Blast From the Past: 9/23/78

On this day forty-three years ago: my bat mitzvah.

This is a new Oldster Magazine series called “Blast From the Past,” in which writers recall pivotal, long-ago days from their lives. Like all the series and features on Oldster, it’s free to everyone. To help keep it accessible to everyone regardless of income, and to help pay writers, please consider becoming a paying subscriber.


At my bat mitzvah with my great uncle and aunt, Artie and Lucille. Lucille was a pistol. She tried to steal my shoes that day. She also mooned everyone to get them to smile for a family photo.

Forty-three years ago today, I celebrated my bat mitzvah. I wish I could say it’s some great, joyous memory for me, but the truth is, I did not have fun that day.

I was incredibly stressed out. As the cantor’s daughter, I felt tremendous pressure to get my haftarah and torah portions right. I was going through a hard time in general, struggling with being 13, my body beginning to change, Mean Girls dynamics beginning to brew among my friend group. It was supposed to be my special day, but everything just felt off.

I awoke to Aunt Lu busting into my room, grabbing the shoes from my closet, and then clomping around the house.

The day began with my famously outrageous, chutzpadik great aunt Lucille trying to steal my shoes. It was my first pair of Very Grown Up Footwear, smart burgundy Caressa brand wedges with a tassel that I’d gotten from Posture Line Shoes in Rockville Centre, and I was exceedingly proud of them. I awoke to Aunt Lu busting into my room, grabbing the shoes from my closet, and then clomping around the house. “You know, these might look better on me,” she said, and I ran upstairs to my mother, crying. (We were both a size 5 1/2; the next year, when I grew into a 6, we mailed the shoes to her in Miami.)

An other girl showed up to temple wearing my exact outfit—a Gunne Sax knock-off velvet skirt and shirt combo from Chwatzky’s department store in Oceanside—only the girl also had the blazer, which my mom had said we couldn’t afford.

My crush ignored me and flirted the whole day with another girl. And my uncle came up to me during the reception in the synagogue’s All Purpose Room—where a rented pinball machine and a juke box served as the entertainment—and said, very seriously, “You know, I regret not stopping and noticing things at my bar mitzvah so that I could look back and recall them. You should make a point of doing that, so you can remember yours.”

I felt as if he’d just handed me an important, heavy task that I didn’t want, and didn’t now how to perform correctly. But that didn’t stop me from obediently setting about trying. I stopped engaging with my friends and started going around the room, hyper-vigilantly committing things to memory. That’s the pinball machine at my bat mitzvah. That’s the juke box. Strawberry Letter 23 is playing right now.

But the worst bat mitzvah-related thing had happened months before, when I was studying the Hebrew chanting for the big day.

My dad had made me a practice tape on which he chanted my portions, along with the aliyot and other prayers I’d have to sing before and after the torah was opened. I would rehearse each day, playing the tape on a blue plastic Panasonic machine that I loved.

At the time, I also had a daily ritual of whispering my feelings into the recorder. I had a lot of feelings at the time. My parents had split up two years before, and I was adjusting to my mom dating, and my dad being part of a new family. Each week I was shuttled back and forth between two different homes in far-apart counties, and sometimes that meant I couldn’t join my friends when they socialized, which was of course a big deal in eighth grade.

Everything in my life felt hard, and I had no one to talk to about it. So I talked, very quietly, to my tape recorder.I would slide aside one of the doors to my bedroom closet, push my shoes out of the way, and sit down on the floor. Then I’d press the RECORD button and quietly unleash all my anguish.

I would slide aside one of the doors to my bedroom closet, push my shoes out of the way, and sit down on the floor. Then I’d press the RECORD button and quietly unleash all my anguish.

One day, though, I forgot to switch cassettes, and recorded all my anger and sorrow right over my bat mitzvah practice tape. When I realized my mistake, I was utterly mortified. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I stared at the practice cassette for what felt like forever, wishing I new some way to undo what I’d done. I can still conjure the chemical smell of its plastic.

I dreaded calling my father to tell him I’d need him to re-record my portions and prayers. But I had no choice, so I did. He scolded me, but then set to work recording another. I rehearsed with it every day after, without incident.

Without ever learning what the words meant, I memorized all the Hebrew melodies so well that, to this day, more than four decades later, I can still sing most of them by heart. If nothing else, it’s kind of a fun party trick.


Writer and Oldster Magazine found/editor Sari Botton lives in Kingston, NY. She’s a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. Her anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY was recently re-issued with seven new essays. She teaches creative nonfiction at Wilkes UniversityCatapult and Bay Path University. Her memoir-in-essays, And You May Find Yourself... will be published by Heliotrope in June, 2022.

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