Useful books help Jews plan, study life-cycle celebrations

Jewish life-cycle events can be a time of great joy. The family gathers, old friends reunite, and the house or hall is filled with the sounds of children laughing and the smells of festive foods.

But arriving at that joyous moment requires much careful planning.

Fortunately, help is available for busy people who want a great party yet also want to infuse the occasion with spiritual meaning and tradition.

While some books offer background and insight on Jewish life-cycle traditions, others function as handbooks, rich in instructive detail. Families planning a bar mitzvah or other event find both kinds of books indispensable.

"Rites of Passage: a Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle" by Ronald H. Isaacs (KTAV, 1992) answers basic questions about laws and customs as they apply to life-cycle events and offers a suggested outline for each ceremony.

"Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism," edited by Rela M. Geffen (Jewish Publication Society, 1993) is an anthology of essays by different authors, each reflecting on a different stage of life.

The new Reform movement prayer book, "On the Doorposts of Your House" (CCAR, 1994), offers prayers and ceremonies welcoming baby girls and boys. The book even includes blessings to cover pregnancy, wedding anniversaries, the onset of menstruation and retirement.

Jewish women are creating new rituals marking life stages not traditionally recognized, and many have also revived Jewish celebrations that long ago fell into obscurity.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein edited "Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones" (Jewish Lights, 1994), a wonderful collection of poems, prayers, personal essays and ceremonies. The book's appendix gives detailed instructions on designing a ritual.

Anita Diamant's "The New Jewish Baby Book" (Jewish Lights, 1994) is an excellent handbook for new parents. It explains the ritual of circumcision, offers ceremonies for girls as well as boys, gives party-planning advice and delves into Jewish naming practices, offering a short list of names and their meanings.

For a more thorough treatment of names, prospective parents can consult "The Complete Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names" by Alfred Kolatch (Jonathan David, 1984).

Jane Lewitt and Ellen Robinson Epstein's "Bar/Bat Mitzvah Planbook" (Stein and Day, 1982) tells you everything you need to know, from choosing invitations to caring for out-of-town guests, and also helps youngsters prepare for their big event. The book provides charts and timelines for advance planning.

A good antidote to worrying about the caterer is Jeffrey K. Salkin's "Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah" (Jewish Lights, 1992). A rabbi, Salkin talks about the real reasons for doing a bar or bat mitzvah and offers suggestions for intensifying the meaning of both the ceremony and its aftermath.

Diamant also wrote "The New Jewish Wedding" (Summit Books, 1985) after her own wedding. As she writes in her preface, she and her husband could have used "a book that would not only supply us with the theological and historical background we needed to understand traditional Jewish wedding practices, but would also invite our exploration of and participation in the tradition." The book is just that, and fun to read.