Sunday, March 14, 2010

160 days to Bar Mitzvah: beware of the blob

After a short hiatus, Bar Mitzvahs came roaring back this weekend as Ethan Kogan-Schneider, of San Francisco, California by way of Basel, Switzerland, was called to the Torah at Temple Emanu-El. Ethan chose the main sancturary as his setting, which meant two-plus hours of killer pipe organ and medieval-sounding choral music, featuring the stellar tones of Cantor Roslyn Barak, who I can tell you from meeting her afterwards at the oneg, looks much smaller in person than she appears on the bima.

My appreciation of the musical stylings come courtesy of Boston University music Phd. Poppea Dorsam, long-time family friend and semi-Semite who came along with us to case the joint, as we'd asked her to play her cello during the Jawa's Bar Mitzvah, which, as you already know, will also take place in the main sancturary.

"I absolutely loved the music," said a beatific Dorsam, following the ceremony. She, without knowing beforehand, ended up already knowing many of the major players in the day's events. She knew the organist, who I've never actually seen. She knew Ethan's bassoon teacher. She knew a couple of families in attendance from her daughter's school, including former Brandeis Hillel Day School student (and YMCA co-ed 2nd grade basketball league point guard) Lindsay Bogetz-Gelb.

It was a fine Bar Mitzvah, even for casual onlookers like myself, whose interest was unhealthily riveted by three guests who arrived wearing matching hairstyles (shaved), eyeglasses (large, plastic, black) and suits (black, sleekly-tailored). It was like they'd met beforehand and decided to have a contest to see who could look more like a German fashion designer.

No one won. It was a tie.

Not as pleasant was the fact that for the third consecutive time, Sandra Bullock and I (this time with Poppea Dorsam and the Jawa's computer teacher, the de-cloaked electonic musician who was a bit taken aback when, prior to the service, the Jawa detached from a scrum of five foot-tall boys in dark business suits, bounded across the temple entry foyer and announced, "YOU'RE IN A BAND!") found ourselves one row behind the Woman With the Worst Breath in the World. A temple regular, she attends whatever Bar Mitzvah is going on that day and, apparently, feels comfortable sitting almost exactly as far from the bima as we do.

Since I was sitting next to the Jawa's teacher/hip electronica artist, who'd never been to a Bar Mitzvah, as the service went on I became keenly aware of my failings as a worshipper. No, I'm not going to sing along to "Matovu," and while I might mumble a few times in two-and-a-half hours, you are correct in noticing that more than once, you turned the page long before I did, a clear indication that I am not following the proceedings too closely.

As a guide Jew, I'm afraid I am lacking. Which, of course, makes me everyJew, just like Ethan's mother, the delightful Manuela Kogon, who made it clear as she delivered a speech to her son, that her being somewhat of an athiest in no way detracted from the importance of this event or the heartfelt emotions behind her speech.

Since I wasn't doing much else, I spent much of the morning watching the Brandeis seventh grade kids, who were concentrated in two rows toward the front of the sanctuary. It's always interesting and entertaining to watch 40-plus twelve- and thirteen-year-olds try to hold it together for 150 minutes of chanted Hebrew.

We're at the halfway point in Bar Mitzvah season. They know the drill by now. Furthermore, they've pretty much established who they are and how they are going to act during each week's rite of passage.

They congregate, pre-ceremony, in the front of the temple, creating little groups of what looks like miniature adults. Most of the boys are wearing suits now. Last fall, when this all began, only a few -- the Jawa notably and angrily included -- were sporting formalwear. The rest dressed themselves in various stages of sloppiness. Flood pants were big in October. Hairbrushes were not. As their own Bar Mitzvah's near, one by one they've stepped it up, fashion-wise.

Even Ethan himself, who has been known to make the party scene in sweats, Birkenstocks and an oversized t-shirt, garbed up in a slick pin-striped suit for his own Bar Mitzvah. The kid looked sharp.

The girls have done more fashion soul-searching, which is understandable to a point. It's easy to dress up if you're a boy. You may not like wearing a tie, but it's a no-brainer. Slap one on, hope you don't look too different than anyone else (unless you're one of the Russians, in which case you aim higher with tab collar shirts, velvet smoking jackets and sateen vests) and show up for temple.

First of all, girls don't want to look like anyone else. Two show up in the same outfit and it's a John Hughes-level tragedy.

