When Jewish children turn thirteen they have a bar or a bat mitzvah, depending on whether they are a boy or a girl. This means stepping on stage in the temple in front of everyone you know and reading in a crazy way from the Torah which I am one hundred percent sure has no musical logic and is objectively humiliating. To make matters worse, they have to prepare for a bloody year for it.
There are three good things about having a bar or a bat mitzvah:
1. A party. You get one after your service, and it was at that age that I was led to believe that throwing a party in your honor is a fun thing – which I’ve been thinking about a lot since then.
2. You get gifts. Often in the form of money I wanted to buy things I didn’t have. Good transportation could cost several thousand dollars. That’s true. All about the binyamines, baby. (I am sorry.)
3. To be a bar mitzvah, you have to go to the bar mitzvah, which sucks. But you’re also invited to the bar and bat mitzvah for everyone in the class, and there were about sixty kids in mine, so it was essentially a whole year to partying every weekend, quite an exciting prospect.
I went to high school the following year and had one goal: I wanted to have a girlfriend that I had never been before. I’m not sure I really wanted a girlfriend for all the right reasons. It wasn’t sexual because the idea of taking my shirt off in front of a girl horrified me. I remember hearing about Orthodox people having sex through a hole in the sheet and thinking, man, that would solve a lot of my problems.
I wanted a girlfriend because I was fucking scared of going to high school, and I thought if I had one I would appear less like a loser and therefore less likely to be eaten alive by older kids. It’s like Edward Norton wants his friend to beat him up before going to jail in the Spike Lee movie “25th Hour”. Norton’s character, Montgomery (Monty) Brogan, is facing a seven-year sentence for selling drugs, and he believes he might look as good as a man with a tendency to toss the living shit out of him – which I think who is a good thing in jail? Either way, he was faced with a frightening situation and was doing what he thought necessary to prepare.
Similarly, I thought, what better way to get into high school than in a relationship to firmly anchor my standards as an adult? I will have social status, a teammate, everyone will like and respect me, and my life will be great.
Not the right reasons.
At that age, the only way I knew I could get a girlfriend was by dancing. Not just any dancing – slow dancing. This was the only way to really gauge how a girl felt about you, as it was unheard of to actually talk about your feelings. They would dance slowly and the proximity of your body would indicate how likely you are to become a couple. If there was full body contact, you were together. When the sanding was done, you were essentially busy.
But to dance to a slow song you first had to navigate a minefield of non-slow songs. And you didn’t mean to dance to a quick song with a girl. It was fine with guys (fun dancing preferred). Fortunately, every single bar or bat mitzvah had the same DJ play at the party, with basically the same playlist, so you could prepare.
Nirvana was popular, and all the boys mixed up wildly on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” until Austen Bell got a concussion at Stephen Glanzberg’s Mitzvah and they stopped playing it.
“Cotton Eye Joe” is from a Swedish band called Rednex whose gimmick was to dress up like the bad guys in “Deliverance” – which is an odd choice for a pop group. But say what you want, “Cotton Eye Joe” is a great song, in a way, “This song isn’t great, but it’s kind of fun to hear for two years”.
However, no song would match the controversy sparked by “Mony Mony,” originally covered by Tommy James and the Shondells and later by Billy Idol. I’m sure you know: “Here it comes now, say Mo-nay Mo-nay” followed by three strong beats – Bah! Bah, bah! This pattern continues for essentially the entire five-minute-two-second song.
Well, I couldn’t tell you why or how, but for some bizarre reason it became a tradition to have those bah-bah-bahs with the words, “Hey, motherfucker, lie down, get fucked!” over and over again, which of course loved the parents present.
BILLY (singing): Here it comes now, tell Mony Mony!
ROOM FULL WITH TWELVE YEARS: HEY, MOTHERFUCKER, GET LAID, GET FUCKED!
BILLY: Shoot them down, turn around, come on, Mony!
ROOM FULL WITH TWELVE YEARS: HEY, MOTHERFUCKER, GET LAID, GET FUCKED !!
This strange phenomenon gave us the opportunity to use the word “fuck!” To scream. wholeheartedly, which was great. But the real goal was still to band together to a slow song and dance. “End of the Road” and “I’ll Love You,” both from Boyz II Men, were solid options. UB40’s “(I can’t help) falling in love” wasn’t bad, but its crappy, quasi-Jamaican beats almost made it wade into fast-paced music, so it was risky.
Without a doubt, All-4-One’s “I Swear” was the ultimate slow song for finding out if you really had chemistry with another person.
“And I swear. . . I will be there by the moon and the stars in the sky. (I’ll be there!) ”It is ironic that so many young Jewish men and women had their first feelings of intimacy sparked by what I have learned since then is a downright Christian song.
My Jewish elementary school had uniforms, so I never really had to decide what my style would be. Bar and bat mitzvahs were my first chance, and I jumped straight to the evening wear. I was an odd dresser – one of my only patchy pieces of clothing at the time was a black LA Raiders leather hat that I convinced my parents to buy after seeing Ice Cube in a magazine. But that wouldn’t fly for a bar mitzvah, so I had to get inspiration elsewhere.
The movie “Tombstone” was released in 1993 and while it wasn’t a massive box office or critical hit (the New York Times called it “morally ambiguous”) it impressed many, largely due to an amazing appearance by Val Kilmer publicly presented by President Bill Clinton was praised – that is the sentence that could be written the most in the nineties. As 1994 rolled around, a young self was amazed not just by Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday, but by the overall Western aesthetic. The result? A fuck load of west.