The Duties of the Eldest Cousin

One weekend in Palo Alto. Three days with my maternal family. Too many Vodka-Cranberry Juices. One pretty darn tootin Bar Mitzvah for my cousin, Jon. Not too bad. Oh and my duties? Getting everyone drunk. Why do you ask?

Sunday night, about midnight, Ipstenit and I were finally home. Our adventure into the world of my maternal family had gone well, better than I’d hoped, and really the only thing missing had been my Uncle Max, who wasn’t coming since there’s some law that one person has to boycott family events, and this is his turn. It sucks, since I adore my Uncle Max, but now I’ll just have to visit him in Toronto.

So the Bar Mitzvah!


We got up way too early, kicked the cat out of the bags so we could put our Dob Kits in, got picked up by a shuttle and driven to the airport, got some cheap books and breakfast, listened to music until boarding, listened to more music while picking at the skimpy Kosher meal and while avoiding scary Jody Foster movie.

The plane landed, we got the car (to the delight of Ipstenit, since I don’t drive and she loves it), drove to the hotel getting lost a couple times, and checked in. As I checked in, a tall, strapping man comes up to me and asks if I’m me. I look at him and gape. This is my cousin Mike? I saw him last when he and I were in Spain (him 15, me 19). Of all my cousins, he and I are closest in age, with only 4 years between us. We’re also named for the same fellow, our grandfather Rabbi Mike, who died a little before the family learned Mom was knocked up with me. The Cousin Mike I remember didn’t have facial hair. I gape a little more and then we hug, as good cousins do. He hauls over Jon, who at 13 looks the same as he did at 11 (when I last saw him). My Uncle is also there, but I just saw him a couple months ago at my mother’s birthday party. Still, I’m happily hugging away as Ipstenit walks in and gets pulled into the hugs. She knows Uncle, but this is her first meeting of the others. Gran’s ‘guest’ Harry is also there, and has trouble with the whole lesbian thing, inisisting that Ipstenit must be related somehow. We avoid explaining for now, saying we want to unpack so our nice things for the dinner can get unwrinkled.

At the hotel room, we find that we’ve been upgraded to a nice King Size bed. We unpack, check out the room, get cat hair off our dinner clothes and call up some local friends. I used to go to school nearby, and Ipstenit and I had mutual friends who lived half an hour away. Naturally we drive over, skipping the family hair-cut and picture taking (we weren’t invited) and have Sushi with Miche. Miche’s husband comes by later and we hug more until us Ipstenot have to change for dinner.

Not knowing the area, we take my gran’s advice and leave 20 min early. We get to the party (which is at a friend’s house), 15 minutes early. Gran doesn’t show up for half an hour, and she’s brought Harry, who’s the photographer as it turns out. He’s also a dirty old man, but that’s fine. Gran spends most of the night explaining she’s not dating Harry, which turns out to be the truth, but not something anyone believed until Sunday. A troop of family and close friends had gone to services (we’d skipped out in order to see my relatives, whom I’d not seen for years). Auntie was thirlled we came, Dana (the middle cousin) thanked everything we’d come and the older three cousins (me, Mrs. Ips, Mike and Dana) formed a coalition to keep each other sane.

Shortly before the synagogue goers got back, we get a call that my mom is late becuase her plane crashed. No one wants to tell me, and I stand firm with Auntie, pointing out this is my mother. Turns out the plane (a small private plane owned by her friend Hap) landed safely, but on the taxi the landing gear snapped and flipped up, crashing into the front window. Everyone was fine, though I suspect it’ll be a while before Hap flys again. Mom and Step-Dad show up an hour later, looking lovely as usual. The dinner goes well, Auntie and Gran being surprised that I know all the prayers and songs (since I used to be the one who knew nothing and didn’t want to know anything), but I do and I know what to do and when.

As we drink coffee and nibble desert, Auntie lets me know that I have to dress the Torah on Saturday. Remembering the 3-piece banker suit attire of her old synagogue, I wince and tell her I’d been planning on wearing a blue blazer and tan slacks. Preppy. She says it’s okay, and starts to explain to me what I’ll have to do. I just grin and tell her I’ve dressed a Torah before, but I let her explain anyway. It all goes well and we leave early, citing jet lag. After 20 hours awake, we get to the hotel, set the alarm and fall asleep.


Up early, we make coffee, iron clothes, get dressed, have a tiny bite to eat and boogie to the synagogue. First, we see women wearing talitot and kippot (that’s the prayer shawl and the little hats, aka Yarlmukes). Mrs. Ips and I go to a Reform synagogue, but the last time I went to Auntie’s synagogue (in Toronto), it’d been rather strictly conservative. This one was almost reform. Women on the Bimah, in talitot and kippot, chanting? Nice. And! While no woman wore pants (that I could see) besides me and Mrs. Ips, the gents were dressed down from my preppster oufit.

