Family Matters

The White Tuxedo

Saturday Night Fever Comes to the Bar Mitzvah

Magazine Issue
September/October 2011
Family Matters September/October 2011

At the Celebración Bridal and Tuxedo shop, I hurry after my almost-13-year-old son as he darts past racks of fuchsia, teal, and purple sateen bridesmaid’s dresses. We meet at the cashier’s, under a wall festooned with tiny white baptismal gowns, as I wonder, not for the first time, just what the heck I—a sartorially modest mommy preparing for her firstborn son’s bar mitzvah—am doing in this temple of gentile flamboyance.

My son found Celebración on the Internet, shortly after he saw Daniel Craig play James Bond in Casino Royale. With the attentive support of Cedric, the shopkeeper, who hails from Toluca, Mexico, he’s discovered an ensemble that goes by the name “The White Contender.” It includes an ivory, pin-striped suit with a matching vest, black shirt, black Windsor tie, and optional, shiny white shoes. My son is opting for all of it, yet I suspect I’ve already dodged a bullet. On our first trip here, he’d lingered ominously over a catalogue photograph of a “Zoot” tux with a sweepingly long jacket and black-and-white fedora, while Cedric asked if he’d like to see the accompanying silver chain.

Now, as I lean against a glass counter filled with rhinestone tiaras, Cedric is carrying out a plastic-wrapped, size 12 Contender. I can tell that, to my broadly grinning child, the attire has transformative power, even as it speaks to me less of Bond and more of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

The bar mitzvah ceremony is four days away. My son, whom I’ll call Buzz for the electric-jolt way he so often affects me, has been lobbying for the tux for the past five weeks, as friends and family members have contributed their views. My husband said he didn’t like the idea, although he left the final decision to me. My older sister and father urged me to stand fast against this latest demand, which, they warned, risked embarrassing our family and spoiling Buzz for good. My sister asked how I figured Buzz’s choice reflected on his regard for Jewish traditions. My father wanted to know what the rabbi thought.

In the slanting September afternoon light, Cedric holds open the dressing-room curtain to hand Buzz a pair of white dress socks. My son fingers the silky fabric with delight.

I’m trying to remember just when I said yes to The Contender, when an image floats back to me of Buzz as a yowling nine-pound newborn. My giddy dreams took wing as the nurse called out his health-assessment Apgar scores—a perfect 10 and 10! Supine on the delivery table, I conjured up a lifetime of exceptional achievement, imagining a precociously civic-minded genius who’d be interviewed by 60 Minutes at age 10 after developing a plan to end world poverty. Out of the range of the camera, I’d smile to myself at the thought that I might ever have wondered whether those 22 hours of labor would be worth it.

What I couldn’t have imagined then, of course, was how much continuing labor was in store for me. From his first hour on earth, Buzz tested my limited patience with his seemingly limitless will. As a baby, he rarely slept through the night. As a child, he plied me with extravagantly unreasonable requests. World poverty was nowhere on his agenda. Instead, he wanted a pet wallaby, a trip to Fiji, and his own bathroom, and he wouldn’t, simply couldn’t, even try to understand when the answer was no. I ended up telling him “no” so often that, eventually, I had to train myself to wait long enough at least for him to finish voicing his request.

Our conflicts were heightened by a mismatch of neurological glitches. At 9, Buzz was diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, with a side order of oppositional defiant disorder. Like many parents of children with ADHD, I share my child’s clinical-grade distraction, complicated in my case with a side order of high anxiety. By Buzz’s preteen years, we were fighting all the time, his provocations reliably igniting my reactivity.

While each of us surely was flawed, I’d learned by adulthood how to mask my neuropsychological malfunctions so as not to embarrass myself—at least most of the time—in public. Consequently, it was Buzz who was most often on trial, at school and at home. Ever restless and easily bored, he piled up poor grades, detentions, and suspensions. His junior high school Spanish teacher once sent him to the office for doing the Macarena in his chair. His weak mental brakes surely also played a part in his charging an unauthorized $142 worth of Pokemon paraphernalia to my Amazon account.

In short, he was never quite the shining model of conventional success that I’d envisioned on first hearing those Apgar scores. Not that it stopped me from continually trying to mold him into that mythical being, or from suffering, loudly, when he wouldn’t conform.

Buzz calls me in now, to watch him preen before the mirror. At every other bar mitzvah I’ve ever been to, the boys have worn respectable, sober, dark suits. It’s only my son who wants to look like a vanilla popsicle.

Nevertheless, I smile back at him, and nod with what I hope looks like approval.

Nothing about this bar mitzvah journey has been easy. Throughout this past year, Buzz fought against going to his tutoring sessions, and from what I can tell, hasn’t once studied at home. Nor has he, even at this late date, decided on his requisite philanthropic “mitzvah project,” even as so many of his peers are already well along, tutoring underprivileged schoolchildren or raising money to send to Darfur.

My worst embarrassment came at the mandatory bar mitzvah parent–child retreat, last spring, which Buzz had furiously resisted attending. The program would be boring and irrelevant, he argued; the food would be awful; the kids would be mean to him, and all the cool families would ignore the “mandatory” part and stay home. He’d turned out to be right about all of this—I must admit, there have been several times when he saw things more clearly than I. At the time, however, I dug in my heels and insisted he attend, on pain of a month with no electronics, even as I anguished: Why couldn’t we be the kind of family for whom this kind of thing is a piece of cake? And why did they have to plan the retreat on a night my husband was working?

At the woodsy Jewish campsite, I spent a miserably sleepless night on a stinky bunk-bed mattress, in a dorm room with five other not-particularly-friendly women. Buzz refused to sleep in his own dorm, sneaking away at night to camp out in our car with his flashlight and a Rick Riordan novel. In the morning, he demanded that we leave a day early.

“Look,” I said, bleary-eyed and already starting to cave. “Let’s negotiate.” “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!” he wailed.

Back at Celebración, Buzz pops out from behind the curtain, back in his jeans and T-shirt. Cedric meets me at the tiara display. I inhale slowly and write out the check.

What I can’t know at this moment, of course, is how our rabbi will respond, tomorrow, when I finally get up the nerve to warn him about Buzz’s planned attire. “Yasher koach!” Rabbi Michael will say, which is Hebrew for “more power to him!” after which, bless his heart, he’ll tell me what he wore at his bar mitzvah.

Nor can I possibly predict, as we pack up The Contender to take home, just how splendidly Buzz will recite his Hebrew blessings (did he study in secret?), or how proud he’ll make us all with his thoughtful concluding speech, including its last-minute revelation of his plan to send a large part of his gift money to an old babysitter who’s fallen on hard times. Or how ultimately fine he’ll look in that tux, its whiteness no longer gaudily absurd, but more like what white so often represents to the nonjaded: hope triumphant.

On this afternoon at Celebración, I have no grounds whatsoever to expect such good fortune. It’s really all I can do to wave aside images of disaster. But wave them aside I do, because of what finally stands out so clearly: that Buzz, in his distinctive style, is now careening toward manhood, with his bar mitzvah ushering in the imminent end of my role as keeper of great expectations, and of yaysayer or naysayer. Left in its wake is a new, simpler dream: that Buzz will somehow manage to keep finding allies, out there in the world, who say “yasher koach!” to the best of his improbable ideas.

Illustration by Adam Niklewicz

Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of five books, including Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention.