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God Is in the Details

After months of avoiding the big decisions, we finally began making the small ones

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Though I do not, as some have claimed, alphabetize my sock drawer, I’m organized enough that I certainly could. (Argyle, bouclé, cashmere.) And yet the problem of organizing Erez’s bar mitzvah has stymied me for months. People, it turns out, are not socks. Neither they nor their unruly feelings will go neatly into the compartments you’ve picked for them.

A year ago, when we first began thinking seriously about the big date in March, we were certainly aware of our differing opinions about how it should be celebrated. Andy wanted a giant party and was willing to decrease the quality of what we offered in order to accommodate as many guests as possible; I wanted a smaller, nicer event. Andy wanted a disc jockey spinning rock favorites, or, better, a live band; I recoiled at the image of 60-year-olds doing the hustle and preferred either something more dignified or no music at all. We both sought to avoid the grotesquerie of some b’not mitzvah we’d seen, but Andy wanted to do so by dialing down the pretension, I by restricting spending. Even smaller, seemingly petty issues, like how Erez should dress for the occasion, turned out to be obstacles. Still, we imagined that these obstacles would dissolve on their own, like snow melting, as we moved through the list of things to decide.

Instead, they just sat there, immovable boulders, blocking any deeper consideration of the event looming closer behind them. The überproblem was the guest list. Andy’s initial survey, last March, brought forth a goodly host of more than 250 would-be celebrants. For one thing, he has a huge family, with some 18 first cousins. But it wasn’t just them; he wanted to cast a wider and deeper net of kin, so that even the grandchildren of distant great aunts were included. Of course he planned to invite his old buddies, but also his “old biddies”—friends of his mother, who had died when Erez was too young to notice. And then there were his colleagues: other guidance counselors, administrators, and support staff at the school where he worked. His mantra was a phrase I have never really understood: The more the merrier.

My own survey netted perhaps 20 potential guests. Not only do I have a much smaller family (only three first cousins, whom I rarely see) but also I was loath to invite many friends. To me, the impending milestone felt private, almost internal, and the idea of dragging my every last acquaintance and coworker to an event they would likely only attend as a duty seemed crass, little better than fishing for gifts. And what did they really know of Erez? How would their attendance promote or support his manhood, his covenant with God? Erez himself was not troubled by such concerns; he wanted to invite the entire seventh grade—some 45 kids—as if his bar mitzvah were a pep rally.

Even aside from the disproportion between my list and Andy’s, there was the problem of the absolute total, which at the end of Round One hovered near 300. Even if we stuck to a very modest menu—Andy imagined a light brunch buffet—this was going to get expensive once we added in all the nonfood extras, like waiters and linens and flowers and music and invitations and the rental of a room. Not that we had a budget. It was fruitless contemplating the allocation of funds when the underlying vision was so unsettled. But even if we could afford to take 300 guests to a ten-course dinner at Per Se, the idea of accommodating so many people, including people I barely knew and who barely knew Erez, seemed wrong to me. And so the process came to a halt before it had really begun.

But at the end of December the looming new year made us realize how far behind we were. Panicked, I reverted to type. I entered the names of all possible invitees on an Excel spreadsheet, with tinted columns marked “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.” To non-listmakers, the exercise of committing ambiguity to paper can seem foolish; even I used to laugh when my mother, finding life too chaotic on occasion, would call for a pencil and paper, as if these were magic tools for straightening everything out. I may have laughed then, but I was just like her, adjusting slightly for modern equipment. Making a list, I told myself, is at least an action, and once I emailed the spreadsheet to Andy, it was a provocation, too. Let the horse-trading begin!

And yet I had little to trade; the difficult work would mostly be Andy’s. Though he agreed that we had to bring the numbers down substantially, he couldn’t see how to do it by mere pruning. Whole categories would have to go, and how to decide which ones? Happily, fate intervened. A family wedding in Florida was scheduled for the same day as the bar mitzvah, which meant that a whole cell of perhaps 30 could be invited without fear that they would actually accept. Less happily, an ailing aunt we had thought would hang on couldn’t wait any longer. Between these adjustments and some curtailment of Erez’s generosity to schoolmates (some of whom he barely knew), the number of likely “yes” guests had dropped to the low 200s. And yet that was still, I told Andy, too many. Even after dropping a category of outlier friends he had to choose between his work colleagues and his once and twice removed second cousins. His decision was that those cousins would not be removed again: They had often invited us to their simchas, how could we not invite them to ours? The colleagues, some 30 of them, were axed.

Now that we were down to a more reasonable number of likelies—approximately 160, including 40 of Erez’s friends and young cousins—we could at least begin to face the other categories of indecision. I acceded to Andy’s wish to hold the party in the synagogue’s ballroom, which had seen better days but also worse. From that choice it immediately followed that the party would be a luncheon, for what was the point of having people leave the synagogue after services at noon only to return in the evening? Not to mention that we both found bar mitzvah dinner parties absurd, with their mini-tuxes and swing bands and desperate search for novelty. A friend recently told me that he had attended one for which the stars of Lost had been engaged to make a short film in which they were joined on their island by the bar mitzvah boy himself. Conspicuous consumption had come to this, my friend said: a bar mitzvah with a plane crash theme.

Erez himself seemed to like that idea (though he’d never seen Lost); in general, he reflexively grasped for whatever seemed showiest, then accepted pretty much anything. For music, he had at first hoped for a personal appearance by Beyoncé or The Black Eyed Peas but understood when we suggested that lyrics like “My hump, my hump, my lovely lady lumps” were perhaps not appropriate in synagogue.

