Magic Jewball

all signs point to no


Jew & A – 13 Candles

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism,Reasons to be cheerful
On March 1, 2012
At 11:45 pm
Comments : 6

My favorite veterinarian and owner of shiny, shiny hair, Mary/Dr. Toad, writes:
My son Alec has been invited to a bar mitzvah. He is invited to both the formal part and the party afterwards.

While his friend has done a good job informing everyone as to what this means, I still have no clues about some stuff.

What does one wear to these things? I realize that the formal part needs dress up clothes (shirt/tie) but the party is being held at a local arcade type place.

I assume a gift is appropriate, but have no clue as to what type of gift. Should it be something religiously significant? Sadly, I’ve gotten nothing but gift cards for most occasions lately as my grocery store is open 24 hours and carries gift cards for most places and it’s on the way to every event. I’m pretty pathetic.

Magic Jewball, save me!

This could be my most subjective, take a stab in the dark answer yet. Both because this is highly dependent on where you live/nature of the celebrating family/type of affair and because I am no longer really on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit and definitely not as a friend of the celebrant. Back in my day, it was a popular gift to give a Polaroid camera, if that tells you anything.

So, with that caveat, I’ll take my stab and then invite others to join me in the social hall, uh, comment area, where we’ll enjoy a kiddush sponsored by the proud grandparents and give further advice.

To fill in everyone else, the actual main part of a Bar Mitzvah celebration usually takes place in a synagogue where the Bar or Bat Mitzvah (this term actually refers to the young person and not the party – he is a Bar Mitzvah and she is a Bat Mitzvah) will be called to the bimah (a raised platform at the front of the synagogue) to chant the Torah portion of the week and/or the Haftorah portion, which is a sort of matching reading culled from the last two thirds of the Hebrew Bible (what y’all would call the Old Testament). It is sung in an ancient melody and the Torah and Haftorah each have their own. The blessings said before and after each section of the reading (there are seven on the Sabbath) are considered an honor and so the Bar or Bat Mitzvah may also or alternately be called up to say the blessings. This being “called up” is actually the point and it is literally called an aliyah or “going up.” A Jew is not allowed to say these blessings before becoming a Bar (age 13) or Bat (age 12) Mitzvah so this is a big, big deal and everyone will be excited and congratulatory. It is a huge moment in the life of a Jewish person. From that time on, a Jew is responsible for his/her actions and takes on more of the responsibilities detailed in Jewish law.

Being that this part happens in the synagogue, dressing up, as you say, would be a good idea. The party afterwards differs immensely from person to person and some people have one party for everyone and one just for kids. An evening shindig at a hotel will probably require different styles than the one you describe at the arcade. I would guess that will probably be informal and kids will wear what they usually wear to kid parties at arcades, or maybe a shade nicer? Maybe the best thing to do might what we ladies have been since time immemorial and do the “but what are YOU wearing?” thing with moms of other kids attending. Then if you’re wrong you can all be wrong together!

And now to the gift question which I know puzzles lots of people. Here’s my take and others can offer theirs. I LOVE giving Jewish ritual objects or things with religious significance for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. But, you know, I’m Jewish, and know what to get. If I were invited to a baptism, I’d really have no idea and I’d assume no one expected me to give anything religious. So no worries about that. No one expects Jewish stuff from non-Jews. Some people like to say, “you’re supposed to give money. And it has to be in multiples of $18.” This drives me crazy. Money is a fine gift but it is in no way what you’re supposed to give. There’s really nothing that falls into the “you’re supposed to” realm with Bar Mitzvah gifts. There’s just “that would be appropriate” or “that’s a nice gift.” Same with multiples of $18 (corresponds to the word “life” in Hebrew). It’s nice but in no way required. Many people do, many people don’t. Gift cards are just fine (in any denomination) and I have given ones to Amazon to cousins myself (we can be both be pathetic!). Lots of it depends on your relationship to the boy. Your nephew? Something personal. Your co-worker’s kid? Money is swell. Your son can ask his friends what they are giving but I think you are totally safe with a GC.

Mazal tov to the Bar Mitzvah and I hope Alec enjoys the party. Thanks for writing!


Jew & A – At the Circus

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism,Reasons to be cheerful
On February 28, 2012
At 11:45 pm
Comments : 6

It’s late and I need to remain cheerful so let’s get to it!