We were the first of the family there, again, and sat three rows back on the right. I snagged a kippa, Mrs. Ips wore her own, and we cheerfully joined in. We don’t often do the Conservative route often, since the one near us is a little snide about the gay thing. While I didn’t see any homosexuals around, the staff was pretty cool about us and were happy to have us. So go us! About 10 min into the service, Auntie and her troop arrive. They put on the little doily hats that adult women wear, which always crack me up. I’m not used to it, since at the Toronto synagogue, they wore big froomy hats. Gran and Harry arrive, and Gran wears a kippah. Her hair is a beautifull white, has been since I was about three, and with a black kippah and blue dress on, she looks great. They’re all sitting on the right side, so it’s just me and Mrs. Ips on the left.

My mother comes about half an hour into service and is surprised to see me not only following along, but reading some of it. My reading in Hebrew is slow, but I’ve only been taking classes for 3 weeks, so I think I deserve a break. Mom sits by me until she has her aliah (blessing before reading the Torah). Poor Mom was horribly uncomfortable and embarassed at it, since she’s a confirmed Athiest at this point (I was only ever Agnostic). She came back to the seats blushing, and I hugged her since she looked like she needed up. After the Torah portion was read (Lech Lecha), Mike and I went up. He lifted the Torah, I dressed it, and we sat up on the Bimah until Jon finished the Haftorah.

I want to pause and explain something to my non-Jewish friends who are crossing their eyes about now. The Bimah is the raised stage, or dias, on which everyone stands to read and bless the Torah. The Torah is the holy scroll on which the Hebrew Bible is written, it contains the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Haftorah is the after Torah, and bascially is bascially what Christans read in the Prophets section of their bible, the main difference being the order of the books of the Prophets. The Haftorah that we read each week usually has some significance to the Torah portion we read, so think of it as a related reading.

Still there? Good. Hang in there.

After services, we had Kiddush, where we thank Adonai (G-d) for making wine (then we drink the wine) and bread (then we eat the bread), and then we have lunch. This was lox and bagels, kugel, fruit, hummus, salad and cake type things. We ate, we laughed, we danced a little. I got caught in a conversation that ended with everyone asking if I was going to have a Bat Mizvah since I’d ‘rediscovered’ Judaism. Mom said she’d send me Rabbi Mike’s tallit (which is a huge deal to Gran), and Gran insisted that I should have an adult Bat Mitzvah. I jokingly said I’d have one with her (she never had one either), so who knows.

After Kiddush, Mrs. Ips and I went to see some friends while Mom, Auntie and Dana did their hair. We got back and changed for the party. And this is where it gets fun!

The party was across the street from our hotel, so it was a quick walk to it all. Mike and I wore matching suits (which was funny to everyone), and immediatly we got drinks and noshed on cocktail snacks until the dinner. After an hour of the nosh, we went in to dance. The Horah is a big deal, and we danced in circles around our relatives. Mom and Auntie cut a rug and danced together, all the family danced with the friends around us, and then we chaired Jon. He was terrified. We also chaired Auntie, who was annoyed, but went with it. We had dinner, we had more drinking, we got Gran plastered on Cosmopolitans (she had no idea what they were), the Cousins (again, me, Mike and Dana) tried very hard to get Jon drunk, but he was difficult. Mom and I had a serious chat about me and the whole Jewish thing. We danced until almost midnight, when the hotel booted us.


Hungover, Mrs. Ips and I had breakfast with Gran, went for a drive, and went to Auntie’s for family brunch. Mom had come early and left, since she had an early flight, having had to wrangle one since Hap’s plane was still down for the count. Dana left next, driving back up to school with a group of her girlfriends. Gran got a ride home with a friend from her retirement home. Mike was staying an extra day. Mrs. Ips and I left after a couple hours and went to drop off our car and get checked in. We made nice at the counter, and this wonderful agent got us seats as far forward as possible, with no one in the window seat. So we stretched out and flew home.

The plane landed early, we picked up the shuttle home and survived it all.

It was certainly a lot more fun than I’d thought it would be. Everyone behaved, everyone laughed, but I know all teh cousins missed Max. I have no idea if I’ll do the Bat Mitzvah, but Mom said if I did it in Israel, at Rabbi Mike’s old synagogue or in Boston where Dad was studying before he went to Israel and met Mom. It’s a big undertaking, and I’d want to do it Conservative (where you chant, but don’t translate) and lead some of the service. I’m not sure how that would work with my Rabbis, and I really would like to do it with Rabbi Aaron, since I adore him.

It’s a lot to think about.

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