I was watching a behind-the-scenes video for a movie called "The Bar Mitzvah" one night, and it immediately brought back memories of my own big day at the bema nearly 50 years ago.
The problems that occurred when I was 13 had nothing to do with the service. In fact, my cousin's grandmother gave me tremendous advice as everyone was gathering in the reformed temple.
"If you make a mistake," she confided, in her raspy voice, "don't stop. Just keep going. Nobody speaks Hebrew; they won't know the difference."
My parents had sent out ornate blue invitations, with my initials on top and the address of a ritzy banquet hall on Hillside Avenue in Queens. The celebration was scheduled for Saturday night after services in the morning.
Since they had opted me out of Hebrew school (I was a middling student and they were middling Jews), I got a crash course: six months of bar mitzvah lessons from Arthur, a middle-aged man who lived with his wife in my neighborhood. Week after week, dinner was followed by studying at his kitchen table which smelled like salmon and potatoes. He taught me the Hebrew alphabet to read the Torah portion I would recite on my fateful day.
On a Saturday morning, three weeks before the event, I opened all of the return envelopes. Each female classmate checked "Decline to attend."
I was heartbroken and embarrassed. It didn't help when my mother picked up the phone to beg her friends to bring their daughters, as though they were mail-order brides. Three girls showed up at the reception, so, luckily, I had someone to dance with. Yet it was stilted and awkward between the boys and these girls, since they'd never met before.
All these years later, this teenage trauma is still with me. I wondered if I was focusing on the wrong things. First of all, I hadn't known the girls that well. While they attended bar mitzvahs of my friends, we were never in the same classes. Secondly, they were a year younger than me, so our interactions had been limited.
Still, they didn't like me. One time, we were all going to a party at my buddy Jason's house. A day before, Sheryl, who didn't come to my bar mitzvah, called me just as I was leaving.
"You're going to Jason's party, right?"
"Yes," I said.
"You're not going to play spin the bottle, are you?" she wanted to know.
I was startled by the question. Her tone implied that she'd rather kiss a rattlesnake. It didn't feel like a choice. I had to say no. I wasn't a cool kid, which I already accepted on some level, but it hadn't been formally stated until that moment. I lived in the shadow of that cold shoulder for too long a time.
In high school, a kind of miracle happened: I met a new group of friends three blocks from where I lived. We played football and hung out at night. We encountered girls at the neighborhood McDonald's. They became part of our tightly knit group, where I was popular. My first kiss was with Linda from our crowd. I went on to marry Julia—a beautiful, Jewish brunette—when I was 33, under the chuppah. We danced the Horah, and Julia and I were lifted in the air on chairs, holding a single handkerchief between us.
I was finally cool and finally learned the trick of finding the right bunch of friends to hang out with. Still, all these years later, I can feel the sting of rejection by the girls who didn't attend my bar mitzvah. And I'm embarrassed to say, it even lingered on my daughter's big day.
But the reform ceremony, held on Central Park West, was fantastic. Instead of reciting from the Torah, Danielle read aloud a paper she'd written about Lilith, "who in Jewish folklore appears as Adam's first wife." Unlike my bar mitzvah, where I delivered words I didn't understand, Danielle researched and wrote about something that was real to her, that had impacted her life. And in a demonstration of Lilith's ferocity, we played a small clip from "Cheers." There was Bebe Neuwirth as the amazing Lilith, Frazier's wife, arguing with him, holding her ground, insisting she was right.
During the reception, as I watched Danielle dancing, I finally felt myself relax. I kvelled as I looked out at 50 relatives and friends, including (I counted) 10 boys. She was clearly having the time of her life, and I jumped in, dancing with her and my wife. The whole joyous day wiped away my bad memories forever, replacing them with the lovely image of Danielle's smiling face.