Anyone who has had a bar mitzvah will know the experience is inherently stressful, a sleight of hand devised by some no doubt well-meaning biblical authority eager to persuade Jewish thirteen-year-olds to ignore the trauma of their early teens by unilaterally proclaiming them to be full-fledged adults overnight, even though all credible evidence points otherwise. With mouths full of braces, and puberty often light-years away, we wobble through this ritual act of self-deception with all the eagerness of infantrymen having to run through a minefield.
This time, it would be me up there performing in synagogue, chanting the Torah portion in Hebrew and unfurling a sudden mastery of the ancient sacred texts. This song-and-dance act required months of grueling tutorials with a weary local rabbi because, as a Liverpool College boy, my own Jewish literacy was rudimentary. After all, Christian values were a bedrock of a college education, values that were reinforced at the beginning of every learning day, when the student body faithfully trotted down to the chapel on the edge of the school property for prayer and worship. While all of that went on, we were in a classroom popularly known as “Jewish room.”
As the name suggests, the Jewish room contained about a dozen Jews. There were also twenty or so Muslims, a sprinkling of Sikhs, and Kerwin-Jones, the school’s lone Bahai. No one ever really understood what that was, but he was always there, sitting on his own in the corner. While our fellow Christ-believing classmates savored chapel, communing through hymn and prayer with their Lord, we heretics used our time slightly less productively: forced to sit in total silence, with perfect upright posture, at risk of a requisite spanking from a master patrolling the classroom, cane in hand. The handful of Jews, vastly outnumbered by the Muslim kids, made it a mini-Middle East where a majority simmered, incensed once more at the injustice of having the Jews somehow screw them out of naming rights.
The quasi-penal nature of the whole experience neither upset nor surprised us. We were well aware of our difference. It was revealed when we stripped naked in the school changing room before rugby to widespread derision for lacking a foreskin. We Jewish boys hailed from another stock. Our ancestors had been chased across Poland and Russia’s Pale of Settlement by Cossacks. Whereas they were hunters, our DNA made us forever the prey.
The one ripping yarn I emotionally connected to after several years of otherwise irrelevant Hebrew school education was that of the Spanish Marranos, Jews who in 1492 had been forced at pain of death to convert to Catholicism. Despite seeming like good Christians on the outside, they proceeded to devise ingenious strategies to maintain secret Jewish practice for generations. At great risk, they would light Sabbath candles in their basements, meet clandestinely in forest clearings to hold Passover seders, or become vegetarian so as to avoid eating unkosher meat. In many ways, we Liverpool College Jews were modern-day Marranos. We masked our Jewishness, relegating it to our homes, and shedding it the second we stepped on the bus to school, prepared to utter almost every Christian prayer or hymn that littered the average Liverpool College day.
Having a bar mitzvah meant having to remove that mask, and I experienced a sting of shame and fear in doing so. But, I had no choice. Part of the ritual was a party. Parties need guests.
My mother, ever empathetic, sensed my diffidence and tried to generate some positive energy around the event by encouraging me to select a theme for the party. This task was as anxiety producing as it was well-intended, because it demanded I delve into the question of who I was at my core. An Everton fan was the obvious answer. But half of my football-crazed city would have the same response, so it did not seem sufficiently singular.
As much as chess was a massive part of my inner life, Sicilian defenses and back-rank checkmates did not feel exciting or interesting enough to build a party around, especially one that would be remembered for decades to come.
I was genuinely at a loss, until one weekday night, while surfing through the four channels then available in Britain, I stumbled by chance across Talking Heads playing “Burning Down the House” live on some obscure television show. The performance was spellbinding. I had never watched anyone dance like David Byrne before. He whirled and jerked around the stage without any hint of self-consciousness, so comfortable, and almost liberated by his individuality. As he pivoted around, I marveled at the way his hair, which he had dyed a metallic silver, glinted and caught the eye. Suddenly, nothing in the world felt more important to me than being able to dye my hair a shiny color and similarly unlock my own sense of abandon and freedom.
I turned to my mother, who was dozing, curled up on the couch alongside me.
“I’ve decided. I’m going to have a punk party,” I declared.
“Punk! How fun!” she said with as much validating enthusiasm as she could muster when drowsy and disoriented from caring for a new baby.
I agonized for a further week about whom to invite to this punk party. As time ran down, I defaulted to the members of the school chess team and debating society. After all, what could be more punk than that?
Half the party guest list was now cracked. The other half involved an anxiety that actually felt a thousandfold worse. Girls. Of whom I still knew none. Since my brother had hipped me to the reverse-spined books in my father’s study, I had spent many a late-night hour obsessively mining them for information, laying the volumes out on the snooker table like a Second World War general poring over maps of his next battleground. Their mysteries had been a revelation but sentences such as “Hide-and-seek with the woman’s pubic triangle is one of the oldest human games,” or “Long gloves turn some people on—they suggest the old-style great lady” were as confounding as they were titillating. When I read those chapters, I was almost relieved not to have girls in my life at the College, a reality that meant I was freed from the burden of having to put some of those moves into practice, and undoubtedly failing.
