Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

The Bar Mitzvah Letter

I'm flying east Friday and returning Sunday to attend the bar mitzvah of my friend Alan's second son Gavin in Brooklyn on Saturday.

A few years ago, when Gavin's older brother Jeremy was bar mitzvahed, I got it in my head that I should purchase a US Savings Bond -- for tradition's sake really, as that was the standard bar mitzvah gift when I was bar mitzvahed. The attempted purchase turned into more of an adventure than I had anticipated, and it turns out that you can't really purchase a Savings Bond on the spot -- you have to order one in advance. Which meant that I had no actual bond to give Jeremy on the day of his bar mitzvah. So instead I wrote him a bar mitzvah letter, a long account of my attempt to purchase him the Savings Bond with a recurring theme of "It's all about Steven". Jeremy still quotes that line at his family dinner table, as the ultimate riposte.

So now it's Gavin's turn at the bima, and at this point I have established a Tradition. This is the Bar Mitzvah letter I'm giving to Gavin on Saturday, behind a cut-tag because it's long.

Mazel tov to all.

October 14, 2006
Bar Mitzvah Day!

Dear Gavin:

Hah! I bet you were expecting some sort of gift here. Perhaps some check or stock or bond or other mercenary unit of exchange. But nope, instead you get the DREAD BAR MITZVAH LETTER! And even worse, you get the dread STEVEN bar mitzvah letter. Which means, as you might recall, that even though it's your special day (ha-ha), it is still, as always, all about Steven.

But it's not my fault! I don't set out to make myself the main character in every story. No, this was going to be a story about Gavin, a young man I've known for his whole life. This was going to be a story about how for his bar mitzvah (as for his brother before him) I was going to reach deep into the tallis bag of tradition and pull out a Savings Bond, because that's what you give a young man for his bar mitzvah in that antiquated old time universe I still think I live in. It teaches him civics. It teaches him economics. Most of all, it teaches him patience, because a Savings Bond is a piece of paper that says it's worth, say, $50, but actually it will be worth $50 many many years from now. Riches do not come quick, that's the Valuable Lesson.

No, maybe the Valuable Lesson is beware the Bait and Switch. Or maybe the Valuable Lesson is that behind every serious official looking piece of government paperwork is a subtextual tongue of mockery. Yes, my son, if I were to impart on you my hard-earned aged wisdom summarized in a brief but pithy maxim (for Yoda of the Upper Midwest I am) it would be that the world is a Jack-in-the-Box and there's a scary clown ready to pounce from behind every corner. In fact, it would be more honest if there was a picture of Bozo on every US Savings Bond. For a variety of reasons, come to think of it.

There actually may be an image of Bozo on current US Savings Bonds, for all I know; despite my best efforts I have yet to see an actual US Savings Bond myself since my own bar mitzvah. But I'm getting ahead of the story here.

As you might know, back when your brother was bar-mitzvahed I set out on my heroic if quixotic quest to purchase a Savings Bond for him. What ensued was a comedy of errors, as one helpful Minnesotan after another threw roadblocks of good intentions in my path. If you could trip on sunshine and break your nose in the process, that's what would have happened. You see, the task was not simple. I had not the proper documentation nor information nor foresight to arrange for this properly. We had to resort to a series of scary compromises, each offered with the smiling reassurance of the bank teller that “this will all be fine”. But I am not from Minnesota. Like you, I am from the New York area. I do not believe that all will be fine, not without the necessary amount of neurotic worry that ensures success. I pay my obeisance to the deities of nudginess.

Ah, but it is now several years later. I have learned my lesson. The Yoda in me is repeating in my ear: “Forewarned forearmed is”. This time, said I, I will prepare myself for the battle (once I knock this annoying old man off my shoulder -- WHACK!). Yes, this time I will emerge victorious, waving your Savings Bond in the air while doing a victory dance in the end zone of the bank lobby.

This time, you see, I can prepare myself. This time I have a secret weapon ... [cue exciting superhero music] ... the Internet! DNS Man to the rescue! All I have to do is go to – get this – There I can learn what tools, weapons, and provisions my journey will require. Hooray!

