The Price Of a Bar Mitzvah Year

by Lucas Kavner

If you grew up in any upper middle class area of Los Angeles, there’s a good chance that seventh grade was your “Bar Mitzvah Year.” That’s what I called it, anyway. Maybe you called it your “Jewish Journey” or “Maccabee Period,” but for me: It was the Bar Mitzvah Year.

At the time I had just moved with my family to an apartment in what we lovingly referred to as “the outskirts” of Beverly Hills, so that I could attend the area’s public schools, which were apparently among the better ones in the Los Angeles area.

The kids I met during my Bar Mitzvah Year were very, very rich. Rich beyond what I could have possibly imagined. They had black-bottom pools with watersides, basement and attic game rooms (both!), carports and boat depots and multiple phone lines. They wore exclusively Polo, Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss products. On my second day of school that year I remember Greg Miffler coming up to me and checking the tag on my T-shirt to see where it was “from.”

“What’s Sonoma?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “My mom bought it for me.”

“Oh,” he said, walking away from me.

Seeing as I was new and I wanted to have cool tags, I spent the next few weeks searching for bargain Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts on sales racks at various department stores. I scored a couple sweet ones at the Century City Mall and took to wearing them exclusively, which only in hindsight reminds me of that Simpsons episode where Marge buys that one Chanel dress and tries to pawn it off as multiple dresses.

Of course, with rich kids came rich Bar (and Bat) Mitzvahs — extravagant, incredible, epic gatherings, with dinner videos hosted by Joan Rivers and parties attended by David Lee Roth and The X-Files’ own Gillian Anderson.

These were no small, personal affairs. Their parents outdid one another, renting out entire floors of Four Seasons hotels, country clubs and upscale steakhouses. And the DJs did not merely spin En Vogue songs and wear sunglasses. Oh, hardly! They were like acrobats, performing incredible choreographed tricks as they rapped personal odes to the barely-pubescent now-teenagers sitting in front of them.

When Matt Walker wanted a Las Vegas theme for his party, he got one, complete with roulette tables, blackjack dealers and cocktail waitresses. After winning a few rounds of poker at this 13-year-old’s party I was awarded an all-expenses-paid vacation to the Luxor Hotel in Vegas, which my parents made me forfeit despite my objections, seeing as I was 13-years-old and could not visit such places on my own.

Every single weekend there was at least one Mitzvah to attend. It became the basis of our class’s social life, and a lot would happen. Hearts were broken, feelings bruised, dresses snapped open by accident. At one of them I remember two guys decided to “fight” in the parking lot, next to the In-N-Out catering truck, and the party was immediately shut down by the Bar Mitzvah’d boy’s terrified parents.

And with each party came a price. I had to bring a gift to all of these events — a gift to celebrate the birth of a new Jewish man or woman — and by midway through that year, my parents had grown weary of providing so many $50 savings bonds, while I felt more and more distressed that I couldn’t afford more lavish presents for these already exorbitantly rich new friends of mine.

By the time my good friend Mike’s Bar Mitzvah rolled around, I wanted to get him something memorable, but my parents said they couldn’t afford more than $25. They’d already been bled out by Nick Ashberg and Marisa Fenn and Ryan Cohen. So I reached into my baseball card collection and pulled out my prized possession: a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.

For anyone who doesn’t follow baseball, Ken Griffey Jr. was the shit. He really was. He was consistent, super fun to watch and had his own phenomenal baseball video game franchise that really stands the test of time.

I held the card, taking one last look, then wrapped it up and brought it to Mike’s Bar Mitzvah. I placed it on the gift table. And the entire night I could barely dance. My stomach was in knots. I mean: what had I done? This was something I’d saved for years, a card deeply important to me, and Mike didn’t even need it. His dad owned a textile company or something and he had gazillions of dollars and stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Springs for Christmas every year. What the hell was he going to do with my Ken Griffey Jr. baseball card?

Halfway through the night I decided I was going to take it back. Steal it, essentially, return it to its rightful owner. So over I went to the gift table, only to discover that all the gifts had been collected and placed “somewhere safe” by the party staff. I accepted that my card was gone. Forever.

As days went by I waited for Mike to do something. I don’t know what I thought he was going to do; give it back? Buy me a new one? All I got was a thank you card, which his mom very likely wrote for him. Maybe Mike still has the card, buried deep in a box somewhere, underneath his many stacks of textile money, piled high above his shimmering, black-bottom pool.

A year later I would move to a suburb of Dallas, Texas and pivot from Jews to Baptists, from the sight of awkward chanting kids standing alongside their rabbis to awkward guitar playing kids standing alongside their Jesuses, and my Bar Mitzvah year, like the baseball card, would become another relic.

Lucas is a writer and performer based in New York. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Washington Post, Flavorwire, and as a staff reporter for the Huffington Post. Co-creator of The Days of Yore. Twitter: @Lucaskavner.