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If cleanliness is next to godliness, 13 may be the worst age to ask a boy to take faith seriously

Jesse Green
July 27, 2006

Some parents are so deeply enmeshed in their children’s lives that they might as well still share blood vessels with them. I admit I’m one of those parents, even though (or perhaps because) my boys were adopted and I don’t have a womb. When Erez and Lucas left for overnight camp a few weeks ago—it was the first time both had gone, leaving Andy and me alone together—I thought I was undergoing some new, involuntary form of Cesarean section. It didn’t matter that the two-sentence postcards soon started arriving, or that the radical reduction in housework began to convince me that there was some merit in this camping idea; I nevertheless found myself responding as if I were bodily connected to them in absentia. I erupted in insect bites spontaneously. I had an urge to weave plastic lanyards. When I worried that they were not brushing their teeth, my own teeth felt strangely gritty.

Dads’ Weekend did not help. Partly because the apostrophe was presumably placed to suggest plural boys each with an individual dad (not individual boys each with plural dads) and partly because I prefer featherbeds and room service to “sleeping” in a bag on Moose Field, I played Mom. Which meant that I dropped by for an hour as the weekend began, left Andy to brave the elements, then returned for a few hours on Sunday to retrieve his mangled body from the tent and drive home. (Apparently the earth has not developed box springs in Western Massachusetts.) In between I stayed at a cushy inn an hour away, caught a few shows at the Williamstown Theater Festival, perused the rustic Homers at the Clark Art Institute, and breakfasted on chocolate croissants.

But I did not leave the boys’ camp without getting a good look at how they were living. The cabins, I already knew, were rudimentary, lacking electricity, plumbing and sufficient storage. What I had not quite expected was to find that the campers led a merry, medieval-style existence within them. It was in environments like these, I believe, that plague first flourished. At any rate, Algonquin cabin housed (instead of the hoped-for round table) eight boys, two counselors, and several mice. Among them, Lucas, who at home is more finicky than most 10-year-olds, had abandoned all sense of hygiene. His toothpaste tube was suspiciously pristine. His laundry bag was an undifferentiated mass of brown. And his bed (yes, I climbed aboard to straighten it out) seemed to be a tribute to Erez’s upcoming Torah portion, about the ancient Hebrews’ long wanderings in Sinai. It made a sound like maracas when I sat on it.

Erez, a second-year camper and a veteran at 12, had told us he intended to be more responsible for himself now that his bar mitzvah was looming. And it’s true that his bed in Clark cabin was discernable as such beneath a light dusting of Magic cards. His possessions were arranged on shelves instead of floorboards. Amazingly enough, his underwear was neatly folded in a plastic storage box. But that, I gradually realized, was a problem: of the 16 pairs we’d sent in the trunk, it appeared that only two or three had seen service. These I discovered most horribly a bit later, led by my nose to a dark corner. Apparently we had failed to explain to either boy what to do with his laundry when it came back from its outing into the world of cleanliness. Erez’s particular recipe: Hang clean laundry in bag on end of bed. Add new, filthy clothing at top, making sure it is as wet as possible. Shake. Let steep. Repeat.

This is what it means to be nearly 13. And even if you are fussy and refined (when I was 12, the care packages my mother sent me at camp included fabric swatches) you cannot escape: you will be inundated by the boundless chaos of your coevals. The first thing Andy remembers about his bar mitzvah is not the speech he gave on Saturday morning. (How could he remember it? He didn’t write it; it was handed to him to memorize.) Nor that Sam Levenson entertained the guests at the adult party in his parents’ living room on Saturday evening. (A typical Levenson joke that may or may not have been told that night: “Insanity is hereditary; you get it from your children.”) No, he remembers first what happened in between, during the home-catered luncheon, when his young guests, sent to his room to “play” unattended by adults, tore the place to pieces like a pack of raccoons. Andy is now 56 but, describing the melee, a look of immediate horror shadows his face, as if he could still see the assembled boys and girls, in their skinny suits and meticulous bouffants, going through his desk, reading aloud from the index-card file in which he’d recorded his thoughts about friends and schoolmates, disarranging the precarious contraption of his not-quite-teenaged personality.

