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April  24

Answering the Hard Questions

Dear Betty,

My child is going to lots of bar and bat mitzvahs this year, but I can't find anyone who'll level with me about what to give as a present. I don't want to be talked about behind my back -- unless it's about my lack of back fat. Please advise.

Goyishe in Glen Ridge

Dear Goyishe,

I've never heard that name before! How perfectly adorable.

Good question. Betties always like to give the right thing, and each occasion and locale has its own norms for giving. I've always thought a crisp ten dollar bill and a Cross pen set were plenty for any child, but my local authorities tell me that, while everyone understands and believes that a bar mitzvah, like a wedding, is a joyful ceremonious occasion that requires no gift giving at all, custom has it otherwise.

Inside sources tell Betty that the current local rules are as follows. If the child will be attending on her own, and you the parent don't know the bar mitzvah boy, fifty dollars is acceptable, especially if you're not rich/attend a public school. Multiples of eighteen, which is the numerological equivalent to chai, meaning life, is considered good luck, so spring for fifty-four or seventy-two. If you are rich -- or if other people think so -- cough up a hundred, with eighteen in cash nestled next to your check. This is the norm for local private schoolers. If the whole family is going, give the equivalent in worth as you would for a wedding, or what you guess to be the total of the catering costs to feed and water your group. If the child is a relative, remember; children know who gives them what and they live to tell the tale -- to their children. If you don't want to be Uncle Cheapo for all eternity, be generous. One hundred eighty and a good dictionary is what one local lady gives her nephs and nieces. Objects are acceptable, too, but make sure you buy something returnable and not on sale. No T.J. Maxx items in Neiman Marcus boxes. Leave that trick to your mother. I have it on good authority that the lowliest trinket in the blue Tiffany box is valued more highly than 14K from Fortunoff.

Above all, be a good guest, dance, smile and write an appreciate note afterward. Your host and hostess will remember it all as a blur. Let them know you--or your child--appreciated their efforts, loved their speeches, thought their pride and joy brilliant, and had fun. If you think the ice sculpture was over the top, keep to yourself.

April 24, 2005 in Betty Says | Permalink


Frankly, Ms. Betty, I respectfully think $50 is over the top, forget about the ice sculptures. The little creeps ought to be happy they actually have friends to invite to their coming of age rituals, they shouldn't also have in their (or, more likely, their parents') minds an "acceptable" figure for a cash gift. It also sounds like you're tacitly endorsing such a seeming instancee of greed, which is maybe why I still prefer "Miss Manners."

Posted by: cathar | Apr 24, 2005 10:45:48 AM

I believe it is customary to give cash for bat or bar mitzvahs...

but any amount should be appreciated.

Posted by: Pam | Apr 24, 2005 11:25:04 AM

$50 is almost a whole week's worth of groceries to a truly low-income family!

Some people couldn't afford to give $18. Can you give 9, which is 1/2 a chai?

Posted by: butchcjg | Apr 24, 2005 11:52:13 AM

Betty's if-then response is quite the algorithm for gift giving! That kind of thing makes my head spin.

Posted by: Chris | Apr 24, 2005 2:02:43 PM

Pretty good advice Miss Betty, but more importantly what do I give the postman at Christmas?

Posted by: jmo | Apr 24, 2005 2:09:16 PM

I'm not one for worrying about gift giving etiquette, but I can say that when I attended the bat mitzvah of a girl I babysat for years the parents told me afterwards how great they thought it was that I gave her a book because she had received impersonal gifts like tiffany jewelry and cash from most other people.

I've heard about wealthy kids who don't really need all the cash they receive who choose to donate it to a charity, which is pretty cool. I also read an article about wealthy non-jewish girls having extravegant faux bats for the sake of getting their own parties and gifts, which is pretty appalling.

Posted by: Meghan | Apr 24, 2005 10:26:33 PM

As the veteran of about 40 bar/bat mitzvahs over the past 3 years, I think Betty is overly generous on the value of gifts. Plenty of unescorted kids give $18-$36 gifts or actual presents of that value. Where a family is invited, the gift is often related to how close that family feels to the bar/t mitzvah (sometimes to what the guest can afford). I also think that an actual present rather than cash is wonderful and often more memorable than a donation to what becomes a college fund! The experience of the day is so wonderful, and the entire family is just so thrilled to have people present and supporting them that the presents are an extra.

