Sunday, May 31, 2020

20 Gifts for the Class of 2020

Well, it's been a time to graduate. It can be hard enough to find a gift for a graduate during normal times, but in the pandemic-stricken world we now live in there are fewer available options and perhaps more pressure to find a gift. In any case, here are 20 gifts for the 2020 grad in your life. 

-Graduates walking away from 2020

Disclosure: The links below that are through Amazon are Amazon Affiliate Links, and the writer of this article may earn a small commission from purchases through these links. 

Under $20 - You know this person well enough to get them a gift, but the budget is real.

1. Cute pair of earbuds or a phone charger, assuming you know what kind of phone they have. A nice way to say "I don't know you that well, but I acknowledge you graduated."
2. A quirky new board game, like the Oregon Trail or Unstable Unicorns for all this indoor time, or perhaps a 500-piece puzzle.
3. House slippers, because that's an item that's been working overtime.
4. Bath bomb set, the classic "I hadn't the slightest what to get you, but I appreciate your occasion nonetheless."
5. Home-decor cheat sheets, so they can plan their dream home while living at their parents' house. Honestly, this cute little book is just a great gift for anyone with a house, not just recent graduates.

$20-$60 - These gifts are thoughtful, but are generic enough most grads can use them. 

6. A steamer. It's like an iron, but more Millennial-proof.
7. A set of dishes. If they didn't have dishes in college, this is a great way to say "I believe that the pandemic will end, you will get a job, and not have to live with your parents." If they already have dishes, they probably don't have that many and odds are they're pretty beat up.
8. A decent set of cutting boards. Another way to say "I believe in your capacity to adult."
9. A scratch map of the world or the U.S., as if to claim "one day we will be able to travel again."
10. $20 one dollar scratch-off tickets, so they can try their luck.

$60-$120 - These items require knowing the grad well enough to see if it’s something they’d use. 

11. A nice house robe, maybe even a monogrammed one.
12. A gift card to their favorite store, so they can pick out the gift.
13. A cocktail making set, so they can toast their diploma.
14. A decent sewing machine, if they've been trying to make masks. I’m a beginner and I’ve made ~75 masks and I like the Brother Pacesetter PS100.
15. A three month subscription to a subscription box they'd like. There are literally hundreds of subscription boxes-there has to be something they’re into. 

$120+ - These gifts you should coordinate with the grad in question, to make sure it’s their style and that they don’t already have something like it. 

16. Spotify premium subscription. Well, a gift card for one. They're soon to be kicked off of Spotify student (which comes with premium features like Hulu and no ads), so you can give them the next year of premium for about $120.
17. Fitted suit set-you could go out with your student when this all passes and pick one together.
18. A good watch they can wear nearly every day.
19. A nice or designer card holder for all the business cards they'll collect looking for jobs.
20. Get their diploma professionally framed, assuming they're willing to coordinate.

It's a Brave New World (no, my degree isn't in literature-it's in German & Public History) out there, but the graduate in your life will appreciate these gifts!

7 Jewish Event Things To Know: Invited to a Bar Mitzvah (#2)

This is another attempt at a series on my blog, intended for use when lockdown has lifted, the pandemic has passed, and people are going to events and one another's homes safely. This is a series of blog posts (which will be linked as they are posted) intended to help gentiles invited to Jewish events. Although some of this advice may apply elsewhere, this is written from the context of American Judaism. This advice is not aimed at any particular denomination and will likely apply to more liberal strains of Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative) and less so to Orthodox.

Invited over to a Bar Mitzvah (#2)

It's too thick to be a regular card, but probably not thick enough to be a wedding invitation. You've received an invite to a Bar (boy), Bat (girl), or Bnai (more than one child or nonbinary) Mitzvah for some relative, friend, or another Jewish preteen in your life. Now what?

1. Bar/Bat/Bnai Mitzvot celebrate the entrance into Jewish adulthood, at about age 12/13. Sometimes adults, particularly women, who were unable to have them as children have a ceremony, but most Jewish people now do it sometime in middle school. 
Girls are able to have their ceremony starting at twelve, boys at thirteen. Why? It's just how it's done. Technically speaking, reaching on their twelfth or thirteenth birthday makes a Jewish person a Jewish adult, but much ceremony and tradition have grown up around the milestone. As an aside, we don't think 12/13 years olds count as adults in any other way, just in the sense of being responsible for one's Jewish actions.

