I sat at a media center table in my children’s school on Monday, leading my eager writing students through some creative exercises, when I noticed the shirts. A group of slim 7th-graders sat around computers at a nearby table, dressed in identical white T-shirts, given to them that Saturday night at a bar mitzvah.
My son has one just like it and in fact was wearing it to school that same day, along with all the other kids who shared in the celebration. That same weekend there was a bat mitzvah in my daughter’s grade, to which most of her friends were invited, while she was not.
I realized as I watched these beautiful girls that my daughter was one of the many kids not wearing the same shirt from a shared event that day. I knew she felt left out of the fun, as she had considered the celebratory girl a friend. And I watched the traffic of middle-schoolers at lunch in and out of the library, recognizing the we’re-part-of-something satisfied smiles and the I-wish-I-were-too gazes.
Perhaps I’m reading a lot into this. It’s definitely possible. But it seemed so acute to me, so glaring in broad daylight, as the kids in the “in crowd” of that particular weekend shared common memories, and the other kids were so obviously outside of the circle.
My son’s bar mitzvah is 4 months away. My daughter’s bat mitzvah will take place in October. I’m hard at work planning both blessed events.
When I began to think about my children’s Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies a year or two ago, I reckoned that I would not give in to the trends of spending money on giveaways. I was going to be different! I also vowed not to waste time or money on a video montage of my child’s life until 13 or a candle lighting of a random number of candles to call certain special people to the center for recognition.
Well, I can tell you now that I’ve lost the battle. My children have other ideas and they want some of the same things that they see at their friends’ events.
Montage? Yes. Candlelighting? Yep.
I’m on the fence, and they are arguing hard in favor of giving something to their friends as a shared takeaway once the event ends.
I get it. It’s fun to receive something that lives on beyond an afternoon or evening of celebration. It feels good to know that you are part of this group of fun friends who all shared significant, celebratory moments together. When you wear the T-shirt or the sweatshirt or the sweat pants, you think, wow, that was fun! I’m so glad so-and-so invited me to celebrate.
And yet, there are kids at my children’s school who can’t afford breakfast or lunch, who barely have a thick enough coat to ward off winter. They slink by, uninvited to these grandstanding events where, I’ll admit, we spend way too much in the first place, and see a world so far out of their reach.
What’s more, as Jews, we have a responsibility to think about how we represent our religion, our community, our Creator. What does it look like when we throw money in all directions to buy extra loot and make sure everyone knows how important we are?
After all, what is Jewish about a giveaway?
Perhaps I’m grandstanding; bring me down a peg if I am. But really, I’ve put the numbers into a budget and I see how much these mitzvahs are costing. I’m trying to do it affordably and with grace, trying to keep in focus the meaning of the event rather than the madness.
The other day, after school, I brought up the giveaway topic with the kids. We were just talking; I wasn’t mandating a change or insisting on a particular approach.
“What if,” I said, “we give shirts to everyone in your grade, so no one feels left out?”
“Well, that will just cost more, Mommy, and besides, I don’t want to invite every kid in my grade.” 150 kids – I wholeheartedly agree.
“What if,”I suggested, “we don’t do giveaways?”
“But that’s the fun of it. We get to take something with us, and I wear the shirts even after the event.”
“What if,” I offered, “we giveaway something that’s not wearable, so it’s not so obvious come the Monday after your party?”
“But that’s the whole point – to share it at school on Monday.”
So I’m left between a rock and a hard place that wouldn’t even exist if we weren’t in such a material-focused society.
Did you know, there is a scriptural precedent for making a bar mitzvah as big and extravagant as a wedding? It’s from several centuries ago, and the notion is that once a boy reaches bar mitzvah age (they didn’t talk about girls back then), his father’s responsibility to educate him in Torah is over and he’s on his own – so the celebration was really for the parents to pat themselves on the back and say, job well done.
Of course, back then, a wedding feast was likely handmade in the family’s kitchen by all the women in the family. I imagine it as a simple meal made fancy with meats not normally available for everyday eating, and music to celebrate, too.
No giveaways. No caricature artists. No swimming pools. No arcade games. No photo booths. No sushi. Celebrating in the manner of the times.
And I guess we’re celebrating in the manner of our times, too.
P.S. If you have an opinion on giveaways, let me know!!