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September 2007

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007
613 Words: 13 again, with 600 words to go

This is part of our Sep/Oct 2007 issue.

"613 Words" is an feature we run in each issue of AJL Magazine where we ask a prominent Jewish American to compose an essay in, you guessed it, 613 words. This month we're proud to present an installment by AJ Jacobs, the author of The Know-It-All and a writer at Esquire magazine.

Okay, I've got 613 words to tell a tale. A Jewish-themed one. Hence the number 613. Each word represents one of the famous 613 rules in the Hebrew Scriptures. I'm going to say this word coming up -- HERE -- represents the law that the leper should shave all his hair.

To be totally honest, I had trouble coming up with a topic. Maybe you noticed? I started writing an essay about how I worked at a small-town newspaper in California, and in their computer system, they had a list of all the local Jews. About 200 of them. I think one of the interns just went through the phone book and wrote down all the Jewish-sounding last names. Here's a witz! Oh, and a dozen Cohens -- jackpot!

Every time we were running an article about Israel or a brisket recipe, the editor asked for the local angle. And out would come the list of Jews. "Yes, Mr. Finkelstien. This is the Antioch Ledger calling. We wanted to know how you felt about Shimon Peres becoming prime minister." It was kind of creepy. There was no malice intended, but the very existence of a list of Jews is wrong on 43 different levels. In any case, I ran out of things to say about the list after about 164 words.

Instead, I settled on a brief essay about adolescence, outsider status, and the harrowing ritual of bar mitzvahs. This essay concerns perhaps the single most formative object of my youth: A t-shirt from the joint bar mitzvah of Andrew Shapiro and Kim Glickman. It's an object I didn't even own.

To back up: I was not a popular child. I was invited to only a handful of bar mitzvahs, and most of those featured a 90/10 percent male/female ratio. The parties at these bar mitzvahs usually involved fourteen-sided dice and a book of spells, if you know what I mean.

The A-list bar mitzvahs were out of my reach. As were the B-list ones. And the bar mitzvah event of the season, Andrew and Kim's combined gala? Not a chance.
It was unpleasant enough not to be invited. It was unpleasant enough to sit at home wondering who won the limbo contest, and which attractive 13-year-old couples were dancing together to Eye of the Tiger. But far worse was the fact that everyone who was invited got a souvenir t-shirt. I remember that t-shirt well. It was white with blue sleeves. In red lettering it had a big number 13 on the back. And around that 13, in small cursive font, was a list of every single person who attended the party. Melissa Katz. Daniel Sassoon. And on and on. It was like a Vietnam War memorial of eighth-grade popularity.

Inevitably, every day, one of those lucky attendees would wear the t-shirt to school. Which meant that every day I was confronted with a visible, tangible, poly-cotton reminder of what a loser I was.

As with everything unpleasant in my life, I found the best coping method has been to redefine the meaning of this t-shirt. To embrace my lack of t-shirt. To see it as a good thing. You see, my lack of t-shirt represented my status as an outsider. And what could be more Jewish than that? What could be a better education in the history of our people than to be the one who was in exile? That t-shirt taught me as much about my heritage as several days of Torah study. And for that, I am grateful. Sort of.

I still have 15 words left. Maybe I'll devote them to the mitzvah of not bearing a grudge.

-- Text by AJ Jacobs

This is part of our Sep/Oct 2007 issue.
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