When the police arrive at my Bat Mitzvah, I know the whole special day thing is kind of a wash.
It seems the “Marks,” as in Feingold and Lubell, had taken the personalized soda glasses filled with jellybeans, that my mother and I had so diligently prepared, and decided it was a good idea to sneak out onto an unused balcony at the hotel with said jellybeans and pummel arriving guests. I stand there with the gnawing knowledge this could not be good for me socially and watch as the boys in blue saunter into the Sheraton’s banquet parlor. This is my first adult life lesson as a newly anointed woman. Just when you think things can’t get any worse…
It starts out promising enough. Young girl on the brink of womanhood embarks on a religious tradition that will educate her about her culture and past, energize and bond her family, and set a path for a monumental and well-prepared future. It had all the makings of special.
Hebrew school isn’t anything my mother ever pushed. It is just the two of us, us two girls, since my father died. We are independent, worldly, and quite sophisticated, most recently having returned from a whirlwind trip through the Greek Isles, from Knossos to Santorini. Demanding I have a knowledge of Ashkenazi versus Sephardic is a little too traditional for my mother at the time. We are the reformed of the Reform, which means we live on the Upper West Side and enjoy Annie Hall.
My mother grew up in quite an observant home, lighting candles every Shabbat, being married in a synagogue, eating brisket weekly. But when it came time for her daughter’s religious upbringing, choice was what mattered most. And what matters most to me is I think lighting Hanukah candles with pot holders on our heads is a little silly. Not my thing.
But then Laura Silverstone had to go and sign up at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. I know we can walk to and from Hebrew school every Monday and Wednesday. I like Laura a lot, ever since we were at Seder together and I stumbled across a word I did not know while reading aloud from the Haggadah and we conferred and together decided it was pronounced syn-o-goo-gy. She is cool, so it must be cool, and besides, she said, at our Bat Mitzvahs, we’d probably get a lot of money.
So I am in. I learn a whole new alphabet and pretty soon don’t need vowels. Our rabbi goes on Live at Five and debates with Mayor Koch or Al Sharpton. Our teacher was in the Israeli army. She would wax poetic about the art of holding an Uzi. And wouldn’t you know it, Hebrew school turns out to be cool.
I find myself wandering through the halls of the temple, awed by its beauty, feeling a sense of belonging and a strange pride. As I do, I smile, knowing I carry a biblical name. Rachel. Sister of Leah. Wife of Jacob. Mother of Joseph. Died in childbirth. Tragedy. That should have been a clue.
It is decided that following my Bat Mitzvah ceremony, immediate family will be invited to traipse across the street from the temple to lunch at Tavern on the Green, followed by a big party for kids with a D.J. and all the fixings later that night. This requires two outfits. I decide on a cream-colored Esprit sweater dress for day and a bright, white lace dress with a little swish to it for the night. It is to be a very simple affair, despite Tavern on the Green on the roster.
But throughout all of it, we try not to let the celebration take center stage over the serious reasons for the ritual. At our temple we are encouraged to participate in twinning, a process where we are jointly Bat or Bar Mitzvahed for a Russian Jew, since, in those days, they weren’t allowed to practice their religion. I write my twin Maria often, chronicling the planning of the party, the classes to prepare, and the rowdy Spin-the-Bottle parties that are taking place. But my letters are always returned to me. No matter. I know and God knows.
And then the invitations are sent. This is where the trouble begins.
My Aunt Debbie and Uncle David are at the top of the guest list. Debbie works at Bloomingdale’s as a buyer. Because of her I got to model in some of their fashion shows. Under flashing lights and pounding music I made my way down the runway in a blue blazer and matching kilt, a red beret, and Mary Janes. I hit my mark, all eyes on me, held my head up high and turned perfectly on cue. Rumor had it Bette Davis was in the audience that night, though I didn’t know who she was, but I heard she was famous, so that’s cool. The whole thing had been a blast and that shining moment up on stage – “All About Rachel” – was how I always felt when Debbie was around.
Her husband, David, my mother’s brother, is also all neon and highlighted for me. David plays the guitar and is really good at it, and is driving a cab until he gets to be a rock star. Each November the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving he wakes me up at two in the morning and drags me all groggy and sleepy to 77th and Columbus where they prepare the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is our annual ritual. He manages in those wee hours to make me feel as if we are the only two people in all of New York City to have ever seen such a thing. The night, the holiday, Central Park, the Museum of Natural History, even the Big Bird balloon – it is all ours. Our little secret.
Debbie and David, I adore them both. Problem is, they don’t adore each other anymore. They decide to divorce right before my Bat Mitzvah, and my mother and I make the unwise decision of inviting Debbie without clearing it with David.