Happily, we had by then stumbled upon a sensible compromise between Andy’s imagined rock band and my imagined string quartet. And yet the klezmer musicians we met at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner were more than a compromise; they actually promised a kind of music that was relevant to the occasion. We’d listened with pleasure to .mp3 files on their Web site, finding the sour edge in the joy of the clarinet’s whine somehow fitting. Unfortunately, the clarinetist would cost an extra $600 on top of the $1500 for the basic duo of fiddler and accordionist. We tabled that part of the decision and let it be known throughout the family that an endowment opportunity awaited. We imagined a sign on a little chain around the minstrel’s neck: “This instrumentalist courtesy of Your Name Here.

We economized where we could; during the first weeks of the new year I designed the invitations on my computer and printed them on my printer. This was one of the few areas where, within the limits of my software’s capabilities, I could control what was happening. Erez did not especially care that I had spent hours juggling the colors of the cardstock (gravel, poppy, chartreuse) in search of the most pleasing combination, or that I’d saved a lot of money by buying it online. But he sure liked it when he saw a dapper photo of himself peering out of the transparent envelope as if he were on a catalog cover.

Saving on invitations, however satisfying, was small potatoes, fiscally speaking. The large potatoes were obviously in the domain of the caterer. We met with Paula, who had provided wonderful food, and a measure of comfort, when we’d held shiva at our home after my mother’s death in 2001. I never thought twice about what I spent on that; no amount would have been enough to be felt above my grief. Now, however, as Paula went through the categories of spending necessary to even a buffet lunch, I was reeling. But why? Wasn’t it more appropriate to splurge on life than death?

Meanwhile, Andy’s dream of the cheapest, homiest food—blintzes and hummus and lox and bagels—was going up in a puff of chipotle-infused woodsmoke. It’s not just that Paula, quite naturally, hoped for a bigger contract; it was that she knew more than we did about parties in general, and about bar mitzvahs, specifically. “People like a lot of food,” she told us; it sounded like a warning. “I’m not saying that they necessarily eat a ton of food, but they like the look of plenty.”

I couldn’t argue the point. I understood the need for excess as a way of quelling fears of insufficiency—personal, financial, or communal. I’d often felt it myself, treating myself to an unearned luxury. But a sweater would never sink me. What was maddeningly paradoxical at this scale was that indulging the need to quell such fears made it more likely they would be realized.

So as Paula went on, I both agreed and disagreed with every suggestion. Three entrees, minimum, and, of course, a separate buffet for the kids. Keeping all that running smoothly, she said, would require a waitstaff of 12. (Was each guest to be spoon-fed?) As for dessert, she recommended a wonderful baker who specialized in multi-tier “celebration” cakes based on the event’s theme. But how would she interpret our theme of anxiety and uncertainty? A devil’s food Xanax?

Paula must have noticed our eyes swiveling inward; she insisted she would make the event work at whatever spending level we specified. We’d just take a little out here, pinch a little there, and all would be fine.

Which brought us naturally to the question of what Erez would wear. Andy wanted the name-brand comfort of a Brooks Brothers suit, though it would cost $500, a sum I found unconscionable for an article of clothing that might last two months if we were lucky. I wondered if a hand-me-down might do, or khakis from the Gap paired with a Salvation Army blazer. It was strange being the stingy one when I’m used to being snooty; I even encouraged Andy’s perusal of bargain-basement websites catering to odd-sized men. A “major label” suit (it looked to be a Perry Mellis) went for $109 in what we thought was Erez’s size, but even the phone representative warned us not to economize so much.

Though we discussed the other possibilities, Erez himself was clear that he wanted to wear what he’d seen boys wear at other b’nai mitzvah—a proper suit—and so, on the day after Christmas, we found ourselves at Syms, a discount clothier with a branch near Wall Street, where brokers-in-training and law firm associates buy the off-the-rack, off-price ensembles they make do with until their partnerships come in. Erez made a beeline for flashy pin-stripe numbers that suggested Nathan Detroit, but was quickly put right by our salesman, Abdul. Abdul was part black and part Arab but knew all there was to know about Jewish celebrations. “Stay with the black, blue, or grey,” he said. “Dull, dark, dismal colors are for every purpose.”

Abdul also upped Erez from a size 38 to a size 40 when the 38 he was trying on left little room “in the caboose.”

“He can’t be a size 40,” I complained. “I’m a size 40.”

But when Erez emerged from the dressing room in a size 40 Ungaro suit, it was clear that Abdul was right. Andy and I—and Erez, too, looking at himself in the kaleidoscope of mirrors—fell silent in admiration. For us, it was a “Sunrise, Sunset” moment. Wasn’t it just yesterday we were snapping him into a striped Gap onesie? And now he looked like a banker; indeed, the color of the suit was banker blue.

Myself the son of a banker, I found the moment both terrifying and consoling. For the first time in the process I had a vision, however brief, of my son not just as a mannequin to hang adult clothes on but as a man. More than that, I saw him, for a moment, as a man in the line of men in my family, stretching back in their blue suits at least to my grandfather and forward for who knew how long. The consoling part was realizing that no matter how far I had strayed from that line, Erez would pull me back into it; the terrifying part was exactly the same realization. Was it possible that all the anxiety and procrastination of the process had been precisely to prevent this moment: the moment in which we would be put in our place?

In any case, we bought it—and two shirts and two ties, all for less than $250. As soon as I got back to my office I had Excel calculate how much Syms had saved us. Enough, our guests will be happy to know, to pay for salmon. Or at least salmon-colored napkins.

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Thanks for the post, Jesse, it was really interesting to read! I really enjoy your style of writing, I think you are doing really great. Looking forward to seeing new posts asap!
Cheers,
Florence, help with scrabble

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God Is in the Details

After months of avoiding the big decisions, we finally began making the small ones

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