Who was the genius who decided to make 13 the cutoff for Jewish childhood? Someone, back in biblical times, when sage advice meant reminding someone to return to its original owner the ox that had wandered into their tent, made a unilateral decision: the day you turn 13, you are a man or woman.
By the way, according to the Census people who accosted me outside my house last week, gender is now something you "self-identify." No kidding. They looked me right in the eye and said, "Gender?" My response: "Can't you tell?" Not until they hear me declare that I am male am I officially male. Along those lines, you can stop referring to me as a "struggling writer." I've decided to self-identify as a best-selling author.
Actually, just turning 13 doesn't do the trick. You can turn 13 all you want; you won't be a man or woman until you climb up onto the bima, grab the gold-handled pointer and start reading from the Torah. One minute you're playing with Barbies or army men. The next, I guess, you're paying bills and worrying about your prostate.
I just realized that I used two childhood toy references that not only don't apply to today's San Francisco child but would also likely make me a Neanderthal in the eyes of my Brandeis Hillel Day School parental cohort. What I meant to say was that one minute they're playing with gender-neutral wooden toys made by artisans in Mendocino and the next they're practicing Ashtonga Yoga and boycotting Arizona.
Last night, 89 days to Bar Mitzvah, I sat in Room 56 at Temple Emanu-el and looked around. Among the parents in various stages of middle-aged physical deterioration were four Bar and Bat Mitzvah candidates. There was the Jawa, who someday will learn what I have learned: how to fidget in ways that don't attract attention.
There was a red-haired kid wearing a hoodie advertising some local youth basketball league. He was completely stressed out because he hadn't yet come close (in his mind) to completing the 18 Mitzvot required of each B'nai Mitzvah. Abra, our Temple Emanu-el representative, found this unbelievable, since everything short of saying "Gesundheit" instead of "God bless you" when someone sneezes is a Mitzvah.
There was Rachel, the ghost of girlfriends past, and there was another girl who actually sounded like a teenager -- and not a kid -- when she spoke. Another candidate was mysteriously absent, represented by his parents and little sister.
Only the preternaturally mature girl seemed like anything other than a kid. And yet all will soon be anointed "adults" by Jewish tradition. Their hurdle to the complex world of adulthood: taking an active role in religious services.
Even that, to a BHDS alum, is a shaky criteria. These kids have been reading from the Torah since first grade. Starting then, every class takes a turn at leading the Thursday morning T'fillah service. So by the time they reach 13, they've laid their fingers on the Torah at least seven times, maybe eight. Their post-Bar Mitzvah glow must be not unlike the feeling of a newly married couple who've been living together for years. "Do you feel any different?"
(Looks down at ring finger on left hand) "Sure! Now lets go home. I want to see if my Sports Illustrated came yet this week."
There's supposed to be all kinds of other adult-style baggage attached to achieving B'nai Mitzvah. Supposedly you will now accept responsibility for your actions and begin working toward improving the world, kind of a tough road for someone who's 13 with one foot still in the sandbox and the other behind the wheel.
(Interestingly, the generation now approaching retirement age has embraced the latter quality while curiously sidestepping the former.)
According to the May 19, 2010 New York Times, 13 is not old enough to climb Mt. Everest, even though 13-year-old Jordan Romero is already at Base Camp. Johnny Collinson, 17, is the youngest to summit Everest. At 13, Laura Dekker may or may not be too young to sail around the world. David Sills, 13, is already being recruited to play quarterback at USC in 2015. That's too young to everyone except, ironically, very youthful new USC coach Lane Kiffin.
Is 13 too young to date? It's too young to drive a car or hold a job, save for babysitting and lawn-mowing, and plenty of people think 13 is too young for babysitting. I'm one of them. It's too young to go on a world tour or be a movie star. Just ask Drew Barrymore, Danny Bonaduce, Michael Jackson, the Corys, Brad Renfro, Lindsay Lohan and about every other child star in history except for Blossom and Winnie Cooper.
This morning, after a comically inept series of events that culminated in me driving carpool in a metallic green Buick, I watched as the Brandeis Hillel Day School seventh grade presented the results of their Tzedek project, a year-long class in which they took money donated by parents (instead of buying 40 Bar Mitzvah gifts, we pooled our money into one fund marked for philanthropy), then each researched a worthy organization for donation. In the end, they donated to four separate outfits.
Today, they presented huge, golf tournament-style faux checks to representatives of each organization. We all sat and watched a DVD about the "Make-a-Wish" foundation, and a video made by a school in Africa who were to received approximately $5,000, thanks to the stellar research of seventh-grader Sydney Osterweil-Artson.
It was pretty awesome to hear these little African kids talking about Sydney Osterweil-Artson.
Were these adults lounging 40-across in the front of the room? As much as anyone can be at 13 while not climbing Everest or sailing around the world, I guess, and definitely more so for the girls than the boys. Though some of them -- Jawa included -- now sport faint moustaches, they all seemed blissfully free of adulthood. Can a rite of passage designed to create a clear line of demarkation between childhood and adulthood have its desired effect on a 14-year-old? I just don't see it.
Maybe back in biblical times. Maybe 77 years ago, when my 15 year-old grandmother and grandfather met on the beach at Coney Island, where he was pumping iron with all the other muscle beach guys and she was hiding the fact that she was able and willing to perform the highly controversial Triple Lindy when the sun went down and the orchestra began to play.
Romeo and Juliet were 12. Maybe all the way up to the establishment of child labor laws in the U.S. Not now, though. I'm sure that, just as 18 was exactly the right age to completely waste a college education through immaturity, 13, at least for our Jawa, who just came running out of his room with his ipod strapped to a cardboard sword he made, will still be a kid on August 22.