The party situation changed that, and like a Secret Service agent willing to take a bullet for the president, my mum leapt into action. Every Monday night, she played a regular game of bridge with five women, none of whom were family, but all of whom I had to call “Auntie.” My mum now shook this quintet down for addresses, rustling up daughters, nieces, and cousins, any warm bodies they knew who were female, Jewish, and vaguely age appropriate.
The day of the bar mitzvah itself was forgettable, a set of memories defined more by the feelings I have when I flick through the photographs of the day.
By the time my punk party swung round, I was ready to unleash my inner Sid Vicious and rock and roll. Before my guests arrived, I feverishly cut up an old football jersey, wrapped some chains around my neck, and as the pièce de résistance, sprayed metallic blue hair dye and massaged it into my fringe. After attaching a couple of safety pins into my shirt to complete the rebel look, I stood in front of the mirror in the hallway outside of my bedroom and squinted, because I had decided to ditch the spectacles. A blue-haired wild character looked back at me, and for a moment I allowed myself to feel a bolt of self-satisfaction. “Now that’s a man,” I said to myself.
The doorbell went. My guests poured in all at once. The Liverpool College boys were startling to welcome because I had never seen most of them in civilian clothes before. The girls entered in ones and twos, a blur of garbage bag dresses, torn shirts, and triangle earrings, wordlessly handing over the gifts they were clutching as they walked past me on the doorstep. Almost all of their gifts turned out to be copies of Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon.” I received eleven copies of that seven-inch that night, no doubt playing a single-handed role in propelling that release to the top of the charts.
The party took place in our living room, which my parents had emptied of furniture for the night. The DJ they had hired worked his turntables, but in truth, it was hard for him to get the party started. My parents insisted on keeping the lights on full beam, hovering by the door with my baby sister in their arms as a preemptive attempt to snuff out any sexual shenanigans.
They need not have worried. The girls and the boys sat limply around the perimeter of the room. Oil and water have been known to mix better. We college boys lacked the language to engage the girls or even talk about them among ourselves. We simply ignored them, and for the most part, ignored the music, too, getting up only once to pogo around halfheartedly when Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” came on. Delighted to get any kind of a reaction, the DJ played that song three straight times. But for the rest of the night, we all sat in a ring, determined to kill out the clock until it was pickup time. I sat there surveying the sullen circle filled with my slumped classmates, and my mum’s friends’ friends, all of whom seemed silent and miserable. It was as if, inadvertently, the real theme of my bar mitzvah party was “Jewish room.” So still and mute were my guests, that is what it felt like. Jewish room, but with music.
Twenty minutes before pickup, my mum and dad coaxed us into the dining room with the promise of cookies, chocolates, and assorted sweets. A large cake groaned at the far end of the table covered in dessert, and it was toward that that I headed to close the night by delivering my speech, the one I had crafted for weeks, workshopping the perfect balance of a barrage of opening jokes for my mates, before giving way to a conclusion filled with heartfelt meaning suitable for the occasion that would win over even the most cynical in attendance.
I looked down to the other end of the room where my mother stood, behind my ten-month-old sister, whom she had placed before her in a sitting position on the table, and prepared to wow her. I gave the two full pages of notebook paper that contained my speech one last scan and cleared my throat. My sister, with her adorable plump baby thighs protruding out of a blue sailor dress, chose that exact moment to break free of my mum’s control, crawling across the table toward a box of After Eight chocolates. With mission accomplished, Amy proceeded to liberate one chocolate-coated mint from its wrapper after another and stuff it in her mouth, quickly coating her cheeks and chin in a thick smear of chocolate and dribble.
The bar mitzvah photographer was the first to notice her. He had been preparing for my speech, too, patiently framing up a climactic shot of me and the cake. Without ever taking the camera off his eye, he now swiveled away and moved stealthily toward the baby-chocolate carnage in the middle of the table, his motor drive whirring away as he fired off shot after shot of the enchanted two-toothed gurgling. The flash of his camera shifted the focus of the room. Instantly, the crowd broke into cooing and laughter, as everyone delighted in the sight of this adorable baby doing adorable baby things. While the photographer crouched in front of my sister, zooming his lens to conjure the perfect shot, I stood alone at the other end of the table. Behind the cake, I tucked the speech back into my pocket, unread.
I became a man, upstaged by a baby.
Excerpted from the book Reborn in the USA: An Englishman’s Love Letter to His Chosen Home by Roger Bennett. Copyright 2021 by In Loving Memory of the Recent Past 2 Inc. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Roger Bennett is a broadcaster and podcaster, and co-author of The New York Times bestseller Men in Blazers Presents Encyclopedia Blazertannica. Born in Liverpool, England, he now lives in New York.