My Bar Mitsvah: A True Story


barmitzvahWas Boris Karloff a Jewish name? no — he’s wrapping me up like The Mummy, except it’s only my arm, and it’s only for a minute, and I’m still alive — ropes made of words tying me up, tying me off, like some — hey, not too tight, old Rabbi teaching me! — like some young Jewish junkie — or maybe more like those modern tattoos you take off when you get tired of them — running up and down my arm — he’s pulling strings of prayers from a little box, like a tiny tape dispenser, perched on my shoulder — like a talking parrot –strands of speech — like cartoon words coming from a character’s mouth into the air — from a parrot’s mouth — a parrot junkie with a little Yiddish accent — this is what I think as I — not knowing what I’m doing — do this — make associations to keep myself awake — make no effort — don’t apply myself at all — to the ancient ritual, to the old language — now around my arm — so solemn — they say people were executed for even attempting it — and here I am, in the seventies — only cartoons coming to me — only pop culture coming to me — what’s my connection to it? — in the suburbs, the “golden ghetto” — but in the old country, from some attic, they’d be rounded up and executed –I’m uninterested — not disinterested, that means impartial — see? even grammar is more gripping — slack strands around my — like he’s wrapping a gift — a present — hey, old rabbi, address my arm and give it as a gift! — put a ribbon on all the religion I’m wearing — and what a wardrobe — wrapped around me like some kind of cummerbund — hey, that’s funny, spelled “cum” like ejaculate — you know, ejaculate means not just jissim but a kind of crying out? I read it in a book — tying tefillin around my arm — to fill in –“Another space to fill in — acid booze and ass — needles, guns and grass — lots of laughs” — Joni Mitchell, Blue — what an album, one of her best — but they’re all so great — cummerbund or bundt? — bundt cake, Germans — people pulled from attics — by their beards — pants pulled down in the streets, humiliated in front of their house — then beaten like rugs — my rug — cut hebrew school by literally lying on the floor of my house — on the rug — so the car pool couldn’t see me — not hiding from Hitler but from Michael Brodsky’s mother — getting up only when she’s gone — hebrew school for two and a half hours, three days a week – two and a half — numbers tattooed on their arms — hair on my arm — shaving soon? — Dad said so — around my arm — hey, old Rabbi, here’s my hand.


Now sitting onstage — behind the Rabbi saying something — same old Rabbi — he’s introducing me — an opening act, like Las Vegas — lots of cummerbunds in the crowd — what’s he saying? — some silly shit — whoops, I made a face — behind him, I made a face that said “silly shit” — didn’t even mean to – hey, who’s laughing? — someone in the audience — Mom’s friend, Mrs. Posner — I got a laugh! — I’m on a stage — it’s a show — I heckled him — only without words – okay, behind him, make more faces now — arch the eyebrows, slant the sides of the mouth down — make a “woo hoo, aren’t you a big shot Rabbi” face — “The Silent Spot,” Red Skelton, remember? — everyone always said “Skeleton” — skeletons showing through their skin, fingers weaving in barbed wire — I’m a “little tramp” — Charlot, the French called Chaplin — there! I got more laughs! — I’m killing — people killed, but I can’t help it — I’m a hit — hit in the streets, humiliated — hey, back off, History, I’m hilarious! — okay, make a Jackie Gleason “I’m a stupid moax” face now — Jackie played “Gigot,” a Chaplin thing, a French mute, what a movie — purse one side of the mouth, move the cheek in — yes! got ’em! — make a mockery — but what’s the harm? — before I read those meaningless words I memorized — I mean, comedy’s a Jewish tradition, too, isn’t it? — all those live theaters on the Lower East Side — more faces – laughs come in little waves now with breaks in-between — like when you take attendance — “present!” (beat) “present!” (beat) “present!” — beaten in the streets — present? you bet I am, baby! — no more past — one more punchline! — face, don’t fail me now! – pray to this!– roll my eyes to heaven now — shtick! — sure hope someone’s up there to see me — anybody home? — ho ho ho — I’m home and I’m home free! — hee hee hee — I’m the man with a million funny fa — whoops, the Rabbi just turned and saw me — uh-oh, now he’s turned back and saying something mean to the crowd about my family — something snotty and snide, couched as a compliment — about our “special” way of worshipping — well, fuck you, old Rabbi! — here’s another face, behind your back! — bingo! — hear that? – bigger than before! — in the present — come and get me, Gestapo!


Jesus — and whose idea was this? – Mom and Dad’s, of course — use the backyard as a kind of banquet hall — tables on grass, a tent — it’s a circus — and I had to invite guests — had to invite all the kids I hate — from sixth to seventh grade, friends all turned on me — little Long Island collaborators — heads shaved, line ’em up — friends all fell out — fell off, like from a ledge between embankments –we made our way between mountains — from Mt. Elementary School to Junior High School Mountain — they didn’t follow me or I didn’t follow them — did they drop off and disappear or did I cut them loose? — who cares? — either way, don’t want them here — they hate me, too – look at them, kids mulling around, miserable — they don’t even dance — whose idea? — Mom and Dad’s — their party, their pals — old Rabbi even here — want just the present — want to find the future — want to pass through the past — no more Jewish mayhem, not even my own misery — flick it all away, like a damn barking dog who’s already eaten — but they’re still here — my “pals” in their little suits and party dresses — with the beginnings of breasts — well, that’s good, getting breasts, that’s something, anyway — awkward age — “You’re growing up” — that’s what Mom says, that’s why I’m so grumpy — they pursue me, my persecutors — go away! — hey, my big brother, his gorgeous girlfriend, they’ve found my sullen friends — “So, where are your presents?” he’s asking them, he’s such a smart- ass — “I see you’ve already got your gift,” one boy’s answering, gawking at the girlfriend — not so awkward, after all — “How’d you like a punch in the face?” my brother asks him back, angry, face red — “asks” is not — it’s rhetorical, I read it in a book — grammar again — things are swiftly disintegrating — they’re rushing towards a rumble — all of them will be leaping into the air soon, feet flung out, like “West Side Story” — and they don’t even dance — fingers snapping — “something’s coming”- have to head it off, before someone gets hurt — a riot, a pogrom — so distant, nothing to do with me — my parents, my people — “Why don’t you all just get out?” I say, suddenly, to my ‘friends’ — “Why don’t you all just go home?” — long pause — beat — then, surprisingly, they do, they’re going — shambling, stumbling, shuffling out — hey, it worked! — I’m growing up – no more obligation — no arbitrary events — all false — first old Rabbi, now this — yes! I did it! – no more past — my future unrolled now, like — scroll — whatever it is that — that Torah thing you take out — so many suffered for – a covenant with — who again? — sorry, but this is the best I can do at 13, stuck in the suburbs — all you suffering souls, behind barbed wire, inside those attics — this is the highest I can rise, the free-est I can be – so follow me, my old ancestors, as I make my way into the main event, my parents’ party — and celebrate! — ejaculate! — can you picnic? — surrey down — can you dig it? — I can dig it! — Because today I am a man — (no joke) — a man oh Manischevitz, what a wine — whine, they say we all whine — the long and winding road — Ringo Starr, a Jewish name? — who knows about anything now? — maybe — maybe it even is.

Laurence Klavan is a playwright who lives in New York City.