Tag Archives: Bar Mitzvah

Bar/Bat Mitzvah Chair Lifting

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What is your experience with this tradition?

“At the party, we were doing the hora. They bring in a chair, without arms even though I asked for arms. Four men lifted the chair up. One person was pushing harder than the others. Being pushed up in the chair with no arm rests. I asked to be put down. It happens during Hava Negila”

Why do you think this is a thing?

“Probably to single out the person and make it known that it’s their day and that this whole ceremony is about them. Maybe it’s spiritual and you’re getting closer to god? It’s kind of stupid”


My informant is my roommate. She was raised in Conservative Judaism and had her Bat Mitzvah when she turned 13. A Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the Jewish coming of age ceremony that happens when a child turns 12 or 13. Hava Negila is the song that Jewish people traditionally dance the Hora to. The Hora is a traditional dance that involves dancing in concentric circles. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah teen is lifting in the center of the Hora circles. This story was collected when we were talking about Judaism during dinner.


This tradition is practiced by Jews of all observance levels and ethnic backgrounds at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and the majority of Jews have no idea why we do it. We weren’t commanded to lift people in chairs through religious texts or by our religious leaders, it’s just a tradition that Jews practice. Some people think that the “lifting” component has religious connotations, but most Jews agree that it’s just for fun and to highlight the Bar/Bat Mitzvah teen on their special day. The experience of having a chair with no arms and being asked to be put down is a common one, and I myself didn’t have a great time being lifted at my own Bat Mitzvah. 

Throwing Candy After the Torah Portion in Bat/Bar Mitzvahs

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M: Me, I: Informant

I: Oh I just remembered another one. The traditions I was most excited for when I got bat mitzvahed is like after you finish your Torah portion I think or half Torah portion, um everyone in the synagogue has a piece of candy and they throw it at ya.

M+I: *laughs a little*

I: They throw the candy at you.

M: Uh-huh (agreement)

I: Uh and that’s just you know as like a congratulatory thing, like ‘Get it,’ you know. Like , it’s like, the congregation saying ‘sweet! You did it.’

M: Welcome to adulthood *laughs*

I: yes, yes, that one’s really fun, because I like candy and I think its fun to have things thrown at me, you know.

Context: This practice occurs while doing or watching a bar/bat mitzvah which is the coming of age ceremony done typically by Jewish children when they are 13. The candy throwing occurs after the Torah or half Torah portion of the ceremony. My informant had this at her bat mitzvah ceremony and has participated in the throwing of candy at others.

Analysis: The bar/bat mitzvah represents the transition from childhood and adulthood. Thus, while in the midst of the ceremony, the ‘child’ is in this liminal place where he/she isn’t quite a child, but isn’t quite an adult yet. They are in the process of taking on a new identity. Pranks/joke/riddles and various other traditions are common in other liminal states. In a way, getting candy thrown at you by your entire temple is a prank/joke to test you and help ease you into your new identity, adulthood.

Kissing the Tanakh if it Falls and the Torah

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M: Me, I: Informant

I: Oh so um I don’t know if this is like a codified thing, but you can’t like… so you have like the Tanakh, which is like the mini like it’s like your prayer Bible um and like so if you if you, if the Tanakh touches the floor you have to like kiss it. You are like, it’s like not supposed to touch the floor.

M: Oh, okay

I: Um, yeah. And I think that comes form like so you are not supposed to touch the Torah and that’s not supposed to fall on the floor either, but that’s because it’s like made out of parchment that’s been used for hundreds of years and it’s like you know, brittle and fragile and stuff.

M: Uh-hm (yes)

I: Uh I think that sort uh like thought process has gone into like like, the mini Bibles. Like can’t hurt. It’s also like disrespecting G-d and stuff because it’s on the floor and whatever.

M: yeah

I: um so yeah there’s that

M: Is that like bad luck if let it touch the ground

I: Ehhhhh, it’s just like you know, like a bad thing

M: like a no-no

I: Yeah it’s a no-no cause like

M: It’s disrespectful

I: Yeah disrespectful. Cause like there’s also like, you know, at the bar and bat mitzvahs like they carry the Torah around and people like they touch their Bibles to it and they kiss their Bibles. Like you are supposed to kiss the Torah

M: Uh-huh (yes)

I: So like that’s why you are supposed to kiss it, as a sign of respect

M: Gotcha

I: Yeah

M: And that’s if you drop it, like if it touches the floor

I: Yeah, and when the Torah comes around you kiss it

M: Yeah

I: I guess that’s another thing. I think that’s another folklore thing.

I: I don’t think it’s codified as it walks around in the bat mitzvah ceremony or any of the ceremonies really.

M: yeah

I: It’s not just for bar and bat mitzvahs. Really we do it for like everything 

M: Oh, I did not know that

I: Yeah like a sign of respect and you want to be kissing G-d. You know. Love G-d.

Context: My informant learned to do this as a child watching those around her in the synagogue do it.