Friend of JBall (but not Derek & Alex) Elena asks:
Becca, I’m cataloging a book on the history of Jewish theater in Gdansk, Poland, and the English summary says the Talmud “directly forbids going to theaters and circuses because they are places of sinful idolatry and blasphemy”. Do Orthodox Jews still follow this instruction? Or it is considered a very old-fashioned viewpoint? I always knew clowns were evil!

OMG, this happened to me last time when I was at the Ringling Brothers when all around me, vendors were hawking cotton candy and fresh, hot idols. And the kids! What blasphemers. No, actually, the Talmud is referring to the types of circuses they had back then, which, when combined with theaters, were the kind of entertainment you’d leave your home for in the evening. Circuses and theaters of the Talmudic period did indeed often involve a ritual sacrifice (I guess it was the national anthem of its day). Plus, the rabbis of the Talmud were extremely wary of anything that might bring Jews into contact with idolators and their ways, which is why Judaism can be so strict and probably why it has survived all this time. Hannukah, as we’ve discussed a few times, is about the struggle of Jews to resist the influence of another culture… one which prized theaters and circuses. So the prohibition was twofold: to avoid the sacrifices to idols and foreign gods that took place at circuses and theaters of that period and to avoid mixing with the wrong element and taking on their ways.

Nowadays, the ritual sacrifices have mostly gone away, what with all the coming attractions they have to squeeze in at the multiplex and the way it kept reducing the number of performing animals in the circus. As I’ve mentioned, “Orthodox” can mean a lot of things, from someone who keeps mostly Kosher to people who dress in the garb of the 18th century and won’t sit next to the opposite gender on the bus. This latter group, the ultra-Orthodox, still avoid entertainments such as theater and circuses, but also TV and radio. On the other end of the scale, it’s recognized that our pastimes of today bear little resemblance to those of which the Talmudic population were fearful. So yes! And no! But I do wonder whether the Jews of Gdansk were strict about it. And whether clowns are evil because they secretly worship Baal.

Here is my favorite circus memory, because I know you meant to ask but just ran out of space. Mmm hmm. When I was in my early 20’s, a cousin and I took my nieces and nephews, all under 10, to the circus. We bought them treats (no idols). We saw acrobats. We saw clowns. We saw animals do tricks. It was (and this is totally my own phrase) the greatest show on earth. Afterwards, we returned the children to their parents and Sister1 asked them, “did you have a good time? What was your favorite part?” My nephew didn’t hesitate and answered, “it was the best thing ever! When the elephant peed right in the middle of the ring!” Wow, was I glad I had spent that money.

Thanks for writing in, Elena! If I can stay awake then, we’ll get to another Jew & A question from another of my favorite people tomorrow.

If you were looking for the happy thing in this post, it was right there! The circus. It’s almost circus season! And if you can’t be happy at the circus, there’s something wrong with you. Or you’re a Hasid. Or you’re afraid of clowns. Could even be both.

If that didn’t make you happy, the title comes from a Marx Brothers movie. Go watch it! We’ll still be here counting down the happy tomorrow.

Wow, I haven’t heard this song in a million years. I can’t believe I threw this cassette out in the mid-90’s.
Erasure – The Circus


Jew & A: Weddings

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On June 13, 2011
At 2:30 am
Comments : 10

It’s June and you know what that means! The season of oppressive heat begins! And weddings. Coincidence? I think not. In Canada, they have natural air conditioning, but also weddings. I know, because Deas sent me this question:

I am so thrilled that my current husband and I have been invited to the wedding of a young man who served as a camp counsellor to our daughter. He is now attending medical school in the Caribbean, where the couple will reside until he graduates.

“Chuppah” is at 4:30 with cocktails, dinner and dance to follow. Are there any particular traditions I may not be aware of? And, in terms of gifts, I am assuming that money is always appropriate, and would it be in a multiple of 8?

Any other words of wisdom you might have? I am tres excited to see the canopy ceremony.

Wow, the Caribbean! How can I marry this man? I mean, great question. Let’s talk about Jewish weddings. When I was young, there were two kinds of weddings: the kind you describe above and the kind on TV where everything was totally different. This never confused me, though, since I had already realized that school, weddings, holidays, and everything else on TV barely resembled my experience. Everyone enjoys that – it’s why they invented science fiction.

I’m going to describe a traditional Jewish wedding and not every one or even the one you’re attending will be exactly like this. They may do some of the things but leave others behind. It may depend on their level of observance or how many episodes involving David Tutera the bride has seen on TV.

Jewish weddings usually begin with a pre-ceremony reception, called Kabbalat Panim (literally: greeting of faces). At many religious weddings, the bride and groom have avoided seeing each other for seven days. So to keep this going, at the Kabbalat Panim, the groom and his pals stay in a separate room as the guests arrive and eat a ton of hors d’oeuvres and get plastered shmooze. This men’s gathering is called a Tisch, which is Yiddish for table, and that’s because all the men sit around a table and talk Torah and drink and sing. It’s also where the groom and two witnesses (they must be pious men) sign the Ketubah, which is the marriage contract that the groom will later give to the bride. It lists all the obligations the man has towards his new wife (food, shelter, sex…. that was not a joke; he has that obligation). Also, how he will take care of her in the event of divorce. My mother kept hers in the bottom drawer under some sweaters, but these days lots of couples have theirs designed with gorgeous illustrations and then frame it and put it up.

(I liked this Ketubah because the quote at the top is “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” which is from the Song of Songs.)

In the meantime, the bride gets the rest of the hall. She sits on a throne (well, a fancy wicker chair usually stands in) and is surrounded by her female friends and relatives. Her mother sits on one side and her future MIL on the other and her grandmothers, sisters, sisters-in-law, and bridesmaids stand behind and flank both sides. Here she and they receive guests (of all genders). After a while, the action starts. By that I mean, a trumpet sounds, music starts, and in comes the groom. But you don’t see him at first because he is completely surrounded by other men and they literally dance him into the room to see his bride. Everyone cheers and claps and sings along. The song that is played is called “Od Yishama,” and the lyrics are from Jeremiah:

Od yishama be’arei Yehuda,
Uvechutzot Yerushalayim
Kol sasson v’kol simcha
Kol chatan v’kol kallah

It will still be heard in the cities of Judea
And the parts of Jerusalem:
The sound of joy and the sound of gladness,
The voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.

It’s hard to imagine this scene so I’m including a random video from YouTube. In a Pavlovian reaction, every video I watched made me emotional, even though I don’t know these people. When you are there witnessing it, it’s the moment you kind of think, “OMG! So-and-so is really getting married!” It makes you sniffly. This part is called the Bedeken (or many alternate transliterations of Yiddish) or covering the face of the bride. Because when Rebecca saw Isaac for the first time, she covered herself with a veil. The groom checks to make sure it’s really the one he’s supposed to marry (you scoff, but look what happened to Jacob!) and then he lowers the veil over her face. The bride’s father, as in this video, often kisses her and gives her a blessing.

I really love how excited the bride and groom (who looks about 15… and smashed) are to see each other in this one, so I picked it even though the chair wasn’t wicker. Feh.


Everyone then proceeds to their seats for the ceremony, where, you guessed it, the chuppah is. Most Jewish weddings do not have separate seating by side of the family. This is, again, something I have only seen on TV, but I assume is real. You can tell me if it’s not. The chuppah is a canopy on four poles and it makes a little house. You may think this symbolizes the bride’s transition from her previous dancing gig, but actually, it more stands for the new household that the bride and groom are creating. By “chuppah,” your invitation means “the main ceremony.” Chuppah really symbolizes marriage itself, as in the blessing one gives a new baby that he or she will advance to Torah, chuppah, and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).

In traditional Jewish ceremonies, both the bride and groom are walked down the aisle by their parents. There is no giving anyone away. Another difference is that the bride and groom usually choose some piece of music they like and it’s usually not Here Comes the Bride. When the bride reaches the chuppah, she walks around the groom seven times. Seven is an important number in Judaism and lots of things in the wedding are done in sevens. I won’t go over the whole ceremony, but it involves drinking wine and the giving of rings, and later, seven blessings are said. Also, the Ketubah is read (but it’s in Aramaic so you may also get a translation) and given to the bride. At the very end, the groom smashes a glass under his foot because even in our happiest times, we remember the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The bride and groom then go off to the Yichud (seclusion) Room where they, uh, have some alone time while the witnesses stand outside and make sure no one messes with them. Often, they sit and eat something as the custom is to fast the day of one’s wedding (it’s like Yom Kippur for the bride and groom – a day of prayer and renewal). But, really, what happens in the Yichud Room stays in the Yichud Room. The guests go off to begin the Se’udat Mitzvah, or festive meal. Once the bride and groom come in to the main hall where everyone’s already started tucking in to their appetizers, the room goes crazy with wild dancing. Sometimes, the bride and groom are raised up on chairs by their friends. This is a good time to not stand right next to a bunch of drunken people holding other people on chairs.

