When you’re Jewish and a boy and approaching your thirteenth birthday, you are getting ready to “become a man.”
(Even though you go through the intensive training for your Bar Mitzvah and everyone, according to tradition, heartily welcomes you into the adult community, you do still have to go back to seventh grade on the Monday morning following the big event.)
One day when my son Max was preparing for his special day back in December 2001, his father announced it was time to shop and get fitted for his Bar Mitzvah suit. I was too young to remember my older brothers going through this ritual, so this was a new experience for me.
Eddie took Max to a Kansas City institution – Michaels (fine clothing for men since 1905). We were warmly greeted by the owner, Gene, a veritable icon of men’s fashion. Gene was dressed to the nines, no detail overlooked. What impressed Max the most was the carefully tri-folded ivory silk handkerchief that was positioned perfectly in the chest pocket of the old man’s suit.
We could tell Gene had fitted hundred of Kansas City Bar Mitzvah boys over the years. He was in his element, exuding a love of clothing, a love for kids and a passion for making people feel dignified and important.
Max felt like a prince. Gene brought him suit after suit, commenting on how this or that stripe, a particular color or weave nicely emphasized Max’s physique. In the three way mirror, as the afternoon wore on, my son and his new friend began to discuss things other than clothes. I saw clearly that day just how personable and gregarious Max really was. To this day, he makes friends genuinely and easily. And he has a special ability of relating to older people.
Gene became a hero of sorts to Max. My son admired the man’s style, his easy smile, his successful business, the way he joked with the customers and the way he showed everyone – no matter their age, their race or social status - respect. Max continued to buy clothes at Michael’s until he left for college.
The gift Eddie and I gave Max for his Bar Mitzvah was a group of autographed pictures – signed and personalized head shots of people he admired: sports stars, famous drummers, favorite authors, movie stars, etc. (“Congratulations on your big day, Max! Best wishes from Michael Jordan.”) I snuck down to Michaels a week or so before the Bar Mitzvah and made of portrait of Gene. He signed it and wished Max “Mazel Tov.” When we presented the gift, there was Gene – his head shot mixed in among those of the many stars Max admired.
I ran into Gene the other day. He now lives at an assisted living center. He is experiencing dementia and a myriad of other health issues. His wife told me he doesn’t get out of the wheelchair too often. But he still had the same warm, open and kind face he had nine years ago, and he greeted me as if he remembered the days my son, husband and I used to come into his store.
The sweetest memory I have of the day we took Max shopping for his Bar Mitzvah suit is when Gene pulled Max aside to teach him how to fold his new silk handkerchief. The man waited patiently while Max practiced over and over again until he got it just right.
Gene took a Saturday off from the store to attend his new young friend’s Bar Mitzvah. You should have seen him beam when he saw the perfectly folded and positioned handkerchief in the chest pocket of Max’s new suit. And then his picture… framed and nicely displayed on a decorated table – right there between Michael Crichton and Weird Al Yankovitch.