Analysis/Thoughts: I can see how these practices, kissing the Tanakh if you drop it on the floor and ‘kissing’ the Torah, flourished. While both of these practices are not codified in the Jewish religion, these are both fairly common practices in the synagogue. I think that these practices are easily considered customary as it supports ideals of Judaism that were already in place: such as respect to G-d, as dropping something on the floor can sometimes indicate a lack of caring and a lack of respect, the kiss corrects any possibility of this as it essentially says, “whoops! I do love and respect G-d.” Also I think there is something to be said about this practice and identity. Kissing the Torah when it comes around and kissing the Tanakh when it is dropped, are now considered what ‘good’ Jewish people do. Nobody is going to want to be the only one not kissing the Torah/ their Tanakh and having others thinking they don’t respect and love G-d. Thus, I think that part of what is keeping this custom alive is a fear of what society would think if you didn’t do it. Now it is so ingrained in the congregations that it is common practice and is done in most temples, as now people grow up doing and watching this from their role models-and it’s normalized. I’ve also marked this as contagious magic in the sense that through kissing the Torah/ the Tanakh which are said to have come from G-d’s ordinances. You are kissing and respecting G-d through his texts and this falls in place with the definition of contagious magic that says that ‘one can carry out an action by something that was once connected to the designated target of the magical act,’ in this case G-d’s words and teachings.

Russian American Bar Mitzvahs

My informant is a member of the Russian Jewish community in Los Angeles. She explained how her community celebrates special parties like graduations, bar mitzvahs, and significant birthdays.  The particular Bar Mitzvah party that she told me about was similar to many of the parties within the Russian community in Los Angeles.

Normally invitations for such parties are mailed to the guests.  For a wedding and Bar Mitzvah invitations would be mailed.  But for a birthday party or graduation party, the hosts typically call the guests and invite them.  And once they say they are going, there is no backing out.  So much planning goes into the parties that it would be inconsiderate to back out.

I asked if the Bar Mitzvah had any different religious practices or traditions.  But my informant explained that it is not so much the religious ceremony or even the fact that the event was a Bar Mitzvah celebration that is important.  In fact, many of the party’s attendees did not attend the religious ceremony.  My informant said, “Bar Mitzvah means nothing.  It’s a party.”

My informant said that the parties like her friend’s Bar Mitzvah celebration are extravagant.  Prior to the party, women get their hair, makeup, and nails done and wear cocktail attire made by high fashion brands such as Alexander McQueen and Dior.  They were fine jewelry. The men wear suits.  It is not so much the question of what are you wearing, but who are you wearing.  My informant explained that many attendees make such an effort to look good because all of the party’s attendees are talked about after the party.  Word spreads fast.  My informant has even heard about Russian American parties that have happened in New York.  She said, “All of the Russian grandmas are going to hear about me and talk to their grandsons. I once had a guy fly down from San Francisco to go on a date with me.”

These Russian parties typically take place at people’s homes or restaurants.  This particular Bar Mitzvah celebration took place at a Russian restaurant called Romanov.  The party begins with about an hour of greetings.  “The first hour is basically just saying hello, kissing, and talking. Then the hostess tells everyone to sit down.” The attendees then sit at their assigned table and are greeted by top-shelf vodka and tequila.  The attendees then rotate between eating, toasting, and dancing.

My informant explained that every inch of the table is covered with food. The food is served family style.  While most of the food is Russian fusion, my informant said that every party will serve the Russian staples: crepes with red caviar and butter and pickled vegetables.  There are several courses to the meal and almost no one eats the main course because they are already so full by then.

During toasts the guests stop eating.  There are several toasts throughout the night given by family members and close friends.

My informant’s favorite part of the night is dancing.  “There is always good music–everything.  ABBA sometimes.  Songs that you love.  It’s very rare that you get electronic music.  It’s fun music.”  She explained that there are no traditional or choreographed dances.

The older guests sometimes dance but it is more likely that they sit, talk, and gossip with one another.  Having learned what older guests do at the party, I wondered what younger guests do.  My informant explained that if a couple has a baby they will bring the infant and a babysitter.  The babies are a part of the party.  They even have their own seats at the dinner table.

The only “traditional” dancing she has seen was performed by professional dancers hired for entertainment at the party.  Having performers at these parties is not uncommon.  There are always performers at Romanov, the restaurant that commonly hosts the parties.  She has seen performances featuring snakes, dancers, aerial artists, DJs flown in from New York.  She shared, at one Bar Mitzvah a woman popped out of a cake and danced sexily!

My informant explained that within this social circle are different kinds of Russians.  They are all in a wealthy group, but some are more wealthy than others.  She explained that her family is not in the group full of socialites.  Rather, her closest family friends within the community are more down to earth; they came from poor cities in Russia.  So rather than pouring money into extravagant performances, it is a tradition in her family and her family friend group that the children put on a performance at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. One year the children performed skits from Grease.  Another year, Austin Powers.  They all dressed up in costumes and performed “full-blown” skits.  The parents of the group also take part in the tradition.  For a family friend’s 40th birthday party, all of the parents organized a skit based on a scene from Grease.  A guy even rode in on a motorcycle! At another 40th birthday party, all of the wives dressed up as old Russian women wearing a giant plastic butt and giant fake breasts.  The women did a whole Russian song and dance, and the performance ended with a toast to the birthday boy.

At the end of the night, guests leave the party having had fun. Though it is customary to say hello to everyone at the beginning of the party, it is common to leave the parties without saying goodbye to all the party-goers.

Gifts are common at such parties.  Almost everyone brings checks.  It is very rarely a gift.  In the case that someone receives a gift, they are perhaps more meaningful but also the recipient would most likely just prefer the cash.  It would be unheard of to not bring a gift. My informant said that diplomacy is the most important aspect of Russian culture.

My informant expressed that the Russian American community in Los Angeles is superficial. I asked my informant if members of the community were trying to one-up each other with each party.  She first agreed with me but then said the parties were more like a display of taste and wealth than a one-upping.  Taste seems displayed through the venue, type of food, type of alcohol, appropriateness of performers and women’s dresses.  Wealth seems displayed through the venue, the amount of food, the amount of alcohol, the extravagance of the performers, and the designer of the women’s dresses.