© 2024 KASU
Your Connection to Music, News, Arts and Views for Over 65 Years
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rite On: An Ode to the 'Bar Mitzvah Disco'

Leisure suits, big hair and the Bee Gees are just part of the draw of a new book, Bar Mitzvah Disco. With essays from Jonathan Safran Foer, Sarah Silverman and others, the book documents bar and bat mitzvahs from the 1970s through the '90s.

Contributors to the book -- and to the authors' Web site of the same name -- seize the chance to relive -- (or merely to purge themselves of) their dreaded coming of age ceremony, from over-excited relatives to nervous presentations of a portion of the Torah.

Through it all, the world of Bar Mitzvah Disco, adorned with Vuarnet sunglasses and wide collars, pulses along to music from Lionel Richie and the Village People (who wrote a forward to the book).

Roger Bennett and Jules Shell, two of the book's authors, have several other projects in the works, from the Web site adlerpants.com to a quarterly magazine about modern Jewishness, Guilt and Pleasure. Its third author, Nick Kroll, has written for Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show.

Read a contributor's essay from the Disco Bar Mitzvah site:

Jennifer Grey's Nose

- by Jessi Klein

I have one really clear memory of watching my brother sitting next to the rabbi on his little twin bed with the Star Wars sheets, the two of them poring over his Torah portion, speaking in low and unintelligible tones. I was nine years old at the time, and from my vague understanding of what he was being asked to do, I found the task of preparing for his Bar Mitzvah staggeringly frightening. The rabbi was a large and intimidating man whose black overcoat and hat made him appear about five times larger than he probably was. My brother was of course twelve, but next to this husky man with the long beard he looked even younger. In the months leading up to the ceremony, I kept thinking, as I have often in my life, how glad I was not to be my brother, and how relieved I was not to be saddled with what I thought of as an endlessly unpleasant list of male responsibilities, which at the time, in my innocence, was topped by exclusive obligations to work nine to five and occasionally punch bullies.

When I turned twelve, I was beginning a battle with an awkward phase that had come over me with the intensity of a "shock and awe" campaign, including the full arsenal of glasses, braces, and inappropriate height. The notion of a Bat Mitzvah was a snarled knot of uncomfortable propositions, threading together public speaking, Hebrew learning, and dress wearing, all of which seemed either dreadfully difficult, hugely embarrassing, or both. So it was with great relief when my father finally got around to letting me know that in his opinion, Bat Mitzvahs were a relatively newfangled Jewish invention that were not considered essential, and if I didn't want one, I did not have to have one. I've since fact checked, and it turns out my father was (uncharacteristically) wrong, and Jewish women have been getting Bat Mitzvahed since the 15th century. I, (very characteristically) was more than happy to get out of extra work and passed on the whole shebang.

But sixteen years later, as I've lived through the latter half of my twenties, I've often paused to wonder if I have yet "become a woman." Unlike Britney Spears, these pauses have not inspired me to write a tinny Billboard topping pop song, but I don't think that makes the wondering any less valid. I remember looking at my hopelessly gawky, baby faced brother in his Bar Mitzvah suit and thinking how ridiculous it was that someone so clearly a child would be getting the official nod of adulthood from the letter of Jewish law. But in those moments when now, at age twenty-eight, I still find myself struggling to emote the emotional authority of adulthood, I begin to think that perhaps one of the greater values of the ceremony might have been in simply walking through a gateway that an entire community has agreed to view as your official entry to emotional and sexual maturity, regardless of the absence of breasts or presence of a night brace.

But since I haven't had a Bat Mitzvah, I've started looking back on my adolescence for other tentpole growth experiences that ring familiar with a large enough sector of the contemporary Jewish community to in some way amount to a kind of Bat Mitzvah GED, an accumulation of catch-as-catch-can transformative experiences that have earned me enough credits to get into the only sorority I have ever wanted to join, that exclusive, beautiful sisterhood of full-fledged Jewish women.

Maybe it's because it's the decade when I turned thirteen, but to me, the pop culture of the 80's had an identity as characteristically schizophrenic as the average adolescent's. By turns slutty (Tiffany) and innocent (Deborah Gibson), in retrospect, those ten years now seem to me to perfectly embody the aspirations of the teenager, a time when ambition to separate yourself from what's come before you leads you to sexual boundary pushing and ambitious rebellion that can ultimately cause both extreme embarrassment and extreme growth. Weathering those years myself, I definitely tasted both, and looking back, I've identified three milestones in my adolescence that I think were overlaps with popular enough milestones in the decade's teenagerdom that I hope my female peers will give me the nod of recognition until I finally make it up and get the real deal. Whether these milestones are in any way uniquely Jewish, I can't say for sure, but I think there's a case to be made for each one.

