By Christopher Noxon
I’ve got three Jewish kids, two of them teenagers, which means I've been to a ton of Bar Mitzvahs, 80 percent of which have been godawful horrible... and yet I know there’s tremendous worth in what they say when they’re done: You’re an adult and you’re a Jew.
Officially, unambiguously, forevermore – Jewish adult.
And it turns out I’ve been at war with both these things for a while now. The adult part and the Jewish part – I can’t seem to come to terms with either.
While I'm not Jewish by birth and haven't formally converted, I sent my kids to Jewish day school, joined two Temples, started observing Shabbat, and started doing all sorts of creative projects with Reboot. I wrote a whole book that upended the standard definition of maturity and praised grown-ups who refuse to give up stuff they’ve always loved.
So I’m not really an adult and I’m not really a Jew.
I’m a rejuvenile cultural Jew.
Or a Jewish-adjacent adultescent.
Or a Jew-ISH man-child.
Which is cute – but it’s also, I realize… gross. Seriously, I’ve lost all patience for my prevaricating and negotiating and fence-sitting. Maybe because at 44, I really am getting older – my son Charlie had his Bar Mitzvah last year, which means that my son is a Jewish adult and… I’m not.
So… yeah – I’ve been thinking about conversion. I’m still iffy on the God question… and I’m not sure I can ever get on board with the bloodletting… but I’ve had a few lunches with a rabbi and I’m doing my reading and now I’m at least on a formal-ish path toward settling this question once and for all.
Which might mean – what? A Bar Mitzvah? What would that even look like?
Turns out I’ve sort of had one. I was a soft, weird, not at all developed kid at 13, and after attending a Bar Mitzvah for my friend Michael Landsberg, I wanted one too.
At the time I was living with my mom and her girlfriend; besides being heavy-duty feminists, they were seekers who did consciousness-raising potlucks and retreats in the Sequoias with their guru Jean Houston. There was talk in our house of “the Goddess” and the “Cosmic Muffin.”
So when I complained about why it was that Michael Landsburg got a Bar Mitzvah and all I got was a green T-shirt with the text of the Equal Rights Amendment, mom got to work. I think Robert Bly and Iron John had been in the UTNE Reader that month. Anyway, she set about creating a YOUTHHOOD RITE OF PASSAGE RITUAL for their sensitive boy-child.
My moms have a friend and fellow feminist-seeker named Connie who also happens to be married to a corporate tax attorney – they have a house in Zuma with a sunken tennis court and a redwood hot tub and an incredible garden. One weekend when they were away, we went out there and we did this whole thing –I’ve blocked it out, but I have dim memories wearing some kind of robe while candles were lit, bongos were beaten and long meditative silences were observed. Mom tells me she made up a scroll with calligraphy on parchment.
And then we went skinny dipping. Me, my mom and Pam, soaking in the hot tub and jumping in the black-bottom pool. Because that’s what you did in 1981 with your two moms. A year or so before they’d taken me to a place in Topanga Canyon called Elysian Fields where I played tennis with a lady who beat me in straight sets wearing nothing but sneakers and socks with little pom-poms on the ankles.
Thank the Cosmic Muffin that mom didn’t decide to do the youthhood ritual at Elysian.
But anyway, at least she did something. It wasn’t a lavish luncheon, but my fruity Malibu Youth-hood Rite of Passage hadn’t been all that different from Michael Landsberg’s. Like Michael, I’d stood up with my parental units and made a formal entry into post-childhood in a strange, sweet, barely-understood, really-pretty batshit religious ceremony. We both had our scrolls. And like Michael, the lasting evidence of this event is a photograph – he got the portrait of himself wearing a wide-collared tan suit and staring meaningfully out the window of Temple Beth Shalolm… and when I asked my mom about this a few weeks ago, she went to her stack of photo albums and pulled out this:
The most embarrassing thing about this photo for me is not the nakedness, or even the bunny – it’s the face. Look how fucking happy I am! As I say, I remember little about that day, but I’m pretty sure I was loving the whole thing.
Which only reinforces for me that even in its most humiliating, fuzzy-headed woo-woo form, the rite-of-passage ritual is a good thing. It’s affirming. It’s important. I’m glad my moms did it for me. I just wish it could’ve been somehow a little more relevant, something about being a grown-up man?
A few years ago a bunch of us from Reboot were going camping together just after our friend Jill’s son’s Bar Mitzvah. Since we apparently share a compulsive need to customize every last scrap of inherited tradition to our own personal preferences, we decided to have a crack at the Bar Mitzvah.
What we came up with was this: on our first full day camping together, as everyone was lazing around a big open meadow, I came charging out of my cabin in a gorilla suit – that’s a whole other story. Anyhow, I grabbed hold of the Bar Mitzvah boy and forcibly escorted him away, leading all the men from our group up a nearby bluff. After getting everyone up the hill, I took off the mask and we sat Jill’s son down on the grass.
Then our friend Amichai, this amazing Israeli scholar, did a shpiel about tribal traditions in which the men would pull a boy away from the care of their mothers and only return them after they’d performed initiation rites. I pictured bones in noses, facial tattoos. Happily, all Amichai had in mind was going around the circle and having everyone share a “secret of manhood.”
The secrets ranged from the practical to the profound. One guy talked about stones in the river making the song and how hardship creates character. An electrician told Isaac to “always buy real estate.” Someone’s dad said that, “when you’re out on a date, always let a woman through the door first. You look gentlemanly and it allows you to check out her tuchus.” Another guy did this whole speech about how you shouldn’t smoke pot when you’re a teenager because it’ll screw up your short-term memory but that it’s OK when you’re older.
I remember another guy stroking his chin solemnly, squinting his eyes and then saying, simply, “Everyone masturbates. You know that, right?”
But the thing I remember most was a writer friend who said, whispering it like a secret, “Everyone wants to be invited.”
None of it was earth-shattering, but Isaac liked it and all the guys did too and we’ve done it three times since. A few weeks ago my friend Rachel borrowed the gorilla suit and had an uncle put it on at a family party; the gorilla pulled her son outside and led him through the streets of Beverly Hills to Roxbury Park, where we all sat around cross-legged in the grass and did a round of wisdom-sharing. A few months ago we did it with three Bar Mitzvah boys in the circle and I wore a giant yellow chicken costume.
Who knows? Maybe this is how new traditions are born – maybe Good Life Gorilla or the Wisdom Chicken will catch on and thousands of little Hebrew teens will know the terror of being kidnapped by their parents in animal costumes. It’s true that none of the actual “secrets of manhood” we’ve shared have been revelatory, but there’s something amazing about even the promise of learning a forbidden thing. Even if what that ends of being is a clumsy attempt at wisdom or just the reheated lecturing of middle aged guys – it can feel pretty profound.
Part of the reason, I think, is what that guy whispered at the first circle: “Everyone wants to be invited.” Being pulled aside by the adults, singled out and invited into a world, told you belong in an actual community – that’s what the ritual is really about. If I ever have a Bar Mitzvah, I’d like a little of that. That’s part of why my moms’ youthhood passage ritual was ultimately so forgettable – there was no community to be invited into. All I really entered was a hot tub.
I do know one thing for sure: I’d rather be abducted by a gorilla than pose naked with a bunny rabbit.
Christopher Noxon is a writer, daddy, and doodler. www.christophernoxon.com