#BlameItOnGreatNeck by Vanessa Hidary

Blame it on Great Neck.

Great Neck, Long Island.  

The Bat-Mitzvah Mecca.

My public-school -teacher parent’s… worst nightmare.

 

It’s 1983. I’m at Robin Silverstein’s Bat- Mitzvah. Robin spelled with an “i”, not to be confused with the Robyn spelled with a “y”.

I’m wearing a Gunney -Sax white princess dress, lavender Chinese slippers and Maybelline’s Frosted Brownie lipstick. It looks like I just took a bite into a powdered donut …or did a big 8 ball of blow.

My father drove me here and bitched about the traffic the whole way up. He is distressed that I now have so many friends in Long Island. But he sent me to Jewish Y sleep away camp, and there are only two of us from New York City. I don’t think it’s fair that Long Islander’s call themselves New Yorkers. Great Neck is very clean. They have pink stores that sell big rainbow pillows, and stickers. I love stickers. I have a sticker collection, in a photo album. Stickers of ice cream sundaes, unicorns, hearts and ballet slippers. My friend Josh Walberg says sticker collections are “JAPPY.” You don’t ever want to be called a J.A.P.  I’m more of a roller disco queen. I try to walk the J.A.P. walk, but my mother refuses to pay for an alligator sewn on a shirt, when the one with a tiger is cheaper. So I get “LE TIGRE” shirts from WINGS on 96th and Broadway. I like them best when they still have the creases from the cardboard folder. I’m also too chubby for Guess Jeans, which is probably for the best because my mother says they are nothing but overpriced jeans with a triangle on the tush. I wear corduroys called “Prime Cuts”, because they have elastic around the waist, and as mom says “they’re roomy on the thighs”.

I want to like camp but I hate it. Being fat in the NY public school system is one thing, but being fat in Jewish Y Sleep away Camp is a mini death wish.

I’m a popular fat girl. Which means I’m friends with all the prettiest girls, and all the guys are best friends. The boys want to consult with me day and night. They all talk to me about my girlfriend’s that they like. I’m like a little teenage therapist.

My mother says I’m very verbal. One time I was talking so much that a bee flew straight into my mouth, and stung me right inside my cheek. When I was five my father tried to get me into this alternative public school for smart kids. I scored incredibly high on the verbal section, especially when I told the lady she was a “riot”. “You’re a riot,” I kept saying, “You’re a riot!” And then I blew her away when I mentioned her blouse was “absolutely stunning”, which she thought was a very mature compliment for a five year old.  My mother was beaming. But when it came to the logic section, I had a short circuit breakdown. They had me fitting shaped blocks into their congruent slots. I kept trying to squeeze the triangle into the circle. They carried me out screaming, chubby fists wielding, and told my parents I was severely undeveloped in the right side of my brain.  So my dad bought me this funky fractions game in the shape of an apple pie. It just made me want to eat pie.

Robin Silverstein has a lot to live up to with her Bat-Mitzvah. Cause Sharon Goldfarb’s had invitations that unfolded into life size posters of Tom Selleck. Also, Sharon’s dad owned like all of Broadway, so he got the cast of “Cats” to come out of garbage cans on the dance floor. But I heard he got pissed cause one of the “Cats” was smoking a cigarette outside after the party, and everyone saw, and he thought that ruined the “magic.” I began fantasizing about what cool famous people & gift bag swag, my parents could arrange for my party. They only brought home teachers with channel 13 tote bags, number 2 pencils and half fare bus passes.

Robin ended up hiring the New York City break-dancers for her Bat- Mitzvah.  This felt like a big rip off because two of the dancers went to my school, so I get to see them dance for free all the time!  She also had a reggae band, and the band guy was annoyed because Robin kept making him sing her favorite Phil Collin’s song. “I can feel it coming in the air tonight.” Then they had a drumroll and the band guy said, “Hereeeeeee’s the Silverstein’s.” And the Silversteins came out on the dance floor enveloped in a flooding spotlight, arms linked in gowns and suits.

On the drive home my dad kept muttering that the Silverstein’s spotlight entrance was “excessive.” I thought it was awesome. I liked that Robin was placed in the middle. My parents were divorced and probably wouldn’t want to link arms.

But hands down, the most CRIMINAL thing about Robin’s Bat Mitzvah was that she didn’t even have to go to Hebrew School to earn it.  I had to go THREE times a week since the third grade, and learn how to read my Torah section IN HEBREW!!!  Robin went to a crash course called “Quick Bat” where they wrote out her Torah section in English letters. How unfair is that!

The summer before my Bat- Mitzvah my mother sat me down and broke the news that my Bat- Mitzvah party was going to be…(drumroll please) in our apartment. You’d think she was telling me, the family cat had died. She explained to me that the Greatneck Bat- Mitzvah’s were outlandish, bordering on “obscene.”  I never heard her use that word before and it sounded… scary.

“Oh my God. Can I even get invitations made???” I panicked.

“Yes, we will get some nice invitations. But they can cost no more than the price of a regular postage stamp.”

Welp. This was just great. Scratch my idea of invitations unfolding into Michael Jackson with his pet llama Louis.  

My mom looked tired. She assured me it was going to be a very nice party and that we have a beautiful apt. She mumbled something about go complain to your father, and reminded me of how nice my sister’s party in the apartment was.

“ Is there going to be a band?” I knew the answer. No.

“Photo booth?” Nope.

“But.. You can have a special kids after party in the living room after the adults leave.”

Yes. I liked this.

“And we will go to Alexander’s and find a Gunney Sax dress.”

Deal.

Over the next few weeks I kept hearing my mother use the word “modest” on the phone with her friends, to describe my upcoming Bat- Mitzvah. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant by that but I forgoed asking her to come out with my dad in the spotlight.

All fall, I practiced my Haftorah portion with my little Casio tape recorder. Cantor Kornreich made little notations on my script as to when my voice should go up and down. I had just gotten the role of Princess Leah in the Hebrew School musical Production of “The Empire Chicken Strikes Back” so I was feeling a little cocky. “Darth Veys Mir” and I were quite a team up there.

I barely remember my 15 minutes of Bima fame, but I remember being proud all my hard work paid off.  I remember everyone thinking the after party was really cool.

I eventually lost touch with my Greatneck Friends. My father got tired of driving me out there, and well.. Let’s be real, I never really fit in.

I’m forever grateful that I now understand what “modest” and “obscene” mean. I see my sister teaching her children down to earth values like we had. They understand that getting a manicure is a treat, and that homemade birthday cakes are better than store bought.

Today I have a tinge of guilt that I was so affected by my Bat Mitzvah Mecca phase, but I’m grateful my mother put her foot down, and gave me everything a public school, right brain deficient, chubby teenage therapist needed. 

Spoken Word Artist/ Author/Actress/ Native New Yorker Vanessa Hidary began her spoken word career at the legendary Nuyorican Poets café. She has aired three times on “Russell Simmons Presents ‘Def Poetry Jam’ on HBO. She was featured in the short film "The Tribe", SummerStage NYC, and was chosen as one of 50 speakers to appear at the “2010 IdeaCity- Canada's Premiere Meeting of the Minds'” She lives in Manhattan, where she published her first collection of poems and stories titled “The Last Kaiser Roll in the Bodega.” She is currently producing and directing a showcase called KALEIDOSCOPE which explores ethnic and racial diversity within The Jewish community.

The Ancestral Presence I’d Invite, If I Could Do It Again by Erika Dreifus

Erika Dreifus, pictured in front of the Torah scrolls at her home congregation in New Jersey, 1982.

Erika Dreifus, pictured in front of the Torah scrolls at her home congregation in New Jersey, 1982.

Frankly, when it comes to my Bat Mitzvah, there’s precious little that I wish I could re-do. When I recall the May 1982 occasion, I might confess that I’d likely have been significantly more comfortable had I not insisted on wearing my ill-fitting contact lenses (oh, adolescent vanity!). But overall, the event was everything I could have wished for at the time. I’ll admit that in recent years, I’ve envied some of my younger cousins the video-recordings of their ceremonies and celebrations. But there’s a part of their Bar and Bat Mitzvah experiences that I envy even more: the presence of “the Altdorf Torah”.

In 1938, the small Jewish community in my grandfather’s home village of Altdorf, Germany, had asked his sister—my great-aunt Bella—to take the Torah with her when she left Altdorf for good. Through their mother, who had died shortly after my grandfather’s birth, Grandpa and his sister could trace their ancestry in the village back to 1764. Their grandfather, a baker, was also their little congregation’s chazzan. In 1937, my grandfather was able to immigrate to the United States. I can only assume that by the following year, the Jews who remained in Altdorf saw the proverbial writing on the wall; that’s why they relinquished the precious Torah to Bella’s care and a future, however uncertain, in Mandatory Palestine.

