life and make wonderful gifts. The Salkin book makes a good gift in advance of the simcha. A friend of mine stockpiled copies of The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel , a favourite of mine, and gave one to every bar/bat mitzvah she knew. I’m a great believer in supporting the dying breed of independent bookstore. So before going online, if you’re looking for a book, I encourage you to try Gold’s, Readings or the local bookshop you know and love. But if you can’t find what you’re looking for there, jewishaustralia.com offers a good selection of Jewish books. And although Booko.com.au is not a Jewish website, it is good to know about because it searches online book sources for your book and lists them in order of the combined price plus cost of shipping to Australia.
We are instructed by the Sages to beautify the mitzvah. zazzle.com.au is a great resource for just this. The portal hosts multiple stores from individual artists selling unique and often funny printed Jewish gifts. I’ll bet you never considered a hamentaschen necktie (Adela Camille Sutton) or Girl with Torah mobile phone speakers (JudyWohlFineArt). How about a Kabbalah design dart board (DoverPictura) or a “Talk to the Hamsa” iPad cover (SilberZweigArts)? There is a dazzling array of gifts at any price — as little as $8.00 for a sheet of pomegranate “sweet new year” stickers your kids can afford, t-shirts, mousepads and posters in the $20s, and canvases and bags from a few dollars to hundreds. A nice touch is that many of the products can be created online or just personalised with your own art or photos, or just customised with names and inscriptions. The Tree of Life poster we chose and personalised with the bat mitzvah’s name turned out to be one of our friend’s favourite gifts.
Another website, etsy.com, is a portal for original artists and designers where you can buy a one-of-a-kind tallis, a matching set of tzitzis, a mezuzah scroll scribed by a woman, and more.
The options are more abundant than ever. Explore and enjoy.
This article previously appeared in Hakol, the monthly newsletter of Etz Chaim Progressive Synagogue.