You're never too old for an ancient rite of youth

As anyone familiar with "Romeo and Juliet" well knows, 13 was once considered old enough to wed. From time immemorial, 13 has also been the age when Jewish boys (and in this past century, Jewish girls) celebrate their bar (or in the case of girls, bat) mitzvahs.

"Today I am a man," a staple phrase from the typical bar mitzvah boy's speech, is a declaration that brings a smile of amused recognition to anyone who's experienced a bar mitzvah. The manhood (or womanhood) being celebrated is, of course, a religious coming-of-age, meaning that the young person has demonstrated the ability to take full part in religious services.

Traditionally, he (or she) has studied with a rabbi, learned to read Hebrew, recite prayers, and read aloud from the Bible before the assembled congregation. Although in America in the latter half of the past century, bar mitzvahs often came to involve big parties with dinner and dancing (rather like weddings), for centuries before, the bar mitzvah was a far more sedate, matter-of-fact rite of passage.

There are some Jewish boys who have never had a bar mitzvah. Perhaps their families were uninterested in religion or cultural identity. Perhaps, like David Hays's parents, they did not belong to a synagogue or temple at the time.

Hays managed, nonetheless, to grow up to lead a rich and busy adult life. As a lighting and set designer, he worked with the likes of ballet choreographer George Balanchine, theatrical directors Tyrone Guthrie and Elia Kazan, and designer Jo Mielziner. He went on to found the National Theatre of the Deaf. More recently, he and his son sailed their small boat round the treacherous waters off Cape Horn, an experience recounted in their book, "My Old Man and the Sea."

At age 66, Hays was still eager to try new things. A fortuitous conversation with a local rabbi persuaded him it just might be possible to make up for his lost bar mitzvah. Hebrew, the rabbi assured him, was not that difficult to learn. A man who'd rounded Cape Horn could surely rise to the challenge of joining a class of 12-year-old boys and girls engaged in studying for their upcoming bar or bat mitzvahs.

In many ways, Hays got more out of his studies than his young classmates, most of whom were there (as they saw it) only to please their parents. One of the best things about this book is Hays's portrayal of these impudent, skeptical, but ultimately goodhearted youngsters. Poignantly, he is reminded of his own adolescence and is moved to wonder if today's teenagers are still able to savor the luxury of waiting to grow up. "In those days," he muses, recalling his youth, "the world held a reserved seat for us in some imagined arena where there would be space to achieve something of value. If a reserved seat is being held, we don't have to hurry, do we? Do we have, today, this sense of a glowing future? In these instant times do youngsters dare see more than a few years or even months ahead?"

Along with his opportunity to spend time among the "Hormone Hurricanes," as he dubs his classmates, Hays also learns more about his religion and about faith in general. In doing so, he feels he comes close to recapturing the sense of wonder and expectancy associated with childhood: hence, his title, "Today I Am a Boy." Unfortunately, he is less adept at conveying that sense of wonder.

Much as one may admire Hays's example - proving it's never too late to learn something new - his book contains a lot that might better have been left out. Hays does himself a disservice when (for no good reason) he disgorges some of the personal and professional contretemps in which he's been involved over the years: It makes him come across as rather petty. Another chapter about an Anne Frank who miraculously survived the death camps (she's sick of being used as a symbol) is as crude as it is offensive.

Readers seeking an informative, balanced, yet personal look at contemporary Judaism might be better advised to read Herman Wouk's "This Is My God" or "The Will to Live On."

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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