Suit Up, Boychik

It's Every Jewish Boy's Bad Dream:
Going With Mom to Shop For a Bar Mitzvah Outfit

by Suzanne C. Ryan,
As Appeared in "The Boston Globe", Wednesday, March 4, 1998


NEWTON (MA) - It's a weekday afternoon and 12-year-old Ben Lewis would rather be anywhere else right now.



Standing in front of a mirror at the men's clothing store Simon & Sons, Ben is dejectedly modeling for his mother the black suit he'll wear to his bar mitzvah next month.



"Do you like the plain fabric?" prompts his mother, Sherri Lewis. "Yea," Ben mumbles.



"Do you want to try on the pinstriped suit?" she asks. "No," he says.



"Do you care if it's poly-wool or regular wool?" she asks. Ben shrugs nonchalantly.



At a time when baggy jeans and hooded sweat shirts are the norm, it's not easy talking up a tailored business suit to a gum-popping 12-year-old. Just ask some of the Jewish mothers in the Boston area who are scrambling to prepare their sons for their bar mitzvahs, one of the most anticipated of childhood events.



"He didn't want to come," says Sherri Lewis. "I had to bribe him and coax him. I said, 'The bar mitzvah is a few weeks away. We've got to go.'"



Without question, the suit-buying event is a major part of the tradition surrounding a Jewish boy's big day, a coming-of-age religious ceremony in which 13-year-olds are called to read and interpret the Torah, Judaism's sacred text, in front of their congregation.



But for many boys, buying a suit is a new and traumatic experience. For one thing, it's embarrassing and totally uncool to be seen in a suit. The universal uniform to wear to a friend's bar mitzvah is khaki pants and blue blazers. (It's so common that parents complain their kids often grab the wrong blue blazer after the event.)



Hard, toe-pinching dress shoes are also a foreign concept to boys who've sported comfy sneakers and trendy ankle boots since they were old enough to care about clothes.



They don't know how to tie a tie. And -- after years of shopping at stores like the Gap -- they've never had a salesperson ask about sartorial preferences like double-breasted jackets or cuffed pant legs.



"Christian Dior. What's that?" asks 12-year-old Daniel Jaynes, of Canton.



For many parents, the bar mitzvah shopping spree is an ordeal as well. It's so much easier dressing daughters for their bat mitzvahs (the equivalent event for 13-year-old girls.) While preteen girls can be sullen too, more of them are fond of shopping and most have worn a fancy dress to an event before.



Not so for many boys. And not only are their suits expensive (they typically range from $185 to $300), they need all the accessories, too: dress shoes ($45 to $75), dress socks ($5), dress shirt ($25 to $30), tie ($15 to $20), and dress belt ($15 to $20).



And for all that expense, the boys may wear the suit only four or five times before they outgrow it.



'It's going to be very painful to shell out $300 to $400," says Lea Berkovits, of Brookline, who has seven children, including 12-year-old son Chanan.



Then there's the actual search for the outfit. You'd think that would be the easy part. But not that many stores sell boys' suits. Macy's has a few, but Filene's doesn't, nor TJ Maxx, nor Miltons. If you know about it, there's Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse in Braintree, and Lebow Brothers Men's & Boy's Clothing in Wellesley.



Part store, part therapist

But the word in the temples is: Simon & Sons. The retailer began stocking boys' suits in its Newton store five years ago, after Jewish mothers in the area basically demanded it. Now the men's store is like bar mitzvah central, offering one of the largest selections of boys' suits in the area (350 choices), as well as six styles of boys' dress shoes; 50 patterns of boys' ties (sized to fit a boy's neck, and with a sheet of instructions on tying); five styles of boys' belts; and seven styles of boys' shirts ranging from size 8 to 20.



"We've got everything for boys, from head to toe," says Paul Simon, owner of the two-store company.



That kind of selection has created a flood of bar mitzvah shoppers. Indeed, on one wall the store has 250 snapshots of bar mitzvah boys. Posing in their newly purchased suits, the kids are lined up in rows with names like Levy, Stern, Siegel, and Bloom. During the recent school vacation week, more than 100 mothers and their sons visited the store.



Says shopper Eva Victor Lessin, of Lexington, "In temple, everyone talks about this store."



To be sure, merchandise alone isn't the only thing that's made Simon & Sons remarkable. Its real contribution may be that -- during one of the most important events of its customers' lives -- the store willingly serves as part clothier, part family therapist, and part peacemaker. Somehow, its salespeople have mastered how to resolve family feuds while overcoming boys' indifference to fashion, or their ignorance of it.



"We've had maternal and paternal grandparents in here arguing over who's going to pay," says salesman David Duggan. "Meanwhile, we're like the dentist to some kids," he says.



A parent, too, can be caught up in the emotions of the upcoming occasion -- acknowledging his or her boy as a young man. Indeed, while Liliane Schor, of Wayland, joyfully reminisces about her 18-year-old son's bar mitzvah five years ago, Simon listens patiently while he quickly outfits her twin sons David and Michael in gray-pinstripe and olive-green suits.



"What style ties do you guys like?" Simon asks them. 'I don't know," they both respond. No problem. Simon suggests geometric patterns.



A similar Q&A ensues over the shirts and belts, and in 45 minutes flat, the 13-year-old twins are suited up and headed out the door. Liliane Schor is beaming. "They're going to look so handsome," she says.


When kids balk

Of course, some kids don't want a salesperson, or their parents, telling them how to dress. When Simon recommends a burgundy belt for an olive green suit, Daniel Jaynes wrinkles up his nose. "I like black," he says. When Simon suggests a royal blue shirt to match a blue blazer (for a bar mitzvah after-party), Daniel rejects the idea, muttering under his breath, "He's just saying that because he's wearing a blue shirt."



Then Daniel spots another after-party item, a funky printed black vest, and there's no stopping him. "I'm buying it. It's spiffy," he says. "It doesn't go with your blazer," says his mother, Lois Jaynes. But Daniel's ready for her. "Listen, I'll wear it with a white shirt and khakis," he says. Lois Jaynes sighs, "He's a clotheshorse."



Some kids are embarrassed to tell a salesperson no. After 45 minutes of poking and prodding, salesman Robert Carney has a bar mitzvah outfit all laid out for Ben Lewis: a black suit with a cream shirt, and black and tan tie. Ben gives a nod and his mom is at the cash register.



Then Ben confides to his 15-year-old sister, Rebecca, that he really doesn't like the outfit. "Tell her," Rebecca urges. But Ben waits until Carney walks away. "I want to wear a regular white shirt, and black and white tie," he whispers to his mom.



Since Sherri Lewis is wearing an ivory-colored dress, she tries to talk Ben into the cream shirt. "It would be nice if we matched for the pictures," she says.



Ben is silent. Seconds pass.



"OK. It's your day," says his mom.



Standing at the cash register, Ben smiles for the first time in an hour. The shopping ordeal is over.




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