Happy coming-of-age! Here’s a. . . a. . .

By Mir
September 11, 2007

The lovely Katie writes:

Not sure if it’s the season for it or what, but my son has received 5 bar/bat mitzvah invitations over the past couple of weeks. Not being Jewish, I have no idea what’s expected here. I’m a single mom on a tight budget, so any ideas would be great. I know money is acceptable, in multiples of 18, but if you’ve got any great ideas for a tough age to buy for, I’d love to hear them. I hate the thought of giving cash, and would prefer to find an appropriate gift that won’t break the bank. Thanks for anything you come up with! I’ve got 4 boys and 1 girl to buy for. Ugh!

Thanks again! Love the site, check it daily!

This is definitely going to be a reader-participation type thing, and I’ll tell you why: Times change, and areas are different. I’ll give this one a shot but I’m afraid I won’t have any sort of “ultimate answer.”

For those of you who don’t know, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a Jewish coming of age ritual wherein the young person reads from the Torah for the first time, signifying their arrival at adulthood. These are typical highly hoopla-ed events, with many Bar and Bat Mitzvah weekends rivaling what most people outlay for a wedding. It is (in other word), a Very Big Deal in every possible way.

My experience with these events is that the only can’t-go-wrong gift is (unfortunately) money. Cash or check or savings bond; that’s considered the “traditional” gift in many circles. However (don’t despair just yet!), there may be a myriad of other appropriate gift offerings, but it will depend largely on your area.

What’s considered appropriate at a Bar Mitzvah in Manhattan is going to be really different from a Bar Mitzvah in Nebraska. Trust me. So: without knowing where you live, I’d say your first line of attack is to find yourself some Jewish parents in the area and ask them for some guidance. Don’t be embarrassed! Frame it as genuinely wanting to give the right sort of thing and not knowing what’s okay.

Long ago and far away, the year that all of my friends were 12- and 13-years-old and there was a rash of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs (like the plague, y’all), some of the other acceptable—and less expensive—gifts included:

  • luggage or other items that will come in handy when it’s time to go to college
  • magazine subscriptions (back then “Rolling Stone” was a big one, but kids today, I have no idea what they want)
  • a piece of jewelry for a girl or a pocketknife for a boy
  • gift certificates to music or clothing stores
  • something personalized and sort of grown-up — a leather portfolio, a fancy clipboard, something like that
  • pen/pencil set

Are these still the right sorts of gifts for today’s events? I have no idea. That’s why you need to ask around. I think anything you might consider as a graduation gift still basically applies here. So the pen/pencil thing or luggage are safe bets, and also the sort of thing you may be able to find on a budget if you do a little bargain shopping.

(Keep in mind that even a little toiletries bag becomes a rather special gift if you get it somewhere that does monogramming. Because I don’t know about you, but that’s something I never pay for for myself, but is kind of a neat touch.)

Readers? Do you have suggestions to add? Lay ’em on us!


  1. One way to ask this question anonymously is to visit UrbanBaby.com and go to the message boards for you city (or whatever city is close by). The responses will give you a range…

  2. I would look into an ipod (refurbished often are cheap at Apple.com) or other type of mp3 player (you can find non-ipods for around 15 dollars each if you shop around). Check Things Remembered for appropriate gifts, trinket box for a girl with her name on it(she will most likely get jewelry from someone); swiss army type knife or mug for a boy–if he has a favorite sports team they often have mugs with team emblems and just have his name engraved (a Red Sox mug with his name on it was my cousins favorite 1st communion gift, he uses it to hold change and other small items in his room). With the exception of religion specific gifts most things you would give for a 1st communion or confirmation would be appropriate (avoid rosary beads and religious statues and texts). Also tickets for events like sports games, movies, concerts, and the like would probably be great–purchase for your child and offer to take both kids!)

  3. If money is the traditional gift, I’d just do $18 or $36 and be done with it– these little trinkets sound like a great way to bore a 12-year-old to death and/or clutter up their room with stuff they won’t use or appreciate for five or six years (if then).

    Just my opinion. I’m not Jewish, btw.

  4. I have no advice to give, I just wanted to comment on how easily Mir just throws the “ya’lls” in to her writing now. 🙂

  5. Okie Dokie… Lemme have a go at this. We’ve been to TONS of B’nai Mitzvot. Most of the ‘remembered’ gifts have little to do with ‘stuff’. However, the most memorable gifts I received 30+ years ago are traditional Judaica. iPods, gift cards, and cash are typically forgotten fairly quickly. Pendants, religious observance items, donations to the child’s favorite charity in their name, books on Jewish themes, prayer shawls, jewelery or other items with the hebrew name of the B’nai Mitzvah child, and other related items will be cherished for generations (I have things my grandparents received). My daughter and I use the Shabbat candlesticks my great-grandmother brought over from Russia. Most synagogues have gift shops available, and some even have registry lists from the kids/families. There are many websites which have inexpensive items which have these types of items in stock.

