To Bar-Mitzvah or to Catcecism...That is the Question By Jon Voss

I guess in the name of diversity, I’m exploring this Rite of Passage from a slightly different perspective.  Of course coming of age rights exist in nearly every culture and religion, and they really are important.  I’m not Jewish, though I did marry a Jew (it turns out).   I came from a religious family, in fact my dad was a priest and my mom was a nun (and my uncle was a priest), so I grew up very much in the Catholic Church in the suburbs of Western Michigan.  For us, Confirmation is the rite in which you take on a new name, light a candle, etc.  The bulk of this revolves around 6 months of Wednesday night classes lead by a combination of priests and lay people.  This whole thing was not optional for me, as you might guess, but I have to say I didn’t put much into it and cheated the system the best I could, choosing one of my friends as my adult sponsor because he had been confirmed a couple of years earlier and counted as an adult!

Of the whole process, really only one thing stands out to me, and that was the Wednesday night lecture on Spiritual Warfare. I think the topic was pretty popular back then and there were lots of dramatic writings about the spiritual warfare of the Bible and how archangels and angels and demons are fighting it out on our behalf.  And we had a very animated guest speaker who was visiting the church to talk about this phenomena.  Looking back, this sounds like a great way to make spirituality relevant to teenagers actually.

HOWEVER, a few hours before this exciting lecture, I was, as was often the case, with my friends at Wilbur Lam’s house.  Wilbur had moved to Kentwood, Michigan from Hong Kong with his older brother and sister.  They were worldy, cool, and incidentally lived in a house with no parents. It was a place for MISFITS and OUTCASTS, though we didn’t care too much if we fit in anywhere.

On this particular evening, someone had some crazy new dope, from where I don’t know. It turned out, this was no ordinary weed though, which I found out soon after leaving the house for Catechism, as it’s called.  Instead of the buzz wearing off by the time I got to church, which was usually the case, I was actually getting higher as I went, cluing me into the fact that this stuff was laced with something. By the time I settled into the pew with other friends, the church lights dimmed for the lecture, I was sweating profusely, and PRAYING that this hour would go by quickly without anyone asking me any questions.  Thank GOD it was a lecture and not a group discussion.

But it did NOT go quickly.  The speaker was amazing, perhaps too amazing in fact. He was very vividly bringing to life the thunderous battles of the archangels, at war for the hearts of people on earth, PEERING into the depths of our thoughts.  And as he spoke, the room seemed to darken and the archangels and demons began to appear above me and I sank deeper into my pew, my locks drenched in sweat.  He continued to go on from the pulpit, the one bright light shining onto him and everyone faded away until it was just HIM talking to ME, about the DEMONS and ANGELS at war for my salvation.  FOR AN ETERNITY.

Well, I survived, and I got out, and it didn’t turn into the afterschool special “Angel Dusted,” about the tragic fall of the popular athlete smashing into the trophy case, but I certainly didn’t sleep at all that night, and it took about three days for things to fully wear off and for me to stop seeing angels and demons.

If you’re lucky to make it this far, maybe you do get a second chance, because now our oldest son is 13 (and definitely scarred from that story, sorry Ian).  We do think it’s important, but decided to give him the option of doing a Bar Mitzvah, if you can call it that, based roughly on our (weak and probably heretical) understanding of it, to create his own rite of passage.   So he’s chosen a few adults to learn something from over the course of this year, things that he thinks might be important skills for an adult, and at the end of the year, we’ll have a party and he tells us what he learned and why it’s important.  

First session: his godfather, Uncle AT, teaching him how to DJ.

Ian was a bit too shy to join me on this, but I think we came up with a process together that is both meaningful and optional to him, and gives him the opportunity to play a role in our community  and script that role himself.  I don’t think he’s decided on everything yet, but I think he is hoping to learn some cooking from one of our closest family friends, Deyden. He’s expressed some interest in getting some skateboarding tips from one of his namesakes, Ian Rogers, for a few examples.

Our hope is that we can create a rite of passage that allows us all to look forward to the future (his and ours) while celebrating this INFINITELY PERILOUS and RADICALLY ALIVE phase of youth, in which, for evolutionary reasons, the sense of self-preservation and personal risk is notably absent.

In essence, our rites of passages become our own, and I found that not having a choice in my religious rites drove me to the extremes of creating my own anyway, testing the limits of society through punk-ass reckless behavior.  In the end, I found a community of compassion and tolerance that I wanted to be a part of, and only hope we can create both the kinds of rites that our kids want to partake in, and the kinds of accepting communities they want to grow into.

Jon Voss is the Historypin Strategic Partnerships Director helping to build an open ecosystem of historical data across libraries, archives, and museums worldwide. His innovative work at the intersection of technology and cultural memory is also getting him closer to his childhood dream of perfecting time travel.