In modern society there are few rituals left that mark the passage between youth and adulthood. Prom, graduation, first sexual encounter — these are events we think of that mark the passage, but there are rituals from ancient times that are ritualized rites of passage. The Bar and Bat Mitzvah and Christian Confirmation used to have greater significance as rites of passage, perhaps, but now are more frequently merely endured by teens as annoying tests put forth by parents and their religious communities. They take place during what we now consider early adolescence, but in ancient times surely were times of actual transition from childhood to adulthood. In a sheep-herding society with shorter life expectancy, 13 or 14 probably was an age of maturity. As modern adulthood gets pushed further and further back, do coming-of-age rituals conducted at the ages of 13, 14, or 15 really matter?
Most of us, if we participated in them, just wanted to get them over with. So it’s kind of refreshing to have a book deal with the ritual of Bar Mitzvah and ask the age-old questions, “Am I now an adult? What does that mean?” within the context of that ancient ritual. In Sons of the 613 by Michael Rubens (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults), Isaac, the soon-to-be Bar Mitzvah-ed suburban youth, is hounded into acts of daring and excess by his older brother, Josh, who has a terrifying obsession with feats of manhood. With parents safely out of the picture on an Italian holiday, Josh and Isaac battle each other over the meaning of “becoming a man.” Physical daring, acquiring a hip dress style, facing down bullies, and interaction with girls are required by Josh in order that Isaac become a macho dude rather than the weenie Josh assumes he is.
Isaac just wants to skate through the ritual, doing the minimum amount necessary, while Josh is over-the-top in his expectations for Isaac — not only to master the Torah excerpts, but also to show prowess in the arena of manhood as defined by Josh himself. Josh’s own self-destructive tendencies are heart-breaking and contrast dramatically with Isaac’s growing ability to manage seemingly impossible situations.
On our annual overnight in June, our high school discussion group, the Bookmarks, Skyped with Michael Rubens about his book. One of my teens remarked that “becoming an adult is really about getting over yourself. It’s not always about you.” Easier said than done. A lot of growing up is enduring humiliating experiences, figuring out what is worth getting bent out of shape over, and cleaning up other people’s messes. In Sons of the 613, all of that is condensed into a two-week period with riotous results. In the end, Isaac is still a fourteen year old boy, but he knows a lot more about life, knows better who he is, and has finally “gotten over” himself.
Can’t ask for more than that.
— Ellen Snoeyenbos, currently reading Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers