This interview originally appeared in The Spiel, a biweekly newsletter reflecting on the bat mitzvahs of your favorite Jewish figures. Sign up here and follow The Spiel on Instagram and Twitter.
The year was 1994 and the day before fashion designer Rachel Antonoff’s bat mitzvah, a bomb threat was called into her small New Jersey temple — leaving her family scrambling over the fate of the event. “I remember there being a conversation like, ‘What do we do? Do we cancel?,” she tells me. “There was a lot of antisemitism [at the time], the temple had even just beefed up security.” But Antonoff went on with the show, hosting her Jewish day school classmates at the synagogue for what would ultimately be an explosives-free affair.
In her youth Antonoff was a full on theater kid, a personality trait so core to her identity that she chose “Broadway” as her bat mitzvah theme. But the now 39-year-old went on to make a name for herself with her eponymous fashion line. Launched in 2008, Antonoff’s designs are hyper-feminine, maximalist, and often Jewish as hell. Her most recent collection included the “schmear sweater,” a cozy alpaca blend boasting a plain bagel with the works. (On her website the sweater’s for sale alongside the caveat: “Sorry, it’s not scooped out.”) “I’m fairly certain that everything creative I’ve ever done is somehow rooted in hundreds of hours of deadly shul boredom,” she says of Judaism’s influence on her work.
(Those are Antonoff’s parents in the aforementioned sweater.)
Below, Antonoff reflects on her bat mitzvah day — white taffeta bubble skirt and Miss Saigon dais included.
On her Broadway theme:
My theme was the exact personification of me at the time. Every table was a different show and naturally I had the Miss Saigon dais, which I remember being very excited about. My sign-in board had these weird spray paint illustrations of various characters from Broadway shows. It was frightening because it was like the little girl from Les Mis next to a crazy cat person from Cats.
On the look:
There was a store in my town called Guess What’s New that was a really big deal. I found my dress there and it was black and white, which seemed fresh. It had a black velvet bodice, a high white halter style neck, and a white taffeta bubble skirt. Then obviously I wasn’t allowed to show my shoulders in shul, so there was some kind of a bolero.
On being a prude:
I was really nerdy and not, like, good student nerdy. I was always a really shitty student and just incredibly self-conscious. I remember being very, very concerned about what boys thought of me but I wore headgear to school sometimes, which is counterintuitive to the desire to be popular. I was also like a full prude.
I remember being asked to dance was a really big deal but we would dance the way they did in Pen15, with the hands on shoulders, hands on hips, bodies as far apart as your arm length would allow. One time I went to my cousin’s bar mitzvah in Burlington, Vermont, and not only did the kids slow dance close together — the boys put their hands in the butt pockets of the girl’s pants. (They were all wearing jeans and I was like, “Wow, this is laid back.”) The whole thing was like someone stumbling into Studio 54 and being like, “Oh my god, where am I?”
On performing with her brother:
In New Jersey at every bar mitzvah your friends would rewrite the lyrics to a song and perform it for you. So horrifying. So my brother [musician and producer Jack Antonoff] and I wrote a song for one of our cousins, Mark. First of all, none of the other kids at his bar mitzvah were Jewish. So they were already like, “What is this?” Then we got up and performed “Hey Mickey” but replaced Mickey with Mark. We sang, “’It’s your bar mitzvah day, a time to laugh and sing and pray. Hey Mark!” Then, “We want you to know we’re so proud of you. You did great this morning, too.” So embarrassing. His friends were just like making out already and they were like, “What the fuck is happening?”
On what that bat mitzvah girl would think of her life now:
I wonder if I’d be disappointed that I wasn’t in the theater. I auditioned for years and did the whole thing but in hindsight it was really stressful. The weirdest part is that throughout my entire pseudo-career, I was terrified of singing in public. Auditions were a nightmare and anytime I actually managed to get a job, I was sick with nerves.
But I think [my 13-year-old self] would think, “I’m so cool.” Even though the current me doesn’t always think I’m so cool.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.