Friday, October 12, 2012

Rites of Passage: Sons of the 613 by Michael Rubens

"Today I am a man.

Right there I knew something was wrong--seriously wrong--with Eric Weinberg. Everyone in the audience knew it.

It wasn't just the anxious, weebly quaver of his voice, the nasal soprano of which didn't do much to support Eric's assertion of manhood. I could see the greasy sheen of sweat on his beaky nose and the trembling of his birdlike hands. Eric... was starting to sway gently behind the podium.

I glanced at Josh. His muscly jaw was clenched, lips pressed together. He was trying not to laugh. This was funny to him.

I couldn't even look at Eric. He was giving off waves of intensely contagious Panic, and my Panic immune system is extremely weak.

My nine-year-old sister Lisa was staring at the stage with undisguised eyes-wide, mouth-open horror.

Baruch ata... adonai" Rabbi Abramovitz prompted again

"Blaarrrgh!" Eric responded, the dull, soupy splat of Eric's breakfast hitting the carpeted steps. The bar mitzvah boy hit the deck, out cold.

“Guess what, Isaac -–in two weeks, that’s going to be you up there!” said Josh, with a huge grin on his face.

It’s not just empathy for another bar mitzvah boy, one of only four Jewish kids in Isaac’s Edina, Minnesota, eighth-grade class, even though Eric’s epic hurling, which nearly besmirches the Torah, turns his debut as Jewish man into a viral YouTube video and Eric into a total pariah. It's that he knows Josh's taunting words are true, yea, prophetic. Isaac’s own bar mitzvah is near, and he has conveniently avoided telling his parents that his hired tutor Yoel has not shown up for any of the scheduled sessions to teach him the haphtorah passages he must recite all too soon. As far as preparation goes, Isaac has got nothing.

The handwriting (along with Eric’s barf) is now on the wall for Isaac, but to make things worse, his parents announce that they have decided to head off to Rome for a medical conference and vacation, leaving Isaac and Lisa under the supervision of Josh, their brawling, chip-on-shoulder, college dropout, one-time professional wrestling oldest son for two weeks.

Josh will take care of us? Why-eee?”

“Yes!” (It was her power YES.) “I want my trip to I-ta-ly.” said Mom.

“My bar mitzvah is in two weeks. What if I’m not ready?”

“Look,” said my mom. “If you need more practice, Josh will help you. He loves that stuff.”

Oh, God.

“Right, Josh?” Mom said. “You’re big on the Jew stuff. You can help Isaac, right?”

Josh grins that big predatory grin of his.

Isaac is a good student, an ace at chess and Dungeons & Dragons with his peeps, Steve, Danny, and Paul, but not a jock and the first to admit to Josh that he is nowhere near being a man. But Josh, whose forearm tattoo proclaims his allegiance to the 613 rules of the Tanakh, has plans to fix that–a fortnight of Mega-Jewish boot camp to make a man out of his little brother.

Along with endless skull sessions on haphtorah passages punctuated by dope-slaps and punitive pushups, Josh puts Isaac on a course of 5 a.m. runs, jumping off cliffs into freezing rivers, self-defense and sharpshooting lessons, and midnight sorties to rock clubs, strip joints, pool halls, a bit of breaking and entering, and, of course, skipping school. Isaac soon sports one, then two shiners, gets his medium Jewfro cut short and spiked, loses his perfect attendance award, wrecks redneck punk Patrick’s motorcycle, and tops it off with a school-suspending fist fight with tormenting school bullies. Along the way Isaac gives up his room to Patrick and girlfriend Terri, is forced to sleep outside in a tent, and falls hopelessly in love with the kind and lovely Leslie, who is herself unfortunately and unrequitedly in love with Josh.

And then Josh violates the only stipulation in his care-taking contract with Isaac’s parents-–holding an all-out beer barrel bash that trashes the house and grounds and ends with Josh being arrested for brawling in the front yard, all on the night when little sister Lisa comes down with yet-another case of strep, and Isaac takes over for the clueless Josh, administering an instant strep test from his dad’s medicine bag and bringing her fever down--and all in time for Isaac’s parents to surprise them by coming home a day early.

It’s not the sort of rite-of-passage, coming-of-age event that any parents would knowingly opt for, but in Michael Rubens’ serio-comic story, Sons of the 613 (Clarion Books, 2012), Isaac does find his way toward manhood, gaining confidence as Josh intended and getting a better insight into what it means really to be a man.

“Sound like quite a time,” said Dad.

“Worst two weeks of my life,” I say. “And the best.”

I wish I could give my bar mitzvah speech again, Josh thinks later.

I’d say that I think there are different ways to be a man, that sometimes it means being brave and strong and aggressive, and sometimes it means thinking and caring and being responsible and seeing consequences. And everything in between all that.

Ruben’s narrative is drop-dead LOL comedic writing, but it is far more than just that. Manhood is more than just knowing how to handle a schoolyard fight or take down a bully. It’s about seeing into the person behind the responsible or brave or even foolhardy wacky front, to see what makes people, even his brave but self-destructive Jew-warrior older brother, the way they are. Isaac finally begins to see the way to manhood in his focused, devoted physician father, and in his own way, in his benighted brother. It’s a offbeat but real-world coming of age story that ultimately hits home.

Maturing fans of The Wimpy Kid books will laugh at the deft way Rubens’ humor nails middle school cool, while beginning to appreciate the gentle, understanding way he skewers not-so-observant Jewish mothers (Serving pork chops, Mom says, “Jesus, we’re terrible Jews.”), insecure, Mohawked redneck rowdies, and good-hearted exotic dancers while gently revealing their virtues as well. This is a highly-recommended read (Kirkus gives it a starred a review) for maturing middle readers, and for anyone who is making or has survived the transition from childhood to whatever maturity any of us can manage.

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