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