I suppose it’s appropriate to write here that the editor who invited me to write here is a former student, who I met when she was a fresh-faced freshman, freshly bat mitzvah’d. The course I taught her was called “English 9 Honors: Coming of Age.” To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye were among the tried-and-true standbys on the curriculum. The idea was to teach students to read, write, and think critically about what it meant to “come of age.” It was my third year teaching the course, and already I was beginning to wonder whether the only coming-of-age experience many of my students were undergoing was being forced to wonder whether there was such a thing as coming of age, and what one had to do to achieve such a milestone. How could one facilitate the transition from child to adult? What hard truth had to be confronted? How much innocence lost? I worried about being complicit in a misleading narrative that “coming of age” was something actively done, the result of some ritual, formal or informal. I feel deeply honored that my former student would ask for my perspective on a phenomenon I’ve grown more and more distrustful of with each passing year.
All the dictionary definitions [of coming of age] are variations on crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood.
1929 oil painting by Oscar Rex titled Bar Mitzvah in a Synagogue | Source: Wikipedia
I myself never had a Bar Mitzvah, but if I had, it would not have made a man of me, no more than losing my virginity at that age would have. In both cases, I’d be doing something I didn’t fully understand, for all the wrong reasons. My father told me it was my decision whether to have a bar mitzvah, but I was only allowed to make that decision once I’d completed a year’s worth of bar mitzvah training. Dad was operating under the assumption that I would surely go through with it after investing all that time and effort into learning to sight-read Hebrew and co-writing an exegesis of a passage from the Torah. If that was not enough, he had faith in my profit motive. I’d have made a killing, and that was almost enticement enough to haul myself, in all of my spindly awkwardness and epic insecurity, before 300+ strange adults and a smattering of my smart-assed peers to sing aloud in another language. In the end, though, I told my parents that I believed it was ethically wrong to become a man in the eyes of a God I didn’t necessarily believe in, just to make a few bucks. “Wouldn’t that make me some sort of hypocrite?” I asked them, fully aware that the real hypocrisy in the proceedings was my using religious conviction — or a lack thereof — to justify my own cowardice. The relative existence of God felt gauzily abstract compared with hundreds of eyes gazing critically at me from beneath their yarmulke. The whole thing’s stupid, I insisted to my already-bar mitzvah’d friends. None of you will be any more of an adult than me for having done this. They agreed. Nope; just richer. They were kind enough not to add: and braver.
The following fall, I entered high school and failed to come of age in any number of ways. Things followed a pattern, always playing out much the same way as the Bar Mitzvah scenario: I would be placed in a situation where I could do something relatively courageous (at least for me), usually something I actually wanted to do (although often for the wrong reasons). I would then fail to do that thing because I was afraid, not because of the thing itself but some risk I would have to take to accomplish it. I was certainly intelligent enough to learn to sight-read and recite Hebrew, but to do so in public? Unthinkable. As soon as I gave in to my fear, I’d get to work rationalizing it.
Over and over I repeated this process. I’d have the chance to not try drugs, and try them anyway, knowing that I was not in any way — emotionally, constitutionally, temperamentally, spiritually, you name it — cut out to do drugs. My place was among the comic book collecting, Monty Python quoting crowd, and I knew it. But I tried drugs because my long-time cohort of friends did, and I was afraid of no longer fitting in with the group, and I called it “loyalty.” I wanted a girlfriend, and when a young woman offered to play that role — looking me right in the eyes and in what I now realize was an almost unimaginable act of vulnerability and courage, saying “I think if you’d give me chance, I would be a great girlfriend” — I was noncommittal, and floated her name by my friends. When they joked about her looks, I remained noncommittal out of fear of judgement, and watched my potentially great girlfriend go on to become devoted to this other guy in my grade named Thaddeus. I told myself it was because she wasn’t Jewish. A thousand times I resolved to stand up to my father in his rage, a thousand times I was too afraid to do so, a thousand times I told myself it was love or respect or honor that stopped me.
As I grew old enough and honest enough with myself to acknowledge the pattern, I became more and more convinced that all I needed to do in order to become a man was break it. I would have to overcome my fear at some critical, pivotal juncture, and the mere knowledge that I could overcome it once would enable me to do it again and again until the fear became an abstraction in the rear view mirror of my life. This belief served as the most dangerous rationalization of all, because it rooted my identity and self-worth in two dubious suppositions: that “coming of age” or “becoming a man” was something that could happen in one fell swoop or grandiloquent gesture, and that there would be plenty of time to make said gesture. So I muddled my way through my last year of high school and first year of college, missing my chances to enter manhood through an act of courage because, after all, all it would take was one such act and there was always time to do it.
And then my grandfather died.
Irving had a massive stroke getting eggs out the refrigerator to make himself breakfast. He was 82. We know about the eggs because they were scattered, broken, all over the floor where he fell. I always took comfort in that detail. For me, it meant he had no idea what was coming, not even seconds before it came. No nausea, no dizziness, no pain, nothing that would make him think to put the eggs down. The universe flipped a switch and Irving was gone. I rushed to pack and drive up to Chicago the next day (we Jews get our people on the ground quick).
My drive was eight hours of nothing. I listened to music and imagined the funeral, and even composed a poem in my head about Irving, but trying to imagine the permanency of his absence from the world was like trying to picture infinity, or imagine what it would be like to be dead myself. Neither is possible. When we imagine infinity, we envision really big, vast distances, or a limitless scattering of stars or paperclips or grains of sand, but those things aren’t infinite, they’re just a lot, and a lot is all the human brain can fathom. As for being dead myself: how could I conceive of the absence of my own presence, the consciousness with which I observe and measure everything? The now-nothingness of Irving seemed equally preposterous and abstract to me, like his name and connection to me had become symbols in an equation.
