Growing up, whatever spiritual yearnings I had were satisfied by Star Wars. My best friend Jimmy was an altar boy who prayed to a spooky guy on the cross; I was good with Obi-Wan.
The first Jewish ritual I ever experienced was my friend Michael Landsberg’s bar mitzvah. The service was long and boring, but afterward there was a chocolate fountain and a live disco band.
At the time I my parents were divorced and I lived with my mom and her girlfriend Pam. Besides being committed feminists, they were spiritual seekers who did consciousness-raising retreats in the Sequoias. There was talk in our house of the “cosmic muffin.”
So I complained: “How come Michael got a bar mitzvah and all I got was a green t‑shirt with the text of the Equal Rights Amendment?” I think Robert Bly and Iron John had been in the Utne Reader that month, because mom got to work creating a YOUTHHOOD RITE OF PASSAGE RITUAL.
A few weeks later, mom and Pam took me out to a friend’s beach house in Zuma and we did this whole thing –I have dim memories wearing some kind of robe while candles were lit, bongos were beaten, and long silences were observed. Mom made up a scroll with calligraphy on parchment.
And then we went skinny dipping. Me, my mom and Pam, jumping in the black-bottom pool. Because that’s what you did in 1981 with your two moms.
In the end, my rite of passage hadn’t been all that different from Michael’s. We both had our scrolls. And like Michael, we got pictures — he got a portrait of himself wearing a wide-collared tan suit and staring out the window of Wilshire Blvd Temple… and I got a photo of myself, crouching next to a stone bunny rabbit, wet and butt naked.
Which only reinforces for me that even in its most humiliating, fuzzy-headed, woo-woo form, the rite-of-passage ritual is a good thing. It’s affirming. It’s important. I’m glad my moms did it for me.
When my two oldest kids reached adolescence, I was happy to support their bnei mitzvah. But while I was happy to send them to Hebrew school organize the party and otherwise buy into the bar mitzvah industrial complex, I was deeply dissatisfied with the traditional route.
Friends with teenage kids agreed: the usual routine had become rote, stale and superficial. And so, on a big group camping trip a few years ago, we invented a supplementary ritual. All it took was a bunch of guys, some shared wisdom, and a gorilla suit.
On our first day at the camp, I charged out of my cabin in full gorilla getup. I grabbed hold of a 13-year-old kid who had just been bar mitzvah-ed and escorted him up a nearby bluff, where all the men sat cross-legged in a circle. We proceeded to go around and share “secrets of manhood.”
The secrets ranged from the practical to the profound. One guy talked how hardship creates character. An electrician advised Isaac to “always buy real estate.” Someone said that, “when you’re out on a date, always let a woman through the door first. You look gentlemanly and you can check out her tuchus.”
The kid liked it and the men did too and we’ve done it three times since, most recently with a mix of boys and girls and a giant chicken costume.
Who knows? Maybe Good Life Gorilla or the Wisdom Chicken will catch on and thousands of teens will one day know the terror of being kidnapped by their elders in animal costumes. None of the “secrets” we’ve shared have been revelatory, but there’s something profound about even the promise of learning a forbidden thing. It’s all about what that guy whispered at the first circle: “Everyone wants to be invited.” Being pulled aside by the adults, singled out and invited into a new world, told you belong in an actual community — that’s a huge part of what coming of age is really about.
Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Details and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.
Christopher Noxon is a journalist and illustrator who has written for the New Yorker, the Atlantic. Salon and the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the novel Plus One about an interfaith family in Hollywood, and the nonfiction Rejuvenile: Kickball Cartoons Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown Up.