Bella, her husband (also a German-Jewish refugee, whom she met in Netanya), and their sabra daughter remained in Israel until the mid-1950s. During that time, I am told, the Altdorf Torah rested in a closet in their moshav home. When they were able to rejoin their family in the United States, the Torah came with them.

In America, the Torah migrated to Williamson, West Virginia, where Bella’s daughter, Hedva, and her husband raised their family. At that point, the Altdorf Torah became a “Williamson Torah,” housed within the ark at B’nai Israel. Bella’s grandson, my cousin Julius, read from it at his Bar Mitzvah. (I was a small child at the time, and was not present for that occasion—it’s only as an adult that I’ve even discovered the existence and story of the Altdorf Torah—but I cannot help wondering now how the Altdorf-born generation might have felt as they watched.)

The Altdorf Torah in 2013, as Erika’s cousin, Sophia R., the youngest great-grandchild of Erika’s great-aunt Bella, became a Bat Mitzvah in Columbus, Ohio.

The Altdorf Torah in 2013, as Erika’s cousin, Sophia R., the youngest great-grandchild of Erika’s great-aunt Bella, became a Bat Mitzvah in Columbus, Ohio.

I’m also told that the Altdorf Torah is not entirely “kosher”—some passages are difficult or impossible to read. But it was indeed used in Williamson before the synagogue closed; it was subsequently shared with the American Hebrew Academy (where one of Bella’s great-granddaughters was a student); and it has been present at multiple Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies within the family. I was able to see and touch it in Columbus, Ohio, when it was walked around the congregation during the Bat Mitzvah service of Bella’s youngest great-granddaughter in 2013.

By then, my grandfather and his Altdorf-born siblings—most, blessedly, present for my own simcha in 1982—had long since passed. And yet, the same Torah—the very same scroll—that had animated their lives and generations before them remains. In those eternal, cherished words of our people: l’dor va’dor.

Erika Dreifus lives and writes in New York. She is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, a collection infused by the experiences and histories of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. Currently, Erika works as Media Editor for Fig Tree Books, a publishing company specializing in fiction and memoir on the American Jewish Experience. Visit Erika online at www.erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.” 

Best Bat Mitzvah Swag Ever by Ariela Emery

In 7th grade, I went to at least one Bar/Bat Mitzvah every weekend. Everyone’s party had a theme. To name a few: poodle skirts and cat-eye glasses at the 50s-themed diner, the Americana picnic, and the most memorable of all: when two girls rented out the NASA Johnson Space Center and screened an IMAX movie in which they took a (fictional) trip to space.

When it came time to plan my party, my mom made it clear that my theme was “Bat Mitzvah.” That meant no cocktail napkins would shimmer with my name, no photographer would prepare magnetic buttons, no souvenir t-shirts, and certainly no personalized IMAX movie. I got a room rental, a DJ, and balloon centerpieces.

I resented the drabness of my party, but I knew that complaining wouldn’t change anything; it would just make me sound like a brat. From my mother’s perspective, having a party to commemorate a Jewish rite of passage that had already occurred at synagogue was lavish enough.

I was allowed one small indulgence: the signing board.

During my middle school years, everyone used to have professional portraits taken that they would then tack onto a poster board for people to sign “Mazel Tov” around the photo.

I had almost that.

But instead of a photograph of me, my dad painted a portrait of me. It sounds really special now, but at the time, I was embarrassed by the anti-conformity of a painting. On top of that, the portrait only kind of looked like me, and my parents had taped plastic wrap bandaid-style around my face to protect it from lewd drawings when people signed on the canvas.

It looked tacky, which was my concern about everything at my party. There was nothing polished, nothing exciting, or different or unique about it. You could tell there hadn’t been a party planner and that it could have been anyone’s party. But no one seemed to care, because they were having too much fun dancing. It was one of the best Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties of the year.

When I think about what I would do for my future daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, I would follow the same values that guided my mother as she was planning mine. First and foremost is the religious, communal, and life cycle nature of the Bat Mitzvah service.  Don’t get me wrong: I love a good party as much as anyone, but I agree with my mom that the party’s theme should be “Bat Mitzvah.” It would be wasteful to spend money on swag like personalized napkins, photo snow globes, and cartoon caricatures that are just going to be thrown out later.

Three years after my Bat Mitzvah, my father died of cancer. Now, as all the signed Mazel Tov’s fade away, only his portrait of me remains on the canvas. That kind of swag only gets better with time.

Ariela Emery grew up in Houston, TX, where she attended Jewish day school from preschool through 12th grade. Now a resident of Los Angeles, Ariela works as an event coordinator and B'nai Mitzvah tutor, often officiating the services of her students. In the fall of 2015, Ariela will begin a master's program in genetic counseling in San Francisco.

The Tzaddik's Hair by Dan Schifrin

In the spring of 1981, with an August Bar Mitzvah rolling inexorably in my direction, I was obsessed with two things: The angle of my hair, and the question of whether I might be a tzaddik.

The first one is easier to understand. I was 13, the girls in my class all loved Parker Stevenson’s blow-dried hair (the real star of the Hardy Boys TV show), and I was saddled with a helmet of impractical locks that defied gravity, the curls above my ears pointing sideways like the Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head posters gracing the bedrooms. As I sat in Hebrew school I shuddered to think about being up on the bima, my curls levitating and separating as I sat on the oversized chair next to the rabbi, imagining my friends imagining me being Steve Martinized. I wanted to take the yad and stick it through my ears, ending the horror.

The second one became a thing during one of my Thursday afternoon follicle-hating reveries, when I was invited into the rabbi’s office to talk about the obligations and responsibilities of the upcoming event. Our rabbi was a quiet mystic, with an otherworldly authority. On this day there was no dispensing of stale Stella D’oro cookies, as he launched right into The Story:

“The Kabbalists taught that in every generation there are 36 tzadikkim, holy souls, whose existence maintains the heartbeat of the world. Without the good deeds of each and every one of them, without their iron-clad commitment to tzedakkah, the world would collapse in on itself. These tzadikkim, called lamed-vavniks – the Hebrew term for the number 36 – do not know who they are. You are a good boy; a very good boy, in fact. You do tzedakkah like you mean it. And when you are up on the bima, I know you will think about the lineage that the thoughtful among us hope to join.”

At first I was grateful for this advice, as it gave me something else to think about when I imagined being on the bima. While my pubescent co-religionists would pretend to put an arrow through their brain, mocking the rebellion of my hair, I would be reflecting on the moral courage of my ancestors, and considering the club I might join if I continued being the "very good boy” I just had been anointed.

But gratefulness soon turned to terror. For four long months I impaled myself on the first philosophical question that had ever grabbed me by the throat: How can I do the work of a lamed-vavnik if I am arrogant enough to consider myself one? Is that not an unsolvable paradox?

So night after night I sat in my room, picking over this argument in my mind, vaguely aware that I had begun to engage in the kind of Talmudic hair-splitting associated with my forefathers. If I believe I am a lamed-vavnik, I said, I can’t be one; a lamed-vavnik can’t know that’s who he is, and wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted by that question. Even asking the question might poison my good deeds, as each deed might be done in part to try to ascertain whether or not I could be deserving of such an accolade. In order to do holy work, therefore, I must distract myself with thoughts about doing unholy work.

Eventually the emotional logic of a narcissistic teenager took me full circle: In order to be considered a candidate for lamed-vavnik-hood, I needed to focus on something non-vavniky, which in my case was a fairly obvious subject: My hair.

And so on a warm August morning, vacillating between rehearsing the Torah trope and patting down my curls, I wandered into the sanctuary. I was fairly sure I could execute my Torah assignment with competence, but unsure how present I could be given the vavnik-noises in my head.

“Your hair looks great,” one of the girls said as I fiddled with the buttons of my blazer. With a spring in my step I ascended the bima, and for the first time in my shy life my hair and my emotions, how I looked and how I felt, were in synch.

You want to know the Jewish moral of this story? How these events shaped the Jewish man, the Jewish writer, I became? For 34 years I have told stories and tried to heal the world. I have puffed myself up and tore myself down, and cycled through months of agitated reflection and singular moments of peace. Through all this I began to understand the rough justice of Jewish rituals. For the sense of peace and satisfaction that attend to the center of the Jewish ritual experience, one must do the hard work, ask the hard questions, convolute oneself with doubts. And then one must allow oneself the accidental grace of looking on the outside as good as you feel on the inside.

The ancient priests were required to look immaculate, a vision of rightness intended to evoke the suitability within. To look good and act well, to be allowed to live fully and unselfconsciously inside our primal Jewish rituals, is a gift. Even during our ironic, post-modern, 21st century Jewish lives.

Daniel Schifrin’s fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he has finished a novel and short story collection about Jews making terrible mistakes.

Four Best Friends By Matthue Roth

I found my Bar Mitzvah speech in a pile of old papers. For about seven seconds, I was ecstatic -- I am such a big fan of young me. At eight, I wrote the best one-page science fiction sagas (Sherlock Brains and the Revenge of Morty Silly-Putty on the Slime Planet, with two sequels) and when I was eleven, I handed in a rhyming parody of “The Raven” as a class journal assignment. As the most formal writing assignment and the biggest public reading of my young life, it was sure to be a doozy. It had to be a doozy...right?

It was awful.

And not just like, braggadocio-awful or pimping-awful. It was straight-up mugging for the camera. There were no Torah thoughts, no analysis of the haftarah I sang. (In retrospect, the subject of my haftarah was Rahav, the kindly prostitute who helped the Israelite spies infiltrate the indigenous population of Canaan. If I had tried to decipher the meaning of the story, or offer a lesson based on it, I’d either be the most precocious 13-year-old on the block or the most psychotic.) It was basically a list of people who I wanted to thank. My parents, for paying for the event. My friends. There was a special secret shout-out to the girl I had a crush on, whom I didn’t name -- possibly the one subversive thing I came at all close to accomplishing that day.

Being ashamed of your younger self is nothing strange or novel. As Ani Difranco says, we were made to bleed, to scab, to heal, to bleed again. But regret is a strange and rabid creature. For weeks afterward, I found myself agonizing over and rewriting the speech in my head. Why did I try to orchestrate those stupid shout-outs to my friends? Why did I include a joke about how much money my parents were spending on the party -- nothing compared to the hip-hop-star-headlining bar mitzvahs, but not even a grand affair by the standard of my friends back then, though it was a lot for them, to be sure -- more than they’d ever spent on anything except their car.

But I remember more than anything the fights. I wanted a DJ. They wanted, and booked, a band -- Stu Weitz and His Orchestra, I still remember his hair. The fiercest battle started when it came to the candle lighting. There was a loose tradition, not a real tradition, just something people were doing, to call up different groups of people to light each candle on the cake. I wanted one candle lit by my school friends, another for my neighborhood friends, a third for my one or two best friends. My parents refused. This was one point on which they would not cave in: we had relatives coming in from out of state (the bridge from Jersey), cousins to honor, friends who’d called my parents up at their kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs. There were priorities, there was decorum.

I was a kid. I didn’t realize what it meant. This investment, their time, our collective party-planning inexperience. I begged them. I threatened to throw fits, to purposely flub my Bar Mitzvah portion. They knew I was bluffing. This meant a lot to them; a lot. They’d never spent this much money on a party before. They only had one son. My wedding, if it ever happened, would be a whole other matter. This was their last big party they would ever have. I was allotted one candle for my friends.

And that, I think, is what I wanted to showcase with that speech. I wanted it to be my candlelighting ceremony, squeeze in all the thanks and the gratitude and the me-centricness that my Bar Mitzvah party would never be. Years later, with the gilded leatherbound photo album of my bar mitzvah sitting in my parents’ closet, there’s one page it automatically opens to, the only page I ever wanted to look at: the photo of my four friends who were called up.

There is Kenny, Orthodox at the time--he’d just become ultra-Jewish, wearing a yarmulke not only in synagogue but full-time, refusing to eat at any not-fully-kosher house, even his own. At my bar mitzvah, he had a special meal shrink-wrapped and served with plastic cutlery like an airplane dinner. A year later, he would not be observant at all, dating a non-Jewish girl, the first of our crowd to have sex.

There is Patrick, freshly out of the hospital after a car accident and a near-complete spinal fracture. He poses for the picture wearing a metal halo designed to keep his head upright at all times, the bars tenting over his head like a cage for his yarmulke, which he wore that day even though he wasn’t Jewish. Of everyone, his smile was the loudest, the most singularly glad to be there, not because it was a party but because it wasn’t a hospital.

There is Jeff Sutton, who lived in Cheltenham, and who I thought I was much better friends with than I actually was. It was more of a friend-crush than an actual friendship. I’m not sure if I was more into his stuff (a bigger and more expensive collection of baseball cards, and a complete set of the Hardy Boys Casefiles, a world removed from the regular Hardy Boys series, which had things like terrorists and bombs and making out) or into his world (bigger bedroom, bigger house, and a life in the suburbs, a less sports- and fighting-intensive life than my own). In another few months, I’d be in high school, and devoutly punk, and we would never hang out again.

And then there is Debbie Deal, who I had such a huge and ridiculous crush on. It was not at all because of the person she was--she was perfectly nice, and she tolerated me more than she probably should have. Me, who in junior high was reading college-level books and had an elementary-school level understanding of relationships. I left candy on her seat in the mornings before school orchestra practice--I was the first one there, obviously. I think the note I left may have even said sweets for the sweet and now, just thinking about it makes me want to stab at my vein with a fork. One day I told her I liked her. Later we were changing classes, I was descending a staircase and Debbie and her friends were in front of me. “I can’t believe he actually said that,” said her best friend Kelly (blond, jowly cheeks, a jock) and I knew they were talking about me. Why did I still invite her? Why did I ask her to light a candle? My own madness. And that then, on the eve of my thirteenth birthday, I still viewed girls as a problem to be solved. If I said the right things to her, changed myself in some specific way, we would click and she would like me.

I asked her to dance that day. Way too late in the party, things were already winding down, the burgers and chicken fingers were being taken away and I was like, I’m going to do it, no time but right now. I excuse-me’d my way past relatives, classmates, friends of my parents proffering check-stuffed envelopes. She was talking to some girl from our school, a distant cousin. “Debbie,” I said, “do you want to dance?” She said yes with no hesitation, stood up right away. Together we sidestepped through messes of chairs to the dance floor. My hands on her shoulders--tense, tender, squeezing her shoulder pads, inches away from the exposed skin of her clavicle. Hers resting light but firm at my hips.

We started to sway and the song ended. Right there, right then. Stu Weitz made an announcement, dessert would be served, please return to your tables. Debbie smiled at me, kindly, charitably. Or maybe she was saying, I got away. But she didn’t, really. The picture’s still in my album, oily with fingerprints, cloudy with memories. No one gets away, Debbie. None of us do.

Matthue Roth is the author of The Gobblings, a picture-book version of Alien,and My First Kafka. By day, he works as a video game designer. He keeps a secret diary at matthue.com.

Turn, Turn, Turn By Sara Lippmann

Religion was the great divide in my household. My father had been a Yeshiva boy; my mother couldn’t crack lobster claws fast enough. How they wound up married, how they’ve stayed married, is anyone’s guess. Their arguments, like all wars (and theirs was ongoing) stemmed from this fundamental difference in belief.  My father’s rigidity often won out against my mother’s heathenism. I was the resentful knot in their theological tug of war.

Every time I got into trouble my father threatened to send me to day school.

By 8th grade, I was in trouble all the time.

Three weeks after my bat mitzvah the police would knock at my door. My beloved books were Go Ask Alice and And I Don’t Want to Live This Life. Although the movie Heathers would not be released for another six months, I was already spinning in a torrent of Queen bees and Wannabes: volatile, rotten, afraid.

When I got suspended from Hebrew School (really, who gets suspended from Hebrew School?) my mother kept it from my father. This was an act of grace. My father was an ace Torah reader. His study and my bedroom connected by a thin wall, the nasally cadence of his weekly parshot lulled me to sleep throughout childhood, and yet I couldn’t learn my own portion. He made me a tape. I snapped it into my Walkman, played to slammed doors, fits.

Forget about introspection and womanly bullshit. I’d had maybe one period. If religion was a fist of contradictions shoved down my throat, my bat mitzvah was no different. The ceremony was traditional. It was Sukkot, so everything took extra long. In her speech, my mother quoted The Byrds who’d cribbed from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing a season, a purpose.” I hadn’t a clue what she meant. Guests threw jellied candy at my head, and afterward, during Kiddush there were too many bees and not enough Manischevitz to quell my angst-ridden fury: pink dress, itchy stockings, cold salmon. No photos or fire, no music, no dancing, no friends.

At night was my secular party. Unlike the benign, spirited celebrations of bunkmates from summer camp – affairs of thick socks and effusive candle lighting – parties in my town were an excuse to hook up and get wasted. As one of the youngest in my class, by the time my bat mitzvah rolled around, everyone was jaded to boot. After all, we attended public school. Kamikazes, we’d done. Seven Minutes in the Coat Closet, so last year. The DJ played the Grateful Dead instead of the Electric Slide and people got stoned in the bathroom. Supposedly, my best male friend did it with my best female friend right in the parking lot. I cried into my army green bubble skirt. On my bat mitzvah! There was no end to the injustice.

Months later, my parents agreed: we should have a photograph. I zipped up the dress, shoulder pads and flowers, I took a blow dryer to my hair. We went to a studio where a man arranged us stiffly, instructing us in gestures of affection. Hollow-eyed, I looked out in the distance, blinking into the umbrellas of lights, as if searching for a way to recast it.

Never would I have pictured: today my children attend day school. Recently, my nine-year-old was called up to the Torah. He could decode the Hebrew on his own, but my dad sent him a recording anyway, for good measure. It took him all of a week to learn his part. And when he sang, the music of my father poured out of him.

Sara Lippmann's debut collection DOLL PALACE has been long-listed for the 2015 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. She is the recipient of a 2012 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, Wigleaf, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland and elsewhere. She co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a longstanding reading series in New York's East Village. For more, visit saralippmann.com.

 

 

 

Everybody Dance Now By Mickey Rapkin

Like most kids in their Bar Mitzvah year, I was more interested in planning My Super Sweet 13 than practicing my Haftorah. How else can a boy from Long Island show he’s a man than by acting like a teenage girl? I imagined sequined dancers and a ten-piece band. I obsessed over the mix of food stations for the cocktail hour. We needed a carving station! Beef-and-broccoli! Pigs-in-a-blanket! (With Kosher pigs.) My theme was TELEVISION, which turned out to be prophetic: Twenty-five years later (gulp) I’d move to Hollywood to write for TV.

I couldn’t envision that future in 1990, seated at the Star Trek: The Next Generation table wearing lace-up shoes from Capezio. I put the girls from sleepaway camp at the Beverly Hills, 90210 table. And everyone left with a gift—a t-shirt that read “Live From New York, It’s Mickey’s Bar Mitzvah.” My dad unknowingly did his part to honor the theme. When the adults lifted him up in the chair, he raised one hand in the air and did Arsenio Hall’s signature whoop whoop whoop. If the whole thing felt like a spectacle, that’s because it was. My parents supplied giant foam fingers like you’d get at a Knicks game. During a spirited game of Limbo, my friend Ryan tore off every foam finger except for the middle one, and gleefully flipped the cameraman the bird. Whoop whoop whoop.

There was something like 50 kids at this luncheon and every one of their names was printed on that t-shirt. I have spoken to exactly two of these people in the last decade (including my brother). When I think about it, there was nothing all that spiritual about my Bar Mitzvah day. Though I remember cutting my finger slicing a bagel that morning, and thinking that was God’s way of telling me how important this transition to adulthood was. I’m not even sure I had fun that day (despite my smile in this photo). When I look at this image I wonder: Why did I ever want such an elaborate celebration of my puberty anyway? I guess because I was 13 and overweight and because I wanted to feel the love. I wanted to finally win at Coke & Pepsi (which is the actual birthright of every Bar Mitzvah boy). 

If I could do it all over again, I can’t say I’d skip the pint-sized wedding, where I entered the room to C+C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now.” But I wish I’d have embraced it more. I wish I’d have joined my dad in waving my arm in the air like I just don’t care. I wish I’d have practiced the silly poems he wrote for the candle lighting ceremony instead of reading them cold, wondering what the word mishpucha meant. I would have talked to my mishpucha (it means family!) who came in from Baltimore to celebrate this rite of passage. I would have danced with the old people and learned what all real men know: That this pain? This too shall pass. I would have told myself, You won’t always feel so small.

Mickey Rapkin is a journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles.

Riding the Bus, Making Chicken Kiev and all the 13 Things I Had to Do for My Bat Mitzvah by Lisa Fernandez

My Bat Mitzvah years were not the greatest. I was painfully shy. I felt chubby and awkward. I absolutely hated the hot pink suit my aunt and mother helped me pick out, accented with a 1980s-style puffy white shirt. I was so nervous about chanting in front of  an audience I thought I would have a heart attack.

But those are superficial worries, and as for the bat mitzvah itself, I felt, like with most things in Judaism, for better or worse, I don’t think too deeply about them: I do them because I’m Jewish. I went to an Orthodox Hebrew Day school where I studied Torah, G’marah, the Prophets and Hebrew every day. Thinking about whether I really wanted a Bat Mitzvah or what it meant to me would have been as ridiculous as pondering whether I had wanted to take the math test put before me. I’m happy I had one to tie me to the Jewish people, no questions asked.

But there was one thing that my mother had me do that was beyond the traditional Bat Mitzvah preparation, a required mandate that has stuck with me to this day, and which I am now passing on to my children. She had me do “13 adult” things to prepare for being a grownup. Some were Jewish in theme. Some were simply being part of the world. I had to make a Shabbat dinner and invite guests. (I chose Chicken Kiev and twice-baked potatoes.) I had to shop for the meal. I had to take a bus myself. I had to call a company and complain about something.

I remember these activities and they are ingrained in me, much more so than my Torah portion or my drash, which I cannot remember at all. My daughter is now 12 and having her Bat Mitzvah this summer. I had her come up with her own list, though I threw a few in there, too. She’s completed about half of them, and she’s already ridden an AC Transit bus through Oakland, volunteered to help some children with a sickness and started finding ways to earn her own money through babysitting and selling used clothes through Vinted. She still has to do laundry for the family, make food for the sick and cook her Shabbat meal.

She told me that she liked the list. She said she thinks it’s a good transition from becoming a kid to an adult, “rather than just have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and suddenly being made to feel like a grownup.”

That’s the point, I suppose. And I did learn one lesson. I’m going to let her pick out her own outfit so that she won’t be stuck with images of her forever in a hot pink suit.

 

Lisa Fernandez is a digital editor at NBC Bay Area and a former reporter at the Mercury News in San Jose, Calif. She grew up in Rochester, NY, and attended an Orthodox Hebrew Day School. She now lives in Oakland with her husband and two kids. She teaches spin classes for fun.

A film by Becca Gummet, looking back on her bat mitzvah and exploring her current state of Judaism.

Becca Grumet is a storyteller, musicmaker, and media creator living in Los Angeles. She is a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she created the award-winning short musical "Weed Shop." Becca has written animation for G-dcast and was also part of the first Tent:Comedy seminar. She is currently pursuing a M.A. in Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College while working on comedy and other projects.

Suburban Bar Mitzvah by Matthew Lippman

When Jay Horowitz got bar mitzvahed

I smoked a cigarette with Davey Johnson

in the parking lot of Temple Mount Sinai. 

When Deborah Grossman read her dvar Torah

I ate lobster tails in the back row with Mitzi Greenberg

who later French kissed me

with lobster meat still stuck in her braces. 

At the party there was a mountain of shrimp in the meadow of suburbia

and the disco ball made us Mexican lovers

which meant we were Swedish meatballs

and didn’t give a shit about Judaic responsibility. 

This is what my people taught me when I was thirteen. 

And that on Saturday at shul

in front of the whole continent of your life

you could say The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord,

have  no idea what that meant,

but still feel YHWH inside your heart

then go to The Star Black Beach Club

and dance your ass of in that green polyester suit

your mother bought for you at Sears

across an oily floor of shrimp cocktail and oyster shells. 

When I was 13 I embraced the oyster shells and I miss them now,

even though my spirit burns bright

no matter what building I walk into, no matter what time of day. 

So, how do they did do it, those teenage Rozenfelds and Schneiders,

the ones who stayed so close to the li-had leek ner,

the ones who havdalahed themselves into a sustainable and consistent union

with mitzvah, personal and otherwise? 

Tonight, I walk into that old green polyester bar mitzvah suit

like I was parking my silver Toyota 4-runner into a too small garage

and want to blow the stitching to pieces

so the arms undo, the legs,

the crotch explodes and here I am,

the candle of God burning bright and into the glowing of my mind.

 

Matthew Lippman is the author of four poetry collections, SALAMI JEW (Racing Form Press), AMERICAN CHEW, winner of The Burnside Review Book Prize (Burnside Review Book Press, 2013), MONKEY BARS (Typecast Publishing, 2010), and THE NEW YEAR OF YELLOW, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize (Sarabande Books, 2007). He is the recipient of the 2014 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and The Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW.

Makeshift Sanctuary by Thea Hillman

If coming of age means coming to the age when adults begin to fail, when you begin to see what being adult really is, and when the fallible adult in you begins to appear, 13 was when I came of age.

At 13, what had been stable became unstable: After living in the same house for the first 12 years of my life, we would live in three houses over the next five years. We left the childhood home in Oakland that I loved with all my heart, and moved to Piedmont, that place my dad had said was full of snobs and swore we’d never live there.

