I always thought my father and grandfather had large noses. They were Jewish noses and although I was proud to be a Jewish child, I was glad I didn’t have a big nose like Dad and Poppy. So I thought.
Until I was 12 years old, I had only seen my reflection from straight on in any bathroom mirror. It never occurred to me to turn my head and look at my face. When I did turn my head in a mirror, it was only for a moment so I could drench my hair with more RedKen hairspray before school. And a move like that never left me much time to get a good look at my profile.
So, you’ll understand why my heart sank into my guts when I tried on my first suit and took a look at myself in the three-way mirrors at Klein’s Department Store. As I stood there, admiring my new threads and how great my hair looked thanks to RedKen hairspray, I saw it. It was as plain as the nose on my father’s and grandfather’s faces – my big Jew nose.
The moment a boy becomes a man has little to do with puberty or reading from the Torah on his Bar Mitzvah. It’s when he realizes he is the same as his father, and his father before him.
Manhood under wraps or not, I still had to go through with my Bar Mitzvah. I had the suit, the invitations were sent, I’d spent all of those years getting in trouble at Hebrew School with Hillary Shaprio and Brian Wolff that it had to go on. Besides, I had memorized my Torah portion and suffered through Hebrew and chanting tutoring classes. We were invested. The plans had momentum.
My Bar Mitzvah was special, I suppose, to the rest of my family because I was the first male of the generation to be called to the Torah. To me, it was a day that I knew would be a busy one. It was also held the same day as my grandmother Joyce’s birthday, May 30. I recall sitting in Rabbi Gluckman’s office with Debbie Shapiro, Cantor Lieder and at least one other adult. They were discussing gay marriage.
I’m pretty sure everyone in the room was fine with it. At least, I’d like to think so. And that’s probably why I remember it that way. But what I remember for certain is the rabbi asking me if I had to use the bathroom before we began.
“No,” I said.
“Well then. Let’s have a Bar Mitzvah,” he replied.
We walked from his office across the temple foyer and into the sound room, which had a door leading to the sanctuary bimah where I would lead friends and family in a wonderful Saturday morning Shabbat service.
The intensity in my crotch appeared fast, from nowhere and without scientific cause. Just as the rabbi opened the door to the bimah, my bladder ballooned and tightened. I had to pee like I never had to pee before. The organ began to play; I was moments away from singing and praying my way to a few thousand bucks in gifts and Israeli bonds. Why didn’t I have to go before? And why did I have to go so badly? I didn’t drink an excessive amount of anything. It was too late, no turning back.
The pain and pressure I felt was soon forgotten, but not because I was in front of a room full of people. No, being on the stage, commanding the crowd was never anything but routine for me. I forgot about the pee and sailed through my service without pause or second thought about it. However, I did notice my girlfriend, Sarah Pulcini, was not in the congregation.
But I even forgot about that when my mother and father stood at the Ark with me and Dad tried to read his speech. He wrote a David Story, a tradition from when I was a little kid where Mom would retell the events of my day to put me to sleep. I’d like to think it was a comforting story of all that I had, “a mommy, a daddy, a little brother named Eric, a little brother named Steven and a cat named Smokey,” rather than Mom thinking the day’s events were so mundane, that they had to cause drowsiness.
As Dad told the story, which included the pride, he and Mom and Poppy and Nonny, Gramma, Grampa and the rest of the gang, all shared, he choked and began to cry. I had never seen such a thing. My father never cried. I remember reaching for a tissue from underneath the cantor’s podium and handing it to Dad. This drew a few laughs and that may have been the moment I realized that any situation, sweet, sad or otherwise ,could be lightened with laughter and that I was capable of providing it. This would go on to cause plenty of awkward moments in my early practices, but later, welcomed relief from the weight of whatever it was. Like death or divorce.
After the service, I found my friendMissy Meilach and asked where Sarah was.
“She was mugged at Lincoln Mall,” Missy said.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Who mugs a 12-year-old?”
“She was at the mall yesterday and some man asked her for money.”
“That’s not a mugging. That’s bullshit. And that was yesterday.”
“You shouldn’t swear in the temple,” Missy scolded.
“Fuck it. It’s my Bar Mitzvah. That reminds me, I have to pee.”
But I couldn’t get away. I had to lead everyone in the Kiddush and Motzi. I had to shake hands and take pictures and collect cards and say thank you and listen to countless mazel tovs. Then, it was off to Ravisloe Country Club for a luncheon. Still, no chance to pee. I made a quick phone call to Sarah from one of the phone booths in the lobby. She didn’t answer.
