Not Mitzvah: An Improvised Rite of Passage

Three weeks before my son, Will, turned 13, he received his first bar mitzvah invitation. It was elegantly engraved on paper the color and texture of crème fraîche and came in an envelope professionally addressed in $5-a-pop calligraphy. He opened it with an expression of awe.

Most of Will’s socializing prior to this point had consisted of birthday parties that featured those giant, inflatable bouncy things you can rent for the backyard by the hour, or a trip to Magic Mountain plus a sleepover. The bar mitzvah invitation indicated a whole new universe of social intercourse. “I’m supposed to mark whether I want steak or salmon for dinner,” he noted as he held the reply card delicately by its corners.

“I think I’d like a bar mitzvah,” he announced the next day, when I picked him up from school. As far as I knew, he’d barely heard the term, and even now had only the wooziest idea of what such an event entailed.

“Honey,” I said, “if you wanted a bar mitzvah, you should have planned a lot further ahead.” He shot me a suspicious look. “You should have worked it out to get yourself born into a Jewish family.”

“You have to be Jewish?” he asked, narrowing his eyes as if he thought I might be manufacturing this restriction just to torment him.

“Well, yeah,” I told him. “It’s kind of a religious thing.”

“That sucks,” he said.

Just about a year before, Will had gone through a rough period when preadolescent hormones invaded his body like spring floodwaters. He’d also graduated from our nice, low-key community Topanga Elementary and was attending a middle school for gifted kids where the homework load produced nightly cases of irrational dread. And on top of everything else, there was the father issue.

At that time, a friend suggested that I hold some kind of welcome-to-manhood celebration for him. “Boys need a rite of passage,” said the friend, who is not at all your sensitive New Age guy but an ex-Marine with a slightly surly demeanor. “It’d be good for your son, especially since he doesn’t have a dad to, you know, show him the ropes.”

Actually, Will does have a dad: George, my ex-husband, who suffered a cerebral aneurysm several years back. A tiny vascular balloon exploded in the left temporal lobe of his brain, damaging the mechanism that encodes and decodes speech. Now his words are a jumble of English and a language of his own devising. George does his best to reach Will from inside his psychic terrarium; sometimes they play cards together, or chess. But never again will George be able to show his son any kind of ropes.

A week or two after the aneurysm occurred, I took Will to meet with a neuropsychologist, who explained in simple terms the recovery one could expect. Will sat next to me listening quietly, his body listing against mine like a tree blown against the side of a barn. Whatever his dad’s progress, the psychologist said, it would most likely top out at three years.

The truth seemed to help Will gain emotional footing. He would tell anybody who asked, “My dad is recovering from a stroke.” But last spring, the three-year alarm rang inside Will. “My dad’s mentally disabled,” is now the way he answers all father-related inquiries.

To me he was even more specific. One night, when I asked him why he was in a bad mood, his cheek twitched, and he turned away from me bitterly. “I’m in a bad mood because I need a dad and my dad’s half dead.”

I read Iron John, Robert Bly’s book about the importance of male initiation, when it came out in 1990 because I was curious about the best-seller fuss. But I didn’t take it seriously until I began researching a book of my own on gang life in East Los Angeles. Night after night, I watched fatherless boys attempt to initiate each other into masculine mysteries, with calamitous results; I’d find them on street corners, and they’d talk to me about their absent, drunken, strung-out, dead, incarcerated dads, their voices full of rage and longing.

At first I failed to connect their anguish with my own son’s distress. After all, Will had me as a mother, did he not? And surely with my superior education and resources I could mend most of the damage inflicted by the loss of his dad’s influence. But then the hormones hit, the father alarm rang, and I discovered my arrogance. Will began kicking furiously away from me, as a swimmer kicks off from the side of the pool to speed through the water. But his kicks had a desperate, angry, isolating quality that I recognized from my years with those boys across town.

Hoping for a magic formula, I bought books about the art of parenting boys. “Coaches can be excellent mentors,” I read. “A grandfather holds a valuable position in the boy’s life as the elder of his personal tribe.” But Will had zero interest in team sports. George’s dad was dead. And my father, with whom Will had been close, died the year before George got sick.

