Friday, February 26, 2010

176 days to Bar Mitzvah: bearing gifts

Somewhere over the past three decades, the Bar Mitzvah gift-giving paradigm changed. In my day, the Bar Mitzvah resembled a Mafia wedding in its gift-giving. Throughout the day, people would quietly approach the Bar Mitzvah boy (or girl), congratulate him (or her) and hand over an envelope.

Tasteful and subdued as the exchange was, what really mattered was what was inside the envelope: money.

The traditional Bar Mitzvah joke, "today I am a fountain pen," isn't too accurate. Even back in the 1970s, no one was giving out fountain pens to B'Nai Mitzvot. I did receive a nice silver Cross pen set, however, at mine.

Otherwise, everyone else gave me money. Some people gave me checks, others gave me an envelope full of twenties. There were a few U.S. and Israeli Bonds mixed in, too. During these nascent days of technology, nobody gave me a video game system, a lap top or even a pocket calculator, which I probably would have liked.

A few things have changed since 1978, though to be honest I have to ask myself what role geography plays. I was Bar Mitzvahed in Orange, California, so maybe at least in this case (and few others) I was within the orbit of Los Angeles, where the obsession with Bar Mitzvah grandeur and excess is on a Leonard's of Great Neck scale. For all I know, kids in San Francisco werent' getting envelopes in 1978, they were getting mood rings and wearing white Tony Manero suits.

I did pretty well at my Bar Mitzvah, though my haul paled when compared to the wealth accumulated by my cousin David at his Bar Mitzvah the year before. The money was whisked away faster than Tiger Woods at a press conference, ending up in a savings account, where it was slated to be used for college.

Fast-forwarding to the present and changing the locale to Baghdad-by-the-Bay, we find that the rules have been completely changed re: Bar Mitzvah gifts.

Like most things at Brandeis Hillel Day School, the issue of Bar Mitzvah gifts was not something to treat lightly. Before assuming anything or defaulting to tradition and custom, we would meet to discuss the impact and scope of Bar Mitzvah gifts. Our children would be attending 40-plus B'Nai Mitzvot over the course of one year, which presented a gift-giving challenge. Were we expected to extend our generosity at every single glorious event, even for the kids our Jawa didn't like?

Thankfully, no. Instead, we would pool the money otherwise marked for Bar Mitzvah gifts. We would seize the teaching opportunity and create a year-long service learning project in which our children researched worthy charities, held Socratic discussions, completed persuasive presentations to their peers, in which they made a case for a charity of their choosing. At the end of the year, the money would be doled out.

Political organizations -- which are very different from the political arm of a non-profit organization, I was cheerily informed when I asked in a roundabout way if this was just a way to funnel money toward someone's, probably a parent's, favorite cause -- are not eligible for funds. Parameters for contribution were set. They were less than the total we all would have passed back and forth as Bar Mitzvah gifts to each others' kids, but still nothing to sneeze at.

The Jawa spent last night hunched over the kitchen table. Partially hidden under a pair of enormous headphones and randomly shouting out lines (or, in the absence of words, hummed melodies) to his favorite songs, he carefully attached photos of dogs, graphs showing how many dogs lacked owners and some other statistics to a big piece of poster board. His chosen charity is Rocket Dog Rescue.

So ultimately, we are on the hook for only a handful of Bar Mitzvah gifts. Somewhere along the line -- I don't know where and had never heard of this prior to beginning our independent school odyssey -- Sandra Bullock heard that we should always give monetary gifts in multiples of 18, the numeric translation for Chai, or "life." I have no idea and won't know until August 21 what the norm for monetary Bar Mitzvah gifts is in 2010, but we usually go with 54.

What will be impressive is when Sandra Bullock's relatives, who've never been to a Bar Mitzvah but by August will have been well-coached, all show up holding checks for $54.

I've heard rumblings that some kids don't want money. And I've heard that some famillies don't like to give money. It doesn't take thought much to write a check, the thinking goes. Instead of money, they arrive carrying actual gifts. Theirs is a life of risk-taking, of finding joy in the process of gift-giving, of skipping a sure thing for the possiblity of more meaningful success.

Some families are even asking that no one bring their about-to-enter-adulthood kid Bar or Bat Mitzvah gifts. Instead, their invites tell us to make a donation to their favorite charity.

Bar Mitzvahs aren't what they used to be, but this has been apparent from the moment we locked down our date. Every difference seems to be designed to add more "meaning" to the process. The huge slate of classes, meetings, retreats and family nights are all intended to impress on us the gravity of this day, just by their sheer volume they have added meaning. Where my Bar Mitzvah was a weird blip on the life of an isolated 13-year-old Orange County Jew, the Jawa's is a true rite of passage. In this way, we have gone retro, returning to the pomp and grandeur of pre-California assimilation.

Except when it comes to gift-giving. The ritual of the envelope may have become a relic, gone like scores of Italian restaurants with fake grapes hanging from the ceiling, like ashtrays in bars, like leaving your car unlocked and walking inside. Today, I am no longer a fountain pen. Today, I am Mario Cart for Wii.


The Hammer said...

Money good. Itunes good. Movie theater tix good. Best Buy good. Borders good (esp when paired with granite bookends). Thesaurus, not so much, but easily exchanged for Foxtrot or Zits.

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