#3 - I had my first "wet dream" the night after seeing Dirty Dancing

As unforgettably great a movie as this is, the night after I saw it for the first time was even more so. I was twelve years old, and I went to the movie with my best friend Molly. We sat in the theater together, silent the way you're supposed to be in a theater but even more silent, because we were also barely breathing the whole time. The feeling we had watching that movie was as close as either of us had come to knowing what sex would be like. Who could imagine anything hotter than having Patrick Swayze squint upon your flat but heaving bosom with his beady as he pressed you into his pro-dancer thighs? Who could imagine any more romantic cherry popping than on a crappy futon in a Catskills bungalow to the tune of "Cry to Me"? And then there was Jennifer Grey's original, beautiful Jewish snoz, emerging from the screen sloped but firm like one of the stamen in a Georgia O'Keefe painting, both phallic and feminine all at once. That night I went to sleep desperately trying to keep every moment of that dirty dance opening montage in my head, the vibrations of Ronnie Spector's weird, viscose voice in my ears. I was forcibly awakened by my own body as I found myself having an insanely intense first ever big-O. I've taken an informal poll, and the results are unanimous - 3 out of 3 of my closest friends had this same experience. Yes, all 3 are shiksas, but I believe it was the vulnerability and innocence of Jennifer's Jew-y, pre-nosejob honker next to Patrick's buffitude that made this movie so transcendently hot.

#2 – My friends and I practiced kissing a George Michael door poster

The year was 1989, and my friend Orange (yes, that's her name, and of course, she was Jewish – in my experience, only Jewish hippie parents really went the extra mile with the weird names) was turning fourteen. My friends and I went to PosterMat on 8th Street to get her the gift that yes, she had asked for, but only as a formality; she knew we knew what she wanted - because she wanted what we all wanted: a life size door poster of George Michael. In our minds, George was the ultimate sex symbol, and having a crush on such a bad boy, such a pillar of fiery, untamed, heterosexuality, made us sexy too. When the poster was unrolled at the slumber party, it immediately went up on the door, where flat George was treated to an evening of tweenage girls leaving pink frost lipstick kisses all over his mouth, neck, and – oh yes – crotch. That's right. I said it.

Now, yes, "Faith" was a multi-platinum album and I'm sure girls of all creeds did blow-job batting practice on some kind of George effigy. But if Will and Grace has taught us anything, and I believe it has, it's that accidentally falling in love with a gay man is as essential a rite of passage to a Jewish girl as communion wafers are to our Catholic friends. George was the classic combination of libido and sensitivity that has lured Jewish women into doomed relationships for ages; he insisted he wanted our sex with thrilling urgency, but would a real dog have the tenderness to write "explore monogamy" in lipstick on his girlfriend's thigh? No, a dog wouldn't; but a straight man probably wouldn't either. We repressed that thought and decided such a sentiment showed a real capacity for love. It's also important to note that during the "Faith" period, if his videos were any indication, George seemed to have a real penchant for Asian girls, which only ignited our lust further with the fuel of familiar jealousy.

#1 – Tuberculosis cast a shadow over my first date

What's a more important milestone in a young girl's journey to womanhood than her first kiss? At fourteen, all of my friends had been kissed by someone, or multiple someones. Yes, many of these guys had mullets, but that didn't matter. The relay race to slutville had left me the sole holder of the unkissable baton, and I was desperate to pass it off. 14 was unacceptably old to never have been kissed, but I was a bookish, nerdy chick before that was fashionable, and I just wasn't having any luck. I was really into Kafka and "The Metamorphosis," not a hot topic for dudes. My fortune seemed to change one night when I went out with Molly and her boyfriend "Steve," a nice enough guy who had gone a few inches past mullet and now had enough length to rock glam band hair. Steve brought along his friend "Dave," who as a Jersey based college freshman at Cooper Union had attained a car. I sat shotgun while Molly and Steve made out in the back. Dave and I didn't have much to say to each other that night, primarily because I was in such disbelief at his full commitment to a rat-tail that I couldn't really form words.

The next morning Molly informed me of the "good news" that Dave had a crush on me and wanted my number. The prospect of anyone liking me enough to kiss me seemed enough to warrant overlooking the rat tail – I mean, he would most likely kiss me with the side of his head that did not have the rat tail on it anyway. He called and we made a plan to go see "Bird on a Wire," starring Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson, two people who would go on to spawn separate vessels of evil in the forms of Kate Hudson and "The Passion." I didn't care what we saw, as long as we kissed.

It's a tale as old as TV ads – the day of the big date, a pimple, a period, or some other physical malady comes along to spoil the whole thing. But those are wholesome, run of the mill annoyances compared to my case, in which the buzzkill came in the form of a tuberculosis scare. My father was a probation officer who often had to visit "clients" at Rikers, a notorious hotzone for the disease. An hour before I was to leave, as I was doing a last fitting of my bowler hat and vest date outfit, my father came home from work looking gloomy. He informed us that there was the possibility he had TB and we would all have to be tested. When he saw I had my bowler on he knew it was a special occasion, and I ultimately confessed that I was an hour away from my first date. Pulling me aside, we endured one of the most awkward moments in the history of our father daughter relationship as he instructed me, painfully, "No kissing." I was in such a state of shock that when I met up with Dave, all I said was "I just found out I might have tuberculosis so I can't kiss you." To say that the date was the worst date of all time would be a severe understatement.

TB may have felled my personal favorite Jewish literary hero, Franz Kafka. But we found out I didn't have TB, and neither did my dad. It was an ironic double blessing – thanks to God, of course, that we were not sick – but thanks also to the grim shadow of the disease for saving me from kissing Rat Tail.

The ubiquity of adolescent coming of age rituals across cultures appears to confirm that even though the choreography of these practices may differ drastically, what's universal is simply that enough people agree that the ritual is the tentpole, the recognized gateway through which we shed childhood and enter both sexual and emotional maturity.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.