Not all girls have their Bat Mitzvah at twelve and nor do all boys have their Bar Mitzvah boys at thirteen. Some lenient congregations allow slightly younger children to have ceremonies, and much more common is the Bar/Bat/Bnai ceremonies well after the twelfth or thirteenth birthday. I (a girl) was several months past thirteen at mine, and this was within the typical time frame. As mentioned, there are adults who chose to have ceremonies (my grandma had hers in her forties because in the 1960s orthodox-ish that wasn't an option), but it's much more common in the U.S. these days to have it sometime in middle school or early high school.

In any case, a service/ceremony and a party are very common and are usually sometime in middle school. Within orthodoxy and particularly within Haredi Judaism women are less likely to have Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, although it s becoming more common in some communities. However, in more liberal groups (Conservative/Masorti, Reform, Reconstruction, Nondenominational/Postdenominational), it's the norm that girls have Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

From here on out in this post, "Bar Mitzvah" will be used to collectively refer to Bar, Bat, and Bnai Mitzvahs.
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My sister (brunette) and I (pink hair) at her Bat Mitzvah in 2013.

2. The service and the party are often separate. 

Although not universal, the most common arrangement is to have a separate party in the afternoon or evening after the service in a different venue. Some people choose to have a trip with family instead or have the party at the synagogue, but in respect of the restrictions synagogues often have on activities in the building and the fact that guests may be Shabbos-observant, parties are usually held after the service at night and at a separate venue. Sometimes there might be a party a week or two later, but the most typical thing is Saturday night after.

Although not commanded in the Torah, the Bar Mitzvah service and ceremony as we know it has a fairly standard set of events of expectations. One of these expectations is that the child reads from the Torah, not just any Tanach (bible) book but the physical Torah Scroll itself, usually in a synagogue. Since Torah services are usually only conducted on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, this narrows the times that Bar Mitzvah ceremonies can happen. Consequently, Saturday mornings are when almost all Bar Mitzvah Ceremonies happen.

Since it's not technically a commandment there's some wiggle room on what to do during the service, but there is a fairly standard set of events that happen. The Bar Mitzvah celebrant will usually read a portion from the Torah, give a Dvar (an interpretation of the reading), in the lingua franca of the congregation, carry the Torah around, and lead certain prayers. Additionally, family and friends close to the person being Bar Mitzvah-ed will have honors as well, ranging from opening and closing the ark (which contains the Torahs), to reciting certain blessings, to helping give out programs. If you are close to the Bar Mitzvah person, you may be asked to help out with something, but that's a more in-depth post for another time.

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Me posing with the Torah as if reading at the picture session we did the day before my ceremony.

The service is usually sometime in the morning, probably technically starting around 8:30-9:30 and ending sometime around noon or 1 p.m. (more on that in a minute), followed by a brunch. Sometimes the party is instead of the brunch (also called an oneg) that is right after. If the oneg and party are separate, the party will usually be that night after sunset.

3. Unless you are a close friend or family member, money is more common than physical gifts. 
If you have some super cool gift idea for someone you really know or some specific gift to help with the party, great. It's very acceptable, however, to give checks or cash. Denominations of $18 (although usually starting at $36) are common because eighteen is a lucky number in Judaism. For an acquaintance or family friend, $25, $36, $50, or $54 is appropriate. For closer friends and relatives larger sums are appropriate. If the person is someone you are closer with and you want to gift a little bit more, $118 or $120 are also lucky numbers.

4. Try not to give the money in the synagogue. 
Although not a problem most days, it is frowned upon to exchange money on Shabbos, and most synagogues prefer you don't hand checks or cash to the Bar Mitzvah kid on Shabbos in their spaces. You can mail it to them before or after, save it for the party, or be discreet in your hand-off. If you are giving your gift at the brunch after the service, then make sure it's in an envelope. The Bar Mitzvah kid is probably a little busy, so you can give it to their parents if the recipient themselves isn't available.

5. Be aware and courteous of the synagogue's policies and customs on photo-taking, seating, and contact.
It's also frowned upon in many synagogues to take pictures or videos during services. Most folks do pictures the day before or the day after out of respect for Shabbos. In some Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues cameras are allowed, but generally speaking, it's kind of tacky. If photos are allowed in the synagogue on Shabbas, there's probably a photographer or close family taking the pictures, you don't need to. On a related note, it's pretty tacky to have your phone out during the service to text, as I imagine it is in most houses of worship. If you have to take a call or there's an emergency text, step out of the sanctuary and into the lobby.

Like taboos on photography, seating also varies by congregation and denomination. What I mean by this is that adult men and women are separated during the services. This is the norm in orthodox synagogues, but not practiced in more liberal denominations of Judaism. If you are in an orthodox synagogue, there will be a men's section and a women's section. Kids (under 12/13) are free to float between either. Sometimes one section will be behind the other, and sometimes it will be side by side with some sort of barrier between them. If there is gender-segregated seating, it will be obvious.

