L'Chaim! / Jewish Living
April 22, 1998 / 26 Nissan, 5758

The Telescope
by Jonathan D. Cohen

 wanted one of those vibrating chairs that plugs into the wall and gives you a massage. I thought it would make a cool addtion to my room, where I already had a personal computer but wasn't allowed my own TV.

"Ridiculous,"said my father. "That's a present for someone 65, not 13. The last thing you need is to spend more time on your toucas."

My father had made me wait until after my Bar Mitzvah service to shop with him for my gift. He wanted us to choose something together, he said. Something that would carry lasting meaning about being a man and Jew. Me, I had recently entered a disagreeable phase of life in which lasting meaning didn't count nearly as much as immediate gratification. In fact, I was still smarting over being deprived one of the lavish Bar Mitzvah parties that were customary among my friends. All I'd gotten was a modest oneg in our little Conservative shul, where we prayed on metal folding chairs in a sanctuary we shared with the Knights of Columbus.

"David, if you think I'm spending your college money on Disco Night or some similar abomination, then you're out of your mind,"was how my father put it. I didn't yet understand his philosophical objections, which I attributed to a shortage of money. We lived in the smallest and shabbiest house in a pricey suburb, a sacrifice my parents made on their teachers' salaries so that I could attend the best public schools.

Now, as we strolled through our local shopping mall, my father was being mysterious, if not downright cheap, about my hard-earned compensation.

"How about a few new Nintendo games,"I offered. "Golden Gun, Killing Ground, Fists of Dynamite."

"Out of the question."

"It was my Bar Mitzvah!" I declared. "I learned my Torah portion, my Hafatarah, my blessings. Why shouldn't I get a vibrating chair?"

y father had developed a strange assortment of gestures and facial expressions in response to my recent storms of arguing and complaining. Sometimes he would drum the bald front of his head with his fingertips, as if he were tamping down the urge to wring my neck. Other times he would roll his sad brown eyes and purse his lips into a kissy face, as if I were still his cute little baby boy.

All of which made me furious.

" Dad, we're not going to find anything religious in this mall,"I said. "If you want to get me another prayer shawl, or a bible, then we need to go into the city."

"Be patient,"my father said, tapping away at his forehead. "Not so extreme, not so severe."

We were arguing in public again, and I began to worry that people were looking at us. I still had most of my baby fat, and I had a mouth full of metal braces as complex as the insides of an Intel Pentium processor. My father, who was even paunchier than I was, wore his hopelessly uncoordinated Sunday ensemble of black boat sneakers, high black socks, Bermuda shorts, and a button-down short-sleeved shirt.

"Now here's something interesting,"my father said. "A photography store!"

I smirked as I followed him inside. I had no interest in taking pictures. A camera, in my mind, was something you bought for five dollars and then threw in the garbage. I already played trumpet in the school band and bench-warming forward in the Jewish Community Center basketball league, obeying my parents' dictate of at least two extracurricular activities--one for the body and one for the mind. No way was I going to sacrifice my precious, remaining TV and Nintendo time for some boring new hobby like photography.

"Do you have to put these cameras together?" my father was asking the clerk behind the counter.

"No, all of our cameras are very easy to own and operate,"said the clerk. "Even the expensive ones."

"That's not what I'm looking for,"my father said. "I want something that needs putting together...that's hard to put together. A project... a kit. Know what I mean?"

his request stupefied me. My father was not the handiest person. To my knowledge, our family didn't even own a hammer or screw driver. And my father still couldn't work most of the electronic buttons on his beat-up Honda, which he'd owned for almost five years.

"I do have one thing that needs putting together,"said the clerk. "It's a telescope kit."

"Sounds great,"said my father.

"Not!" I said.

"Hang on,"said the clerk. "It's five feet long and weighs a ton. I'll have to lug it out of the back."

We waited for the clerk to return. "Whose going to put together a five-foot telescope?" I asked. "Mom?"

"You'll see."

"I'm not doing it,"I said. "You can't make me."

"You don't have to."

"So why not get me a telescope that's already put together? Not that I want a stupid telescope in the first place."

he clerk came back, struggling to balance a long wooden box in both arms and slowly set it down on the counter top.

"This is a very difficult assembly,"he said. He unbuckled the lid and lifted it to expose various steel tubes, round lenses, and plastic bags full of small parts. "The instructions are all here, but it requires some experience with both metal work and optics. The finished telescope is a real beauty, though. Powerful enough to see Jupiter's red spot and all ten of the moons."

"Perfect,"my father said. "How much does it cost?"

"Four hundred and fifty nine dollars. Plus tax." "We'll take it."

I didn't want to embarrass my father in front of the clerk, but I couldn't contain my anger and amazement. To borrow one of my father's own expressions, this was a significant amount of money.

"Dad, what are you trying to do?" I asked in a loud whisper. "Four hundred and fifty nine dollars?! That's a hundred dollars more than the vibrating chair! You could get me like eight video games!"

"You're going to love this telescope,"my father said, apparently more for the clerk's benefit than mine. "Moons, planets, galaxies."

"I don't like astronomy,"I said through my clenched teeth. "It's boring. I hate it."

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