May 17, 2010
From Alef: Bad Mitzvah
By Lucy Gillespie
If Torah stories are perfect parables – solid, flawless shells of metaphor to be cracked by brains trained hard in symbolism – then here’s a hard nut for all you would-be Talmudic scholars. Bear in mind that at the end, I am still going to synagogue – proof ultimately that a good deed done in bad faith is still good after all.
My parents offered me £600 NOT to have a Bat Mitzvah. But word in the back pew of shul (where my Hebrew school class huddled to chew the fat during services) was that you could make a LOT more if you actually had one.
“Like, a grand,” said Adam H., two years younger but worlds more sophisticated as a student of the chic Lycee Francais.
I didn’t know what a grand was, but if my parents thought I was such a simpleton as to accept the first offer that came my way, by Hashem I would prove them wrong.
I started late, and with nine months to go, I opted to speak instead of chant, and to omit the haftarah. That was extra work – for kiss-asses and swots. Mine would be a cool Bat Mitzvah, a testament to my laid-back personality and droll sense of humor. Besides, there’s only so much Hebrew jibberish you can listen to before you just have to lie down and die right there in the pew. To fast track me in, Rabbi Helen (aka Demon Lady) made a recording of my portion – some twiddle twaddle about how it was wrong to get tattoos and piercings. Graham got the run-up to Noah’s arc. David got the David and Goliath story. “Whatever, just get it over with,” I thought. I’ll be rolling in grand when the day is done.
Laura, the Israeli giantess who signed on to instruct me, came over once a week. We sat on my bed as I stumbled through the calligraphy, my lack of practice glaringly obvious as I snagged repeatedly over the same thorny points. She doodled penises on my notebook, paying exquisite detail to the pubes. This was the other side of the occasion, she said – becoming a woman. So tall. So gorgeous. So gloriously outspoken – I knew exactly what kind of woman I wanted to be come May 10th 1998, and she was it.
A week before the day, Demon Lady called and asked for a draft of my speech. My speech?
“Your commentary on the portion – your sermon, if you will.”
What? Well, I had pierced ears. Should I say that? My dad came home from the office and we put him to work, cobbling something with gravitas. As a final touch, to showcase my personality, I dropped in a Star Wars quote (only, I hadn’t seen Star Wars, I’d only seen Space Balls, and thus cited Yoda as “Yoghurt”). Done and done.
Hair straightened, be-pearled and wearing a charming lilac shift dress, I mounted the bimah and read my piece. Then it was on to the schwanky Landmark Hotel, where my vast Anglo-American family was feted with a buffet of cold meats and salads, and the dulcet tones of my nine-year-old sister who stole the show, charming the pianist into playing back-up for her repertoire of hit musical numbers.
Back at home, I spread out the goods and took inventory. A few big ticket gifts, to be sure, followed by envelope after envelope containing a £5 note and a meekly confused “Happy Birthday” from the various clueless English relatives. Final count? £400.
The following week – on Graham’s big day – I passed on my cautionary tale to the future men and women of the congregation. Adam looked to the left and right, taking out a mysterious, white, cone-shaped stick from his jacket pocket, setting it alight, and dragging deeply from the narrow end.
“That’s too fucking bad.” He said.
I nodded, with the savvy weight of womanhood. “Yeah,” I agreed, “my family are assholes.”