Guidelines for Bar/Bat Mitzvah Speeches

by Donna Jacobs Sife

A friend of mine living in Washington told me a story. When her son’s bar mitzvah was approaching one of her friend’s asked her “What’s your theme?” My friend thought for a moment and then responded, “Judaism”.

Thankfully, we are mostly spared the spectacle of extravaganzas here in Australia. But I think some of us still struggle with ambivalence at the thought of celebrating ‘Judaism’ at our child’s bar mitzvah reception.

One way of bringing heart and spirit to the occasion is through the speeches. It may be the only time the family can link the events in synagogue with the party that follows; the only moment in the whole proceedings that the family and guests can reconsider what they are doing, why they are there, and who they are honouring.

What follows are some ideas to consider when writing such a speech. It is specifically written for the parents of the bar mitzvah child, but may serve to guide anyone who intends to speak on the day.

• Share your own experience of becoming bar mitzvah. What it meant to you and your parents, what you did, how you celebrated. A meaningful speech can only come from the heart and therefore if you felt ambivalent when you became bar mitzvah, or didn’t have one, or it was not meaningful, then this is what you will say. And if, with reflection you can see what was missing, or what you would have liked, or how satisfied you felt about your own child’s bar mitzvah — then it is truth that is speaking and the heart is touched.

• Remember an anecdote that encapsulates the essential nature of your child. What are his/her qualities, what do you enjoy most about him/her? What do you see developing? What gives you pride? Do any of these qualities remind you of one of our forefathers or foremothers? Does he have the patience of Jacob? The depth of Moses? The kindness of Abraham? Or does she show astuteness and intuition like Rebecca, wisdom like Sarah?

• How did you feel when you heard him/her practicing and studying? What memories came back? Did you consider the parashah together? What insights, emotions, thoughts did you have coming into contact with the Torah like that?

• Try to find a connection with the portion of the Torah that was read. Through metaphor, symbol, imagery – sometimes it can be very meaningful to consider the portion with regards to your child, or your family history, or some other aspect of your lives.

• What Jewish values do you hold dear? Or if you feel more comfortable thinking of them as universal values, say that. What do you value in the world that you would like your child to also uphold? When you look at your child, how do you want him/her to see the world and be within it

• What does Judaism mean to you? Is it family, a way of life, a value system, a proud history? Talk about your own relationship with Judaism. This is a sacred Jewish passage, where a parent is handing his son or daughter to responsibility and adulthood. Let there be an inheritance of experience, ideas, reflection and pride.

• Include Israel, and mitzvot. Buy trees in Israel, organise beforehand to deliver leftover food to a shelter nearby — make your simcha bigger by asking your guests to give to a charity chosen by the bar mitzvah child, or bringing food for Mazon. This is the essential nature of a Jewish celebration.

• Consider using quotes from Jewish thinkers and scholars throughout the ages, or stories from particularly Chassidic sources (plenty on the web) that encapsualate what it is you wish to impart to the bar mitzvah child.

How rare and wonderful to stand before our family, friends and community to state what Judaism means to us!

Donna Jacobs Sife is a Sydney writer.


by Pamela Lemberg

Some two years before its actual date, the average Jewish mother begins her frenetic preparations for her child’s bar or bat mitzvah.

Whereas the organisation of a successful party can be seen primarily as an administrative task, the writing of an effective bar mitzvah speech requires skills that many people find daunting. But the formula is really quite simple: begin at the present, the child that you see standing before you; return to the past, the journey that has taken the child from his/her birth to the here and now; and come back to the present and the future, the emotions of this milestone event and the appreciation of family and friends.

In order to create an easy, flowing presentation, the speech-maker should feel relaxed and confident. Too often the speeches are left to the last moment, are hastily written and so plainly under-rehearsed. Confidence can only come from adequate preparation, well in advance, and then much practice. And size is important too, five to ten minutes being the optimum length without becoming repetitive or boring.

Humour is a vital ingredient in the recipe for the success of a speech — not in the form of jokes, but more in the recounting of original anecdotes that create a picture of the child. Over-sentimentality should be avoided, as should the over-praising of the child in question.

A list of academic and sporting achievements while being a source of great pride for the parents, may not necessarily be of great interest to guests.

Unless one has a prodigious memory or is a skilled orator, it is safer to have a written, large-type transcript of the speech for reference.

However, if the presenter has rehearsed sufficiently and is comfortable with their speech, they may only need to glance at the notes from time to time.

Familiarity with the words will enable the speaker to look up and make eye contact with their audience, thus creating a bond.

Not having a transcript to follow creates the danger of drifting off at a tangent and losing flow and direction. And a smooth flow is paramount — the speech should run seamlessly from one topic to the next in a natural sequence.

When the bar or bat mitzvah child makes the speech, care should be taken to avoid the clichés that seem to be in vogue.

Some speeches are so predictable that you would be hard put to know whose function you were attending. For example: “To my mum, thank you for being there for me”. (Well, where else would a Jewish mother be?) “To my dad, thank you for shlepping me everywhere”. (What’s a Mercedes for?). Or, “Thanks to my grandma, who makes the best chicken soup and kneidlach” (Doesn’t that go without saying?).

The ideal bar or bat mitzvah speech should be informative, entertaining, not too long and just a little sentimental. It should make you laugh and it should make you cry — preferably at the same time. It should make you feel that you know the child well — and are glad to. And, above all, it should make every guest remember the event because of the quality of the speeches.

Pamela Lemberg is a Sydney-based speech writer and author of short stories and poetry.

These articles republished with thanks to the Australian Jewish News.