By the way, if I have been at a service (and not an invited guest) I often give a small donation to the synagogue in honor of the bar/t mitzvah. The family is always touched (and I was delighted when that happened in my daughter's honor).

Posted by: Marge | Apr 25, 2005 7:29:31 AM

"I also think that an actual present rather than cash is wonderful and often more memorable."

I agree. I was raised to believe that cash is tacky when presented as a gift. I also agree that you don't have to spend a king's ransom for a nice gift. Some suggestions:

Jewelry for girls, watches for boys
Games (I once bought Scrabble in Hebrew as a Bar Mitzvah gift and the kid LOVED it!)
DVD or CD collections (if you know their taste)

Posted by: Miss Martta | Apr 25, 2005 10:11:16 AM

I will be attending a bat mitzvah next month. May I ask Miss Marta where you found a Scrabble game in Hebrew? Thank you

Posted by: M | Apr 25, 2005 5:46:22 PM

I thought your whole theory was offensive. What's the deal with public vs. private school gift amounts? You're making an assumption that parents who choose to set their children's education as a financial priority can also afford to give extravagant gifts... or even that they would want to. I know from personal experience that that is not necessarily the case.

Posted by: S B-B | Apr 25, 2005 8:25:54 PM

I, too, am appalled at the amounts you considered acceptable gifts, the distinction between private and public school kids and the assumption that families will talk about those who give "too little." My public school daughter had a non-ostentatious bat mitzvah last week with a luncheon followed by an ice skating party for 20 girls. Our favors were the flower arrangements from the luncheon (done by her aunts) and handmade fortune cookies that she and I made ourselves, two at a time. Our emphasis was on the spirituality of joining a caring community and her future helping to repair the world through acts of social justice. Gifts ranged from $18 to $180 and she has never said one word comparing one gift to another or disparaging any givers or non-givers. Her favorite gifts include a handmade doll wearing her bat mitzvah colors and a journal a neighbor brought back from a trip to Italy. She will remember the special blessing from the cantor long after more spoiled children forget the details of their "special day." The photographer said that in 10 years of taking photos prior to the ceremony, my daughter was the first to roll the Torah back up afterward. We could have gone to private school, but chose not too, prefering to teach our chidren the meaning of the words "appropriat: and "enough." Those values were reinforced by the rabbi and cantor during her Bat preparation. Her gratitude is for the friends and family that cared enough to help raise her to be a thoughtful, ethical young woman.

Posted by: DW | Aug 18, 2005 12:01:55 PM

My son just had his Bar Mitzvah and I could not believe how many people did not even bother to bring a card let alone check or cash! For the most part, those that did give a cash or check were very very cheap. I will say it is fine for a single child to bring $18 or $20 and treat it like they would a regular birthday. Adults and especially Jewish people should know what to do or not do. Maybe some view it as a free meal?

Posted by: bess | May 16, 2006 10:56:18 PM

it was a free meal wasn't it.

did you think you were charging admission.

was he bar mitzvahed just for the gifts or for some other reason?

Posted by: pissant | May 17, 2006 7:25:52 AM

I think after the years of Hebrew school and the ceremony marking a coming of age, the new adult has earned the gifts and praise of their friends and family.

But if the suggested gift giving structure is offensive then those offended have the option of not attending and keeping negative commments to themselves.

Almost every culture and religion has a coming of age ritual. They should all be treated with respect and a generous attitude.

Posted by: hrhppg | May 17, 2006 9:10:57 AM

oh- attend and adhere to the "gift giving structure" or don't attend. why not just charge admission?

i suppose that the wedding reception is only for the gifts as well and that those who are not going to be "generous" or adhere to the "gift giving structure" should not attend.

Posted by: pissant | May 17, 2006 10:12:08 AM

Don't worry pissant - I'm sure the people in your social circle know better then to assume you're capabile of a nice gift and a festive attitude.

Posted by: hrhppg | May 17, 2006 10:23:14 AM

i'm not worried.

i give generously and love a good party.

when i invite someone to a party or celebration i do not require that they pay me for the priviledge

the definition of a gift is: something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation

the definition of admission charge is:
a fee paid at or for admission

you're not throwing a celebration -to observe a notable occasion with festivities--your charging admission to a social event!

NYAH NYAH nyah nyah the names you call me don't matter

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