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My Rent-A-Bat-Mitzvah-Party Boyfriend

My daughter’s bat mitzvah was a slipshod affair as far back as the night of her conception, in the front seat of my then-husband’s car in the parking lot of the Staples Center following a Barry Manilow concert. Being that he was straight and male, my then-husband had no real interest in Barry Manilow. But I was straight and female and Jewish and born and raised on the East Coast: I’d been a “Fanilow” from the time I was four-years-old and seated fifth row center at the Boston Garden where Barry sang “Mandy” and an assistant carried his beagle Bagel (olav hashalom) over to the piano and a zaftig woman with hair-sprayed bangs and a Ton Sur Ton sweatsuit threw herself at the stage. Cut to 2007, two full years before my ex went to rehab, and we were stoned and drunk on the heels of the “Can’t Smile Without You”- “Copacabana”-”Looks Like We Made It” medley finale as I straddled him half-naked—my ex, not Barry—and bruised my lower back on the steering wheel. 

Forty weeks later, Tzvia—named after my ex’s deceased radiologist father—was born. She was round and brown with a feathery layer of lanugo; she looked frighteningly like my father. We assumed that our daughter would be ugly and smart. But within several weeks, it became clear that she was not ugly—she was, in fact, cherubic, with a rosebud mouth and brown doe-like eyes. By the time she hit age five, we discovered that while Tzvia was animated and clever and funny and popular amongst her kindergarten classmates, academics weren’t exactly her thing. And so, whenever anybody asked why we were throwing our daughter a bat mitzvah at our local Chabad, where, per ultra-Orthodox Judaism, she was forbidden from leyning Torah —which, to be honest, is a pretty annoying question: “I don’t know, why are you having your daughter’s bat mitzvah at the Brentwood Country Club with a lobster buffet?”—I’d make a joke about the fact that we still weren’t certain if she could read. (For the record, she can, and very well; she’d just rather spend her time watching TikTok videos of teens shoplifting at Urban Outfitters.) 

Truth is, Chabad can be a wonderful place in which to have a child’s bar or bat mitzvah. Especially if you’re divorced and single and mired in student debt from your gazillion post-graduate degrees and can’t afford a five-star hotel with an infinity pool and flood lights and day players from the Pantages Theatre production of Hamilton. Even if I could swing all those things, I generally loathe b’nai mitzvahs resembling A-list Hollywood premieres. They’re tacky and gauche, and I say this as a jaded entertainment journalist that has attended way too many premieres to count. Chabad is haimish and warm. They’re also great with special needs children, which is why we chose to have our autistic son’s bar mitzvah there two years earlier.  

But now things were different. My ex and I were officially divorced, as opposed to being legally separated when our son Sam became a man, and this time around my ex-husband was bringing his on-and-off-and-on-again blonde, Princeton-grad, gentile girlfriend—let’s call her Polly—to our daughter’s Saturday night bat mitzvah soiree. 

I pitched a tsunami-sized fit about Polly coming for weeks. It wasn’t appropriate, it was way too soon, it would distract from a rite of passage meant to be special and meaningful and focused on family, even if ours had imploded into radioactive dust. I’d never even met this Polly person—and nor did I want to. I complained about it endlessly—to my friends, to my therapist, to the yeshiva bachor working the evening shift at the Western Kosher deli counter. I didn’t have a boyfriend. I didn’t even have a dress. Nothing fit, everything was wrong, my bangs still hadn’t grown out from the night I cut them during COVID lockdown. This bat mitzvah would be a disaster

When it came to bat mitzvah planning—and pretty much everything else in life—my ex and I were rarely on the same page. He pretended to be on board with keeping a kosher home, but later revealed he resented it. He argued with every kosher caterer in town, fighting fruitlessly over everything from their available start-time (“Shabbat ends at 7, so by the time we drive there we’ll be serving food around ten”) to the cost of the customized candy table. A week before the event, the Israeli hot truck we booked vanished on us, another catering company with whom we thought we had confirmed said they never got my ex’s credit card information, and my ex sent me the following text: “I am revoking my Jew card.” 

Miraculously, Tzvia’s kabbalat shabbat bat mitzvah service went off without a hitch. She recited the Rebbe’s 12 Pesukim, the kosher chicken didn’t exactly taste like cardboard, and Tzvia’s entire Camp Ramah bunk arrived wearing sparkly dresses and a congratulatory speech they’d collectively penned on pink notebook paper. By the time dessert was served, I’d knocked back three shots of Belvedere. And while I wasn’t excited about the prospect of my ex bringing Princeton Polly to the following night’s fête, I was self-medicated to the point of reason: If Bridget Moynahan could survive Gisele, I could easily weather a twice-divorced 50-year-old without children of her own. 

