CJ Kaplan questions his sense of personal style, while maneuvering through a series of Jewish ceremonies.
The following is an excerpt from the book, Jews Clues: You’re Doing It All Wrong, by CJ Kaplan and Mitch Blum, available exclusively on Amazon.com.
When John Travolta donned his famous white suit in Saturday Night Fever, he spawned a fashion trend that endured until disco was literally burned at the stake in Comiskey Park one sultry night in July of 1979. Stepping in to fill the giant void in poor taste was the powder blue three-piece suit, a haberdashery disaster whose time (unfortunately) did not come to an end until after my Bar-Mitzvah in 1982.
As I look at the picture of myself standing proudly before the ark with wild, puffy hair, a mouth full of shiny metal and the matching blue pants, jacket and vest whose best feature was the fact that it was fire resistant, I wonder how I wasn’t laughed off the bimah. Why would you dress someone who was theoretically becoming a man in an outfit that would get him beaten up in any establishment where actual men hung out?
It was because of this outfit that I was already at a deficit when I began to warble the opening prayers to my Haftorah portion. Being first-born and a perfectionist and slightly OCD, I had practiced my Haftorah twice every day while attending West End House Camp in the summer of ’82. By Visiting Day, every kid in my bunk, regardless of religious affiliation, knew my entire Bar-Mitzvah front to back. I’ll never forget the day when one of my Irish bunkmates stopped my daily practice to correct me on my interpretation of a trope in my Maftir. Despite my avid preparation, however, I still could not overcome the bane of many a Bar-Mitzvah boy. My voice was changing.
The blessing before the Haftorah, while linguistically flawless, sounded like two cats fighting in bag lined with aluminum foil. I glanced over at the cantor, a patient and gentle man, who simply smiled and nodded reassuringly. Forging ahead, I sonically annihilated the remainder of the service while silently giving thanks for our rabbi’s ban on recording devices in the synagogue.
The ceremony over and behind me, it was now time to party. And if by party you take me to mean the Oneg Shabbat and luncheon, then clearly you’ve been to a Saturday morning affair or two. The Kids Party was taking place at the VFW Hall later that night, but the older friends and relatives were being treated to a nice midday meal in the temple function hall.
Perhaps the best part of the luncheon was the open bar. Not many people took advantage of it, but it was there nonetheless. It did afford me the opportunity to score drinks for two pretty girls in my class. I simply told the bartender that the Sombreros were for my mother and aunt. (Things were different then. Kids could order drinks at bars. You could buy cigarettes from machines. Better days.)
When the luncheon ended and the envelopes had been collected, I had only one priority before the party that night. In my junior high school years, the hottest fashion item in town was something called Sweats bi Ebe. They were basically fancy sweatpants with piping on the sides and an elastic waistband. I don’t know if the Ebe thing was a national craze or a phenomenon that was isolated here in the Northeast. Looking back, I have no idea why everyone wanted to look like escapees from a geriatric center. Regardless (or irregardless, as we say here), every cool guy had a pair of Sweats bi Ebe at the time and I wanted them.
Somehow I conned my Aunt Sally into taking me to Jordan Marsh in the hours before the party so I could purchase the Ebes for my big moment that night. I found the pair I wanted, blue with red piping, got my super-cool aunt to spot me the cash and walked out of Jordan’s with my prize.
Back at home, I peeled off the blue suit that would forever carbon date my Bar-Mitzvah for future archivists and stepped in another item that millions (or at least thousands) would later regret. Did those pants make me any more suave that night? No. I still bumbled around the VFW Hall, barely working up the courage to ask girls to dance in my cracking, off-pitch voice. Did I later spill soda on the treasured Ebes? Perhaps. But, we shan’t speak of that because I’ve blocked most of that memory anyway.
Did I learn anything? Yes.
Three years later when my brother was Bar-Mitzvahed, I wore something to his party that showed I was no longer a slave to the couture of the moment. Something that showed I was a man of refined and classical taste. Something that, try as they might, my parents couldn’t airbrush from the pictures.
I wore parachute pants.
—Photo Adrian Miles ©/Flickr