The other faux pas to be aware of in orthodox congregations is physical contact between men and women. This doesn't apply in non-orthodox settings, but for many orthodox Jews physical contact between non-related adult men and women is taboo, so if someone of the opposite sex isn't comfortable shaking your hand it really isn't personal.

5. You rarely show up to synagogue at the time on the invitation. 
Jewish services are long. The absolute minimum, in the most liberal reform and reconstructionist synagogues, would be one and half to two hours for a Bar Mitzvah. Most run closer to 3-4 hours, and in the U.S. generally the more traditional the denomination the longer the service. The good news is that while the service may start at 8:30 a.m., it is neither the norm nor expected that guests arrive at that time. The invitation may indicate the time guests are expected to arrive, or you can ask whoever invited you a good time to aim for. In my experience, most guests at a Bar Mitzvah trickle in somewhere in the neighborhood of 9:30-10:00.

A Saturday morning service is actually usually several services combined into one: Shacharit (morning), Torah, Musaf ("extra"), and Mincha (afternoon). The Torah service, which is the portion the Bar Mitzah celebrant is most involved with, usually lands around 10:15. Even if services technically start at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., it doesn't mean that everyone is there at that time. It's not rude or wrong to be there for the whole thing, but as a guest, it's not really necessary.

If the invitation has a super early time on it, it's okay to ask when the Torah service is or what a good time to arrive is. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, but I'd say if you arrive by 10:00 a.m. you're fine. If you have an honor or part in the ceremony, make sure you know approximately what time that's at so you are there for it.

6. Dress more "Sunday Best" than "Come as you are" for the synagogue. 
My observation is that many American churches often have a relatively lax dress code. No judgment, but that's not how most synagogues work. Think of a more traditional Sunday best, a nice dinner, or business casual. Outside of orthodox congregations, women can wear dress pants, but anecdotally, I would say skirts and blouses and dresses are more common. Men should wear dress pants and a dress shirt or button up-you don't need a suit.

Additionally, The more traditionally observant the denomination, the more modest you need to aim for. For most synagogues, you should be covering shoyour ulders and above the knee if not the knee. If a dress or skirt is a little short then tights are helpful. Shrugs and cardigans also come in handy for sleeveless shirts and dresses. Colorful clothing and patterns are acceptable, but excessive cleavage and sheer clothing should be avoided.

In most synagogues, men and boys are expected to wear a kippah (plural kippot), regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. Outside of orthodox settings, women are permitted but not required to wear them. The synagogue will have them available, you do not have to provide your own. In fact, many families will make commemorative kippot for the occasion with the name of the Bar Mitzvah and the date it happened.

7. The party is roughly equivalent to a Sweet Sixteen, Quinceanera, or other big birthday celebrations. 
There are some Jewish touches, like specific songs (including the Horah, the "chair dance") and the food may be kosher, but expect something comparable to a younger Sweet Sixteen. Some people have fancy parties, and some people have more kid-focused parties. Unless it's explicitly an outdoor or otherwise messy event, think fancy dress for the party. Depending on the venue, you should be aiming for somewhere between business casual and cocktail attire.

These seven things don't cover every little detail, but they are good basics for you to know as a guest, and can help you find the right questions to ask whoever invited you. At the end of the day, it's a celebration - Have fun!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

7 Things To Know For Your First Year at College: What to Do Before You Pack (#1)

This is another attempt at a series on my blog, containing advice from my own time at college. This is a series of blog posts (which will be linked as they are posted) intended to help first-year students and freshmen navigate their new settings. This is all written with the hopeful assumption that it will be safe for students to move back into college soon. Each post is limited to seven items in an attempt to provide manageably-sized bits of advice.

What to Do Before You Pack (#1)

You've finished up your senior year, accepted a college offer, and if all goes according to plan and the pandemic doesn't stop you, you're off to move in some time in August or September. In hopes that it will be safe to move-in, here are seven things you should do before you even start packing.

1. If you haven't been on-campus yet, and it's safe to do so, visit.
If it is safe to do so and tours are still being offered, take one. There will probably be tours in whatever your institution's equivalent of Welcome Week is, but if you haven't visited your campus before accepting I highly recommend you do.

2. Contact your roommate. 
It doesn't really matter if you chose a roommate or went random, it's a good idea to contact them ahead of time. You don't have to be best buds, but it's a good idea to have some semblance of an idea who the person you're moving in with is. The same goes for suitemates, to a lesser degree.

