Bar Mitzvah Ploys
---For Isaac Goldemberg
Parents, recently divorced. One aisle, my mother´s family and friends sat diminished, as they lived in France, (and this Bar Mitzvah was my father’s concoction). Dad had assembled a retinue of fraternity brothers from Sigma Alpha Mu, cousins, associates, and my grandfather had been jetted in from JFK. I had invited only one pal, Todd; the other children in attendance were sons and daughters of family friends. Saliva accumulated and bubbled from the sides of their slack jaws during the service, eyes peering into a suction gust.
At junior high school, on the PE blacktop, in the hallways, I was black-n-blued into meat by two bullies amped with testosterone, and I sniffed that I had been targeted because of some immemorial shortcoming. At all costs, avoid visiting the bathroom; that´s the place where “scrubbing” took place.
The joy—I brought him naches—with which my father celebrated my sloppy execution of piano scales, still-lives for Cartooning Art Class, and thespian struts on the junior high school dais struck me as glaringly suspect. I was the victim of a prank. Clearly, I wasn’t going to invite my peers to this shindig.
A caravan snail-trailed to a small ranch—Pacoima outskirts—where my father had booked the reception. (Alimony and dismal patient load had made it so that he had to be inventive.) Afternoon of blue heat; strobe-lights limply sparkled. The DJ played a set of adult-friendly pop tunes. Tables, starched cloths…the guests snacked on chicken kabobs while standing, as the two servers wandered among them. A distant and false aunt insisted that I dance with her. Her knotty and liver-spotted hands spider-webbed into my fingers. She urged me to sway in time, as she rocked in stiff rhythm to The Pointer Sisters singing about the “Neutron Dance.” We were the only couple on the floor. The owners of the ranch organized a limbo contest and dance-off. They convinced a red-faced ranch hand to participate as well as several children while other attendants chose grilled salmon or chicken breast, slurped sparkling wine, and then made their way to parked cars.
That day smoldered tart with dust. Hills surrounding the ranch were parched: chaparral, yucca, jimson weed, and oak brush. Brushfires, itching to blaze.
My first Bar Mitzvah needs to be flown over thirteen, or more, times. My flight of black wings inscribing vaster circles in the blueness. These eyes peer down at some distinct rendition: glitter curtains behind me, as I stand on the Bimah wearing a lavender polyester suit.
The theme of this Shonda is the Borscht Belt. The congregants sit in the dark: men in suit and tie, women wearing plastic pearls, perms stiff from combustible amounts of hairspray. Chink of silverware on plates. Ice tinkling in glasses of mixed drinks. Slant of spotlight tinted azure with cigarette smoke. I deliver the punch-line: Today I am a fountain pen…laughter…drums punctuate the joke, and then a pit-orchestra lets rip: I´ve Got Rhythm.
My one friend was half-Jewish, secular, from a happy family. They never cooked, but ordered pizzas and ribs; they played Monopoly. Christmas-tree replete with wrapped gifts each December, their holiday season was scoured of any religious undertones as if with a Brillo pad. I would sleep-over. During the evenings, the father nursed a Budweiser, while we watched War Games, Vacation or Fletch. Sunday morning, the father and mother read the paper together, and the waffles ceremony commenced. We would hear Boys, come and get it, and we would run from the bedroom where we had been listening to Flock of Seagulls or Thomas Dolby, strumming the only chords we knew on Todd’s out-of-tune electric guitar—E major and E minor—or looking through his older sister´s yearbooks, scamming for the hot junior and seniors who were cheerleaders, popular, best dressed and most likely to succeed, reading their year-end-vows: You´re so goofy…stay special…let´s get fucked up all this summer…I so want to sleep with and with and with.
After thoroughly scrubbing syrup from our bacon plates, we would clot our hair with globs of Dep and fold up our jeans so that they looked as if they had been tapered. Todd’s father would drop us off at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Todd and I would reach the video-arcade where kids with braces humped Mrs. Pacman and Joust, followed by a meal of congealed yellow cheese and canned beans from Mexican Dan´s, before we resumed our looping of the mall´s three levels, hoping to find some 7th or 8th grade girls who found us appealing.