Thirteen is a ghastly enough number to have a ten-cent terror named for it: triskaidekaphobia. And yet this is the age that contemporary Judaism continues to mark and honor as the portal to adulthood, as if pimples and pubic hair were a surefire sign of a deeper relationship to God. If the logic is sketchy, the provenance is downright shady. The Torah itself makes no mention of a rite for 13-year-olds, unless it’s in the circumcision of Ishmael at that unfortunate age. It isn’t until around 200 C.E., in the Pirke Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), that the 13th birthday is named as the proper moment for a boy to take upon himself the fulfillment of the commandments, and even then there is no indication of a ritual—let alone a comedian—to mark the occasion. Indeed, what a cabal of caterers and party planners will not tell you is that even the Torah reading is not required. A boy becomes a bar mitzvah at 13 whether he goes to synagogue and gets an Xbox or not. He need only live that long.

I learned all this from our rabbi at a meeting for the parents of the coming year’s b’nai mitzvah—a meeting that seemed like an orientation for some sort of wilderness adventure. Her review of the relevant history did not inspire faith in the reasonableness of the path, which had changed direction repeatedly, and occasionally disappeared, since the first recorded bar mitzvah ceremony, sometime in the 13th century. (Apparently the music was too loud.) What had once been meant to mark a boy’s emergence as a discrete religious being (even today, the father recites a prayer blessing God for freeing him from ethical responsibility for his son) had by the beginnings of the Reform movement in the early 1800s come to seem bizarrely inappropriate to the realities of prepubescence. With the advent of compulsory education and child labor laws, most 13-year-olds were no longer independent in any sense, especially not in the liberal cities where the Reform movement first flourished. By the mid-19th century, the rabbi told us, the ritual among Reform Jews was in fact abolished.

Abolished? My jaw dropped. It was one thing to know that a major tradition we were planning, however trepidatiously, to honor had undergone change in its history, had even been lifted entirely from one context and dropped into another, as in the case of Easter or marriage. But if the bridge was down, why try to cross back over it? Why resanctify a ritual that had definitively been debunked? Especially when the ritual that replaced the bar mitzvah in Reform temples—the confirmation—made so much more sense, taking place at the less indefensible age of 16. Everyone knows how mature 16-year-olds are.

But we are stuck with it; the Reform movement reinstated the bar mitzvah service (while retaining the confirmation) in the 1940s. Were they persuaded by hordes of gift-seeking preteens? Or cowed by the examples of the Conservative and Orthodox movements, which had been faithful to the ceremony throughout Reform’s apostasy? If so, they might want to reconsider. Moshe Feinstein, who until his death in 1986 was considered (as Wikipedia puts it) the “de facto supreme rabbinic authority for the Orthodox Jewry of North America,” advocated the complete abolition of the rite. “It is well known,” he wrote, that “it has brought no one closer to study or observance.”

I wonder, though. It’s true that, at least while he’s at camp, Erez is not being spurred to greater piety by his impending appointment at the bimah. The copy of his Torah portion that we had packed with his stationery was as perfectly white and unused as most of his underwear. And yet in his first few weeks of training this spring, he had already begun to think about what mitzvahs he wanted to perform toward his required quota. (No, we told him, eating his brother’s dessert when Lucas didn’t feel well didn’t count as helping the sick.) He had attended services frequently and already learned many of the prayers he would need to chant come March.

That he did not know what those prayers really meant, or fathom the obligations they would put him under if he did, does not necessarily mean he had not been brought “closer to study or observance.” A longtime rabbinical debate pits those who feel it’s better to memorize prayers even prior to understanding them against those who feel that prayer without understanding is useless, or worse. Should a toddler be taught to lisp the Sh’ma? It’s a Talmudic version of the phonics vs. whole language controversy, and like that one would clearly best be solved by the simultaneous mastery of both content and context. But if there’s anything the typical 13-year-old cannot coordinate, it is the timing of his heart and brain.

Failing that miracle, the rabbis decided in favor of doing before understanding—or at least that’s what my mother told me when I complained about the irrelevance of my own Torah portion, which I could read in Hebrew and English but could not make meaningful sense of in either. “Maybe you will someday,” she said, believing, like all good Jewish mothers, that it’s better to pack too much than too little. Now, looking back to my own 13th year, and forward to Erez’s, I think it is perhaps the worst possible age for introducing the concept of maturity—and therefore the age at which it’s most necessary to do so. I don’t see any reasonable solution to that conundrum, unless it’s to copy the practice of many tall buildings and, common sense be damned, skip the problem altogether.

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