3. Consult your schools lists of to-brings and not-to-brings.
Odds are that your residential institution has a recommended packing list, like this one my undergraduate alma mater has. There may even be two or three lists: what (they think) you should bring, what is okay but not necessary, and what is prohibited.

I recommend taking the "to-bring" list with a grain of salt. If you've never ironed in your life, you probably aren't going to start in college. Be realistic about what you'll use - your dorm room isn't that big. It may be possible to reach out to your R.A., peer mentor, or other upperclassmen during the summer to ask what to pack for your campus in particular.

4. Coordinate with your roommate who will bring what, of that which you won't need more than one of.
I absolutely recommend bringing a mini-fridge and a microwave. I don't recommend having two of each in your dorm. Same goes for the toaster, coffee maker, and vacuum. You don't have to be besties with your roommate, but you can probably stand to share a toaster.

5. Figure out what your mailing address will be at your dorm.
It may be a normal address and it may be a P.O. box. Either way, it may be easier for you to have some stuff shipped there shortly before move-in instead of dragging it from your parents' house in one trip.

6. Get rid of excess stuff. 
This is an excellent time to declutter your possessions. Clothing, shoes, books, makeup. You have to shift through your possessions to decide what to bring, so now is a great time to decide what you no longer need.

7. Figure out your move-in date. 
If you don't know your move-in date, you should figure it out before you start packing. You don't want to be living out of a suitcase after you've packed everything but have a month left before moving in.

Here's to hoping that you'll be able to move in this year safely, and these tips help you!

Sunday, May 24, 2020

7 Jewish Event Things To Know: Invited over for Shabbos Dinner (#1)

This is another attempt at a series on my blog, intended for use when lockdown has lifted, the pandemic has passed, and people are going to events and one another's homes safely. This is a series of blog posts (which will be linked as they are posted) intended to help gentiles invited to Jewish events. Although some of this advice may apply elsewhere, this is written from the context of American Judaism. This advice is not aimed at any particular denomination and will likely apply to more liberal strains of Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative) and less so to Orthodox.

Posts in This Series
Invited over for Shabbos Dinner (#1)

Invited over for Shabbos Dinner (#1)

Maybe you have a Jewish cousin you're reconnecting with, or a friend from school invited you over. Perhaps your partner is Jewish, and you've been invited to a Shabbos dinner at their parents' home. In any case, a Shabbos (alt: Shabbat) dinner is the most likely Jewish event for you to be invited to, both in general and as your first event. This is because they can happen as often as every week, depending on the traditions of the people and families in question, and tend to be private affairs. It's mostly just a meal, which means it's not as intimidating of an introduction to the Jewish world for a friend or family member as a Seder might be. Basically, it's really not a big deal and a good introduction for folks who are getting used to having Jewish friends or family members. If your friend, partner, or family member knows it's your first Jewish meal or event, they know you don't know everything, but here are seven tips that can help it go a little more smoothly nonetheless.

1. Shabbos dinner is always Friday night. 
You might be invited over to a Jewish home for other meals. Great. Shabbos is only Friday night though.
2. The food will probably be some version kosher, inquire before bringing anything.
The degree to which your hosts keep kosher in their home can vary. The basic rules are as follows: no mixing meat and dairy, certain meats are off-limits, fish doesn't count as meat (no, I don't understand why either), and processed foods should have a kosher mark, known as a hechsher. Things that are neither meat nor dairy, like vegetables, breads, and fish (again, it just is) are considered pareve.

Some common kosher symbols,
Regarding homemade food ask before you make it, your host may prefer only food from kosher homes and kitchens or they may not care, or may eat non-meat stuff from non-kosher homes. If you want to bring something, your first inquiry is if it's a meat meal or a dairy meal. You can just ask, "Is it a meat or a dairy meal?" Anecdotally, most families seem to have meat meals for Shabbos, but those with vegetarians (i.e. mine) sometimes do dairy meals.