When I spent too long on the crapper, my father knocked and inquired if Everything was fine? Unlike Todd’s household with waffles and the television tuned to cable, my father would make me matzah brei, or an egg, served sunny-side-up, and sit across from me in his robe. He was concerned. He would ask if I knew much about what People who love one another do when they’realone. If I had found some new and interesting changes in my body. Some hair. Some special dreams. He would remind me it was all natural and healthy. I would poke at my egg, gaze at the running yolk.
A new student to my homeroom gave me the opportunity to meet a girl who didn´t view me through the comments of the jock who accompanied me to Hebrew school, nor through those of her popular peers. I asked her out and returned one Sunday from the Galleria after I licked her ears and neck in the back row of the movie theater. She exuded health and plenty of time by swimming pools and hours at her parents’ golf club. Alas! She soon met girls and boys from more promising cliques, but one date was all I needed; like two warm morsels of food in one grinding and dark mouth, we were ground in the warm blackness of the cinema. Later that evening, stunned by the aftereffects, I didn´t respond when Dad knocked; I was cleaning myself with vigor when he opened the door.
When I whipped up the nerve to ask Heidi out again, she had been fully indoctrinated in the school´s particular culture of cool, and she glimpsed Most Popular on the bronze distance and fire-fangled plumes dangling from the palms. Smiling in front of her locker while a friend clutched at her neon pink sweatshirt, she told me to call her. I did: twice that night, leaving messages with her mother. I called the next day, and her father said that she was showering. I called later that same day, and I was told that she had gone shopping with her mother. I called the following morning, a Saturday, and her brother answered. Dude, you´re annoying.
In another version of my Bar Mitzvah, my HafTorah and reception take place on the third floor of the Sherman Oaks Galleria, near the food court and the video arcade ringing, blinking, and buzzing like a carnival for grotesques and slow-ambling zombies. The tables have been removed by the pit near Mexican Dan´s and Perry´s Pizza. It´s my Bar Mitzvah and I can cry or laugh or do nothing if I want to. The Bimah has become a stage. Burning Bush will shred some solos on a red guitar. David Lee Roth opens the Ark to laser and strobe lights, smoke machine, and deafening shrieks from blondes, hair teased with Aqua Net. They crowd the two floors of the Galleria beneath us. Streamers, bras chucked or tumbling in the darkness resinous with marijuana.
A few congregants, elderly and with shivering wives, beat chests, shake fists and curse the stage that seems to float above the food court. (I am smiling, alone, no parents, no bullies, no one around me, seated atop a toilet, yet uninhibited.) I look behind and notice that hundreds of peers from my junior high school are attending…Heidi, as well, and other girls whose incipient thumb-perked breasts and widening hips smoldered in dreams.
Arpeggios squeal and groan through scales that plunge into Hades-growling-registers and then zip with sparks strafing the stratosphere.
Rabbi Roth flashes a smile he scrubbed with Comet. He wears a turban, tunic, and on his chest he wears a silver piece with precious stones, as if he had walked off the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Behind him, a chorus line of California Girls in neon-pink bikinis and black high heels. Their teeth burn the darkness and they take a few steps forward, arm in arm.
A teenage crowd surges towards the Bimah. My toilet has turned into a movie theater seat; I eat popcorn from a deep plastic cup. The Bimah rises and some boys leap, hold on to its edge, as it hovers eight, ten feet from the food court. Other concert goers dash about. A riot unfolds…it´s mayhem, shredded clothes, wandering, bleeding and dazed pubescent girls, some trampled men, siren lights swirling, when the vast skylight of the Galleria explodes open, revealing a star-studded night.
The opening chords to Jump sound on a cosmic organ. Rabbi Roth is laughing as the Bimah soars above thunder-flashes, grey clouds and wet, dark air, like the Toledo of El Greco. Some of the teenage rioters clutch the stage, others lose their grip and plummet into dark water that has gathered at the bottom of the three levels.
The stage rises in the wobbly ascent of a helicopter. Rabbi Roth screeches:
You might as well jump!
Hebrew School… Rashi never mentioned, let alone some Goy with his Aleph: Borges never spread teeth in the classroom so that we might peer into his black throat reaching an expanse where the bones of hummingbird collide with the radiation of crab-nebula, where grains of sand on all of the beaches are viewed individually. Eyes that have peered into all of the mirrors ever made. Tiger-paws stepping onto riverbank mud. All the lice and ticks on tigers stalking water buffalo through dank shade and green light jagged between bamboos. Every variation of the Trilobites that have ever existed and crawled through sludge while eels flickered above them. Dust storms on Mars. Meteors crackling into the turbid weather of Jupiter.
