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The Cadillac

A bar mitzvah brings multiple generations of a family together in celebration, far from the reach of the evil eye.

Sylvie Weil

NEW ROCHELLE, 1954

“Say, would you look at those Dagmars! Aren’t they something!”

Everyone in the family knows Mounya has just bought himself a Cadillac, but knowing is one thing, and seeing is another. What a sight to behold, it’s a beauty! All that chrome, gleaming in the slanted sunlight of a late afternoon in June. The car is two-toned beige, but beige doesn’t begin to describe it. The bottom half is a warm color, like coffee with milk, and the top is pure cream. Magnificent! What class! Look at the gigantic, curved windshield, just a single piece of glass. And those matching bumpers shaped like missiles, the famous Dagmars, named for the actress whose voluptuous breasts, accentuated by the cone-shaped cups of her brassiere, appear regularly on magazine covers. That Mounya, he doesn’t hold back on anything.

The sleek beauty innocently offers herself up to the gaze of all the guests invited to the bar mitzvah of Mounya and Clara’s eldest son. Yesterday, which was Saturday, Michael was called to the Torah for the first time. Such a beautiful, moving occasion, the bar mitzvah of this boy who, having reached the age of thirteen, is now a man in the eyes of Jewish law, a man carrying his paternal grandfather’s name, the grandfather who was assassinated in his Ukrainian village by Petliura’s bandits alongside his youngest son. As the rabbi reminded them all yesterday, this martyred grandfather, before he was killed, asked for enough time to recite the Kaddish for his son. No one’s thinking of that story now. Those who enjoy subjecting themselves to those kinds of memories had plenty of time yesterday at the synagogue. Today is for celebration.

Clara’s aunts and uncles, her cousins, all the Shackmans (Mounya’s mother and sister are his only family here) have made the sweltering trip up from Brooklyn to New Rochelle with their car windows down so they could breathe, hair mussed and clothes rumpled by the air, which was unbreathable anyway, nauseatingly hot and muggy. They’ve parked their cars up and down the lawn. The men tug at suit jackets to smooth out the wrinkles, the women pull at dresses stuck to their thighs. They all mop their faces, run combs through their hair. The women touch up their lipstick. They make sure that the check or pen (a gold fountain pen, of course), intended for the Bar Mitzvah Boy, is safe in their purse or suit pocket. For most of them, it’s the first time they’ve set foot in Mounya’s and Clara’s new house. But they hardly even glance at the house. They only have eyes for the Cadillac, with its panoramic windshield, its expanse of chrome . . . and those Dagmars.

“Have you seen the interior? Even the steering wheel is two-toned. So classy!”

“And air-conditioning! And a radio!”

“Has anyone seen Clara’s dress?” the women ask, tired of all the talk about Dagmars, tired of imagining what it would be like to be driven around in a Cadillac, cooled by air-conditioning and lulled by the voice of Frank Sinatra. Tired of knowing that this will never be their fate.

Clara’s dress? No one has any idea what it looks like, the dress is a secret. It’s a creation by Aunt Mary Shackman, of course, who for almost thirty years has been clothing the women of the family, transforming them into Hollywood stars.

On the lawn behind the house, an enormous tent has been erected, and underneath, surrounding a dance floor, are circular tables covered with beautiful white cloths, beautiful napkins, beautiful silverware. The band has already begun to play. A bouquet of flowers stands in the center of each table. The guests all look for their seats, wanting to take their places and settle in, curious to know who is sitting next to them. Then they notice that each bouquet is different . . . roses, peonies, carnations . . . and that the little card they were handed at the entry to the tent bears the name of a flower.

An older Shackman cousin who’s come down from Toronto asks a waiter in Yiddish, “What does this mean, mimosa?” The waiter doesn’t speak Yiddish.

What a good idea, tables named for flowers, how pretty! Do you remember the wedding of Cousin David, Uncle Yisroël’s youngest son? No, not at all. Of course you do, David’s wedding when Yasha, may he rest in peace, Clara’s father Yasha, who also went by Jack, stood up after a few drinks and proposed that toast starting with, “Looks like I’m not worthy of being seated at table number one, or even table number two.”

Clara had only been seven years old at the time, but she still remembered her parents’ bitterness, their humiliation at being seated at table number four. At the age of seven, you understand that not everyone can sit at the first table, but later on, how does it make you look to your friends when you have to say, “I was seated at table number four, or was it five?” Maybe that’s why no one remembers that wedding very clearly.

So, Clara decided that no one would ever be subjected to that kind of humiliation at her house. Instead of numbers, the tables would be named for flowers. You’d have to be pretty touchy to get upset over being seated at the mimosa table and not the rose table!

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