Life & Culture

Claire Calman: ‘I’m off to a family barmitzvah’

Map-reading, a magician and many cousins



It’s Shabbat and, although I am not a regular shul-goer (though I do regularly not go so I have cultivated some sort of habit…), it’s time to scrub up and don a proper frock as we’re off to a family bar mitzvah. Sadly, I have virtually no relatives myself, but happily The Husband is well supplied with more than enough to share. He has so many cousins, second cousins and cousins-once-or-twice-removed, that I suspect he must have acquired them as some sort of bulk discount deal.

My brother-in-law has offered to drive and so, instead of arguing about the route as is our usual bar mitzvah custom, The Husband and I get to sit in the back and enjoy the spectacle of my in-laws arguing at the front, apparently employing almost the exact same script that The Husband and I favour. As well as using the car’s sat-nav, they have a printed-out map from the internet plus written instructions from the hosts, thus creating the maximum number of possibilities for contradiction and confusion. But I soon realise that they are mere amateurs when it comes to arguing no-one pulls over suddenly, or shouts, or threatens to get out of the car.

The shul was formerly a chapel so when we spot a likely looking building with a security guard outside, we start towards it, but the guard smiles and points up the road clearly, our lack of hats/sheitels indicate that we have no business there and should keep on going towards the Reform shul another 100 metres up the road.

We shed our coats and find seats then begin our traditional ritual: every time we sit down, another cousin enters and we bob up again to go and greet them. Up, down, up, down perfect preparation for the service.

The bar mitzvah boy does a first-rate job and the rabbi is lovely, very haimishe and explains just the right amount for the non-Jewish guests.

We repair to the hall for kiddush, and I pop into the adjacent kitchen to offer help. The rabbi enters and asks if I know how to cut chollah quickly into small pieces for kiddush? I do not (my Jewish education is patchy at best). He slices the loaf lengthwise end to middle then across, then rotates for the other end. Job done in 30 seconds. So that’s what they teach them at rabbinic school...

Having somewhat fallen off the wagon with my challenging low-FODMAP/no gluten regime, I am trying to stay off bread. It should be easier if I hand round the chollah because I won’t have a hand free to take a piece. I avert my gaze from it so that I am not tempted to dip my head like a horse snuffling in a trough.

Afterwards, we head to their family home for the party (more complicated directions, more arguing). There is a marquee out back, with multiple layers of cling-film covering gorgeous pale grey carpet in the hall and on the stairs. I should employ this at home given The Husband’s reluctance to remove his footwear when he comes in, but unfortunately the end of the cling film in our house has long since been lost due to his inability to tear off a piece without sabotaging the whole roll.

Having missed out on the floury temptations at kiddush, and already well into my first glass of Champagne, I know I must eat to blot up the alcohol or I will inevitably trip over the low garden wall that runs along the length of the marquee. I waylay a waitress bearing portions of fish goujons and chips but she tells me they’re for the kids. I consider pointing out that a) I am very immature as any of my friends will tell you and b) I have another spot on my chin so I am basically thirteen. Instead, I smile politely and wait for the adult offering while seeing if any of the children are small enough that I might predictably win a tussle for their portion.

The Husband spots a man in a tweed suit who, though not wearing a bow tie or carrying a semi-concealed rabbit about his person, he identifies as a magician for the event. The tweedy man says he’s not a magician but likes to “read” people. He gives me a coin to hide in one hand then he’ll guess which hand according to my “tell” like poker players watch out for. He writes something down on a small piece of paper and folds it up and sets it on the table. He guesses correctly three times in a row.

When I unfold the paper, it has the three guesses on it before I’d even had the coin in my hand. Husband and I are duly amazed. It isn’t until the next day that I realise he must have had the possible combinations written down in each of his many suit pockets and simply swapped it over while distracting me and talking about tells.

Or he simply surmised: Right Right Right – that I am always right, because I am. Whatever The Husband may tell you…

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