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The White Tuxedo: Saturday Night Fever Comes to the Bar Mitzvah

By Katherine Ellison

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 AD/HD, 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.

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