“So what should I expect?” he asked me.
We had just gotten into the car after he came to pick me up at my house and he was programming the address into his GPS while I buckled my seatbelt beside him and tried not to get the chiffon of my strapless dress caught.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“From today,” he said.
“Have you never been to a Bar Mitzvah?” I asked him – and I didn’t mean to sound quite so shocked because, after all, I know that it’s not something that everybody has experienced, but the guy was raised on Long Island!
Bar Mitzvahs are pretty common around these parts.
But when he shook his head, all I wanted was for him to feel comfortable and besides, he struck me as being the kind of person who would probably fit in anywhere. And so, sitting in the passenger seat of a car just last weekend, I became something I never expected: an expert on Jewish culture.
Now, the facts are these:
1. I never went to Hebrew school.
2. I never had a Bat Mitzvah.
3. I do not currently belong to a temple and I never have.
4. Since the age of twenty-one, I have only somehow dated guys who are not Jewish.
5. I believed in Santa Claus because my Jewish parents told me he was real and that he was the one who had bought my sister the Barbie Dream House, and even at about four years old, that seemed right to me because I couldn’t imagine my father allowing that pink monstrosity that shouted traditional gender stereotypes into the house willingly. The bearded guy had to have been real.
6. I once sat in a kosher deli for about fifteen minutes and stared at the menu completely puzzled as to why there wasn’t a cheeseburger listed.
7. When I recently met an Orthodox Rabbi at an event where my parents were being honored, I stuck out my hand for him to shake it and then stood mortified while he just stared at it for a while without moving to shake it until my sister swatted my hand down and whispered that, as an Orthodox man, he couldn’t touch a woman who was not his wife. And I would have stood there for about an hour with my hand out because what kind of bullshit is that? At least have the decency to tell me you cannot touch me instead of making me look and feel like a total idiot.
So anyway, the moral of that little diatribe is that I’m not exactly a scholar when it comes to anything Judaism – and don’t ever try to touch an Orthodox Rabbi if you’re a woman.
But back in the car on our way to this guy’s first celebration into a tween symbolically morphing into a man, I tried to explain how the day would go.
“At temple, the kid will be up on the stage and the Rabbi will call him forward and he’ll read some prayers in Hebrew and then make a nice speech and his parents and some family members will also be called up to read. That’s called “getting an Aliyah,” and it’s considered an honor.”
“Have you ever been called up?” he asked me sweetly and I just laughed at the thought.
“No. But my stepdad gets hauled up there all the time. He speaks Hebrew fluently. After the service, which sometimes feels like it might take forever, there’s usually cookies that are served and the we leave and go to the party.”
“Is it like a Sweet Sixteen?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” I answered. “There’s dancing and a DJ and there’s usually a bunch of stuff given out on the dance floor like glow sticks or silly sunglasses. The stuff is crap because it’s the kind of stuff you purchase in bulk, but you should probably prepare yourself for the fact that, as the party goes on, I will fully believe that I desperately need anything that’s being handed out. Seriously, if it’s a piece of poo covered in silver glitter, I will need two of them in that moment.”
He laughed just then and so did I – but I also felt a little bit scared for him that he really had no idea how I would plow over him and an aged grandmother to reach for the last pink feather boa handed out on that dance floor. I told myself to maybe try to play it more serene for the day, but I also knew that the calmness would never really take in the actual moment.
“The only Jewish-y things that happen at the party is that an older male relative will be called up to say the blessings for the wine and for the challah…”
“Do you guys consider the challah to be like the body of Christ the way other religions say it is?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I responded.
“Then why do they serve it?” he asked.
“Because sometimes it’s nice to have a little nosh,” I answered – and I sounded exactly like my grandmother when I said it.
“There will also be the Hava Nagila. That’s when everybody dances in a circle and the kid gets lifted up in his chair on the dance floor. His parents and sister will go up to. I might try to pretend I’m his aunt because, for my entire life, I have wanted to be lifted in that chair.”
“I’ll lift you,” he offered.
“It’s not the same thing,” I said with a sigh. “But as for the rest of it, there will be a cocktail hour probably and then the actual sit-down meal and dancing and maybe a favor will be given out when we leave. It’s usually a tee shirt with the kid’s name and a design on it, but I’m hoping it’ll be candy. And there will be a cake and he’ll call people up to light the candles. It should be fun. Not the temple part; that’s never fun. But the rest of it should be a decent time,” and he looked kind of relieved and like he just might be tough enough to handle a day of me sprinting across a dance floor towards the waiter holding my favorite kinds of appetizers on a tray.
Turns out, the day was nothing like I’d told him it would be. By the time we got to the temple a little bit late, the Cantor – the one who sings the prayers – was strumming an acoustic guitar. The energy was different than at any other temple service I’d ever attended. It was upbeat and the stuff the Rabbi was saying in English felt very relevant. He was talking about things like building confidence and practicing forgiveness in the face of cruelty, and frankly, that was a lesson I probably needed to hear right then.
The service went quickly. The kid did a fantastic job. His parents, who are my close friends, looked calm and very proud. And as the prayers were being sung in Hebrew, I found myself singing along. I didn’t know the meaning of anything I actually sang, but I knew the words and the melodies for far more than I expected I would and at one point, I leaned over to him and whispered, “I’m going to need you to tell my mother that I do know some Jewish stuff after all, okay?” and he nodded and smiled at me.
