Two Men and a Torah: Style at the Gates of Manhood
Sam and Jake with their new outfits, post Style-Up. These guys make 13 look easy. (All professional photography courtesy of Jeff Bartee, http://www.jeffbartee.com).
It’s hard to be a bar mitzvah boy. Excuse me: bar mitzvah man.
See, that’s the problem, right there. Once we’re adults, being neither-here-nor-there is cool and edgy and interesting. But at the gates of manhood (according to Jewish tradition) or teenagerhood (according to everyone else), being in-between can be a real bummer.
Consider this: in school, very little freedom of choice. Legally, almost no rights. Your heroes are at least twice your age, and you have the sense of being an adult, but only in potential. At the same time, society (and your hormones) are telling you that you’re no longer a little kid, and you stand to lose a lot of the sweet feelings of being protected you had when you were little. To makes things worse, you’re still probably still little.
On the other hand, Jewish tradition takes a bar/bat-mitzvah very seriously (in Hebrew, bat mitzvah is the feminine). There is no transition period. All the laws and customs and responsibilities of Jewish Peoplehood are suddenly on your shoulders; yesterday, all the laws of Jewish adulthood were “not yet,” and today, it’s “go time” – you are responsible, like any Jewish adult, to study Torah, to give charity, and even to play vital, communal roles: for instance, to make a prayer-quorum for a grieving neighbor. No child can do that.
You are a 13-year-old adult.
Not a picture of me-at-13 per se, but basically, a picture of me at 13.
For a bar mitzvah man, one’s own physical appearance can present challenges. For example, in 1987, I had braces, a bowl-cut, chipmunk cheeks, and glasses with tinted lenses. Tinted lenses! I figured that a) glasses weren’t cool, b) sunglasses were. But you can’t go around wearing sunglasses indoors, right?! So: hybrid shades.
Meanwhile, I had no style of my own. I wore whatever my mother bought me, and for my bar mitzvah, I figured I would don the garment of my masculine birthright: a suit. A 3-piece suit from Kohl’s “Husky boys” department. I looked like a stumpy, pre-pubescent banker.
Jake and Sam, however, have more style in their pinkies than 13-year-old me had in his entire hand and arm together, wrapped in tefillin or otherwise. Jake is a very dapper, style-conscious young man with his own burgeoning Instagram following, and Sam is athletic and handsome with a killer smile. Neither has a bowl cut.
Both needed outfits: for the bar-mitzvah ceremony and for the after-party. Meet Jake and Sam.
While I’ve often said that shoes are the foundation of every outfit, for Sam and Jake, this also served as a kind of “short-hand” for what aesthetic they were looking for. In the video above, each says the same thing: that they’re looking for something stylish. But here’s where their paths diverged.
Jake chose gravitated towards Clark’s desert boots and a pair of laceless wingtips. Each shoe walks the line between fancy and casual – perfect for a Bar Mitzvah and party. (For more on high-low mashup, click here). Meanwhile, Sam admired black leather Chucks and a pair of blue boat shoes. Both (like Jake’s picks) can be dressed up or dressed down, but Sam’s choices were sportier and helped to guide the color palette of his outfit.
I was struck, working with Sam and Jake, how differently two twins could relate to style. Each had their own ideas of what worked for them and what didn’t, but each was eager to branch out, to stretch, and to try something new.
It seems to me that while becoming bar/bat mitzvah is very much about the responsibilities of adulthood, it is just as much a precious opportunity for young men and women to hit the “reset” switch on who they have been since early childhood, and to begin making new choices for themselves: to explore who they are and who they want to be.
And while much of this growth is invisible to the outside world, new, carefully chosen clothes can give him/her the chance to openly express and celebrate these newfound freedoms, choices, directions, and inspirations. Indeed, seeing Jake’s eyes light up as we put the finishing touches on his outfit – and seeing Sam catch his reflection in a men’s jacket and grown-up, stylish shoes – it reminded me why I feel so passionately about style.
Style was perplexing, to me, when I was 13. I felt as in the dark about what I wanted to wear to school each day as I did about what I wanted to be when I grew up. But I remember that day, when I saw my first pair of Chuck Taylors on my feet (orange, no less). I knew that I was ready to take my first steps into deciding for myself how I wanted to live my life.
Wearing those shoes made my outsides matched my insides. And isn’t that the definition of style?
This year, celebrating the 28th anniversary of my Bar-Mitzvah.
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