- My grandmother, Joyce Himmel; 88 years old. She drives a 2005 Thunderbird convertible.
I sat at a back table with my cousins and brothers during lunch. A piano played music while adults talked about things and I likely made wisecracks about all of it. I probably drank a Shirley Temple because my brothers and I loved those things and only drank them at Ravisloe.
I vaguely remember speeches being made. I remember my cousins Beth and Carrie getting up from the table and reciting something they wrote into the microphone. I didn’t listen. I didn’t think I had to. I thought they were making a speech for Nonny’s birthday. She was 68 that day. Why would they say anything about me? Who was I? What was the big deal? They’d never made a public fuss over me before, no one had. Why would anyone still be talking about me and my Bar Mitzvah? It was over with, right? How could I still have been the center of attention? Did I command such awareness? I never thought so. Not unless I was acting out, which I wasn’t. No one had ever made a stink about me unless I was making a stink. So any kind words said about me at that lunch were moot. I didn’t hear a one of them.
Beth and Carrie returned to the table and handed me their speech.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Your speech,” Carrie said.
“I have to give a speech?”
“No, the one we just read to you.”
“Oh. Yeah. I knew that.”
I didn’t want them to know I hadn’t bothered listening to it. Somehow, that speech got lost. I never knew what it said. But I hope it was nice. Maybe when I turn 40 they can write me another speech. My ego will be far more aware then.
The next night was the kids’ party and it was held at our temple, Anshe Sholom, inside the social hall. Missy and I were the best hula-hoopers in the south suburb Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit so it was no surprise we were pitted against one another during the contest. I knew Missy could beat me. And I didn’t want to lose so I decided to play dirty. I instituted bumper-hoops and sent my body spastically toward her causing her hoop to fall. But not before mine hit the floor. I lost. I didn’t care. I was still annoyed about the Sarah thing and Missy, as per usual, had inserted herself into the teenage drama so I was annoyed with her, too.
Sarah did show up to the party. A lot of kids did. I was surprised more than my immediate circle showed. I thought, Why me? Why take the time on a Sunday night to hang out and dance in my honor? Huh… I must mean something to these people. Am I more than a clown and good for a laugh? I did have a slew of girlfriends this year, but so what?”
I danced with Sarah but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as my father throwing me on his shoulders and dancing with my friends while they attempted the latest hip-hop dance moves like the Roger Rabbit and Running Man. My father never danced. But he did that night. All of his dancing and crying… who was this man? He sure looked like my father. I recognized that nose of his. That big Jewish nose of… ours.
Mom put a sign-in book together with pictures of me from the previous 13 years. This book was at Ravisloe and was signed with kind sentiments from the adults whose houses I slept at and by friends of my parents and grandparents I wouldn’t know if I fell over them naked on the street. There was a sign-in board decorated to theme – baseball – at the kids’ party. It also had kind sentiments scrawled on it as well as penises scribbled on the baseball cards.
When I read the adults’ book, I was shocked by what nice things everyone had to say, not just about the bullshit milestone of a Bar Mitzvah that every Jewish kid goes through, but about me and what I meant to them or what kind of person I was. One note from Dad’s dearest friend, Bob “Rootie” Ratke always stuck with me.
When I had my Bar Mitzvah, I had a deep relationship with God. So when Rootie wrote, “… I know God has wonderful plans for you,” I was struck with a strange sense of purpose. Perhaps God did have plans and wow, Rootie knew that and gave me the heads up. He was a boy scout and I suppose he just wanted me to be prepared for whatever it was. I was also shocked to see that Rootie was spelled, “Rootie.” I always thought his name was spelled “Rudy.” But Rootie was a nickname earned for his love of root beer. So that made sense, finally.
My Bar Mitzvah was about becoming a man. But not in a religious sense. Not for me anyway. I didn’t feel any closer to God or have a stronger connection to my faith. The Bar Mitzvah was simply a setting for the events that allowed me to see things about others and myself I had never seen before. Those events and realizations would serve as a foundation for a more adult and eventually, a hyper-realistic and often cynical approach to manhood.
My Bar Mitzvah also taught me to hold it.
It wasn’t until after the lunch at Ravisloe, as we were leaving, that I had a chance to pee. Mom and Dad were tired and wanted to leave, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I never felt such relief and joy before as I did at that urinal. And as I washed my hands and looked into the mirror, I turned my head from left to right to get a glimpse of my profile and thought, If I can avoid pissing my pants, I can live with this nose. Other great men have done it.