When the service ended – and it felt like it whizzed by – we ignored the temple cookies and headed over to the reception. He’s not that much of a cookie eater and me? Well, I am a cookie eater, but I haven’t been much of an anything eater lately and I figured that if I was going to eat anything I wanted that day, I should save room for the good party stuff. But the party ended up being different than what I’d expected. The actual Kid Party was being held the next day, so this one was just for the adults in the kid’s life and there was an acoustic duo singing and playing guitar but there was no dancing. It was relaxing and I had a lovely time, but I did lean over at one point to tell him that he still needed to attend an actual Bar Mitzvah party, because this one wasn’t particularly typical and there was not a glow stick to be found anywhere in the vicinity.
There was the candle lighting ceremony for the cake, and when I announced to everybody at my table that I hoped the cake was vanilla and that my piece would have one of those hunk-of-icing blue flowers on it, one person responded by saying, “Now, it’s really about the flavor of cake the kidwants,” and I looked her dead in the eye and said, “I have no idea what any of those words mean.”
The cake was chocolate and so we left soon after, and during the drive home, I told him some stories about the Bar Mitzvahs I’d been to during my life so he could really know what a big Bar Mitzvah party is like and, in doing so, I thought about some seconds and hours from my life that I haven’t touched base with in years and years.
What’s a grand Bar Mitzvah party like? It’s like this:
It’s girls arriving in dresses and heels and slipping those heels off as soon as the party starts and pulling on socks instead because nobody that age really knows how to walk – let alone dance – in heels.
It’s that gaggle of kids, usually aged twelve to fourteen, crowding into a series of pictures on the dance floor, the Bar Mitzvah kid right in the middle, and more gleaming braces than you’ve ever seen outside of an orthodontist’s office.
It’s nobody dancing at all at first and then everybody eventually dancing in a big clump together until the first slow song plays and it always seemed to be a Billy Joel song and then it’s the boy I liked asking me to slow-dance and me putting my hands on his shoulders and him resting his hands ever-so-lightly on my waist and us swaying back and forth sort of on beat and there’s so much room between us that you could drive a semi truck through the empty space.
It’s heavy, creamy invitations that cost an absolute fortune to buy and then mail and they are stuffed with printed directions to the venue that everybody will lose before the night of the event.
It’s twenty girls going to the bathroom at the same time to fix the lip-gloss that looks good on almost nobody and it’s me, even then, not loving a pubic bathroom, so while the rest of them pee, I rifle through the toiletries basket placed there for the party and I help myself to a mint and wonder if anyone will actually use the needle and thread that’s also stuffed in there.
It’s a party with a theme, and the themes are pretty typical. A lot of them have a sports theme and the centerpieces will be sports-related and the tables might be labeled according to a certain team. A lot of the girls I grew up with had music or dance as their theme, but my best friend’s theme was amazing and so original. Back then, if you asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell you that she wanted to be a game show host and it was a response so random and hilarious and she actually probably would have made an insanely good game show host. At her party, the centerpieces were giant wheels that looked like the one on The Price is Rightand there were microphones everywhere and it was maybe the best theme-come-to-life I’ve still ever seen.
It’s me imagining what my own theme would be for my very own imaginary Bat Mitzvah, and it’s knowing with certainty that I’d want it to be Candyland where all the centerpieces were edible and the favors would be colorful bushels of candy and if I could maybe even figure out where to find that wallpaper they licked in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I’d have the place decked on in the stuff so my guests could tongue the walls because giving your guests options is what it means to be a good hostess.
It’s the humongous cake being wheeled out and the kid being handed a microphone and reading out a little rhyming introduction filled with private jokes for each person who is deemed special enough to come up and light a candle:
Remember that time the alarm went off in a sudden piercing blare
and we thought an axe-wielding murder had broken into the house, perhaps on a dare?
We were certain we’d never again be seen alive,
but it was just a malfunction of the alarm,
so Nell, come on up and light candle number five!
It’s seeing now how little things change over the years when you’re talking about how a party is thrown. My niece is having her Bat Mitzvah next year. I think that maybe my sister has some residual annoyance that we never had the experience, but between us, she’s the only one who feels that way. Still, these parties are very expensive and so I called her a few months ago and asked if I could help by buying Jadyn’s dress for the day.
“That’s very nice of you,” she said. “Would you still allow me to have some input on what she would wear?”
“No, Leigh,” I said sarcastically. “I’m going to insist that she buy a thong and leather tassels to wear to her religious-based party. Of course you can have input! You’re going to pick it out! I’m just going to pay for it.”
(It’s so weird sometimes the things that have to be said to somebody who, by all accounts, should know you pretty damn well.)
I also asked if I could help with the favors. I offered to make decorated cake pops or something like that, but she told me she was getting tee shirts as favors and it made me smile that some things apparently will always stay very much the same.
But in case Jadyn’s cake ends up being one I simply can’t get behind, I’m throwing a Yodel into my clutch before I leave my house because, like most Hebrew words, there are just some things I will never understand.