  6. It’s been a while, but I do remember personalized stuff being good (for girls, the rage back in the day was personalized acrylic jewelery boxes – which probably dates me, but oh well). But more recently for family gifts, I’ve done stuff like Amazon gift cards. If you give cash, the kid may be obligated to save it (which is fine – nothing against saving) whereas if you give Giftcard, the kid will actually get to spend it. If you’re the aunt and uncle, money to save is good. If you’re a classmate, *stuff* might be more appreciated. If the kid in question is already a tech type person, you could do an iTunes gift card, too.

    I would say that if you’re not Jewish, and not super close to the kid and family in question (such that you know their tastes and preferences), than buying Judaica might not be the greatest idea. It’s sorta personal.

    If you want to go the personalized route, something engraved from one of those mall-type places (or their online equivalent) could be good – and maybe if you buy all 4 at once you’ll get a volume discount?

  7. In our area (north of Boston), adults who are friends of the parents give money, and that’s where the bulk of the major gifts are expected to come from, not from the kids who are invited. I’ve never heard of that multiple of 18 “rule.” Kids here often give mall gift certificates so the honoree can buy what s/he wants — kids are so sensitive that it’s mortifying to give the “wrong” gift — so play it safe with a GC. Most kids here already have their own ipod, cell phone, etc. by bar mitzvah age. I haven’t yet heard of bar mitzvah registries like those for weddings and babies, but they may be out there — check the local department stores. Five such parties is a lot — that means the children being bar/bat mitzvah’d like your son, and want him to be there. So, the amount of the gift shouldn’t be an issue, and the parents will probably know your situation, so give a GC in an amount that won’t break the budget. I would make sure, though, that you or your son find out what the other boys will be wearing — a suit with shirt & tie, a blazer with dress shirt, whatever — and make the investment in the clothing for the first party so he can have the outfit for all five. (I recommend Marshall’s, Syms, etc. for such things.) Luckily, you won’t have to worry about buying a new dress for each event as parents of girls must do.

  8. A while ago my mom started buying “How to be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook”. I have done the same with a few folks I don’t know well. This book has details of what to expect when you attend services of a bunch of American religions. It tells what to wear, what are the basic beliefs of the religions, etc. This book felt appropriate for me because the celebrant has often spent along time learning about their religion but has no idea about anyone else’s.

  9. 18 is considered a “lucky” number is Jewish customs. Every year, that’s what I got from my Grandparents. A check for $18.

  10. 18 is the numeric equivalent of Chai, which means life. Gifts and donations are usually done in multiples of 18 to symbolize Chai.

  11. Whatever you give, make sure that the card is securely fastened to the gift. Even better is to tape the name of the giver to the gift inside the box or under the wrapping. My childrens’ gifts were hauled from the synagogue to the rented party hall to home, where they were ripped into with abandon. More than one card was separated from its gift, and we ended up with a number of orphaned gifts and thank you cards that went along the lines of “Thank you for your generous gift”.

  12. My dad’s side of the family is Jewish, and several times during my childhood I was given the gift of a tree planted in Israel in my name. If you google “plant a tree in Israel” you’ll get lots of links for organizations who do the tree-planting. $18 seems to be the standard donation/fee. It’s simple, enviro-friendly, relatively inexpensive and appropriate… and it won’t clutter up anyone’s house.

    Or perhaps a crafty type could hand-embroider a yarmulke for each of the boys? Not being, you know, actually Jewish, I couldn’t tell you if certain things would or would not be appropriate, but you could probably look at yarmulkes in Jewish stores online for ideas. That, I think, would be a very sweet gift that wouldn’t be quickly trashed or forgotten.

  13. You know what else might be cool and different? Do the plant a tree in Israel thing, but also give the kids a plant. Maybe even a small ficus tree, or a bonsai, or perhaps a “hard to kill” houseplant. You could probably get a local nursery to give you a deal on 5!

    Out of curiousity, I just googled “plant a tree in Israel” and it looks like most places ask for $18/tree. However, this one http://treestoisrael.org/ offered your choice of different kinds of trees, some as low as $14.

  14. A lot of good ideas here!
    Something we’ve given that’s been popular with the boys is a sporty watch.

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