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On Being Bar Mitzvahed

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Zachary Hirsch felt like he’d been shaking hands in the lobby of the synagogue for eternity when the strange men approached him. He’d spotted them in the second row during the ceremony, right behind his family, and they had made an Impression .

The plump, friendly looking one had nearly tripped over himself to touch his siddur to the scrolls, and Zach had to resist the urge to snicker. [*]He swallowed that urge completely a bit later when a single lemon sucker hit him square on the nose and the man had cheered. He seemed overjoyed to simply be there.

On the other hand, the tall, lanky one with dark hair was a bit more serious. Zach had been watching him during the rabbi’s sermon, and while the man’s friend had been exuberant, he was pensive. His mouth quirked into a frown a few times; his eyes remained hidden behind dark shades. When Zach circled the synagogue with the Torah in his arms, the man simply held his friend’s elbow and pulled him back to steadiness. Zach was chilled by his presence, but then he noticed the man mouthing along to the portion he’d been studying for months and the cold feeling disappeared.

Now, though, the man was smiling, reserved and quiet, as the pair walked over.

“Mazel tov!” the plump man said and held out a manicured, ink-stained hand, as if the siddur had rubbed off on him during the service.

Zach hollowly smiled as wide as he could and shook the man’s hand. He’d been doing this all day. “Thank you,” he said, hoping he sounded sincere even though he had no idea who these people were. His friends were hovering in a nearby corner with plates piled high with cookies and he was stuck here, greeting more people than he’d ever met in his life. “Uh...”

Ezra ,” the tall man chided his friend. “You’re scaring him. He couldn’t possibly remember us.”

“I do,” Zach insisted. It wasn’t a total lie - he remembered them from the ceremony at least. “I’m just shi- terrible with names.”

The tall one laughed. “No need to lie. You couldn’t remember us, frankly,” he said as he adjusted his sunglasses. Maybe he was blind. Maybe that’s why he was still holding onto his friend’s elbow. “You did very nicely in there.”

“Really?” Zach felt his face go red. He had completely fumbled through his speech, and while the rabbi had given him a comforting squeeze after all was said and done, he knew he’d be hearing it from the cantor soon enough for how he mumbled his Haftorah.

“Absolutely, my dear boy,” the plump one - Ezra - said. “Though do mind your language. It’s a holy day!”

The tall one scoffed. “All right, all right, angel, hush up, would you? A man can curse if he’d like.” He dropped his sunglasses down his nose and winked so fast that Zach knew he had to be imagining the strange yellow irises.

He was just tired. It had been a long day.

The eyes, though, that woke him up. Not blind, then. Still holding onto Ezra. Huh.

This was more interesting than cookies after all.

“Are you my father’s friends?” Zach asked, eager to keep the conversation going. This was the first time all day nobody approached him for more than five minutes to fuss with his hair or his tie or pinch his cheeks. For some reason, the rest of his guests were steering clear as long as he spoke to these two men. It was a relief .

“Well, not precisely,” Ezra said. “Anthony and I are more like... distant relatives.”

“Oh.” Well, that made sense. He hadn’t met a good third of the people he was supposedly related to. Still, now that Ezra had mentioned it, he could see the resemblance. “Uncle Anthony, you must be from my mother’s side, then. You look kind of like my grandfather.”

Anthony choked something that sounded a little like “ Uncle? Nghh ,” while Ezra patted him on the back reassuringly.

“Oh, yes, Anthony is absolutely from your mother’s side,” Ezra said. “Sorry about him, he’s just emotional. Last time we saw you, you were hardly a little blip of light.”[**]

That was a strange way to put being a baby, Zach thought, but he’d heard weirder in the past five hours. “And you? Are you from Dad’s side?” He knew a few distant relatives who were blond on that side of the family, though he was pretty sure his cousin Julie dyed hers that way.

His hand stilled on Anthony’s shoulder. “Oh, I’m rather a tag-along. Through marriage and all. Don’t expect to find resemblance in this face!” He laughed awkwardly as Uncle Anthony recovered.

“Ezra’s family,” he said with the same gravity that he had looked upon the bima during the Shema. “We all are, aren’t we?”

Oh .


“Of course,” he said, nodding along. The two men did seem to be a good pair, he thought. They dressed very differently than he’d have expected a couple to dress, not at all complementing each other like his aunts and uncles tried to do  - Uncle Anthony like he’d been to a stylist for the event, and Uncle Ezra like he’d pulled a few old pieces from his closet and tied it all together with a tartan bowtie - though their yarmulkes and tallit matched and looked very, very old. The dye had faded to only a few shades darker than the yellowed fabric, and over the shoulders, it was worn so thin that Zach could almost make out their suits underneath.[***]

Maybe they had been an old wedding gift - or a family heirloom passed down - or both.

They must have noticed him looking, because Uncle Anthony pulled his off, kissed the corners, and folded it into a neat pile. “Take it,” he said and pushed it into Zach’s hands.

“Oh no, I couldn’t.” Zach tried to pass it back, but Uncle Ezra deposited it back into his arms.

“Consider it a bar mitzvah gift,” he said and Zach found himself hugging the tallis close. Its fringes were worn and faded with use, but the fabric was soft and almost seemed to buzz with history. “We’ve got others at home just like it.”

“Well,” Uncle Anthony muttered. “Not just like it. That one in particular has seen quite a bit of trouble, do you remember when -”

“Quiet, you,” Uncle Ezra scolded and turned his magnificent smile toward Zach. “Like we said, mazel tov. You did excellently.”

“Thank you,” Zach replied, still in awe. He shut his mouth with a snap, aware he was beginning to gape. “Are you coming to the reception? We got enough cake to feed an army.”

Uncle Ezra opened his mouth as if about to accept, but Uncle Anthony cut him off. “Unfortunately, we’ve got to get going. But it was good to see you, Zachary. Enjoy the gift,” he said with a wink and whisked Uncle Ezra away.

Later that night, as Zach, exhausted and bleary eyed, put his new tallis away, a little white envelope fell from its folds. Enclosed was a card and a cheque for £666.[****]

Congratulations, Zachary. Ask all the questions you need to. Just don’t expect them all to get answered ;)

-Uncle Anthony