When my niece Simone turned 4, I instinctively knew what she would treasure: a set of miniature-sized nail polish in brilliant hues of red and pink. She smiled at those tiny bottles all evening; even with the lids closed, lined up like dolls on our coffee table, they delivered endless amusement.
But just as I’ve always understood the mindset of a preschooler, I’ve long been baffled by the inclinations and interests of a young teenager, even one as amiable as my niece. And so when Simone became bat mitzvah last fall, I assumed we’d cut a check in an increment of 18, celebrating with “chai,” with life.
But Simone, a bright girl who likes to talk as much as she likes to read, told me that money would not be appreciated. In a firm but sweet voice, she announced her wish: “I want a memento from you.”
And so I’ve embarked on a search, speaking with teens and educators and parents, trying to find presents that are creative, thoughtful, meaningful, valued — and that won’t break the bank. In honor of the year of the b’nai mitzvah (although Orthodox girls become bat mitzvah a year earlier), here are my Lucky 13:
1) Music To Live By: I practically feel like dancing when I hear about a gift designed by Naomi Less, a Jewish rock musician and educator, who has often worked with teenage girls. She and her husband, who is also a musician, selected their favorite 13 albums of all time for her first-born nephew. They presented the nephew with the music as well as a photo album embedded with index cards, picturing the album covers, and describing why these particular tunes influenced them.
2) Story Time: If you’re celebrating the rite of passage of a kid who loves literature, you might be inspired by my friend Naomi Pine Wolinsky, a Jewish educator who bought her husband’s cousin 13 books. Mostly fiction, the works chronicle the lives of Jewish kids from different times and places. Among others, the list included: “The Book Thief,” “A Faraway Island,” “Nothing Here But Stones,” and “The Silver Cup.”
3) Framed!: My niece Simone reports that a framed copy of her invitation was among the most unusual presents she received. In the same genre, others recommend: A frame showcasing the bat mitzvah parsha itself; a frame adorned with the Hebrew name of the celebrant. My friend Andrea Fischer, whose daughter Katie’s bat mitzvah was earlier this month, suggests www.jillery.com, where the bright, fun Judaica runs for as low as $36.
4) Scrappy: Shoshie Shapiro, a freshman at Bronx Science, adored the pink book her parents made for her bat mitzvah in 2007, documenting her party on its first pages, leaving many blank ones for her to decorate. In my family, we’ve liked the fabric-bound books available at: www.pulpproducts.com as well as albums sold at Kate’s Paperie in Manhattan.
5) Wrapped Up: While one educator tells me with a hint of disgust that the “chotchkies of Judaica he received are still in his parent’s basement since his bar mitzvah — and that was in the 1980s,” I know that some items of Judaica not only withstand the test of time, but grow more cherished with it. Instead of the typical kiddush cup, you might consider a tallit. The tallits for girls, in particular, come in a wide assortment of shades and fabrics, and often seem to serve as both prayer shawl and fashion accessory. Ideally, this is something that should be purchased before the ceremony.
6) Point and Chant: The yad, the Jewish ritual pointer, is another item of Judaica that comes highly recommended by several parents of b’nai mitzvahs. The yad, which literally means hand, is used to point to the Torah while it is read. It is often embellished with intricate designs. This too might work best if purchased before the big day, and sells for anywhere from less than $100 to many times that.
7) Sounding Off: The shofar, or ram’s horn, drew the loudest and most frequent hoots of praise, among possible Judaica gifts. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who often gives shofars as gifts, says it’s symbolic of the “power you’re putting in kids’ hands. It’s as if we’re giving them keys to the broadcast studio.” No two shofars produce the same blast. It’s best to test one out at a local Judaica shop, rather than purchasing one online — if possible, accompanied by a friend skilled in horn playing.
8) The Chain Gang: Jewelry sparkles even more when linked to a personal element. Teens’ parents talk about the trend of quote charms and bracelets and necklaces, some of which can be purchased with a Hebrew translation. Shoshi prizes a heart-shaped pendant embellished with a flower that she received for her bat mitzvah. In Hebrew, her name Shoshana means rose or lily.
9) Taking Stock: A single share of Israeli stock can provide entry to the world of finance, and also spawn an interest in affairs of the Promised Land. My friend Manny Weintraub, a money manager, proposes purchasing shares in funds such as ISL (First Israel Fund), a closed end mutual fund, or in EIS, an Exchange Traded Index fund of Israeli companies.
10) Fly Away Home: Perhaps the most exciting, evocative (and exorbitant) present: Tickets to the homeland — a trip to Israel! Karen Gantz Zahler, mother of two teenage children, suggests that a group of close relatives pool resources to make this happen.
11) Tiny Torah: I’m not sure if every bar or bat mitzvah celebrant desires this gift, but in my reporting, I came across several teens whose rooms still exhibit their miniature Torahs, displayed in glass stands, turned to the page of their parsha.
12) Area Of Interest: When possible, of course, you should let the direction of your gift-hunt be guided by the child’s passion or hobby. Shira Dicker recalls that when her son Judah, a Japan enthusiast, became bar mitzvah two years ago, he loved his Japanese kosher cookbook, gift certificates to Mitsuwa in New Jersey and Kinokuniya in NYC, and a book on the Fugu Plan.
13) For The Cause: For a valuable and values-driven gift, many guests donate money to a charity of the child’s choice. Gantz Zahler says that one of her guests topped off his charitable contribution with a small tangible gift for her daughter, Ariel, whose mitzvah project involved painting the nails of inhabitants of the Jewish Home for the Aged. The present? One that the young Simone would have appreciated: a manicure set.
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