Additionally, many families will observe a gap between eating meat and dairy. Some do as little as one hour, others as much as six hours. If the observance is on the shorter end, there may be dairy desserts after two or three hours. If your hosts express it will be a meat meal and you intend to bring a dairy dessert, you can ask how long they wait before you bring a beautiful cheesecake nobody can eat for six hours.
3. Kosher wine is a thing, make sure you know your host's rules before bringing it.
You may be asking what on God's green earth can go in wine that makes it unkosher and it basically can be explained as "because the Tanach (bible) said so" (or perhaps a longer post at another time). It's just a thing, and you can tell because there's a kosher mark. Your hosts may not care, may prefer kosher wine for explicitly Jewish things, or only drink kosher wine. The answer here is to ask before you bring a bottle. There's no hard-and-fast rule regarding red or white, both can be kosher and different families have different preferences.
4. There will likely be a Mezzuzah on the door. 
You can ignore it if you like, just don't attempt to pull it down or alter it any way. It's put up by Jewish households on doorways (with the exception of bathrooms), and contains a specific scroll inside. The cases are made from a variety of materials in many shapes, including those made by children. Many Jewish folks have a custom of touching it upon entering or exiting a room, sometimes kissing their hand before (although probably not as much during a pandemic). It's not offensive either way if you do or don't.
An example:
5. Men may be asked to wear a kippah. 
A kippah is a small head-covering traditionally worn by Jewish men or men in Jewish spaces. If someone is wearing a kippah outside a synagogue or other explicitly Jewish space, they're most likely Jewish. Inside Jewish spaces, like synagogues, all men are asked to wear kippot (plural of kippah). Some families extend this to Shabbat meals or other explicitly Jewish meals (like Seders) and ask all men, Jewish and otherwise, to wear a kippah. In this case, they will have extras at the house, you are not expected to bring your own.

Women and non-binary folks are allowed to wear kippot (outside of certain Orthodox denominations), but not required.

Less common are head coverings explicitly for women, which sort of look like lace doilies most of the time. Although many orthodox women cover their hair completely with sheitels or wigs, in liberal denominations of Judaism it is more common to have symbolic coverings during services or events. Unlike kippot, which are for boys of all ages, women in Judaism only cover their heads after they are married or widowed. Most married Jewish women only do this during services or in other explicitly Jewish settings and use a smaller symbolic covering. If you have some other sort of religious head covering, you will not be asked to remove it.

Kippot can be made in a variety of prints and colors, and are often made for special occasions like bar mitzvahs or weddings, and guests are allowed to keep them as souvenirs. Some folks amass quite the collection.

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Pink Kippot and women's hair coverings from my bat mitzvah. Most kippot are not pink. 

6. There are rituals before you eat. 
If you've ever been to a friend's home and wondered when the meal is going to start, the good news is that Shabbos meals are ritualized enough you'll know. To start the meal, a series of three blessings are recited. First, candles are lit and blessed. You may be asked to light a candle, it's not offensive either way if you do or do not. Traditionally, women light and bless the candles, although it is not prohibited for men or non-binary folks.

If no women are present, or men choose to do so, they also may do so. The blessing is usually in Hebrew and done by all Jewish women (and men and non-binary folks who choose to do so) simultaneously while covering the eyes, usually with two hands. At least two candles are lit, often more. Some families, my own included, have one or two for each woman, one for each child, one for men who choose to do so, and then an extra for all those who cannot light. We also have extras on hand in case of guests, and many families have similar traditions.

Shabbat Candles 1 — West Hills Torah Center

Next, wine or grape juice is blessed. Many families also keep grape juice on hand for kids or people who don't drink-it's okay to prefer grape juice. In many families, everyone who is able will stand to bless the wine, called Kiddush. If your hosts stand up and you are able to do so, stand with them at this time. If wine/grape juice has been poured, everyone lifts their glass as they stand. Traditionally a Jewish man will bless the wine/grape juice in Hebrew, if there is none or a woman chooses to do it she is allowed to do so in more liberal strains of Judaism. There's a short blessing most families do and a second blessing many add, which is much longer. In such a case, there will likely be a pause, wait until whoever invited you goes to drink.

In many families, the blessed cup of wine will be passed around, sometimes in age order (after whoever blessed it), and everyone will take a sip. There are also little fountains some families have that evenly distribute the wine into shot glasses.
Kiddush Fountains For The Sabbath - Traditions Jewish Gifts

Finally, the challah, which has been covered until this point, is blessed. Many families will only have one challah, very traditional ones will have two. The challah is held up by the person blessing it, which is typically done in Hebrew. Often, Jewish guests or children will be asked to bless the challah. After it is blessed, it will be distributed among everyone at the table and then the meal can start. Depending on the size and traditions of the family, they may cut or tear the challah apart to distribute it.

7. It's mostly just a normal meal.
Aside from prayer before eating and a couple of dietary restrictions, it's basically just a nice meal with your friends, family, or partner. You can wear whatever you'd normally wear to a nice family meal at that person's house. There may be more specific traditions your hosts have, but you can ask along the way.

When it doubt, ask your hosts, but I hope these seven points have given you some jumping points to start with. 

Publications Outside This Blog

This is a (likely incomplete!) list of stuff I've written and published outside this blog.   ●   HeyAlma ○        The 18 Ugliest Hanuk...