My Brother’s Bar Mitzvah – Leanne Grabel

1. My brother’s bar mitzvah was in the fall of 1962. He was 13. I was 11. We were both right there. On the soft edge of childhood. Slipping down into the hard chaos of pubescence. I wasn’t happy with myself. I was pudgy. And grouchy. And my mother bothered me. She made me wear my hair flat. I wanted big hair. Flat hair made me look flat and dark. Made my nose look big. And flat. And I needed my ears free. And no bangs. No hair touching my face. And big! My mother and I didn’t really agree on anything. 

2. My mother and grandmother shopped in San Francisco for their dresses. I. Magnin’s. My mother got a light wool. A pearl gray sheath. Long-sleeved. With an elegant hugness. A tiny thread of silver swam through the wool. The dress had a low scooping neckline just beginning to suggest. My mother had a spare, curvaceous body. Proud bones. Not an ounce of fat. Not a dash of peasant. Legs like birch limbs. She found a pair of soft leather heels. Crafted from a rich mix of grays.  Pewter. Charcoal. Ash. She found a pair of hose the color of smoke.

3. My mother had a large round of hair. Black as squid ink. It was swept up into a giant loaf. The darkest rye. One gigantic wave swooped in and out at her left temple. Like an oil spill. It framed her green Merle Oberon eyes. I’ll wear my diamond pendant, she said.  I loved how the diamond nestled in the tiny cove of her neck. The chain was so delicate, you could barely see it. The diamond seemed to live there, glimmering.

4. Grandpa Sam from The Bronx came out for the bar mitzvah. I’d never met him. I knew he was religious. Orthodox. We had to go Kosher. My mother didn’t know how to go Kosher. And my father had blocked it out. Then all the plates were shuffling. Eggs there, bacon quickly in the freezer.

5. I would have never chosen the dress I wore to my brother’s bar mitzvah. In a million years. But I had no control over my clothes. My mother made me wear it. The dress was babyish. White lace with a full skirt, a satin sash and cap sleeves. Cap sleeves are the ugliest sleeves ever. My little sister’s dress looked exactly like mine and she was three years younger. My dress was baby all the way.

6. I did get to wear heels. French heels. The shoes had a versatile strap. They could look like Mary Janes or pumps. I chose pumps.

7. The week before the bar mitzvah–IRONICALLY–at the park across the street from my grandparents’ house–I started french-kissing. With David Giles. He taught me how to do it. David Giles was a greaser. I liked that. And he’d never even heard of a bar mitzvah. We used to hang out at the gas station. With my friend Sandi and David’s friend Wayne. We’d all french-kiss over there. Wayne always bought cigarettes. Larks.

8.  I wanted to dress like David Giles and Wayne Greenback. They wore tight black jeans and black leather jackets. And black boots. And BIG frontal hair.

9.  I had a great time at my brother’s bar mitzvah reception even though I hated my dress. The band played the Four Seasons, Marvelettes, Chubby Checker. I won the Twist and the Limbo contests. And all my brother’s friends asked me to dance–even Don Mayers and Hank Bowman. Those guys weren’t even Jewish.

10.  My grandfather Sam must have lain very low during because I hardly remember anything about him. He was much shorter than I expected. And fairer. He wasn’t dark like my father and me. Plus he insisted on walking to the reception. It was at least two miles from the temple. And about 110 outside that day. And he made my Catholic next-door neighbor Mary come over to make him a piece of toast. Jewish rye.

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