Bar and Bat Mitzvah Book

We have long needed a book like Danny Siegel’s “Bar and Bat Mitzvah Book.” I wish that it had been around when my children were becoming bar and bat mitzvah.

Though b’nai mitzvah are widely observed, many Jewish children and their parents are bewildered and confused over how to make these events meaningful.

Siegel, the founder of Ziv Tzedakah Fund, has filled his book with wise and helpful suggestions on how to avoid the letdown that the child and the family so often feel after such a simcha. His book provides a different perspective on what this event means, plus a plethora of ideas on how to make this turning point in the life of the child and the family a genuinely meaningful event.

Siegel provides a definition of what it means to become a bar- or bat mitzvah that sets the service and the party into a good perspective. He says that in Jewish thought the stages of life are infancy, childhood and then mitzvah 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 live in poverty and desperately need the income; what your child says in his or her talk; what kind of gifts go into the goody bags that you give the kids who come; etc.

Here’s just one example of what Siegel proposes you can do if you have imagination and good will:

Though you don’t need a challah except at the Shabbat or the holiday meal, almost everyone has a 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, to recite the Motzi. But what more can we do with this ritual?

Level one: At most parties the caterer whisks away the challah the moment after the Motzi is recited. 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 gathers around the challah and instead of cutting it with a knife, each member tears off a piece. This involves everyone in the mitzvah, and is much more informal and haimish than having one person do it, and then having the people in the kitchen do the rest.

Level two: Consider baking the challah yourself, as a family project. Baking the challah is literally a hands-on mitzvah, is it not?

Level three: Ask the rabbi for a list of congregation members who are in the hospital, and bring them each a challah in honor of Shabbat.

Level four: If you have a challah, you have to have a challah cover. Why not assign the honor of making one to a relative or friend who sews. He or she will feel honored and delighted to be given this mitzvah. Or you can go on the Web and find lots of places to 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 give honor and dignity to the elderly who make them.

Level five: Go to your local senior citizens center or a nursing home and asked if anyone can sew and knit. If you find someone, offer that person 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.

Level six: Invite the person who has made the challah cover to the dinner as your guest, and introduce her to everyone. If you do that, you will have added a lovely work of ritual art to the simcha and also fulfilled the mitzvah of bringing out the radiance in the face of our elders.

And the challah cover that made its debut can become a family treasure to be taken out at future lifecycle events.

This is just one small example of the kind of innovative thinking that is found on almost every single page of this mitzvah-filled book.

“Bar and Bat Mitzvah Book: A Practical Guide for Changing the World Through Your Simcha” by Danny Siegel (137 pages, The Town House Press, $10).