February 17, 2014
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Things a non-Jewish guest should know about bar mitzvahs

Bar mitzvah protocol

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Your coworker’s son is turning 13 and you’ve just been invited to your very first bar mitzvah. Mazel tov! – but what does that mysterious words even mean? Obviously this is a huge event but you aren’t Jewish and you’ve never witnessed this sacred rite of passage. What should you do? What should you bring? Do you need to wear a hat? You feel like a meshugener and you don’t even know it!

Relax — we’ve whipped up a guide that any gentile (psst, that’s you) can peruse and easily use. Read our five simple tips and you’ll feel like part of the mishpocheh in no time.

Tip one: Be respectful of Jewish customs, even if they aren’t your own.

If you’re a man, put on a yarmulke. It’s a skullcap worn by males. If you don’t have one, don’t worry. Traditionally, proud parents have custom ones made for the big event with their child’s name and date printed on the inside. Depending on the family’s level of observance, you might be asked to sit away from your significant other because Orthodox men and women usually sit on different sides of the synagogue.

Tip two: Don’t worry. You won’t have to take part in the ceremony.

According to Jewish faith, a boy at the age of 13 and a girl at the age of 12 become responsible for their own actions from a religious perspective. For you, the non-Jewish friend, it simply means you’re going to go to synagogue to hear some blessings in Hebrew and an awkwardly hilarious reciting of that week’s Torah portion by the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl. This portion is known as the haftorah. After that, freshly minted grown-up might give a speech known as a d’var Torah, where they reflect upon their first 13 years and how they plan to contribute to the world now that they are adults. Traditionally these events take place on the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest that has nothing to do with the color black of Ozzy Osbourne. It lasts between Friday evening until Saturday night and the use of any kind of technology is prohibited. Make sure to turn off your cell phone and refrain from texting, receiving incoming calls, and playing Words with Friends during the ceremony. If you absolutely need to make a phone call, it’s acceptable to excuse yourself for a moment and step outside.

Tip three: Once the ceremony has concluded, it’s time to party.

Bar or bat mitzvahs are grand celebrations that are huge deals for the family but it’s also important to remember that they’re also birthday parties for 13-year-old kids. The amusement is going to range from on-site caricaturists and belly dancers to Justin Bieber impersonators. Themes like baseball, medieval times, winter wonderland, and Broadway musicals are widely popular and a lot of the entertainment will circle around whatever concept the birthday boy or girl chooses. In the event that this is your first Jewish celebration (or simcha), you should be ready to dance. Jews love dancing and they especially love doing the horah. The dance isn’t complicated and doesn’t involve any intricate steps. All you have to do is be prepared to hold hands with complete strangers and go around and around in a circle for an unspecified amount of time. If you plan on snuffing you inner-Tony Manero during the festivities, this is the one dance you should indulge. If a small army of grandparents can get their grooves in gear during the simple horah, so can you. Plus, if you participate in this dance, it may earn you a Get-out-of-jail-free-pass when the Cupid Shuffle begins to play.

The horah also involves lifting the hosts and immediate family up into the air on a chair. This tradition has many meanings – one is that being lifted higher brings you closer to a spiritual place and another symbolizes that a person cannot do anything without being supported by others. If you want to help out during the horah, make sure you’ve got the strength to support a 100+ pound body above your head. And if you’re wondering, yes, it is as terrifying as it looks.

Tip four: When in doubt, it’s all about the Benjamins (or the Andrew Jacksons), baby.

The bar or bat mitzvah is more than just a big Jewish party, it’s a celebration of a child’s maturation into a young adult. As you might recall, being a teenager is tough. They usually aren’t happy with anything. If you aren’t sure what to get them as a present, money is totally acceptable. Here are a few tips on what to give and what to write in a card.

Tip five: It’s Mazel tov time.

You can absolutely tell members of the family congratulations on their child’s big day. But if you want to do it the classic way, say mazel tov (pronounced ma-zel-toff) and prepare to say it a lot. Your hosts will appreciate that you took the time to figure out how to say congrats in the traditional way.

Got more tips? Let us know in the comments below!

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