Gift horse with rotten mouths
The other day, I came across one of my barmitzvah presents — a beautiful, old, not so say ancient, evening scarf. Cream silk it is, with black-and-white silk fringes and my initials embroidered on it. It came from Sulka (of New York, London and Paris), a gentlemen’s outfitters who had catered for the Duke Of Windsor, Winston Churchill, Henry Ford and Clark Gable. We are talking luxury from the days when luxury was exclusive, not some cheapjack international label hawked in every airport and shopping mall with knock-offs going cheap everywhere from China to Chelmsford.
I can’t remember who gave it to me but clearly it was someone who had high hopes that I would mature into the sort of chap who was rarely out of a dinner jacket after 6.30pm. Sad to say, I haven’t lived up to it. Not only have I not spent evenings at opera galas or palaces or embassies, I haven’t even been a regular at the sort of simchas where a chap without a silk evening scarf would feel underdressed.
These days kids get barmitzvah presents that guarantee “instant gratification”, which is a nasty way of saying something a boy will actually use and enjoy from the moment he lays hands on it. Mine was the time of “today I am a fountain pen” – a parody barmitzvah speech that was a tragically true account of the fountain of fountain pens barmitzvah provoked. Swans, Watermans, Parker 51s. They looked better in your blazer pocket than a cheap Platignum or Osmiroid but nobody presented them to you thinking they would give you a good time. They would come in handy when you became a solicitor.
My uncle gave me a bicycle — a black Raleigh Roadster with sit-up-and-beg handlebars and a chain completely encased in heavy metal. It was no fun and it took a crane to lift it. I was told it would be useful “when I went to university” — possibly the most depressing thing anyone ever said to me. But being a dutiful type I kept it and did take it to university where happily it was stolen on the first day.
Nobody gave a fountain pen for a good time.
Apart from that, there was The Book Of Jewish Thoughts presented by the shul committee “on the occasion of…” There must have been tens of thousands of these given out and without a doubt are among the least-read books in history. I never opened mine but I’m quite sure that, as page-turners, they make A Brief History of Time look like 50 Shades of Grey. Then there was the set of machzorim from my parents that I had to inscribe myself: “To David from Mummy and Daddy”. The Star Hebrew Book Company, New York edition. To use them, you have to know your way around because when the chap on the bimah says: “we’re on page 473 in this machzor and 592 in that one” it’s not among them.
The beauty of an iPad is that it does away with the need for a fountain pen, or books of Jewish Thoughts come to that. And what about a machzor on an iPad? Or why not give the kinderle a Kindle? There’s a bit of a debate going on among the devout about what would make a Kindle kosher for Shabbos. And if Kindles are today’s fountain pens, at least there’s eBay.