Off On a Tangent

Random musings from Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin, August 27)

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On EL Konigsburg’s ABOUT THE B’NAI BAGELS

E.L. Konigsburg died on April 19, a week after suffering a serious stroke, at the age of 83. Most people, rightly, point to FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER as a major turning point in their reading lives. But the book of hers I keep thinking about, since I read it about two dozen times as a kid, was ABOUT THE B’NAI BAGELS, published two years after MIXED UP FILES (which won the Newbery, while the other book Konigsburg published in 1967, JENNIFER, HECATE, MACBETH, WILLIAM MCKINLEY, AND ME, ELIZABETH, was awarded the Newbery Honor, a pretty stunning feat for any children’s novelist, let alone a debut one.)

Then I remembered that years ago I wrote a piece about B’NAI BAGELS that made the rounds of a few places but never really found a home, so I’ll reprint it here. Keep in mind I wrote the first draft in 2006, revised again in 2007, and as such some of the references are dated to those years. But the points about the book still stand.

**

If you belong to my generation or a later one, chances are the spiritual aspect of bar or bat mitzvah – a ritual that’s only about a century old as we know it — has become muffled in the move towards increasingly elaborate, ostentatious, and style-conscious celebrations. One need only to leaf through the pages of the coffee-table smash Bar Mitzvah Disco, saturated with photo after photo of hair horrors, fashion disasters, cheesy DJs and other examples of conspicuous consumption ramped up beyond control. Or check out the movie Keeping up with the Steins, where a high-powered Hollywood agent is determined to do absolutely everything to give his awkward nephew the best bar mitzvah ever – even though the kid might actually want anything but.

But even if bar mitzvah culture has become less about what it means to become an adult in the eyes of God and more about keeping up with the Jewish Joneses, as Andrew Oppenheimer argues in his recent book Thirteen and a Day, the quest to stay au courant has become marked by an overwhelming sense of sameness. I saw this myself last fall when I attended the bat mitzvah of my cousin Miriam. And while her recitation of the Haftorah was marked with meaning and her speech contained a surprising number of original thoughts, once the party began, it was as if I’d time-warped back to the early 90s. The tweeners were hoofing it up on the dance floor to Michael Jackson and Dee-lite, completely oblivious to the fact that these had been the songs of my own simcha­-going youth.

A few months later I brought this dichotomy up to my cousin (who seemed to get it) then asked her how all the other bar and bat mitzvahs she’d attended since – almost thirty – had been like. “They all kind of blend into each other,” she said, and I nodded in recognition, because I’d gone through the same thing when I’d been her age. Saturday after Saturday, I’d attend what was officially a different bar or bat mitzvah, but when the same shul, the same caterers and the same format was involved for each one, it was difficult to separate them out individually. They all became a blur.

But that sense of blurring and sameness could be flipped around. If there are commonalities to each simcha, surely there must be a universality that exists from one age group to another? This idea, as well as my cousin’s experiences, was uppermost in my mind upon rereading E.L Konigsburg’s About the B’Nai Bagels, the novel she wrote immediately after the Newbery Award-winning From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Because the book was written over thirty-five years ago, it would have been reasonable to expect it to date quickly, to be completely out of touch with how current twelve and thirteen-year-olds think today. But it didn’t take long to be proven wrong, to find that the book’s protagonist, Mark Setzer, went through almost the same experiences as my cousin had, and that B’Nai Bagels’s 1960s perspective is still relevant in a world where glitz and glamour, technology and popularity contests have become an almost integral part of this particular rite of passage.

From the get-go, Konigsburg establishes Mark as a fairly nice kid growing up in the suburbs of Long Island with his family. His mother, Bessie, seems to be a stereotypic Jewish mother, but Mark’s attitude towards her is a more three-dimensional mixture of love and slight befuddlement. His brother, Spencer, is almost of another generation, as he commutes to NYU every day and revels in his proto-slackerdom, fighting with Bessie, and alternating between leaving his younger brother alone and giving him advice. But Mark’s family becomes especially pivotal in this, the summer of his thirteenth year, when his mother ends up as manager and his brother the coach of his Little League baseball team (nicknamed the B’Nai Bagels as a riff on B’Nai Brith.) That spells bad news for Mark, because how much more embarrassing can it get to have half your family run your baseball team?

It’s only one of several reasonably heavy conflicts Mark faces over the course of the book, including the loss of his best friend Herschel Miller to the obsequious mama’s boy Barry Jacobs, a taste of the forbidden when a copy of Playgirl (a stand-in for Playboy, not the real magazine introduced in the 1970s), a mild flirtation with the irrepressible (and non-Jewish) Cookie, sister to two of Mark’s teammates, and a brush with casual anti-Semitic slurs hurled by a different teammate. But key to the heart of About the B’nai Bagels is how all such events ultimately center on Mark’s preparations for his bar-mitzvah in the fall, and what the event ultimately means to him. While others might be borderline neurotic or sweat bullets, Mark has a rather matter-of-fact take on the proceedings:

…last year, I was seriously in the business of being Hebrew, being that I was twelve years old and preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah marks the time you become thirteen years old and can participate as an adult in all the religious services at the synagogue. Preparing for it starts when a guy is eight years old, but the volume is kept soft and low and part-time. Then, BLAST – the commercial comes on when you reach the age of twelve. And in your twelfth year you become devoted. Devoted to lessons on Sunday morning until it becomes Sunday afternoon, and afternoon lessons on Mondays and Wednesdays. Afternoons until 7:00 at night. According to my mother I was always about to be late for one or the other of those devotions.

It’s a revealing quote on several levels, most importantly because it offers insight into Mark’s personality. Unlike the other kids around him, who seem to hold bar mitzvah lessons in contempt, Mark actually takes them fairly seriously. He jokes around some, and occasionally irritates his teacher, but much of the time he treats Rabbi Hershfeld with respect and is given it back in return. And it’s the sort of attitude that’s been devalued, or at least de-emphasized, in favor of the flashy presentations that dot Bar Mitzvah Disco and its ilk.

Though Mark isn’t a do-gooder, like Barry, or a prankster, like some of the other kids on the team, he’s not averse to testing the boundaries of his Jewish faith and practice. Though Konigsburg isn’t explicit about the Setzers’ level of religiosity, Mark’s expected to attend synagogue every Saturday and be traditional. So his desire to keep pace with his non-Jewish baseball teammates induces him to cut Saturday morning services in favor of the neighborhood baseball diamond, where he gets a crash course in multiculturalism and interfaith conflicts. When the slur is invoked, Mark’s first reaction is to sweep it under the rug and keep the peace, but his growing feeling that this is too incendiary to be ignored incites him to make an important decision about his own level of involvement with Judaism – and make his bar mitzvah summer that much more meaningful.

As it turns out, the summer’s growing pains and coming-of-age ingredients leads to a fall bar mitzvah that proceeds smoothly and without a hitch. Mark does not become a man in the literal sense, or become one overnight, but his experiences with the B’Nai Bagels taught him a lot about fending for himself and forging his own individual path:

[being a man] is a becoming; becoming more yourself, your own kind of tone deaf, center-fielder, son, brother, friend, Bagel. And only some of it happens on official time plus family time. A lot of it happens being alone. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it takes a guy a whole Little League Season.

That sense of evolution, coming to terms with the outside world and the one existing inside, is what gives About the B’Nai Bagels its power and its ability to resonate with future generations. The stylistic trappings may differ, the social pressures may be more increased, but there’s enough honest emotion and real motivation to appeal to even the most jaded bar or bar mitzvah student.

Filed under lit EL Konigsburg About the B'Nai Bagels essay

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