This is where Josh comes in. Josh was a guy I friended one night on Facebook when I was home and alone and bored. Josh was from Minneapolis and we had seven mutual friends in common, including a girl from St. Louis Park with whom I’d studied at Hebrew U. during my junior year abroad. According to his Facebook profile, Josh studied computer science at Dartmouth and held a Juris Doctor from Columbia Law School and worked in the technology sector in executive positions I failed to comprehend because I’d studied Shakespeare at Cornell and was left-brained to the point of being a dysfunctional everyday idiot. Josh readily confirmed my virtual friendship request: “Have we met before?” he messaged. We had not, but Josh had read a piece I’d written on Boston accents for Variety and that was more of a real-life connection than most people in the online world. By week’s end we were lunching at Dan Tana and Josh was asking me to come work for him. I repeatedly told him no, mostly because I understood 3% of whatever it was he was talking about—something about content, creative, SEO— but also because Josh looked like the love child born of Owen Wilson and Robert Redford circa The Way We Were. Josh’s eyes were the color of a swimming pool. At a certain angle, he had Gene Wilder’s nose. Going to work for a six-foot-tall Minnesotan Jew with two Ivy League degrees and who resembled a 1970’s movie star would have been a fool’s errand. Josh was also wading through the emotional morass of his own post-divorce hell. The second time we hung out—Doordash pizza and bong hits in his single-story bungalow wedged into the hills of Laurel Canyon—Josh slumped on the sofa and sobbed. “I need a friend,” Josh wept. He didn’t ask me to work for him, and I cradled him the way a child might a parent. People make a big deal about how many men you’ve slept with but you would not believe the number of Jewish men’s chests upon which I’ve laid my head. Looking for a pillow, looking for a home. 

“You wanna come to my kid’s bat mitzvah party Saturday night?” 

Josh showed up an hour early wearing a navy plaid sports jacket and a pink-striped button-down with his initials monogrammed on the cuffs. A silk yarmulke functioned as a de facto pocket square. Designer shoes from France, hair a tumbling crest of dishwater blond. A man—a Josh—plucked straight from central casting. (My look was courtesy of Anthropologie, from the label’s unofficial secret Tznius line.)  Josh tied my son’s tie, I zipped up Tzvia’s pale pink pouf dress, and we drove—top-down, wind whipping through our hair—in Josh’s Range Rover Evoque convertible through the Saturday night streets of Highland Park. Josh drove like he was on the Autobahn. With a perfunctory flourish, he fished the yarmulke from his pocket and brandished it in the air with the manic fervor of a rodeo star. Sam squealed with freakish delight. Tzvia, her Drybar braids unraveling around her wind-smacked face, screamed wildly from the backseat: “Hurry! I’m going to be late for my own bat mitzvah!” 

We arrived at Chabad just as everyone we’d hired to put this thing together the moment Shabbat ended (for a party that started 30 minutes later) raced around the parking lot stringing up tea lights and Japanese lanterns and blowing up gold and hot pink Mylar balloons. My ex was sweating, sleeves rolled up, barking orders at the waitstaff like Martin Short in Father of the Bride. It was hard to ignore Josh, who was dressed better than anybody else in attendance and had way better hair. My ex immediately put Josh to work, kicking over a box of as-yet-unassembled LED centerpiece lights with Tzvia’s initials carved out of acrylic and a lightning bolt running down the middle and a battery-operated base connected to a tiny remote control one could use to switch the colors from neon pink to fluorescent green. 

Meanwhile, Tazvia was tantruming over the mechitza on the rented black-and-white-checkered dance floor. “None of my friends had to have one at their bat mitzvahs!” she whined, her girlfriends gathered around her in protest solidarity like the tween version of Sex and the City. I called in our Rabbi for reinforcement, we explained that it needed to stay and while the rabbi made his way to the buffet of kosher Mexican fare, thus began an impromptu game of musical mechitza, with Tzvia pushing the mechitza off the dance floor, Sam pushing it back on, Tzvia pushing it off. And so on. At a certain point I’m assuming the rabbi just pretended not to notice, sitting in the tented dining area eating tacos and refried beans while tapping his feet to the beat of the instrumental trio playing an acoustic version of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” 

I was three margaritas into this thing when my ex started chasing me around begging me to say hello to his girlfriend, whom by this point I’d honestly forgotten about. Every time I turned around Josh was there, as if on cue. There was not a single moment in which I mistook Josh’s impeccable party etiquette for anything but reflexive, a product of polite Midwestern youth ferried into adulthood. Josh had two younger sisters, and he’d taken mental notes. Even so, Josh was a sight to behold. He knew nobody at this party, he barely knew me, and yet he circled the crowd with the charismatic ease of a young Bobby Kennedy. And I ran around like Zelda Fitzgerald, a dunk social butterfly in an ebullient haze of tequila shots on ice. At one point, the rabbi and I did l’chaims, and I promised I’d connect him to Robert Kraft—whom I’d met once at a fundraising gala several years prior— in the hopes he’d fund the new mikveh. 

Finally, after four hours of havdalah, hora and kids racing around in customized airbrush apparel courtesy of a t-shirt booth we’d hired, my ex yanked me aside: “Can you please just say hello to my girlfriend? She really wants to meet you.” Instinctively, I dragged Josh along. “This is Josh,” I told Princeton Polly. “He’s hot, he’s got a law degree from Columbia and he’s a Jew from Minnesota.” 

I have zero recollection of Polly’s response. I do remember yawning. 

The night drew to a close and Josh drove us home. 

“Did you have fun?” I asked Tzvia. 

 She nodded, smiled and ripped through a stack of presents: “It was the best night of my life.” 

That next morning, the phone rang. It was our rabbi. 

“Hi, Malina. Thank you for such a great party. I’m reminding you to connect me with Robert Kraft.”

Portions of this article were edited out at the request of the author.

Peak Jewish Divorcee is a bi-weekly column charting the (mis)adventures of a Jewish, newly single working mom in Los Angeles. 

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