Many years ago, when I was studying for a degree in Sociology, one of the compulsory subjects was Social Anthropology. We students were given a glimpse into the lives of societies far removed physically, geographically, sociologically, and culturally from our own, such as those of the Andaman Islands, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and many others. One of our professors who hailed originally from South Africa was very proud of the fact that he could make the click noise at the back of his throat that was an intrinsic component of the language of the native population known simply as ‘the Click People.’ That is no odder, I have since discovered, than the French nomenclature for the region known today as Languedoc, which simply denotes the fact that in that region, many years ago, the word for ‘yes’ was ‘oc.’
But I digress. One of the features of all the supposedly ‘primitive’ peoples that we learned about at the time (those were the ‘sixties, when one could use that term without being considered to have overstepped the bounds of ‘political correctness’) was that each one had its own particular rite of passage, usually involving some physical hardship undergone by teenage boys, either singly or as a group. In some cases this involved etching certain markings on their bodies or sending them on dangerous hunting expeditions or tests of endurance, after which they would be acknowledged as grown men and accepted as fully-fledged members of their tribe. In the case of Moslems this involves circumcision, which cannot be very pleasant for a teenage boy. Although I abhor the practice per se, I do consider it slightly more humane to perform it on an eight-day-old infant, as is the Jewish custom.
Christians also perform a rite of passage, albeit of a less physically demanding kind. this is the ceremony of confirmation, in which a religious leader, preferably a bishop, officially accepts a child, whether boy or girl, into the church. This is primarily a Catholic custom, and seems to vary as to the age of the participant, though it is usually performed on groups of pre-pubescent children who are deemed to have reached ‘the age of reason.’ It involves the invocation of the spirit of Jesus as the celebrant makes the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead with holy water. There is not much pain or effort involved, and the event is generally celebrated with a family meal or feast of some kind. With the decline in church attendance in Europe in recent years this ceremony has become less common, although in the countries of Latin America it is still widespread.
The occasion of the recent Bar-Mitzvah of one of my grandsons caused me to ponder the nature and significance of the occasion. When a Jewish boy reaches his thirteenth birthday he is considered to have attained the status of an adult male, and as such it is his religious duty to participate in synagogue services every Saturday morning and constitute part of the quorum of ten men without which no service can proceed. He is also required to be able to read the Hebrew script as it is written by scribes using special ink on a parchment scroll containing the Five Books of Moses and known as the Torah. In our case, although our family is not observant, my daughter’s middle child, Eyal, had been in training for several months, attending synagogue services regularly with his father, studying the ancient notation according to which the Hebrew words are chanted in synagogue, and preparing to read out the portion of the Bible for the week of his birthday to the assembled relatives and the rest of the congregation. This he did with great aplomb, bringing tears to the eyes of this proud grandmama, who, despite her apostacy, suddenly felt herself linked to the generations that had gone before who had undergone the same procedure. Although orthodox Judaism does not count even an adult woman as having the same elevated status as a teenage boy, that being one of the reasons I personally feel alienated from it, the ceremony touched something in my soul.
Whatever the pros and cons of the various rites of passage, I think that the Jewish way, in which a boy is required to display his ability to learn and take his place in a public forum, is the best kind of endurance test. But of course, since it is a Jewish ceremony, it also provides an excuse for a festive meal, and this was provided with all the trimmings and trappings that Jewish family life can provide. In addition, as is now the custom in Israel, there will be a disco party for Eyal’s classmates, and another party for the adults who were unable to attend the Saturday event. Thus, the series of celebrations will continue intermittently over several weeks, and Eyal will bask in the attention he receives and benefit from the generosity of his friends and relatives.