December 10, 2019

I crashed a bat mitzvah party four years ago. I still haven’t mailed the gift

On my nightstand is a modest pile of books that I have not read and — if everything goes according to plan —I will never need to read. I have found that a short stack of literary dread is all it takes to threaten me into unconsciousness, night after night. A furtive glance at the spine of “War and Peace,” for example, is usually enough to tuck me in.

Contributing about an inch to this tower is a paperback volume by the humorist David Sedaris, which the author signed when his tour stopped in Madison, Wis., in 2013. That I dare not begin the book has less to do with its formidability as a text than its true ownership. The inscription begins “To Sophie.” I can’t read it.

I did not know Sophie in 2013, nor did she know me. To this day, we have never met. But I owed her a present, so I handed Sedaris a fresh copy of his book during a signing event and described the situation. He opened the book, then paused.

“What do you say to someone,” he asked me, “on their bat mitzvah?”

Jewish culture isn’t nonexistent in Madison, where I lived for two years post-graduation, but it’s fair to say it lacks the vital presence of larger American Jewish communities. There is no kosher deli. There is no Schechter school. JSwipe is a wasteland. And the righteous path is beset on all sides by mountains of cheese — biting cheddars and decadent Goudas and the G.O.A.T. goat cheese — which have curdled in the state of Wisconsin with that forbidden enzyme, rennet.

So, I did not anticipate a religious experience on my first date with Lily, a co-worker I had asked out earlier that week (and whose name I have changed). Lily was Chinese-American and — at least for now! — unaffiliated; our Saturday evening date consisted of bouldering, then burritos. We got along fine, if not famously, talking about our ambitions and regrets over dinner. She had gone corporate instead of enlisting in Teach For America; I’d chosen the consulting life over less lucrative creative endeavors. We both wanted big weddings and 11 children, and we were both 23.

We hadn’t planned anything after the Mexican food. It was our first date; we were probably going to just walk along the promenade until we fell in love or got bored of each other. But a fate more concrete — and more romantic — appeared on a small sign in the window of a performing arts center, announcing the bat mitzvah of a young woman named Sophie.

I knew what we were doing next.

“Have you ever crashed a bat mitzvah party before?” I asked.

“I don’t know what a bat mitzvah is,” Lily responded.

It would have been true to call it a religious experience. But I told her it was a rite of passage with an open bar. She was sold.

To her credit, Lily cared enough to find out more, and I filled her in under the guise of establishing deep cover. As we scrambled back to our apartments to dress up, I peppered her with the basics: Sophie had turned 13, and thus was celebrating the onset of Jewish adulthood and accepting the burden of the faith. She likely had read from the Torah earlier, in temple; she definitely had made a speech. The speech was either “just beautiful” or “actually very original.”

Once we were there, figuring out who Sophie was would be easy. Verily, a girl cannot become a woman without her friends and family signing in the margins around her blown-up photograph. That’s straight out of Leviticus. (Sorry, I don’t make the rules.)

So, we strategized, once we find the board, we can find out what Sophie looks like and quickly round out our backstory. I would be there to pick up my younger brother — a name we would pick off the board. Also, Lily and I were dating now and she wanted to convert. (Whoops! Spoke too soon on that one.)

There was only one person we needed to avoid at all costs, the only person who knows everyone at a bat mitzvah: the mom. (Yes, I understand this operation is like three-quarters of the way to “Fauda,” but aren’t most Jewish gatherings?)

We headed back to the arts center. There was, indeed, a bar, and it was, indeed, open to the ballroom-size crowd gathered to celebrate Sophie. I got a whiskey and Coke; Lily skipped the Coke. The bartender pointed us to the poster board, which, in what will go down as a first in Jewish history, had no picture on it! Fortunately, it still was easy to spot Sophie: Only one girl gets to wear a red dress.

Getting the hang of things, Lily found disguises for us — pink plastic hats, neon necklaces and shutter shades — and we got our photos taken in them by a hired professional whose work we never saw. We got another round at the bar. Pushing our luck, we waded onto the dance floor and got down like the embarrassing older brother and his girlfriend we were. A decade after my own coming of age, I still had no reservations about grinding to R. Kelly jams.

We were falling in love and getting bored of each other all at once. We also were drawing too much attention, and shortly the jig was up. As a Taylor Swift anthem I had never liked this much before blared over the speakers, our hostess greeted us — warmly.

“It’s enough for you to drink our alcohol,” Sophie’s mom said, smiling. “But do you think you could take off soon?”

Bashful and a little tipsy, we nodded and headed for the door. Lily never got to see them lift the chair.

It’s tempting to be cynical about the put-ons of bar and bat mitzvahs, and of Jewish traditions in general. Every bat mitzvah girl has a poster board. Many will wear a red dress to the party. And a few have a mom you want to avoid. (Kidding!) And yet each coming-of-age celebration — not just the party, but also the Torah reading, the speech, even the oversized suit you bought in some yenta’s backyard that she says you’ll grow into — is a joy apart.

Especially on a first date. If this was the only Yiddishkayt Lily ever saw, Sophie’s family painted a better picture than any elevator pitch I could have given. And Sophie’s mom didn’t stop us from ducking in the photo booth on our way out. Lily and I kissed on the fourth exposure.

We should have brought a gift.

A few weeks later, I was back in the same building listening to David Sedaris read from his diary. I didn’t bring a date to the event — actually, Lily and I never went on a second one — and there was no open bar. Sedaris’ reading was just beautiful. Or was it actually pretty original?

I decided I would buy Sedaris’ book for Sophie. How I would get it to her I’d figure out later.

When we met afterward, Sedaris didn’t know what the proper congratulations were for the occasion. But he managed to come up with the right thing to say. To Sophie, his inscription reads. I’m so happy you’re Jewish.

The book, “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” idles on my nightstand for now. I’ll be sure to bring it to the wedding.

Louis Keene is a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal. He tweets @thislouis_ and he emails at