Instead, we had an Israeli virago of flopping breasts and ungainly hips who thumped her frame against our flimsy desks, screeching correct pronunciations from the Hebrew Reader. Abba ba…Abba bayit…our croaking of the Vahafta…our bored chorale of the Mah Nishtanah in preparation for the interminable evening before starched tablecloth and crystal decanters. Molly, as she called herself, was hysterical, garlicky, and glazed with the sweat that her shrieking exacted.
Rabbi Tendler was no better. His eyes opened bug-wide beneath his spectacles, like the dumbfounded gaze of William F Buckley, whenever he peered into the classroom of a dozen boys amped on the illicit Twinkies, Crocodiles, Jolt Soda, Cheetos, Ruffles and Slim-Jims that we had purchased. Our afternoon walk from school was an hour-long trek with plenty of lingering in liquor store entryways, ding-dong-ditch, letting air out of the tires of parked cars, eggings, ripping off Hustler from the newsstand, flicking off random motorists, farting in close proximity of each other, scribbling male and female anatomy on bathroom stalls with markers at the fast-food restaurants we would visit, among other acts of ass-holishness.
I met with the Rabbi twice prior to my actual Bar Mitzvah. He began to snore lightly, shaded spectacles and a smile—an expert in feigning interest—while I subjected my Hahf torah to a sadistic reading.
Among the half dozen boys who attended afternoon Hebrew classes, Sandy won my respect above the others. As we wandered the asphalt desert of the Ralph´s parking lot on Ventura and Hazeltine, we walked past a motorcycle cop seated on his Harley and eating a sandwich. Passing him, Sandy quickly turned around and gave him the finger. Traffic cop spat out a mouthful of cold-cuts and American cheese, dismounted his bike, gesticulated wildly at the sky, at the blacktop, at us, babbled and then screamed for us to return or he would cuff us. You little punks and What the hell were you thinking and So you´re headed to Hebrew School, huh? and Step thisway. He wore black boots. He was perfectly Aryan like many LAPD cops from the 80´s. Blond crew cut. As a punishment, the three of us were instructed to do 25 pushups on a strip of concrete by a bus bench. We heaved and cursed at each other and mainly at Sandy while Cop ate the remains of his sandwich. If we didn´t do the pushups there would be further consequences. We did them. And we stood up. The cop smiled. Well, I am gonna need your phone numbers and I will be informing your mothers. As a group of 10 years olds, this is what finally made us regret everything and turn on Sandy. Between sobs and the cop´s cackling, between fingers wiping snot and tears, we tried to reason with the LAPD.
I am on the Bimah. With hysterical voice I intone my Haftorah. Every other word is garbled, and the old men, the only ones who attend services regularly, and who are nothing but dandruff, squinted eyes and breath like carrion in a vacant lot, shout out the proper pronunciation. I am sweating; Rabbi, eyes as round as those of a cricket, mutters: Just get through this, boy. By now, I no longer pronounce anything correctly, nor am I following the cantillations; instead, I babble a golden brook, my eyes rolled back to the whites, and my fingers are directly touching the parchment, feeling for the words. Hissing, boos from the ever-growing number of congregants, and I hear my father pleading with them, beseeching them, reminding them I´m a special boy. The words beneath my fingers squirm and chirp, grow feathers, claws that I feel prickling me, beaks that nip at my fingers, the words palpitate and breathe, flap wings, dozens of inky-black birds rise from the roll that has unraveled most sacrilegiously, thumping against the floor, unraveling, while hundreds of blackbirds rise, caw, circle, swarm and swoop on the congregants who are shouting, shrieking, pushing their way to the exit.
In another Bar Mitzvah, my father is seated on a white chair in grassy field. He holds an envelope, a white envelope in one of his hands. Knolls bounding around him for miles. I am nowhere. He opens the envelope, and I am not allowed to see what he unfolds.
