A semiretired theater director, at age 66, finally becomes a man.
When Hays approached his rabbi at his local diner and mentioned that he was interested in being bar mitzvahed, he expected to be talked out of it. Rabbi Doug instead enthusiastically gave Hays his vote of confidence and an impromptu lesson in Hebrew. By the following autumn Hays found himself the sole adult in a classroom with seven other students. Without stressing too laboriously the sentimental ironies and poignancies of his inner-child’s journey toward the bema, Hays describes how he spent the rest of the schoolyear tackling prayers, participating in class discussions, going on field trips, drawing pictures in crayon on newsprint, and monitoring the changes in the other students—whom he dubbed the Hormone Hurricanes—and himself. (He even developed an avuncular version of a schoolboy crush on one of the girls at school.) Events in the extracurricular life of a 66-year-old man being of a different nature than the cusp-of-puberty changes in preadolescence, the account of his year of learning the V’ahavta has a unique tone; there were several deaths of former colleagues and various relations, including his own mother. The narrative has texture to spare, but it lacks the structure and shapeliness that might have made it more compelling. A timeline would have helped (at one point the story jumps ahead a couple of months, only to jump back a few chapters on), and far too many details about the specifics of bar mitzvah study and the ceremony itself are withheld (gentile readers may find themselves as uninformed at the end as they were at the start). From the weightlessness of the sketchy prose it seems that Hays gave great attention to his religious study at the expense of his literary project; his story feels reconstituted from notes scribbled between the lines of Hebrew lessons rather than shaped by observation, selection, and retrospection.
To his credit, Hays doesn’t oversentimentalize things; to his discredit, he never makes his journey the story it could have been. A disappointment.