The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Mitzvah Book
A Practical Guide for Changing the World Through your Simcha
Reviewed by Rabbi Jack Riemer

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. And so if you know a family which will soon approach this event, run, don't walk, to get them a copy. They will bless you for it.

On the one hand, bar and bat mitzvah are 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. But on the other hand, 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 on every page with wise and helpful suggestions on how to avoid the let-down 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 in the life of the family a genuinely meaningful event. Siegel provides a definition of what it means to become a bar or bat mitzvah that I think sets the service and the party into a good perspective. He says: in some cultures, the stages of life are counted as infant, toddler, child, teen-ager, young adult, adult, mid-life, empty nester, retiree, etc. In Jewish thought the stages of life are: infancy, childhood and then Mitsvah 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, whether you buy your kippot from Mayan women in Guatemala who do good work and who live in utter poverty and desperately need the work, what the child says in his talk, what kind of gifts go into the goody bags that you give the kids who come,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. Let me give you just 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, and who gave a pretty good gift and therefore deserves an honor, and who is one of the few in the family whom we can trust to do it right, to recite the Mots to do the honor. But what more can we do with this ritual?

Level one: at most parties the caterer takes the challah away the moment Uncle Herman recites the Motsi. 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 heimish 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 two: consider baking the challah yourself, as a family project. Baking the challah yourself is literally a hands-on it not? 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 three: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 and wish them well, and leave them a loaf of challah to enjoy in honor of Shabbat!. Even if you decide to buy instead of to bake, consider buying a couple of extra challot that you can deliver to congregants who are in the hospital in honor of the simcha..

Level four: if you have a challah, you have to have a challah cover. Why not assign the honor of making one 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 and lots of places where you can purchase a challah cover and help the poor at the same time. My favorite is Yad Lakashish, Lifeline to the Poor, where you can not only pick up some beautifully crafted challah covers but can give honor and dignity to the elderly who make them at the same time.

Level five: and now it gets exciting. What if you went to your local Senior Citizens Center or to your local nursing home or assisted living center and asked if any one there still remembers how to sew and knit? If they do, then offer them the mitzvah of making the challah cover for the simchah. You will have a work of art that has been specially commissioned for your simcha. How many people can say that?

And then level six: invite the senior citizen who has made the challah cover for you to the dinner as your guest, and introduce her to everyone as the artist who made the challah cover which is being used at this event for the very first time. If you do that, you will have two mitsvot 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 the simcha of the bar mitsvah's child's bar mitzvah. And the child will have learned some important lessons both about how we treat bread and about how we treat old people.

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 'Mitsvah-izing', then so can every other detail and every other aspect of the experience. Every detail-the invitation, the mitzvah project, the dvar torah, the centerpiece, etc. 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 who is present are very great.

There is an old joke that you have probably heard that explains why we need this book so much. An exhausted parent says after his child's simcha: "If bar mitzvah is going to get any more expensive, I hope that the next one runs away and becomes 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. And so if you know any family that is approaching these days of stress and trauma, get them this book.