I pulled up to my aunt and uncle’s house mid-afternoon. The family was sitting shiva there. A pitcher of water was on the front porch, but I didn’t know the tradition well enough to wash my hands before entering. No one noticed. The large mirror in the foyer was covered in butcher’s paper. This part I knew: a mourner’s thoughts should not be of himself or how he might appear, but focused instead upon the person who has been lost. In the instant before I heard my name and was surrounded by my family, I stared, aghast, at the absence of my reflection in that butcher paper. My father was sobbing in the other room. I’m not here, I thought. It’s me who’s gone, not Irving.
scene from Amazon Studios’ Transparent where people are sitting shiva | Source: © My Jewish Learning/YouTube
An hour later, the rabbi who would be giving my grandfather’s eulogy summoned the family into the living room. There were also a few old timers I did not recognize. I wasn’t sure if they were related to me or just knew Irving from back in the day. One of them must’ve been very religious — he took the cushion off of his chair before he sat in it, another aspect of the Jewish mourning ritual I was unaware of, like the water pitcher on the porch. He sat and looked amiably around the room, his eyes red-rimmed like everyone else’s. The rabbi called for words about Irving. People spoke. They used adjectives. They gave examples of his selflessness and his love for his family. They recounted the grief he suffered when my grandmother had died. They read his poetry and they discussed how his faith had suffered because of what had happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. They wept. I did not. I knew everything they were saying was true, but I could not match the truth of their words to the truth of his death. I was like the opposite of a baby who has just begun to register the notion of object permanence, that things still exist even when they leave our sight. For me, impermanence was the problem, and as a result I could no more see the past-tense Irving in the mourners’ stories than I could see my reflection in the butcher paper.
How could one facilitate the transition from child to adult? What hard truth had to be confronted? How much innocence lost?
“Irving vas funny,” said the red-eyed old man on the cushion-less chair. “Alvays with the humor, that one. Even if no one else vas knowing vat the joke vas!”
“No one knew when he was joking,” my aunt told the rabbi. “Martha could never tell. He’d string her along for hours, and then she’d realize, and ‘IRVING!’ she’d yell. Like it was her line on a television show: Irving!”
“This makes me think of a—; do you remember any of you Irving’s little drug store? Vhat he owned even before the kids vas born?” Murmurs of affirmation, and the rabbi turned in his chair to face the old man. He had an instinct for when good material was about to surface.
“Yah, they had that store. And Irving vas one of the first businessmen to sell those little cactuses for the vindowsill, yes? He kept them up front by the register. And that neighborhood, there vas no Jews anymore; lots of others, other people came in. No one knows from Yiddish. So this little lady, this Mexican lady vith her kids comes in, and the kids vant the little cactus. The lady says to Irving, ‘Vhat kind of cactus is that?’ and Irving, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know nothing from cactuses, and he tells her, ‘It’s a fakakta cactus.’”
(Laughter and nodding at this from my family, and the rabbi pursed his lips over a smile — fakakta means “fucking” in Yiddish.)
“And the woman repeats it to him — “a fakakta cactus! It’s beautiful!” — buys it, and valks out of the store. Irving forgets all about it. An hour or so later, he’s in the varehouse, and Martha is up front, at the register.” Everyone is leaning toward the storyteller. They all know where this is going.
“And this little Mexican lady’s friend comes in, yes? And up she goes, straight to Martha, and says, ‘Vhere are the fakakta cactuses?’ Martha, she can’t believe her ears. ‘Vhat?’ she aks the lady. ‘Vhat you say?’ ‘The fakakta cactuses! My friend told me she bought a fakakta cactus here today!’ And Martha, suddenly she realizes, she puts it together, and you know vhat she said next, she yells at the top of her lungs—”
“IRVING!” shouted my family in chorus, and suddenly I could see him again. I’ve never laughed so hard, even if everyone thought I was crying. Maybe I was. Sometimes there’s no difference.
I have grown to believe that most people do not come of age as the result of their actions, but rather, their realizations.
Book cover design by M.S. Corley for a Polish version of The Catcher in the Rye, part of an online competition hosted by 50 Watts | Source: Will/Flickr (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
I am now teaching “coming of age” literature for the sixteenth straight year. More than a thousand students have sat in my classroom and wondered with me what that expression truly entails. All the dictionary definitions are variations on crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood. But is “coming of age” an active process, a ritual in which each of us must choose to participate, a moment to be prepared for like a bar mitzvah? Many of my students — past and present — seem to think so. When I was young I thought so. I regretted the chances I missed to grow up, rationalized the reasons, and looked forward to the next carpe diem moment, codified or not. It never came, and I have grown to believe that most people do not come of age as the result of their actions, but rather, their realizations. The most important steps I took toward coming of age did not happen at a coming-of-age moment, or as a result of a coming-of-age ritual. They came at my grandfather’s shiva, in the form of a different ritual, one in which I was not a speaker but a listener: the telling of stories about the dead.
The greatest step I took toward adulthood was the acceptance of a loss, and have noticed that this is the case in a lot of the literature I teach my ninth graders. Sometimes it’s the loss of a person, sometimes an ideal, and almost always there’s some farewell to childhood innocence. I remind myself of this when my students and I discuss poor Holden Caulfield, read for so long as a caustic, tell-it-like-it-is hero of the counterculture, when he’s really just a sad, frightened kid who has lost his brother and his innocence and not been allowed to say goodbye to either. He is not allowed to attend his brother’s funeral and as a result, he cannot leave anything behind, not even a school he despises, without looking for “some kind of a good-by.” Holden would’ve hated a bar mitzvah. But he could’ve used a good shiva.