A box of long-forgotten party invitations gives the author a new perspective on 1980s Long Island—and her own 12-year-old self.
In 1988, the year I turned 12, I attended some 60 bat mitzvahs on Long Island, New York. They ranged from small, religious to-dos held in synagogue basements to phantasmagorical frenzies of lavish food, hired male dancers, six-piece orchestras, and mother-daughter couture dresses (see: Keeping Up with the Steins).
That year, I undertook the project of making a visual and written record of the bat mitzvah season. I kept every invitation I received and used their blank backs to write a detailed review of the food, clothing, and social dynamics of the party. At the end of that year, I put the invitations in a box in my parents' house in Rockaway, New York, where they remained untouched for 24 years.
That is, until last summer, when I hoisted the box down from the top shelf of their basement closet and took it back with me on the bus to Washington, D.C., where I now live. Hurricane Sandy hit around one month later, and most likely, those invitations would have been washed away, along with all of the old photos, toys, tea-sets, Golden Books, and other childhood memorabilia stored at my parents' house. Fortunately, the bat mitzvah invitations were safe, and one night not long ago, I sat down to read them.
Immediately, I realized I had in my hands a living record of a very special time and place in the history of American Judaism. I had the great stroke of luck to be going to bat mitzvahs in the 1980s in Nassau County, that storied stretch of land somewhere between West Egg and the Garden of Hair Gel. It meant that, without my even trying, I was at the eye of a perfect cultural storm, where the joyful inanity of a 12-year-old's inner life collided with bad fashion, new money, and conga lines led by dancers in Spuds MacKenzie costumes.
Of course, I hadn't intended to give a social critique of my childhood milieu, but how can one not wink and nod at these descriptions? "We went into the ballroom. It had spinning dreidls from the ceiling with pictures of Lauren" or "Greeting us in the ballroom were 2 people on stilts. There was also 2 great dancers." Read enough "reviews" like these and you can almost hear "Material Girl" playing in the background.
These reviews were apparently serious business to me, and as if following a checklist, I made sure that each one contained at least one of the following:
1. A panoramic description of the party site. Was it elegant, the kind of place where "they opened up this door, and behold, a beautiful ballroom"? Or was it modest yet sweet, so that "even though it was in the ugliest room ever, nobody noticed"?
2. An analysis of the food situation. Was it tasty? Was it extravagant, like the bat mitzvah where I surmised that "they probably had enough food to feed a poor country"? Or was the food whisked away from us so that "of course I didn't get a chance to eat my steak"?
3. A report on the social hierarchy and how it shook out at each particular party. Did I feel sad because "Aliza wouldn't let me be in her lip-sync group"? Or did peace and equality reign so that "everybody danced, I mean everyone. And it didn't matter how you were supposed to dance . . . you just danced your way!"
Oh, and if I had to miss the party, I still wrote diligently on the back of the invitation, "Was not able to attend." If the invitation was metallic, these words were inscribed in paint pen.