It’s an important mitzvah (commandment) “l’sameach chatan v’kallah,” that is, to make the bride and groom happy. So you will often see people wear fun costumes or juggle or dance in front of the bride and groom, who can rest for a bit and enjoy the show. Then there’s more dancing and eating and a benediction at the end.

Now, all of the above should be taken with this grain of salt: these are all the main traditions. Your friends may not do some or most of them. But just in case, there they all are!

So now to your practical inquiries. Whatever you might give to anyone getting married would be appropriate for a Jewish couple. The custom of, when money is given, giving it in multiples of 18 is because in Hebrew, letters are also numbers and the two letters which make 18 are also the word for life. Jews like life a lot, despite all the complaining which may make you suspect otherwise. So if you do give money, multiples of 18 are a lovely gesture, although you don’t have to.

Mazal tov to the bride and groom and thanks for writing!

I never realized till I was trying to find a song for this how many wedding song reference traditions not encountered in Judaism: wedding bells, chapels, etc. So we’ll just go with this old chestnut.
Billy Idol – White Wedding


Jew & A: The more you know

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On January 21, 2010
At 11:10 pm
Comments : 8

You may have read some headlines today (or you will tomorrow if you’re more that newspaper type) about a plane being diverted due to some kid’s “prayer ritual.” Or, if you’re a reader of the Jerusalem Post or even the NY Post, you’d get a headline like “Tefillin causes bomb scare on US flight.” (I’ll bet the NY Post didn’t have to describe White Plains as “just north of New York City,” though). Because, to us, Tefillin is neither weird nor scary, it’s just something you use every day like your toothbrush. Well, men mostly, because if you’re religiously observant enough to pray daily with Tefillin, then you probably also believe only men need to do so (but there are exceptions, please don’t gripe at me).

But what are Tefillin and what special powers do they have to bring down planes? In English, Tefillin are known as phylacteries, although I have never heard anyone use this word in my life in conversation. It’s more for the English translation of books about Jews. Or blogs about Jews. But we’re going to use Tefillin here. The use of Tefillin stems from the Biblical commandment to “bind [my words] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as symbol between your eyes.” (Deuteronomy 6:8). Like most commandments, observant Jews take these sorts of things pretty literally and that’s exactly what is done. Essentially, Tefillin are two small leather boxes with attached leather straps and they are worn on and wrapped around the head and arm. Inside each of the boxes are parchment scrolls upon which are written the following Biblical verses: the first two sections of the essential prayer of faith, the Shma (which also includes the verse above), Deut. 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, and as well, Exodus 13:1-10, and 11-16 which also reference the reasons for wearing Tefillin.

These verses are a sort of instruction on to what extent one should adhere to God’s words. Take them to your heart. Tell them to your children. Say them when you’re at home and when you go out, when you lie down and when you get up. Wear them on your head and on your arm. Put them on your doorposts and gates (that’s the mezuzah part, in case you recognized it). By donning the Tefillin during prayer, one has God’s words smack against their skin and has their actions (the arm) and their mind devoted to God’s words.

There are elaborate instructions on how to wear Tefillin. I don’t know them because I’m a chick and I don’t have to (women are not required by Jewish law to do time-bound commandments) but apparently it pretty much becomes second nature. It’s a big deal when a Bar Mitzvah gets to wear them for the first time. Then, four years later he gets arrested on a plane.

Even my friend Pammy from Tulsa which is all the way in that state with the surreys with the fringes on top has seen Tefillin. Maybe you have too! They look like this:

And like this when they’re being worn:

Should you wish to reach your destination without a pit-stop in Philly (and who wants that? I kid!), please print these pictures out and show them to your local flight attendant.

Depeche Mode – Wrong


Jew & A – Adar!