Thirteen was the year I made many conscious and unconscious commitments: to change the world, to be different, to be somewhat fabulous, somewhat infamous and somewhat unpopular my whole life. Thirteen was the year of my period. And 13 was the year of my Bat Mitzvah, which, for me, meant continuing to take myself and everything else way too seriously.

My Torah portion, pekudei, is the account—both meanings, counting and remembering—of building the tabernacle, the mishkan, a mobile sanctuary for Jews wandering in the desert. Moses had invited the Israelites to listen to their heart and contribute their skills and precious riches to the mishkan… piece of silver, copper, gold, acacia wood, every single shekel, the number of people who donated them, the weight of them, the spices, lapis lazuli, fine linens, olive oil…everything down to the yarns and the color of the curtains is painstakingly detailed.

At 13, the only thing I understood about my Torah portion is that it was about mitzvahs, something about doing good deeds.

As part of my Bat Mitzvah mitzvah, though probably really to have something to actually say in the speech that comes after the Torah portion, I was matched with a pen pal, a refusnik, a girl my age in Russia, someone Jewish, someone whose family had tried to leave Russia but couldn’t because they were Jewish. Who couldn’t even practice Judaism. Her name was Sofia. I think. What I do remember most clearly is that memorizing my Torah portion, learning to chant and memorize an entire page of Hebrew, a foreign language, was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It truly seemed an impossible task. I had a little black recorder, and a tape with someone chanting my Torah portion, and I would wind it back and forth, word by word. I chipped away at it, for months. Actually conquering it, completing it when I did, felt like a huge accomplishment.

I don’t think I ever wrote to Sofia again after my Bat Mitzvah, something she couldn’t have, in a place she couldn’t leave. I remember feeling guilty, really guilty…thinking of her every several months, a reminder of my privilege and the luxury of being too busy to write her. This feeling guilty was a leaving of the garden, a kind of covenant, and the beginning of a growing list of things to be responsible to and for, things dependent on me and my right or wrong action.

That 13th summer on the way to pick me and my brother up at camp my Dad would fall asleep at the wheel with my mom in the passenger seat, and crash into a boat and trailer parked on the side of the road. My little brother and I waited at camp for hours while all the other kids got picked up. Finally, a call came from a hospital a few towns away and we learned that my Dad was fine and my Mom had broken her leg. At the hospital, someone was brought out in a wheelchair. I expected to see my Mom, but it was my Dad. And when he saw us he started to cry.  That’s when I knew it was worse than they’d said and that suddenly I was in charge. I didn’t cry. My mom was wheeled past us in a gurney, then rushed ahead of us in an ambulance. My mom’s multiple injuries, more than a broken leg, landed her in the hospital for a couple of months for a series of surgeries. I slept with my dad those first days after the accident, helping him turn over in bed due to broken ribs. When the hospital bed came home with my mom, she couldn’t handle the stairs in our big house, and we would move to a new house. This was the beginning of nothing being quite right any more, nothing ever being right between my parents again, and nothing ever feeling like home again.

It’s been 31 years since my Bat Mitzvah. The big houses in Piedmont are history, as is the money they were bought with. My family is scattered in disconnected pieces throughout the world. The Soviet Union dissolved six years after my Bat Mitzvah. I’ve wondered, what did Sofia decide to do that she hadn’t been able to do before? Did she ever have a Bat Mitzvah, where is she now, and does she ever think of me?

Thirty-one years later I would tell myself: don’t feel bad about not writing back, calling back, to them for them, but think instead about how much that friend means to you and what it’ll mean if you lose them. I would tell myself beware of that covenant you made, one that would be much subtler than the Jewish guilt that’s been popularized, but a cocktail of white guilt mixed with middle class guilt with a splash of activist guilt. I would sit myself down and say this: someday, all that will be left of the tabernacle of your Torah portion is a few phrases. Your speech will be long forgotten, by you and everyone else who attended your Bat Mitzvah. All that’s left is the accounting of it, and a legacy of trying to build big, fancy things by yourself. And sometimes getting confused about doing God’s work.

I would say: Being an adult is not so glamorous as you imagine and are rushing so fast toward. Being an adult is a series of challenges that you handle with grace or not. A series of choices you make or don’t make, but that happen either way. A series of decisive moments that don’t always make sense when they’re happening, and don’t necessarily make sense 31 years later, but shed light on how you handle challenges and why you make certain choices.

At 13, I had been the center of the universe, the cause of everything, the purpose for everything. Then, the world got bigger, and I got smaller. I used to feel responsible, responsible to and responsible for everything. I was in charge, for better or worse. I know now that it’s for worse and that I’m not in charge. I’m not sure who is, but I know it’s not my parents, and as a parent, I know it’s not me. I’m not trying to build the tabernacle by myself anymore. I now know that when I think I know what’s best for others, when the weight of the world spurs me to action, I’m usually taking on something that’s perhaps too heavy and perhaps not mine.

Now I know that human monuments, riches, even those created with the deepest devotion, in time wash away, turned to dust from water, war, or the changing winds. And while I lost my childhood, as we all do, the things I’ve gained were these beautiful lessons, about my gifts and humility and the fragility of human life and the joy of being human. These are my fineries, my finest moments. Because life is a makeshift sanctuary in the wilderness, created one blessed moment at a time, growing more beautiful and holy and richer every day.

Thea Hillman, poet, author of "Intersex (for Lack of a Better Word.)" and "Depending on the Light," and a San Francisco poetry slam champion who has performed her work across the country.

Notes from a Small Island By Nicole Taylor

When I went to work in America, I discovered that I was exotic.  A Jew from Scotland?  How did your family get there? By which I think was meant: And how come they didn’t leave?  In fact, 9 of 10 siblings did leave, and only one, my grandmother, stayed behind.  And if that isn’t the start of a Yiddish folktale, I don’t know what is.

20 years ago, when this picture was taken, I was just one Scottish Jew among thousands of others.  In this particular photo, I was among Hannah and Nadia, lets call them, with whom I’d soon be having a joint bat-mitzvah. 

That it was to be a headshot doesn’t explain why we decided to wear no trousers.  In London, 12 year old girls of the time were smoking, drinking and having sex, or at least hanging round the bagel shops of Golders Green, flirting and flicking their hair.  In Glasgow, in what now looks like quite an acute case of arrested development, we were laughing our heads off in my lounge in spotted socks and underpants.

The bare legs were neither nor there, obviously not making it into the final photo.  What was sartorially significant were the earrings: my decision that I would come of age wearing a pair of dangly silver treble clefs.

I came downstairs with them in, knowing I was chancing it. Knowing that as soon as my mum saw them, the inevitable pronouncement would be made. 

They were “baitzki-ish”.  

Now, the etymology of this word is obscure.  It’s a Yiddish word of which no Yiddishist has ever heard.  It appears in no dictionary.  But in Glasgow, “baitzki”, the masculine “baitz” and the plural “baitzimir” is pure mameloshn.

What does it mean? 

Common.  Tacky.  Things Jews don’t do.  Things we don’t do.  Things I don’t want you to do. Things that are simply and indefinably and for all time “nisht undzere”.

Remember the Susan Sontag essay “Notes on Camp”?  Things simply were, or were not?  Well, it’s the same with baitz.  Like camp, it is a matter of taste.   

And it can get pretty granular.  Here’s the last thing my mum told me was “baitzki-ish”.  You know the little loop stitched into the inside collar of a coat that lets you hang the coat from a peg?  Well, to allow one end of that loop to become unstitched from the coat, so it hangs loose and you can no longer hang the coat up ‘nicely’?  Baitzki-ish.

So back in ’92, I hadn’t even got the bottom of the stairs when the “B” word got slapped on the Bat Mitzvah earrings.  We fought.  I defied.  I wore the earrings, they made it into the headshot and like so many totemic things of adolescence, delivered neither on the promise (that they would change my life for the better) nor the threat (that I would always regret allowing myself to be frozen in time looking a baitzki).

And that was my Bat Mitzvah.  A Jewish ritual, like all the others, dominated by fights about fashion. 

Post-bat mitzvah, Hannah and Nadia and I drifted.  They remained close but after school we all moved away and I didn’t see them again for years.  When I did, we were in our late twenties, back in Glasgow for a school friend’s wedding. Lets call her Avital.  Hannah and Nadia both had husbands.  I was single and went alone.  There was also a question mark over my sexuality as rumours on the subject had wafted North and seemed to lend me a malodorous air.  (I don’t think being gay could be baitzki-ish – it was so foreign as to defy classification).

At the ceremony, Hannah and Nadia ignored me.  After, in the ultimate bitchy high school move, they roared off to the reception in town, yelling out the window “there’s no more room in the car”.