I put on my visor, roll up my sleeves (securing them in a sleeve garter) and pounce on my keyboard. Tap tap tap go the keys. Up comes the website, bedecked with monochromatic wholesome photos of families, office workers, and government officials in green and blue and grey (guess which category is grey). A sentimental tear comes to my eye as I imagine the fairytale lives these people must lead. If I buy you a Savings Bond, you too can lead a wholesome storybook life. It is that magical. It is that easy.

Um, wait. Maybe not that easy. (Yoda emerges from his coma, telling me “Idiotic the man who expects simplicity is.” WHACK. He's out again. There's more than one way to use the Force.) What I learn is that I can set up an electronic account, in which securities I purchase exist in non-corporeal form. This is not what I had in mind. (Here, for your bar mitzvah I give you: magnetic flux!) To complicate the issue, for me to purchase securities for you I need to set up an account not just for me, but for you as well. All of this will require vast amounts of your personal information I have no easy method of obtaining nor any particular interest in knowing. In other words, this site isn't really a gift catalog.

There is, however, a link to “learn about the various ways to purchase Treasury securities.” From this I learn that if I really want to live in the Stone Age (paging Mr. Rubble...paging Mr. Rubble) why don't I just go to a bank, old man. Maybe it didn't really say “old man”. Maybe it said “old fart”. The Savings Bond site tells me (very loudly in case I have my hearing aid turned low) that when I go to the bank to buy you a Savings Bond I will need your social security number and your address. Ah, right, that was the problem last time: I didn't know Jeremy's social security number. That was the first domino to fall. You can't just buy somebody a bond, with your own hard-earned bloodstained money, cash on the barrelhead, no sir. You must also have private information about the recipient.

Is this a problem? No way! Remember our new friend Mr. Internet? Your father is just the other side of my monitor screen at all times. Hey Alan, I asked Mr. Mystic Magic Monitor, can you give me some personal private information across an unsecured medium about your son Gavin? Sure, said your father. Here it is.

And so, on a bitter cold mid-October day with flurries of snow in the air and dried brown leaves blowing around me, I snuggled deep into my coat and marched right downtown, to the main Minneapolis Branch of the Wells Fargo bank to buy my old friend Gavin a United States Savings Bond on the occasion of his bar mitzvah.

The lobby of the downtown Minneapolis branch of the Wells Fargo bank is a sight to behold. It is huge and ornate and there is an actual stagecoach in the middle. There is also an employee to guide you through the lines waiting for a teller, the way a store like Target will have an employee to guide you to the next free cashier. This employee, as it turned out, was actually a banking expert. Not only was she able to reassure me that I was in the right place to purchase a Savings Bond, she was able to tell me about the new Series I bonds. The traditional bonds are Series E. Did you know that? I didn't. Do you care, even the teeniest tiniest little jot? I don't.

But she was friendly, and perky, and Minnesotan, and I said sure, tell me about the Series I bonds. Well a Series E bond is purchased for half the face value and takes a long time to mature. (Remember the little lecture about learning patience?) A Series I bond is purchased at full face value and accrues interest at a better rate. You pay more money up front, you get a better rate. Are you bored yet? Really, really, really bored? I am.

You see, the world has changed a great deal since the days when you gave Savings Bonds as bar mitzvah gifts. If you look at it pragmatically and logically and in all those grownup adult ways you are supposed to start looking at things on the day you become a man in the eyes of the Jewish religion, they are not what you would call good deals. Better I should give you real estate, even now at the market downturn because that would really teach you the patience thing. The helpful bank corraller lady forced me to face that fact directly. And so I went with the Series I bond. A better deal.

A better deal, but in retrospect maybe not a better gift. Still, the sentimental tug of the Savings Bond idea continues to hold some sway. And so, in a few weeks time, a Savings Bond should arrive in the mail for you, at your address.

Because, um, oh yeah, it takes a couple of weeks for the bond to be issued and I didn't do this in time and that's why you are getting a bar mitzvah letter here rather than an actual bond. Which is actually the point of this note.

That, plus: On this day I wish you the best of luck for a good and long life.

Oops, Yoda is stirring and furniture is starting to fly across the room in my direction. Gotta' Run...

Steven Skywalker Levine

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