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On January 12, 2010
At 2:15 am
Comments : 5

That exclamation point is important. Don’t say Adar, say Adar! Adar is the sixth month of the Jewish year (or the twelfth if you’re counting from Nissan, when Passover is… we have lots of New Years). Adar as you’ll recall, is the month that has Purim, the festival of treats. This is not its technical name. OK, this is just the name I personally give it. Why would you recall this and from where? Why, right here! A while back anyway. To quote myself:

Hey! It’s a special month on the Jewish calendar and that month is called Adar. It’s awesome and special because you’re commanded to be happy the whole month. Yes, indeed, doomed to happiness for four plus weeks. The happiness thing is because Adar is the month with Purim, one of those holidays where the Jews were saved from certain death (well, almost certain, obviously) and that’s a giant excuse for a party. Tomorrow night begins Purim, the holiday where you give gifts of baked goods to your friends and it’s a mitzvah to get bombed off your ass. That might not be the exact language the Talmud uses, but that’s really the rule.

My Mom was a Jewish educator, as I’ve stated many times here, and she liked to wear a giant button on her coat at this time of year that embarrassed me beyond the limits of teenage humiliation. It said, “Be happy! It’s Adar!” in Hebrew and English. Oh Mom! When I was in college, my grandma died during that month and after that, it was terribly hard for my Mom to be happy then but she wore the big green button anyway. Sometimes commandments are hard. After she died, we found that my Mom had like ten of these buttons. Ha! I kept one but, you know, I don’t actually walk down the street with the thing on my coat.

Too cool. You know what’s even more cool? Someone wrote me based on this post and asked:

Hi! My son’s bar mitzvah is coming up (soon!!) on Rosh Chodesh Adar, and so “Be Happy, It’s Adar!” will be the theme. We’re thinking of giving out Adar/Purim kits containing a gragger, tzedakah box, bag for shalach manot, etc. I’d like to look into including a “Be Happy, It’s Adar!” button, though we might have to have them made up, as I don’t see any being sold online. Can you tell me more about what your mom’s button looked like, or what the Hebrew wording was? A photo would be really helpful, but anything you can tell me would be really appreciated!

JM Could there be a better theme than this? In a world of Star Trek and Twilight themes, Kudos upon kudos. In case you had not surmised from this letter, it’s not yet Adar but it’s fast coming down the pike. So I went digging down into the mildewed basement to my storage space and between the little ceramic challah I made my Mom for Mother’s Day and her check cashing card to Seven Mile Market (come on, I had to save that) was the button. It’s nothing special, I have to say. But what struck me was the Hebrew on it which says, “Mishenichnas Adar, marbin b’simchah.” This does not literally mean “Be happy, it’s Adar.” It means, “When Adar begins, we increase in happiness.” So this made me wonder where this statement comes from and how it got translated into some kind of forceful command. Do it! Be happy!

Turns out it’s from a section of the Talmud called Ta’anit and it’s the second half of a statement which begins by talking about the saddest month of the Jewish calendar, Av. That’s the one where so many tragedies befell the Jewish people including the destruction of both Temples as well as the expulsion from Spain. Bear with me here, because I do not have the complete Talmud in my home and didn’t have time to run over to the Beit Hamidrash (house of study, but in this case, a room in my synagogue with lots o’holy books).

But supposedly, it goes like this. “Rav Yehuda the son of Shmuel the son of Shilat says in the name of Rav: Just as one is required to minimize happiness when the month of Av begins, so too when the month of Adar begins, we increase happiness.” (T.B. Ta’anit 29a)

And so, I’m really glad that I got asked this question so I could learn this. It makes it even more appropriate that my mother was able to get over her sadness to rejoice in Adar, because that’s apparently what it’s actually about, the time to be happy as opposed to the time to be sad. And maybe sad is the wrong word because it doesn’t say that; it says, “minimize” your happiness. Maybe that’s because we’re essentially a happy people. We don’t really need to be told to be happy, just when to lessen our happiness and when to increase it. Or maybe that’s the way it used to be and nowadays, we’re all too stressed and worried and we really do need that reminder, because happiness is not just a good thing, it’s required. So be happy, it’s Adar! (soon!)

Since a Bar Mitzvah exemplifies the future of the Jewish people, it is even more appropriate that it be held in Adar which is the flip side of Av, the month of destruction. I hope that your son’s Bar Mitzvah is a time of great joy for you, JM, and that through him you increase the happiness of all around you.

And, well, I hope you find a slightly more attractive button than this one. Mazal tov!