Finally I did what many mothers cannot afford to do: I marched Will to a therapist. A male therapist. If I couldn’t provide my son with fatherly advice the old-fashioned way, I would buy it by the hour.

The shrink was kind, smart, and able to rattle off skateboarding jargon with impressive fluency. A few sessions in, he asked to speak to me alone. “Will says his 13th birthday is coming up,” he said. “Have you thought of doing some kind of . . . uh . . . ceremony for him?”

I knew my son wasn’t going to put up with vision quests or inspirational hikes to mountaintops, so I decided on something simple. A “not mitzvah,” I called it. I set the party for 2 p.m. on the third Sunday in November; the guests arrived, looking jumpy. Will emerged wearing his favorite skateboard T-shirt over baggy shorts and looking elaborately unconcerned.

I instructed him to sit down and picked up my Navajo peyote rattle, which makes a noise like sidewinders on amphetamines. “Not the rattle!” said Will, but it was a halfhearted protest. I shook the thing in an arc around his head and shoulders, while he endured my eccentricities with stoic acquiescence.

“Yesterday you crossed over the borderline from kidhood to the road that will take you to adulthood,” I said. I’d rehearsed a speech earlier in the shower, but I’d forgotten it. “Traditionally, when a boy or a girl makes that crossing, he or she is welcomed on the other side by the community–which includes your family and those who care about you. That’s why we’re here.”

I’d asked the guests to bring Will a talisman, plus a wish or piece of wisdom applicable to his future. The father of a classmate handed Will a worn Swiss Army Knife. “It’s been with me for 20 years,” he said, “and it’s served me well. I hope it serves you.” Our ex-neighbor, who’d often yelled at the kids for running through his garden, presented Will with a seven-foot plum tree ready for planting, “so you’d know the joy of watching things grow.” My brother clasped Will in a bear hug, said he loved him, then handed him a humongous new power drill. “Welcome,” he said with a manly man’s grin. “Now you have everything you need to take apart the house.”

In all, about 20 people spoke, including women and a few kids. One friend, who’d told me he thought the whole thing was stupid, got emotional when his turn came. “I found this out on Anacapa Island,” he said, dropping a small white shell into Will’s palm. “It’s to remind you to be in the wilderness as much as possible, and to try to protect it whenever you can.” Will seemed somewhat mortified by the attention, but he never protested. He just took it in.

His father went last. All afternoon I’d heard George gamely chatting up the guests with his strange, boisterous jabberwocky. This couldn’t have been easy for him. A year after the aneurysm, we’d tried to go to a local restaurant to celebrate Will’s 10th birthday; George spent half the night curled fetuslike on my bed, panicked at the thought of running into people who had known him when his brain was intact. Now he moved toward Will with ungainly dignity. He’d managed to type something on the computer and he indicated I should read it aloud. “I know how you feel about me,” George wrote. “Our challenge is to transform the dragons that try to live with us. Blaming is a waste of time. We are responsible for our freedom. We are not our dragons.”

When I finished reading, George lurched forward to hug his son. Will ducked his head and hugged him back, whispering, “Thanks, Dad.” I shook the rattle once more and nattered something about the door of manhood. “You have to walk through that door on your own,” I said, “but we want you to know that we’re all behind you–me, your dad, all of us here.” Finally, I asked if there was anything Will would like to tell us in return.

“I think somebody let the cat outside,” he said. And it was finished.

It has been six months now since Will’s birthday celebration, and things at our house are so improved that I find myself saying cautious little prayers of thanks. On the surface of it, that loopy afternoon of rattling and wishing wasn’t any big deal. And yet it was a very big deal that so many men in Will’s life showed up to tell him that he mattered, that they took him seriously, that they were there for him if he needed them.

“Never being welcomed into the male world by older men is a wound in the chest,” writes Robert Bly. Last year, my son was wounded and I was terrified. This year, he came to understand that he was welcomed after all.

Reprinted from L.A. Weekly (May 21, 1999). Subscriptions: $70/yr. (52 issues) from Box 4315, Los Angeles, CA 90078.

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