It happens around 6th grade — your child receives his or her first invitation to a bar or bat mitzvah.
It arrives in your email inbox or by regular mail, and you immediately think, “How is [insert child’s name here] old enough to be attending bar and bat mitzvahs?”
This thought is immediately followed by, “How am I old enough to have a kid old enough to attend bar and bat mitzvahs?”
Next comes the question, “What on earth should he/she wear?” And, finally, some version of, “Crap, how do I prepare him or her for this experience?”
Take a deep breath, grab a glass of…whatever (we don’t judge!) and settle in. We’ll get you through this. Here’s everything you need to know.
Before you go
Ask your child if he or she is friends with the child celebrating this milestone.
Your child does not have to attend every bar or bat mitzvah he or she is invited to. Much like those birthday party invitations that “disappeared” before your child ever knew they existed, attendance is not required. But since your kid is no longer 5, be sure he or she wants to attend this event. (Note: There is some nuance here. Every kid deserves to be supported by friends and classmates during this momentous milestone. However, you also don’t want to force your child to attend an event where he or she will be miserable.)
For the love of God, RSVP. As soon as you can. The family needs a headcount for planning purposes. Don’t make them chase you down. I say this out of guilt from being on both sides — the person who has RSVP’d late, and the host who’s had to chase down guests.
Put it on your family calendar. And notify the hosts if plans change.
We all double book and flake sometimes, and unfortunately timed stomach bugs happen. But it sucks when guests RSVP and don’t attend, and then… crickets. The people who did that at my son’s bar mitzvah are dead to me. Dead, I tell you.
Depending on your kid, this may or may not be a struggle. If your kid loves dressing up in twirly dresses or likes to look dapper in a suit and tie, congratulations! My boys equated ties and belts with suffocation, torture, and death, so, alas, our path was not an easy one.
While attire varies by synagogue and sometimes even by region, a good rule of thumb is to dress somewhat conservatively. For girls, this means a dress that is long enough not to shock your grandma and covers the shoulders. She doesn’t have to dress like a nun, but this isn’t the occasion to wear that backless bandage dress that she received as a hand-me-down. Sleeveless dresses and pants are acceptable in some synagogues, but I always find it better to err on the side of coverage on these occasions. Cardigans are always helpful here.
Clothing for boys generally means, at the very least, some sort of button-down shirt tucked into khakis or dress pants. Depending on your kid and the occasion you can add a tie, a blazer, or even spring for a full-on suit. However, this does not need to bankrupt you! While jeans are a no-no, you can get perfectly respectable outfits at places like Target and Walmart — and this isn’t a bad idea since your kid is going to outgrow whatever you buy before you blink.
A word about shoes. Leave basketball sneakers and track shoes at home. Cute slip-on sneakers can be OK, especially if your child doesn’t have any other occasion to wear dress shoes. And make sure your kid can walk in the shoes. If I had a nickel for every girl I’ve seen tottering around in platforms, I would be able to buy myself a fancy, overpriced latte — or 10!
My final word of advice here: When in doubt, ask another parent. This is what group texts are made for.
How to Behave in Synagogue
If you’ve never been to synagogue, you may want to read up a bit, just so you are familiar enough to coach your child. In very broad strokes, here is what you need to know.
Arrive on time(ish)
Check the invitation for the time services begin. You can add 30 to 45 minutes or so — services can be long and kids get squirmy, but you also don’t want to miss the parts led by the bar or bat mitzvah child.
Cover your head
Synagogue policies vary, but generally speaking, Jewish males cover their heads with kippahs and many women do as well. Most of the time, there will be special kippah provided by the hosts for the occasion — which is helpful if you don’t have one on hand, but you can also absolutely BYO. Explain to your child that wearing this is a sign of respect and that stuffing it in their pocket is the opposite of that. The same goes for playing frisbee with it (depending on the shape of the kippah, they can catch air quite nicely).
Regardless of the level of observance of the family, phones and other handheld devices don’t belong in a synagogue service. You may want to suggest that your child leave his or her device at home. If this is not an option, stress that it should not be used in the synagogue. At all, unless someone needs to dial 911 and your child is the only person on the premises with a phone — which is unlikely. There should be no texting, playing games, surfing the web, emailing, answering phone calls, or taking pictures. Oh, and turn the ringer off — or maybe even the entire phone.
Synagogue services can drag on, even for the most devout and seasoned attendees. But your child is there to support his or her friend, and should, therefore, be present in the service. Bathroom breaks are acceptable, if kept to a minimum (like one), and you should return promptly. Any sort of en masse exodus is frowned upon — it is distracting and very noticeable.
Everyone is guilty of talking in synagogue. Everyone. But when you have a pew full of kids, the whispers, comments, giggles, and greetings can all add up to a cacophony. Explain to your child that talking should be kept to a minimum. Actually, tell them that there is no talking allowed. They’re going to talk anyway. But it is good to set expectations.
What to wear
Bar/bat mitzvah parties come in all shapes and sizes these days, from casual, kids-only parties at sports complexes to swanky cocktail-attire shindigs in nightclubs. The invitation will usually give you some sense of the expected attire. Shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers are fine for an event held at a Ninja gym or trampoline park. Otherwise, some dressing up is required. Attire for boys is similar to synagogue, and girls can wear something dressier and worry less about skin coverage.
Some pro tips
Most of the same rules from synagogue apply for the party. While phone usage is not strictly verboten, it isn’t cool to spend the entire party playing Minecraft. A few additional words of advice regarding parties: Make sure your kid has a snack first — 6th and 7th graders don’t always have the most mature palates and may balk at the more sophisticated fare. The last thing you need at the end of the evening is an overtired AND hungry kid. You should also not feel compelled to adhere to the pick-up time suggested by the party hosts. If a party goes until 11 pm or midnight and you know that your kid will be a disaster the following morning, it is OK to pick up a bit early. You won’t be the only one. No matter how mean your kid says you are.
In case of emergency
One additional word to the wise, and I learned this lesson the hard way. Discuss what your child will do if he or she needs help during the party. Many times the adults present will not know all of the children in attendance. My son fell and sprained his ankle at a bat mitzvah party, and he didn’t know any of the grown-ups there and therefore didn’t ask for help. He called us, but there was not much I could do initially because he was 45 minutes away. This is even more important if your child has a life-threatening food allergy or other medical condition.
And some general etiquette
If your child is the only one attending, a modest gift is all that is required. Perhaps a bit more if the guest of honor is a very good friend. There is no need to go beyond your means. Practices surrounding gifts vary widely in different communities, so this is another excellent occasion to call upon your mom squad for advice.
Congratulating and thanking
These are both important. Instruct your child to congratulate the bar/bat mitzvah and tell him or her they did a great job. (You ALWAYS say they did a great job, whether they have the voice of an angel or are completely tone deaf!)
Before leaving, instruct your child to go up to the parents of the bar/bat mitzvah, wish them a mazel tov and say thank you. It is the menschy thing to do. Even if your son or daughter is painfully shy, thanking your hosts is always appropriate. It is also a good time to practice these interactions — you are supposed to be awkward at this age — better now than at your first company holiday party.
Attending bar or bat mitzvahs is often the first step in the whirlwind socializing that comes with adolescence. Before you blink there will be quinceaneras, Sweet Sixteens, and requests for the car keys. Take lots of pictures, buckle in, and enjoy the ride!