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Jewish Journal

Oh, Not to Be 13 Again

by Keren Engelberg

March 11, 2004 | 7:00 pm

My 13-year-old self came back to haunt me recently. I was in New York at the bat mitzvah of my cousin's daughter. As an extended relative, I had the advantage of being removed enough to be able to take in all the action and critique at will. Over the course of the day, fleeting thoughts included wondering if rabbis don't get sick of needing to have opinions on everything, and noticing the fondness East Coast women seem to have for skirt suits. Mostly, though, I just kept thinking: Thank God I'm not 13 anymore.

The service was uneventful (including the requisite rabbi's sermon on "The Passion"). The party was great -- classy in a way affairs that expensive rarely succeed in being. But as the day progressed, a subtle feeling I barely remembered kept sneaking up on me. The insecurity of 13.

I flashed back periodically to the days when bar and bat mitzvahs were a weekend staple, and I was at my most awkward. Watching my young cousin navigate herself gracefully through the day, I was struck by how different she was from myself at that age. Looking older than she was in a gold formal princess dress probably intended for the prom, the bat mitzvah girl had perfect hair, perfect makeup and a nice figure. She was popular, too. About 100 of her closest friends were in attendance.

October 1989 -- my bat mitzvah day. Close-up of me: A big metallic smile covers my face. Frosted pink lipstick accentuates my braces. Matching pinkish eye shadow. True to the late '80s, my dress is as inflated as people's stocks: roses line the top, three layers of fabric flare out along the bottom. I basically resemble a fuchsia-and-black wedding cake. Never mind the lingering baby fat, no one suggests that the off-the-shoulder poofy sleeves might make me look like a linebacker.

Flashback a year earlier to my first day of junior high. The bus pulls up to take me to George K. Porter Junior High School, a public school not in my region of the district, but with a gifted magnet my parents decided I would attend. I don't know it yet, but I'm in for the biggest culture shock of my young life. Porter's a universe away from the Jewish day school I've attended until now. I take confidence in the fact that my hair scrunchie and socks match my outfit, and climb the steps of the bus and take a seat.

Gym class one week later -- it's the only period of the day when the magnet kids and regular school kids interact. We're seated alphabetically for roll call and a Chola is giving my new friend, Ilona, attitude. Though I wish in my heart she wouldn't, Ilona gives back. It has the makings of a fight until Mrs. Deehaven, our gym teacher, steps in. After that, I make it a point to befriend Yolanda, the smelly mean girl who sits in front of me. She's pushing 200 pounds, and while no one likes her, no one messes with her either.

Every day, the bus takes me from white, largely Jewish Woodland Hills, to multiethnic lower-middle-class Granada Hills. The magnet program is insulating, but not entirely, and I learn survival skills (read: Yolanda) to compensate. Weekends are spent in one of three party dresses my parents bought for me, worn in rotation, for the various lavish bar and bat mitzvahs I attend. There are helium balloon arches and open bars, where my friends and I O.D. on Shirley Temples and Roy Rogers with extra cherries. I'm only slightly more comfortable here, among the kids I know. One of them is the boy I have a crush on. I secretly hope he'll ask me to dance a slow dance one of these days.

I wondered as I watched my cousin with her many friends on the dance floor if there was one boy in particular she hoped to dance with. It was hard to tell, there were so many of them. But I didn't see her dance with any of them in particular. The truth was, I saw her only a few times a year with her family, and had no idea what her life was like outside of this day.

It was actually incongruous that her bat mitzvah was what made my adolescent anxiety come flooding back. In comparison to my cousin, I was a geeky mess at 13, but the more I thought about it, my bat mitzvah was actually one of the rare days when I was free of self-consciousness. I thought I looked great, and I felt happy. I loved my dress. I didn't care that I didn't dance with my crush that night. The boys stood on the sidelines when slow songs came on, and we girls danced, dipping each other and acting like fools.

The concept of a bat mitzvah as an initiation into adulthood seems ludicrous to me, and always has. I think I started feeling like a grownup about a year ago, and I still can't do my taxes without my dad's help. But seeing my cousin's brave front (I refuse to believe she is anything but angst-ridden, despite the lovely veneer), and remembering my own, one thing is clear to me. Surviving 13 at all is worth celebrating.

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