So much for my Bat Mitzvah.  A headshot with two stock characters from a teen movie.

Last summer, I got married to another Jewess, a wee English one named Poppy.  Once again, news drifted north.  To my surprise, Nadia and Hannah both sent me sincere and lovely mazeltovs.  

I sent them back this photo.  This led to an outbreak of utter hilarity and nostalgia.  We reminisced about the crap presents.  The vanity cases and the sewing boxes.  The old auntie who had told us to “dance at our weddings” even though we were only 12.  They had forgotten the bare legs but remembered the treble clef earrings.  None of us mentioned Avital’s wedding.

All three of us have held onto our Jewishness, I think in spite of our Bat Mitzvah, rather than because of it.

We may not have come of age into a religion, but we did into a community.  We belong to each other still, me and Hannah and Nadia and all of us who grew up there.  That’s ours, whether we like it or not.  And through the rose-tinted prism reserved for those hypocrites among us who would rather chew off their own arm than actually go back and live there, I do like it.  In fact, I love it.

We have a Jewish tartan.  Kosher haggis is served at Burns suppers.  We drink Irn Bru with our Sunday bagels.  But as the city’s slogan says: “People make Glasgow”.

Glasgow is down to its last four shuls now (one to pray in, the others not to be seen dead in).  The Jewish primary school is filled with local Muslim kids as there are no longer enough Jewish ones.  Someone called Mohammed recently won the Torah prize. 

Exotic.  Not at all.  Extinct?  Not yet and maybe not ever.  Mine?  Til a’ the seas gang dry.

Nicole Taylor is a screenwriter (Secret Diary of a Call Girl, The Hour) based in London.

Committing to More by Heather Klein

Around the time of my Bat Mitzvah I cared A LOT what people thought of me. My hair was frizzy, I had the biggest boobs in my class, and my teeth were crooked. I was so worried about my smile that I would imagine myself on a date with a boy, sitting in his car and hoping he would only see the right side of my mouth and not the left (hand to mouth), which was crooked.  My parents and I moved to Vegas when I was 10 from Westchester County, New York. When I lived in New York I went into NYC many weekends with my parents. We saw a ton of plays, Broadway shows and my Dad's favorite: Opera. My parents are New Yorker's, and my Dad grew up with a lot of live theatre. I completely fell in love with singing in an even more definite way as I was exposed to so many amazing musicals and voices.

At that time, I would announce to my parents regularly that I wanted to be a singer, actress, or veterinarian. I loved animals almost as much as performing. So when we moved to Las Vegas we found local live theatre. I saw Man of La Mancha and met a Romanian opera singer there who became my voice teacher and mentor for the next 8 years. Dorothea told me I had the talent to sing classical music. Specifically Opera.

 Opera was never anything I thought about, I just wanted to be the next Mariah Carey. But, at the age of 11 no one had ever been so forthright with me, and I liked it. From that day on I sang every aria I heard and competed in many competitions. My Dad was obsessively happy that I was singing the music he loved, and I was happy to be really good at something.

In New York we had lived in an area that barely had any Jewish people, and now, in Vegas, almost everyone I knew was Jewish. Go figure. Growing up in Las Vegas, I went to a private Hebrew school, so when I was 12 and 13, it was just one big Bar and Bat Mitzvah after the other. And when I say big, I mean Vegas-style big. My Bat Mitzvah was at The Mirage, the casino resort famous for its daily volcanic eruptions. I wasn't the only one who celebrated this life milestone on the Strip; almost everyone in my class had their party at a casino resort.

As a pre-teen, I sang lots of classical music but I also listened to a lot of pop, RnB and grunge. I loved Nirvana — my world ended when Kurt Cobain took his life, sending me into a brief goth phase that came with black clothes and black lipstick. I had a few embarrassing moments that really stayed with me. Specifically--a horrific field trip to the roller skating rink Crystal Palace, where I got a surprise visit from my menstrual cycle while wearing white cut off shorts. I also remember singing Whitney Houston's "I will always love you" at my ex-boyfriend's Bar mitzvah party, because I knew I broke his heart after our 2 weeks of dating. That experience may not have been embarrassing at the time, but I am definitely mortified now for my 13 year old self. I valued loyal friends and my parents, and wished I was closer with relatives on the East Coast that we left behind. I also loved my Sheltie puppy named Sir Lucky of the West, even though he had eaten all my favorite shoes and underwear.

We lived with my grandparents, and after school, my grandfather would hound me about my homework and practicing my music. I'd have a snack, then go upstairs, turn on the radio, and work. I didn't think so at the time, but living with my mom's parents in Vegas was really special. I hated having four parents telling me what to do all the time — and since I'm an only child, they gave me A LOT of attention and scrutiny. But, looking back, it was a wonderful thing to live with and learn from them, and to hear their stories.

I was born in LA and moved to New York at age 6, so by time we left for Vegas, I had friends on both coasts, and I missed them all. Besides my friends, my parents and my grandparents, as a pre-teen, my synagogue was also an important part of my life. We had joined a synagogue a year before my Bat-Mitzvah because my grandmother Mema who lived with us died of lung cancer. Through that, my parents became very close through their loss with fellow congregants, and especially the Rabbi. My dad was the Gabbai, and we went to services most Friday Nights and every Saturday morning. On Saturdays, I would even lead the davening. I was very involved at my school, The Hebrew Academy, learning about Jewish holidays, rituals and prayers, as well as Israeli culture, the Hebrew language, and the Holocaust. Most of my friends were Jewish. My parents even told me that I knew more about Jewish culture and the language than they did. My friend Les, who is now a chef in Santa Rosa, and I started a BBYO chapter through our synagogue. The congregants would kid that he was the rabbi and I was the cantor.

When someone had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at my synagogue, my Dad made them take a shot of Shlivovitz at the Oneg. What is Shlivovitz? It's a disgusting 100-proof alcohol from Eastern Europe. I was terrified of the day that I would have to do that because he always said it puts hair on your chest. I did not want that to happen. I ultimately did take a shot, and though it felt like I was drinking fire, no hairs sprouted on my chest.

I don't remember my Torah portion — I think it had something to do with a desecrated Temple and burnt offerings — though I did enjoy training with the rabbi and studying with him. But as a pre-teen, what do you really care about? For me, and I'm sure I wasn't alone in this, the most meaningful part of my Bat Mitzvah weekend was what I wore. I had three outfits — one for the Friday night service, one for the Saturday morning service, and one for the Party Saturday night.  I remember my mom and I arguing about my outfit for the Saturday morning service.  She was upset about the length of my skirt for the Saturday Morning service being too short and my cleavage being too exposed.

I had always enjoyed singing and performing practically since I could speak, so I couldn't wait to show off my skills at my Bat Mitzvah. My voice teacher suggested I sing operatic arias at my Bat-Mitzvah party.  I thought it was a good idea. Looking back, I should have said no. We shouldn't have turned this event into a concert. It was a Bat Mitzvah.

Nevertheless, here's what I sang:

(Sung) " Voi che sapete che cosa'e amor.....donne vedete, s'io lo Nel cor...."

This aria was not so bad. I played a young "boy" always played by a Young woman, in this opera called the Marriage of Figaro. The character I played is basically going through puberty and doesn’t know what to do with all of his hormones.

The other song was a little worse:

I will re-enact my awkwardness during this aria and being (pause)...what I thought was seductive.

(Sung) "Quando m'en vo….. “E la beleza mia tutto richerch’eon bene…”

The basic meaning of the aria is "watch me as I walk alone...look me up and down.” The whole aria goes on with an enormously flirtatious vibe as the character Musetta walks through the streets of Paris. She stops at a cafe to seduce every man she can to make her boyfriend jealous. Obviously the aria was perfectly suited for a girl my age.

This next aria was probably the most embarrassing of the bunch.

(Sung) " Les Oiseaux dans la charmille" Dans les cieux l'astre du jour.”

In this aria from the Tales of Hoffman the character I played was an actual doll. So, obviously I had to act like a doll. I remember my voice teacher had directed every move I made that day so that I really moved like a doll. The most embarrassing part came in the performance of the aria when the doll (who had a wind-up key coming out of her back) ran out of fumes. So, my father came out on the dance floor in front of everyone I knew, to crank the pretend key so I could continue the aria.

(Sung) “Voilà la chanson gentille,  La chanson d'Olympia! Ah…ah….ah… “

My dad is very animated, so turning this key was quite fun for him and he definitely took his time. Each krank of the key felt like an eternity to me as my friends watched.

These were three of the arias I performed at the party. There were a couple more, and there was even an encore that my teacher and parents and I planned for. At the time this all seemed OK, but today, I look back and wish I could have done things differently. I wish I could have focused on family, on tikkun olam, on the responsibilities of becoming a Bat Mitzvah.  At that time, though, as a pre-teen, I was more interested in performing.