They want to look good. And mature, I guess, because last fall a bunch of them made the scene in very short dresses, bare shoulders on display for God, the rabbi, Cantor Roslyn Barak, Bad Breath Woman and all others to see.

At school the following Monday, an email was quickly sent. To all parents: please be reminded of appropriate Bar and Bat Mitzvah wear. Shoulders should be covered.

Not a problem for the boys, who were already buried under multiple layers of wool and cotton. Nor for some of the girls, either for reasons of modesty, shyness or fashion ignorance. Each week since then, the number of girls in form-fitting, sleeveless dresses has been reduced. A few continue to ignore the edict. Not coincidentally, they are the same few who seem to spend most of each service turned around in their chair, talking to the select few boys who not only already like girls, but are desirable enough to warrent risking a "shh!" from a nearby parent for some face time.

The kids try to enter the synagogue at the same time, as if they were a football team being introduced at a pep rally. This is often difficult, as each week at least a half-dozen of them show up late. This week, I saw a kid give up his seat without argument when another kid -- notorious practically since kindergarten for lateness and no-shows, ambled into the main sancturary about 45 minutes into the service. The powers of teenage hierarchy are strong indeed, even at schools that practice "radical kindness."

For the next two hours, a segment of the congregation participates in a delicate balancing act. At the beginning of the season there was talk of a schedule, with parents signing up to act as the behavior police. It's worked out instead that a few vigilant parents take on the responsibility every week. I have not volunteered, other than the time I got in that bully's face for using his best fastball during the traditional candy toss.

There are kids who seemingly every week get up a couple of times, usually minus any thought of what's going on up on the bima. This week, two kids decided that the part where Ethan thanks everyone who helped him along his journey to manhood was an excellent time to hit the bathroom.

This week, there were two pockets of activity in the kid rows. On one end, activity centered around the late kid, a couple of boys who like girls and the girls sitting near them. This was their cocktail hour, and they kept up a semi-whispered conversation throughout.

On the other end, I learned late from the Hammer, two girls talked non-stop. Somewhere in the middle sat our Jawa, hunched over, his body language suggesting that his biggest challenge was not keeping quiet but rather staying conscious.

One hour in, you could feel a tectonic shift. By noon, the kid section had become a living organism. It fairly pulsated as it shifted in its seats, got up to use the bathroom, turned to talk to the kid behind it, did exagerrated hand movements during certain prayers, slumped in its seats then popped up suddenly, shifting to get more comfortable.

At two hours, forty kids had turned into The Blob. From here, they would likely seep into the temple ventilation system, spilling out onto Arguello Boulevard, where they would begin their conquest of San Francisco, starting at Presidio Heights. Watching them from my seat next to the hipster teacher, I could swear I saw them grow in size, then shrink, they grow again, undulating from side-to-side with the baroque tones of the choir as their soundtrack.

And then it was over, just in time. Ten more minutes and we would have been goners, consumed and digested by the kinetic power of the Brandeis Hillel Day School seventh grade. Later that night, the cleaning crew would have shown up and found only a small pile of kippahs, plus the fringe from a few random tallit.

Fortunately, that didn't happen. Rabbi Jonathan "Laffy" Jaffe said "Shabbat Shalom" and we spilled out into the entryway, where a top-flight oneg awaited. Freed from groupthink, the kids returned to small pools of friends. The gravitational pull of free food and a sunny day kept them from coalescing into larger and larger pools until they re-formed like the liquid steel of the Terminator T2000. Had that happened, they would have been unstoppable.

Instead, we all went our separate ways, loading no more than three kids into any one car just to be safe. Our car was particularly serene. The cheerful Poppea Dorsam made it so, so enthusiastic was she about Jewish rites of passage and the music. "Oh, that music," she beamed. "It was wonderful."

We are one of the last Bar Mitzvahs, which is going to have some impact on the kids' behavior; we're just not sure what that impact will be yet. We've heard that they rally for the last few Bar Mitzvahs, having realized that they're coming to the end of a year like none other.

We've also heard that the kids completely lose it for the closeout B'nai Mitzvot, having exhausted their shallow pools of patience and good graces (and, for the girls, light cardigan sweaters to wear over their form-fitting dresses). We won't know until August 21.

Meanwhile, the Bar Mitzvah Design Crew finalized the invitations today while I was out looking at houses in Belmont and not buying cheesy bean burritos at Taco Bell. They did a great job. Best invitations I've seen so far. Cool stamps, too. Next, says my Johnny-on-the-spot wife, we have to "sit down again with the guest list."


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