Above: My cake had a frosted siddur!
Sidney Gross (1941-2016)
Bar Mitzvah parties in the fifties were just like sweet sixteens or weddings, with everybody trying to outdo everybody else. My parents were no doubt trying to keep up with the Katzes , and on my own level I too wanted to show my personal friends that I could do them one better. If Harold had his party in the basement of his home, mine was in the banquet hall. If Harvey’s cake had two tiers, mine would have a frosted siddur.
Most of the invitations were done on flat offset, but mine were engraved. You could run your fingers over the text and feel the lettering. Not that we were people who simply threw money away lavishly on things of this sort. In this instance, my father made a special trip to the Lower East Side where he was able to make a good deal with a printer he had known from his own youth. Along with the invitations went the small reply cards, each tucked into a tiny hand addressed envelope which was franked with a three cent stamp. For weeks before my Bar Mitzvah, the first thing I’d ask my mother when I came home from school for lunch was how many of the reply cards had come back that day. If somebody declined to attend, I felt a deep sense of hurt, even if I didn’t know who the person was.
My criterion for inviting personal friends to my party was quite simple: had I been or was I going to be invited to theirs. Needless to say, on this criterion, girls were automatically excluded. My parents’ criteria must have been a lot more complicated than mine. In fact their reasoning was so complex that I don’t understand it to this day. I still have a copy of the guest list and there are names on it that I’ve never heard before or since—second cousins, friends of friends, old-time business associates.
There is an old joke about Bar Mitzvah presents, stale even in my time, which was a parody of the saying “Today I am a man.” It went “Today I am a fountain pen.” Evidently the fountain pen was the gift of preference to an earlier generation, and the new man must have gone into the world armed with several dozen. By the time I was thirteen, cash was really the only acceptable gift. Even in 1954, inflation must have been a problem. I can remember Advertising Council posters on the subway train which pictured a snake being held to the ground with a forked stick and the caption FIGHT INFLATION. No, it had to be money for an event like this. In my time, ten dollars was the average gift. Twenty-five was what you got from a relative or close friend of the family. Parents might give fifty, or even a hundred, but one hundred dollars (good today for a few fill-ups of gas) was the absolute top.
The night before the actual ceremony, my father was more concerned with briefing me on the strategy of how to collect my gifts than he was with the actual synagogue service. Once the party was underway, I was to go around to each table and ask if everything was all right. I was then to kiss each lady on the cheek and shake hands with the gentlemen. At this point, each man would be expected to produce a small white envelope with the name “Sidney” or “Master Sidney Gross” written on it. This was the payoff. I was to thank each person and put the envelope into my inner breast pocket. My suit, as a matter of fact, was tailored with two inside pockets for just this purpose. When both pockets were filled, I was to rendezvous with my father behind the hat check counter. He would relieve me of the envelopes and sequester them for safe keeping. Under no circumstances was I to drop or lose an envelope!
When we finally got home that evening after the Bar Mitzvah party, all of us—two boys and two parents—repaired to the kitchen table where each envelope was opened and the contents and giver discussed. Nobody looked at the greeting cards. I know for a fact that many parents appropriated the take to cover the cost of the party. With all due respect to my parents, they didn’t do this.
Although I don’t know how much I actually received, a substantial amount was invested for me in what was then a newfangled idea, a growth-oriented mutual fund. It was a smart move during the fifties. The stock market was bullish and the sky seemed the limit. I left the money in the fund and let it accrue interest until 1968. That year, my wife and I studied the quarterly report and noticed that the share value had been declining for some time. We pulled the money out and used it as the down payment on our first house. There it was, fourteen years later, the past suddenly impinging on the present. And without the money, without the Bar Mitzvah, I would not be sitting as my desk in my comfortable suburban home writing this now.