Maybe some of you remember the candelabra that is brought out towards the end of the party. You  light each candle with a different group of people, usually relatives, cousins and parents.

Well, I've known my whole life that one of my mom's biggest pet peeve is when people shorten her name from Barbara  to "Barb." But since I was feeling quite confident that day, I thought it would be funny to call her up to  the candelabra as "Barb." So I did. I knew it was disrespectful and wrong, but I did it anyway. She didn't show it in the moment, but I knew she was angry with me. To this day, she still brings it up.

It's been a long time since I had my Bat Mitzvah, but some things haven't changed. I still have days when my hair is frizzy, and I continue having embarrassing moments.

Today, as a 33-year-old professional, I'm a classically trained soprano who specializes in Yiddish art song. When I'm not performing, I'm working at Bay Area synagogues as a cantorial soloist and B'nei Mitzvah tutor. But I've found that my intentions have changed. Instead of being the focus, I want to give more. Give to the needy, volunteer more, to give more to the community as I see my students doing. I want to voice my opinions more frequently. I want to go to synagogue on nights when I'm not working there, so I can have my own time to pray and be part of the community.

And so the next transition in my life is embracing synagogue life. This is a rite of passage for me in a way. Despite my career and my desire to be more involved at synagogue, I still have a general mistrust sometimes of religious institutions. After my Bat Mitzvah and confirmation in Las Vegas, the board and congregants of my synagogue voted out the Rabbi, who I adored. After that, I felt scarred by synagogue life. I didn't like the politics and couldn't understand how this could be part of a spiritual institution to take away a leader who meant so much to me and my parents. Now that I am an adult and have been working at synagogues for the past 10 years, I recognize that there are politics and madness everywhere you go. So I'm not letting that weaken my Jewish identity and my connection to the community and I am committed to doing more.

Thank you.

Heather Klein is a classically trained soprano and performs Opera, Yiddish classical song, theater and folk music, as well as other styles. For the past decade, she has performed across the US, Canada, and Europe as a soloist and as part of various musical groups and opera companies.

reBar: The Annotated Album by Lisa Brown

I’m sorry, I actually loved my Bat Mitzvah. (And I’m not just saying that because my parents are in the audience.) However, my grandmother would certainly have changed a few things.

When I was little, I loved to look through my parents’ wedding album with my grandmother. We’d look at the photos of the guests at their tables, and my grandmother would say: “That one’s dead, she’s dead, he’s dead, I dunno what happened to her, dead, dead… dead.

My mother’s mother was one of my favorite people on earth. I was lucky enough to have had her in my life until adulthood. She lived long enough to see me married and with a child, in that order, thank god.

But she’s not here, now, and so I thought that I should look through my Bat Mitzvah photo album tonight, with all of you, and try to channel what she would have said if she was here, too, up on stage, adding her 2 cents. The part of my grandmother adding her 2 cents will be played…by my husband.

SMILE! WHY DON’T YOU SMILE??

WHY SUCH A DARK DRESS? IT’S NOT A FUNERAL.

(ps That was my FAVORITE dress. Laura Ashley. And I would not be caught dead in any brighter color than that until my 30s.)

AT LEAST YOU FINALLY GOT YOUR HAIR OUT OF YOUR EYES.

WATCH IT YOU ARE GOING TO CUT YOURSELVES. LET JACK DO IT. LOU DON’T HUNCH.

(ps Lou, on the left was my grandfather, my grandmother’s husband, and she talked to him just like that. Jack was my other grandfather.)

IT LOOKS LIKE THE BALLOONS ARE COMING OUT OF THE TOP OF YOUR HEAD. WHY DID YOU HAVE TO MAKE YOUR SPEECH RHYME? THAT SEEMS LIKE A LOT OF TROUBLE YOU DIDN’T NEED.

(ps I’d have to agree with her, there.)

THE CAKE IS SHAPED LIKE AN ARTIST’S THING. WE’RE STICKING LOLLIPOPS INSTEAD OF CANDLES INTO IT BECAUSE IT’S SHABBOS, OF COURSE.

(ps My grandmother grew up fairly orthodox, raised her family conservative, and secretly longed to eat, and did, sweet and sour shrimp behind my grandfather’s back.)

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STILL, NO SMILE. AND LOOK, YOUR GRANDMA HELENE GOT LIPSTICK ON YOU. NOW THE REST OF THE PHOTOS ARE RUINED.

ALSO, AN ACCORDIONIST? NO ONE LIKES THE ACCORDION.

(ps My husband plays the accordion.)

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FINALLY, YOU’RE SMILING. BUT DID YOU HAVE TO TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES? YOU’RE GOING TO RUIN YOUR PANTYHOSE.

(ps I don’t remember having that much fun.)

My grandma had a smile that she would wear in all photographs. Look straight into the camera, show teeth, very awkward, nervous expression. Hold.

Which is, come to think of it, my attitude towards Judaism in a nutshell. For me, it’s a practice that can feel…awkward, but is also unaccountably important and so deserves to be captured, forever, perhaps even in a sort of book (or album?), so that your family can return to it through the years and tear it apart. Over and over again.

Lisa Brown is a New York Times bestselling illustrator, writer, and cartoonist. Her children’s books include: How to Be, Vampire Boy’s Good Night, Emily’s Blue Period (with author Cathleen Daly), 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy (with author Lemony Snicket), and Baby, Mix Me a Drink. She teaches writing and illustrating picture books at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

The Terror of Tiny Town By Andy Corren

What could I say about Fleckenstein’s Tiny Town that Harry Fleckenstein, scion of an actual Southern emperor of toys, hadn’t already said a thousand times in his adenoidal but weirdly genteel, Jewish-Southern accent? “25,000 feet of toe-yees, open 6 days a week, includin’ the Shay-Bot!” How I longed to walk those stately, gleaming halls, where every Fayetteville boy worth his weight in bacon dreamed of walking, a rich & pliant parent at his elbow, purchasing solace from all the impending Falklands War news, taking shelter amongst the unlimited shelves of Star Wars figurines. How I ached for those just-out-of-reach, toy-stuffed aisles, brimming with exotic Lego kits and frolicking Rainbow Brite ponies. Here, at memory’s altar, I lay before you what was taken for canon in 1982: the candy-coated aisles of Fleckenstein’s Tiny Town and World Famous Cumberland Arcade were not only the largest toy store in Cumberland County, but the only one in possession of THE BIGGEST SCALE SIZE MILLENNIUM FALCON REPLICA THAT YOU COULD BUY.  It burned my guts with a light saber the day Harry Fleckenstein’s Bar Mitzvah invitations went out, announcing to the world that this dickless nerd’s manhood would be confirmed in the coolest place on the planet. For weeks, I had to endure the skipping of that well-bred kosher dumpling down the halls of my school, as Harry Fleckenstein sang in his weirdly beautiful, ball-less boy tenor:  “Mah Bar Mitzvah’s gonna have a Meel-LANEY-yum-FOWELKIN!”  A Meal.  Laney-yum.  Fowelkin.  The horror.

I was destined by birth to jealously despise Harry Fleckenstein, and vested in this vile, rich little turd all the qualities of a rival, going so far as to hate his entire bloodline, his family’s car and their tennis club – the only tennis club in Fayetteville.  Harry and his upper middle class Jewish family were The Everything that my own Nothing wished it could be, but never quite could, nor would, at least not there.  Harry was well fed, well dressed and smelled, well, well.  In short, he was not a Corren. The Corren’s were one of three, prominent Jewish families of this hard-working, yet hard-scrabble, military town, littered with car lots, pawn shops and the occasional dreaming gay boy.  But the Corren’s were prominent for all the wrong reasons.  I was not born a Blum, the fabulously rich-by-small-town-North-Carolina-standards-rich family that owned the bowling alley where my mother toiled for minimum wages, day and night, like some Reagan-era version of a Polish maid.

I was not born a Fleckenstein, they who owned all the toys and, by extension, all the dreams, of all the Piedmont youth.  I was born a poor Corren.  Yes, it’s true. It happened once. There were poor redneck Jews. The House of Corren was not a successful house.  It was where Southern Jewish dreams went, broke down, got busted, got pregnant too young, got on food stamps, got high, rebuilt cars in the front yard, stole cable, shot at their neighbors, took in strippers and inexplicably assumed hostility towards black people. In other words, the Corren’s were not much different from any of their other fellow, redneck outcasts.  We were the same kind of leftovers, the ones you told your own children to stay away from, the ones who fucked your daughters anyway, the ones who beat you at cards, then beat you up.  Prominent redneck Jewry, once an unthinkable branch of the Jewish Family Tree, was thriving, nay, blossoming, by the banks of the tea-colored waters of the Cape Fear River of North Carolina.  Sit with that for a minute. An American Jew was poor.  And this American Jew, who barely knew what a Bar Mitzvah was, was standing outside, looking in, hoping for some crumbs. So begins one small chapter in the legendary, lamented, Landless House of Corren.

