When Jewish kids turn thirteen, they have a bar or bat mitzvah, depending on whether they’re a boy or a girl. This entails getting up onstage at Temple in front of everyone you know and reading from the Torah in a crazy singsongy way that I’m a hundred per cent sure has no musical logic to it and is objectively humiliating. To make matters worse, they have to prepare for a fucking year for this.
There are three good things about having a bar or bat mitzvah:
1. A party. You get to have one after your service, and, at that age, I’d been led to believe that having a party thrown in your honor is a fun thing—which is something I’ve since greatly reconsidered.
2. You get gifts. Often in the form of money, which is a thing that I wanted to have in order to buy things I didn’t have. A good haul could be several thousand dollars. That’s right. All ’bout the Binyamins, baby. (I’m sorry.)
3. In order to be bar mitzvahed, you have to go to bar-mitzvah class, which sucks. But you also get invited to the bar and bat mitzvahs of everyone in the class, and there were about sixty kids in mine, so that was essentially an entire year of attending parties every single weekend, a pretty exciting prospect.
I was entering high school the following year, and I had one goal—I wanted to have a girlfriend/be a boyfriend, which I had never had/been before. I’m not sure I really wanted a girlfriend for the right reasons. It wasn’t sexual, as the idea of even 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 scared shitless about going to high school, and I thought that having one would make me seem like less of a loser and therefore less likely to be eaten alive by older kids. It’s sort of like Edward Norton wanting his friend to beat him up before he goes to jail in the Spike Lee movie “25th Hour.” Norton’s character, Montgomery (Monty) Brogan, is about to serve a seven-year sentence for selling drugs, and he figures that he might as well go in looking like a guy with a proclivity for having the living shit kicked out of him—which I guess is a good thing in prison? Anyway, he had a scary situation ahead of him, and he did what he felt he had to do to prepare.
Similarly, I thought, What better way to enter high school than in a relationship, firmly staking my claim as an adult? I’ll 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 to get a girlfriend was through dancing. Not just any dancing—slow dancing. It was the only way to really gauge how a girl felt about you, since actually talking about your feelings was unheard of. You would slow-dance, and the closeness of your bodies would indicate how likely you were to become a couple. If there was full-body contact, you were dating. If there was grinding, you were essentially engaged.
But, in order to dance to a slow song, you first had to navigate a minefield of not-slow songs. And you did not want to dance to a fast song with a girl. With guys it was fine (funny dancing preferred). Luckily, every single bar or bat mitzvah had the same D.J. play the party, with basically the same playlist, so you could prepare.
Nirvana was popular, and all the boys would mosh wildly to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” until Austen Bell got a concussion at Stephen Glanzberg’s bar mitzvah and they stopped playing it.
“Cotton Eye Joe” is by a Swedish band called Rednex, whose gimmick was that they dressed up like the villains in “Deliverance”—which is an odd choice for a pop group. But, say what you will, “Cotton Eye Joe” is a great song, in a “this song is not great but is somehow fun to listen to for two years straight” kind of way.
No song, however, would match the controversy incited by “Mony Mony,” originally by Tommy James and the Shondells and later covered by Billy Idol. I’m sure you know it: “Here she come now, say Mo-nay Mo-nay,” followed by three strong beats—Bah! Bah, bah! This pattern essentially continues for the entirety of the five-minute-two-second song.
Now, I couldn’t tell you why, or how, but for some bizarre reason it became a tradition to fill in these bah-bah-bahs with the words “Hey, motherfucker, get laid, get fucked!” over and over, which of course the parents in attendance loved.
BILLY (singing): Here she come now, say Mony Mony!
ROOM FULL OF TWELVE-YEAR-OLD KIDS: HEY, MOTHERFUCKER, GET LAID, GET FUCKED!
BILLY: Shoot ’em down, turn around, come on, Mony!
ROOM FULL OF TWELVE-YEAR-OLD KIDS: HEY, MOTHERFUCKER, GET LAID, GET FUCKED!!
This weird phenomenon gave us a chance to scream the word “fuck!” at the top of our lungs, which was great. But the real goal was still to pair up and dance to a slow song. “End of the Road” and “I’ll Make Love to You,” both by Boyz II Men, were solid options. “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love with You” by UB40 wasn’t bad, but its bullshit, quasi-Jamaican beats almost made it wade into fast-music territory, so it was risky.
Hands down, the ultimate slow song to feel out if you really had chemistry with another person was “I Swear” by All-4-One.
“And I swear . . . by the moon and the stars in the skies I’ll be there. (I’ll be there!)” It’s ironic that so many young Jewish men and women had their first feelings of intimacy sparked by what I’ve since learned is a decidedly Christian song.
My Jewish elementary school had uniforms, so I’d never really had to decide what I wanted my style to be. Bar and bat mitzvahs were my first chance, and I was jumping right to formal wear. I was a strange dresser—one of my only pieces of non-uniform clothing at that point was a black leather L.A. Raiders cap that I convinced my parents to buy me after I saw Ice Cube wearing one in a magazine. But that wouldn’t fly for a bar mitzvah, so I had to find inspiration elsewhere.
The movie “Tombstone” came out in 1993, and, although it wasn’t a massive box-office or critical hit (the New York Times called it “morally ambiguous”), it made an impression on many, mostly owing to an amazing performance by Val Kilmer that was publicly praised by President Bill Clinton—which is the single most nineties sentence one could write. As 1994 rolled around, a young me was smitten with not only Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday but the entire Western aesthetic. The result? A fuckload of vests.