Decades burn in the incinerator. Ash. Echoes. Reagan and Gorbachev. Glass shards. Blackened sedans and station wagons. Voyager 2 reaches Uranus. Baby Doc flees Haiti. Thousands hacked apart in Uganda: the five year uprising ends. We sat on the blacktop of the Physical Education area; other students who had attended science class had watched the take-off of The Challenger. The principal makes an announcement over the loudspeakers about the explosion. Students chuckle, too young to fathom such all-encompassing failure. I asked for a ¨Bud Light, not a light.¨ Brain: the first PC virus. Innumerable deaths; innumerable births. Men praying. Shouting. Mothers shrieking. Hands Across America.
Today I am a fountain pen.
During Bar Mitzvah, I roam the Galleria’s top floor, dressed to cruise the mall; quarters for the video arcade jingle in my pockets, and flashing from my denim jacket: a Duran Duran T-Shirt which showcases the smile, ebony hair and ivory pallor of a Patrick Nagel Muse thrilled about the yacht club, sushi brunches with Mimosas, convertibles parked beside esplanades where couples jog along a bronze backdrop dangled with palms.
I look over the railings: the mall has gyred further, levels zigzagging and circling. Above me, I discern blueness. Deep down, some nine or twelve floors, I discern the bottommost level. Jagged eruptions of lightning. Mist above denizens whom I discern in flashes. Human shapes crawl like aquatic insects, wave back and forth like sea-anemones, or circle like small sharks, and wiggle like eels.
A circle above that with a bald yet black-bearded Allen Ginsberg. Butterflies and moths flutter and trail behind him, are singed in the hot air and flicker through the circles of the Galleria. He wears a flowing white peplos and he twirls, and jigs about, playing a ditty on a flute. A legion of ephebes follow him, skipping.
Floors with smoke, with the clanging, lethal parley of bronze swords against shields, thousands wandering about the level with Florsheim Shoes, Licorice Pizza, and the entryway to the perfume arcade at Robinson´s, Heaven. Marx and Maimonides walk by wearing sandwich boards advertising their collected works on sale at Dalton´s Books.
On another circle, Chagall with his assistants tie up shtetl Jews draped in talleisim to crosses. Phillip Guston and a myriad MFA aspirants paint crucified prophets dressed as accountants, doctors, IDF recruits, chattering dentures, blue haired oracles with withered dugs, ravishing stewardesses from El Al, literary critics with weak stomachs when it comes to shellfish, while Cain and Abel action-paint with the blood of unblemished calves, and Noah stores vases, candelabras, and other art objects to be painted, yet always in pairs.
From another floor, Freud sits down on a bench, puffs a cigar while studying a diary left behind in the women´s lavatory. Groucho looks over his shoulders, inserts and pulls out an unlit stogie from his mustache, then agitates his eyebrows.
I discern Golda Meir sitting by herself, fanning herself on another level. Ben Gurion, carrying a tray with saccharine wine in a flask, reaches her table.
From time to time there explode thunderous clouds, or hailstorm mixed with frogs, lice and locusts that fill the Galleria with dark wind.
On another level Moses sits on a couch, dressed in tie and suit, a black brief case beside him. Agitated, he harangues someone on the cellphone. The negotiations are rumored to involve enormous stakes: the times of day when to recite the Shema, idolatry, meals, feminine hygiene, tattoos, cross-dressing, conjugal duties, bastards, eunuchs, the proper uses for castrated beasts….
Often, over cosmically vast loudspeakers, a B Flat clarinet plays a trill, then whizzes up to a high B Flat, and the building sways to the left, the atmosphere charged with electricity and a rhapsody awash in blue.
From another circle, obstinate Arendt quarrels with Gershom Scholem. Clouds roil through the space, while a naked, bearded Job leans over a bannister. He is tearing paper, and lets the scraps fall from time to time from his opened hands.
In the circle just beneath me,
nothing but rainfall. I notice the frazzled hair of Einstein.
He darts about, sticking his head into trash bins. At a black wastebasket, he plunges his wool-sweater arm into the aperture. He pulls out a green-spored parasol. Rather than dropping it and wiping his hands against his trousers, he cups the mushroom in his palms and a scalding gust of breath is emitted from his mustache.
The fungus explodes and white light radiates the Galleria. Everything…the inhabitants, the rebar, the elevator shaft is revealed as if through an x-ray.
The cosmos is a cracked web of bones in white and black.
I have vaporized and been sieved into a suction-gust vast as supernova,
am nothing but wisp of carbon,
but not before I hear the cackle of Kafka.