Somewhere in here aliens must snatch my mother and uncle’s appropriate genes and the flood gates open for a battle. All sibling issues never dealt with for many decades come pouring out and vomit all over my Bat Mitzvah. They stomp their feet. They whisper behind each other’s backs. They shout in each other’s faces. They rehash old wounds and carve out new ones. All conversations deal with how wretched the other is and my mother must only see little David heads everywhere she looks for how often even the simplest activity turns into a diatribe against ungrateful, not-as-accomplished, must-be-crazy-with-jealousy-younger-brothers!
When I dare to inquire about something else, say a photographer for my special day, my mother mumbles something about, “Why don’t we ask David?” Defeated with the weight of all unhappy thirteen-year-olds on my shoulders, I answer a simple, “Never mind.” Subsequently, I have no photographs of my Bat Mitzvah other than a few pictures of me in my sweater and lace dresses standing against a bare wall in my living room.
My grandmother sits at our dining room table too sad to control her battling children. My mother “loses” her glasses, which are actually on her head, for the third time that day. She is also about to accuse someone, anyone, of eating her bagel, which she herself has just finished. I sit there across from my grandmother as if I am watching a show – in cahoots with her as the only normal people left in the world.
How I wish I were my Russian twin! Standing in the snow barefoot, wearing a babushka, waiting hours for bread would probably be easier than this. I wonder then if I could ship my family off to Siberia as opposed to listening to them squabble over who gets to lunch at Tavern on the Green.
In my head I am a hysterical mess equaling my mother’s antics of screaming and shouting. Hello! Thirteen-year-old girl here! Brink of womanhood, not just there yet. Still a child. No breasts, nothing! Here we are planning my becoming-an-adult event and there’s not one among us! You’re my role models? You’re my blueprint for the future? I’ve searched far and wide and the answer to all of this mishigas is for you all to keep it from me. Keep me sheltered! I know it’s not very cosmopolitan, but LIE!!!!
And they do.
On the day of the Bat-Mitzvah they are all happy faces and smiles for everyone else’s benefit. This is the day everyone acts all gracious and friendly. This is the day they protect me from the ills of family battles. This is the day, but not the six months leading up to it.
David and Debbie are even late to lunch, since they’d run off giggling after the ceremony to get me a gift together. So now I am monumentally confused, momentarily thrilled, and most likely permanently scarred.
So I try to go with it and enjoy the day. Maybe this is my gift from God for being such a good girl through the whole ordeal. But then the D.J. at the party that night has to go and play some “dance games.” He instructs us all that “the Bat Mitzvah girl” (that’s me) will dance solo with the guy/guys of her choice. Every time the music stops I have to pick someone new to dance with. Has the D.J. no concept of 13? Can he not see the this-is-my-side, that-is-their-side dynamics of the room?
I start off easily enough with my stepfather, and, when the music stops, and all eyes are on my next choice, I miraculously find myself next to Laura’s dad, Mr. Silverstone. He and I cut a rug as I worry about the dwindling adult male population I have to choose from. Then, like the parting of the seas, I spot my grandmother’s boyfriend, who is literally named Moses, and I feel safe, for I know David is out there somewhere, too.
There is no way I am asking a boy from my school to dance. Not after I followed Mark Lubell around at last month’s Friday night school fling reminding him that he said he’d dance with me, only to hear another song start and end and only to see him continue to duck me. I grow worried for I am about to reenter stepfather territory and the D.J. is making waves about the rules of the game and all eyes are on me and then there seems to be a hubbub on the other side of the room. And that’s when the heat shows up.
I close my eyes in the middle of the dance floor to escape from the mess of the hall. I take a deep breath, not wanting to watch the police scold my mother for the jellybean hail making its debut in midtown, and quietly pray to myself that everyone will just go home and we can start all over again tomorrow.
If by chance a freak time zone accident shall occur and the early-to-mid part of 1985 needs to be rewound and therefore redone, please know this is what I would like to happen. Take notes and pay careful attention.
There will be no fighting; in fact no such word even exists. I will sing my haftorah portion with a voice that is a combination of Barbra Streisand, Marni Nixon and Madonna. Maria and her family in Russia can worship as they please. Everyone at school, camp, and the neighborhood will want to come, for I am the most popular girl for miles, and they will all want to dance with me. The New York Times will start a new Bat Mitzvah announcement section due to my popularity and I will be the first to grace its pages. McDonald’s fries and Burger King burgers, cotton candy, and Lucky Charms will be served and my mother will not complain about it. There will be pictures taken. Lots of them. The D.J. will not speak, not once. He will only spin records.
And God, if none of that is quite doable or requires too much planning, I’ll just take that my mom and uncle still like each other and also that my uncle and aunt like each other, too. And if that’s not possible and I can only ask for one thing, I’ll take that my father is there. (I know that requires rewinding all the way back to 1975, but I’m up for it.)
Anyway, thank you God for listening. Looking forward to getting to know you better. All the best, newly adulted and hoping to do you proud, Rachel. Sister of no one. Daughter of Jeff and Eileen. Wife and mother of as yet to be determined.
P.S. No jellybeans.