I had learned to take strength from my impoverishment, and by the time I was 12, life had armored me to withstand high doses of hunger, shame and discouragement.  It also taught me how to steal, particularly thunder, and particularly from fat Jewish nerds.

Thus it was, on that 1982 day where half a world away Margaret Thatcher made ready her ever-victorious Majesty’s armies to rout the Argentine swine, that I, too, stood to smite mine enemy.  I rose like a lusty Senator in indignation, drawing the lazy, curious eye of our unfortunately cripple-claw-handed 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Burky, “Well,” I spat out, sounding for all the world like a smug deputy from a Smokey and the Bandit sequel, “I ain’t gonna have no barf mizmah, cuz my mom thinks they’re stupid.  She says they for stupid rich folk to marry off their stupid babies to other stupid babies.”

Side note:  my mom totally said that, and believed that, and still does, to this day.

You could hear a hushpuppy drop on the pristine floor of Mrs. Burky’s classroom.  I could taste the burn.  I, like my fellow, mostly Christian and mostly badly-misinformed rednecks, would never know the inside of a Bar Mitzvah hall, or the inside of a Fleckenstein’s Tiny Town, so I scored one for the home team.  Cutting Harry Fleckenstein down to size was my 7th grade Finest Hour.  I felt so proud.  That is, until a gouging in my shoulder separated my preening spirit from my chicken neck.  Mrs. Burky, utilizing that devil claw of hers in the only meaningful, and dreaded, way she had left to her, which was to pluck up children like a robotic claw crane picks up a plushy unicorn in an arcade game.  She shook me like a dirty bathmat.  “I do not think this is the appropriate forum for discussin’ Jewish rituals or Jewish babies, Mr. Corren.  Especially for a young Jewish man such as yourself.  Now,” she said, in her devastating, favorite closing line that I personally had heard at least 10,000 times, “sit it down and SHUT – IT - UP.”

I hung there for a minute, swaying in the grip of her diamond-hard flipper, my subclavian vein throbbing to the beat of my shame.  I felt a wave of revulsion at what I had said, and confusion for what I had meant.  I saw myself for what I truly was – a bully. I saw my past. I saw my future. I saw all the eyes of Carolina upon me, and I saw, at last, what they saw:  just some Jewish kid.  Being poor did not inoculate me from that.  It was the first moment in my life that I consciously realized I had no idea who the fuck I was.

Back at home, on the roof over our broken laundry room that periodically flooded and ruined all our clothes, which sat molding in heaps, forgotten behind a nailed-up door, high up in my fortress of solitude from what I now know to be was my own, less-glamorous version of a typical Jewish tenement, I contemplated the oddity of my position.  I put my Jewish foot in, I take my Jewish foot out.  I put my Jewish foot in, and I shake it all about.  And then – well, without a mom to make me take the next Jewish step, what was the next step? Which was a question I desperately wanted to answer, but couldn’t right now, because in my binoculars I could see quite clearly that three young men, the Gallo Brothers, who were known strippers, were practicing to the strains of Loverboy’s “Turn Me Loose” in their backyard.

Turns out, I had much, much bigger gefilte fish to fry my 13th year.

Andy Corren is a talent manager, playwright and performer. 

OK, Mom? By Dan Fost

I’m almost shocked at how little I remember of my Bar Mitzvah. I don’t recall my Haftorah reading, or what the rabbi said, or what music played at the reception.

I learned Hebrew, but I’ve forgotten all of it. Every Hanukkah, I look up the letters on the Dreidel.

My Bar Mitzvah was supposed to be such a momentous occasion, a defining moment, my passage from childhood to adulthood. It was the day I became a man! Why do I remember so little of it?

Probably because I did it for the wrong reasons – the party, the presents, the peer pressure – rather than any feeling of emerging maturity, any sense of religious devotion. I did it because all Jewish 13-year-old males do it.

It seems laughable that any ritual could make me “a man” at that age, when my mother still drove me to school, made my lunch, and even made my bed. (After all, she’s a Jewish mother.) Only years later did I gain enough self-confidence to hold my own in a basketball game, to ask a girl on a date, to speak in front of an audience.

And yes, the confidence to relate to Judaism on my own terms, not my rabbi’s terms. I can figure out for myself what is important to me about Judaism.

For me, it’s my cultural identity. It’s Jewish food: tsimmes, latkes, pastrami sandwiches. It’s Henny Youngman, the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen. It’s my tribe.

I can hang on to the culture, the food, the humor, the community, the history, without necessarily clinging to Israel, Hebrew, prayer, God, religion.

I can grapple with these questions, and now I understand that Judaism is all about grappling with these questions. Finally, I feel like a man!

Isn’t that right, mom?

This essay was originally published in Jewels of Elul.

Dan Fost is a freelance writer in San Rafael, CA, specializing in technology and baseball.

We'll give you a theme...Jewish!! By Brian Elliot

I wrote this letter to my parents and read it to them two nights ago:

When I was 12 years old, I had big dreams for my upcoming Bar Mitzvah. For me the stakes seemed really high. See, it was about in 6th grade that I started to put together the pieces that I wasn’t like the other boys—in that, I kind of started to like the other boys. So between being picked on for being a closeted sissy and the fact that socially I was squarely situated in the school’s nerd herd, I realized that if I wanted to be well-liked, it was going to take some big changes.

Thank goodness I had a savior on the way: I had a Bar Mitzvah coming up within the year. My solution to my social angst was to throw a party that would dazzle them all! We’d play techno music, have dancers, a really cool theme—and I’d be the legendary star of the show. So legendary, in fact, that it would finally get me the respect, and friends I felt I deserved. That I felt I needed.

Once Bar Mitzvah preparations started picking up, I began to notice strange things appear around the house. Like the book on the coffee table called: “Putting God Back on the Guest List.” I wondered, “What that for?”

These clues all came together at our first official family meeting about my Bar Mitzvah. I kicked it off: “Ok guys, the first thing on the agenda we should talk about is the theme for my Bar Mitzvah. I’m thinking it should be theater or traveling” (both things that I loved.)  My mom was writing something down, and she looked up and said, “Oh you’ll have a theme…it’s going to be Jewish.”

Noooooooooooo!

Can we at least have a video montage of me and my life? Nope. No video. It’s gaudy. A DJ that plays techno music all night? We’re getting a band, Brian—the adults that are flying in for this don’t like techno music. How about a separate kids party? Honey, we can’t afford that.

I was de-va-stated.  This Bar Mitzvah party didn’t even sound like one that I’d want to go to, let alone be my own. What kind of a dork would have a Bar Mitzvah with no theme? Oh my God, it was going to be ME!

I felt helpless. So angry and so resentful. My well-meaning parents were ruining my one and only big chance for me to show my classmates just how cool this uncool nerdy gay Jewish boy could actually be!

Well, we had the party. There was no theme, and instead of techno music, the band sang YMCA and “Do you love me” to the crowd’s delight—except for me. At least that’s how I remember it. And man, I kept a chip on my shoulder for so many years against my parents for throwing me the Most Boring Bar Mitzvah Ever. On many occasions during my teenage years, I even told them I thought my party “kind of sucked.”

In hindsight? Ouch!

What a little brat I was being. In fact, I recently dusted off the video from my Bar Mitzvah, and I watched it. As it turns out, I was having a really good time. And I looked at some of the things my parents did and I’m so impressed—like instead of spending money on expensive centerpieces, they made decorative baskets canned food that we donated to a food bank after the party. I love that.

So when I think about the question—if I could re-do one part of my Bar Mitzvah experience over again, what would I reBar?  The answer is pretty clear now that I’m a real adult. I’d be waaaaay more grateful, and I would tell my parents that appreciate the statement they were making by not glitzing up my big day, and instead making it about family, growing up, tradition, tzedakah, and accepting responsibility.

It’s funny that the very values I resisted as a teenager are now the ones I most appreciate in myself, and I can see where I got them from. Someday, I want to pass them onto my own children.

So for me, tonight, I want to reBar away my anger and resentment towards my parents for thinking that they were somehow setting me back, and to instead tell them this: Mom and Dad. I love you so very much. You did the right thing. And I want to thank you for a wonderful Bar Mitzvah.

For more reBar reflections see Brian Elliott's Jewels of Elul essay.

Brian Elliot is a changemaker, a technologist, and a relentless pun fanatic.