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Help Is at Hand! Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Planning a Bar/Bat Mitzvah

October, 2004

Review of: The Ultimate Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration Book: A Guide to Inspiring Ceremonies and Joyous Festivities, by Jayne Cohen and Lori Weinrott (Clarkson Potter, March 2004)

Yesterday I realized with dismay that my son's Bar Mitzvah is only nine months away and I haven't even begun to plan! Invitations, locations for a celebratory party, music, food--all of these key elements await my careful decisions . . . but I had no idea where to start.  

Thank goodness then, for The Ultimate Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration Book: A Guide to Inspiring Ceremonies and Joyous Festivities. In a friendly, conversational tone, the authors take a harried mom like me by the hand, and walk us through the process. We learn in the first half of the book about the meaning of this wonderful Jewish tradition . . . that our child now will be recognized as an adult in the eyes of our religion, acquiring not only new privileges (such as being counted in a minyan--quorum of ten Jews needed to read from the Torah) but new social and religious obligations as well (such as observing the fast days and thinking about others). The second half of the book provides the nuts and bolts of every part of the celebration. From advice on customizing your invitations, to lighting, to planning centerpieces that are themselves a mitzvah--a religious obligation--it's hard to think of a question that the authors haven't addressed.

Whether you are new to planning a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, are perhaps a part of an interfaith family like mine, or you simply want a step-by-step guide to all of the issues you need to consider, this helpful book provides it all. I particularly appreciated the frank recognition of the social pressure to conform to "the overblown 'Bar Mitzvah du jour' syndrome." The authors provide constructive suggestions for countering social pressure, such as by participating as a family in Judaic activities. Another lovely, contemporary aspect of the book is its recognition that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah may be happening in the context of an interfaith or an adoptive family, and the inclusion of specific ideas for incorporating other cultural identities into the celebration.

But the most detailed sections of the book are about the Bar/Bat Mitzvah process itself, from the time your child begins his/her Hebrew study, to mitzvah projects, to the celebratory elements of the big day. Again, with a most contemporary slant, even these elements are discussed not only for the traditional situation but also for adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Both for families already familiar with this important ritual and especially for interfaith families, this useful resource book provides helpful yet simple descriptions of the service and all of its elements, including Torah portion, haftarah, and blessings by the family and the rabbi.

There's no sense of a right or wrong way to do things that might put off an interfaith family. Rather, the tone is welcoming, reassuring and cheerful, offering specific suggestions for personalizing a Bar/Bat Mitzvah (substituting gender-neutral blessings, including poems relevant to the child) while cautioning that you must check with your synagogue to determine the degree to which this is possible.

Many details ignored by other books on the subject are thoughtfully included here. Would you know how to prepare a program guide for the service? If you did want to provide it because many of the guests are not Jewish or not familiar with the service, it would help to consider some of the topics the authors suggest, such as explaining the synagogue rituals, offering alternative silent meditations, informing guests about your child's mitzvah project, or providing a list of friends and family participating in the service.

As for me, I'm relaxed now. I've acquired lots of good ideas, even some great recipes and those hard-to-find portion size guidelines that will help me plan a great event!

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A selection from the books of Prophets that is read following the weekly Torah portion. There is a Haftorah for each Torah portion. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Cheryl F. Coon

Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.

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