A fearful farewell to the dragon of childhood

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys” is a line from Peter, Paul and Mary’s song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Here I am, three days before I turn 18, saddened by these lyrics. 

I can’t help but compare myself to Holden Caulfield, my favorite antihero. “The Catcher in the Rye” is the only book north of 50 pages that I have read more than once. Holden informed so much of who I am today, and as I’m in his position, I can’t help but mentally compare myself to him. 

My troubles come at what should be a more lax part of my high school career. Last night, my parents set a curfew for me — the first time this has occurred in high school. In my second semester of my senior year, three days before I turn 18, two months before I graduate, my parents imposed a curfew on me. 

After a long argument with my dad, I left the house in frustration, not understanding the sudden and, in my opinion, untimely rationale behind this. Although my dad said it was because he felt I was partying too much with my friends, I think he’s trying to cling to what little childhood I still have left. “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” 

Senior year can be a joyous time for many, full of celebration; for others, it can be disappointing and discouraging. It’s second semester of senior year, I should be taking school lightly — which I am — and be locked into a college — which I’m not. 

The college acceptance process didn’t work out for me as well as I had hoped it would. They say it’s random, but I have no one to blame but myself. My options are consequences of my own actions. Those nights I chose to go bowling instead of studying, or to watch another episode on Netflix instead of going to sleep finally caught up with me. 

I guess after my fight with my dad the other night, I really started to realize that. I kept on telling him that he has two more months of parenting, and then he is done forever. (I’m the youngest.) I am working at a special needs camp in New York this summer. Then in early September, I head off to yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. After that, who knows what lies ahead?

 I guess what I’m really getting at is I have no idea what I’m doing with my life. I’ve accomplished a lot in my high school career. To be immodest for a moment, I started a minyan at my school that is the largest student-led minyan in the country. I wrote an article about a major contemporary halachic issue, which received more than 25,000 hits on my school newspaper’s website. Today, a junior told me his class discussed how I was the epitome of the leader they wanted and needed, a compliment I do not take lightly. Yet as I sit at Shabbat meals and talk with family and friends, I do my best to avoid the subject of what I’m doing for college. 

Again I think about that line, “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” I don’t even know if I fully understand it, but it forces one troubling thought into my mind: My childhood is coming to an end, whether I want it to or not. 

It feels ironic to me. Somehow the fantasized fire-breathing dragon I pictured while listening to this song as a child is the part of my youth that continues to live on, while my actual young and innocent self is leaving forever. The Noah who used to spend Shabbat playing wizards and jedis with his cousin Avi has been outgrown. The priceless memories live on, and I get to share them with those around me, but I don’t get to play the game anymore. 

Holden Caulfield knows this, too. He’s the one who first showed this to me. I know why Holden wants to stand at the edge of a cliff as a protector and make sure that not only the “dragon” lives forever, but so, too, little boys. 

And yet, the little boy in me is soon to be no more, plain and simple. The “dragon” of childhood will live on elsewhere, and it will no longer be my place or turn to access it. It feels like 18 years of childhood is being pushed over a cliff. Eighteen years of good times and bad times are soon to be sealed. 

One of the scariest parts is I feel as though everything is happening to me, like fate, like it’s not me controlling my life. Whether I like it or not, and as scary as it is, I have to move on. I don’t have a choice.

I am no longer a little boy. Never again will I get to experience being a child, and the unknown of what is to come terrifies me. 

NOAH ROTHMAN has just graduated from Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. A version of this article previously appeared in The Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s student newspaper.

My 1930s education at the movies

I’d long wanted to see the two movies on the double bill at our neighborhood movie house, the Princess at 61st and Main streets in Los Angeles, that week in 1939. Brother Raul and friend Ernie wanted to see the films too, even though they had been made eight years earlier. Mother was not enthusiastic. “Those are very scary movies,” she warned. We were not dissuaded and found ourselves sitting in the darkened theater on Sunday afternoon as the curtains parted.

The first half of the double bill was Dracula; the second, Frankenstein. They terrified me. Movies like this—about a dead man who rose from his coffin at night to find throats to sink his teeth into or about a mad scientist who sought to bring life back to cadavers he dug up by implanting new brains in them—embodied evil and could only end badly. What surprised me is why my brother and friend were not as frightened as I was. I left my seat for the safety of the sofa in the lobby and sat there waiting until my two companions finished viewing the entire bill. For the rest of my life, I have avoided movies about monsters, mummies, vampires, wolf-men, zombies and similar beings. 

I had the formal education my Los Angeles schoolteachers, church leaders, and my parents wanted me to have. But they couldn’t take me to other planets or India—and they certainly weren’t going to talk to me about bootlegging and femme fatales. Movies were frank and immediate, teaching me about an America that was scarier and more exciting than the one I encountered on the streets. Indeed, I saw visions of what America’s most fantastic wishes would look like if they came true, and what its most destructive fears could lead to. (And sometimes, I learned, I couldn’t watch.) 

For many years, we saw movies only at the Princess, but in time, my brother Raul and I expanded the boundaries of our movie-going world, adding two more theaters, the Century at 61st and Broadway, a block west of Main, and the Kiva, a block north. We started going to the Strand, a mile farther north, not long afterwards; it was at the corner of Broadway and Vernon Avenue. A child’s ticket cost 11 cents, and a small bag of popcorn, served in a little white paper bag (with butter), a nickel.

We even went midweek, when neighborhood theaters held Keno nights to increase attendance. Patrons were given numbered cards, the house lights were turned on, and a large wheel on stage was spun. Those with winning cards were given prizes. At the Kiva one Wednesday evening, I was a winner and was called to the stage where I was handed a bag that contained my prizes. I threw away the little jar of mustache wax and the fishing line but took home the box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

Going to the movies typically meant seeing two movies, a cartoon, occasionally a short subject, and, if we went on Saturday afternoon, a serial that continued week to week for 12 weeks or so. Serials featured cowboy stars like Buck Jones and Johnny Mack Brown. But my favorite was Flash Gordon, whose battles with the evil Emperor Ming, ruler of the planet Mongo, took 13 weeks to resolve.

The filmed news of the week was another extra. Charles Lindbergh had made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, just a few years before I started going to the movies, and he often appeared on-screen. Many boys, including myself, wore close-fitting pilot’s headgear, some equipped with goggles, in emulation of the young flier. Movies about pilots and their airplanes became very popular. Hell’s Angels, made in 1930, portrayed the lives of World War I combat pilots and featured blond newcomer Jean Harlow, which insured that not all the film’s action would take place in the sky.

Such films taught us who our friends were. In The Dawn Patrol (1938), Errol Flynn, David Niven, and Basil Rathbone played English pilots making early morning flights over German-held territory. Their worthy nemesis was the German ace Von Richter, clearly meant to evoke the real life Baron Manfred von Richthofen (also known as the Red Baron) whom everyone, even us schoolchildren, knew about. Even though the plot details were fictional, reality couldn’t help but intrude occasionally. When war broke out in 1939, Niven had to leave Hollywood to return to England and joined the Army to fight real Germans. 

But the enemies didn’t have to be just the Germans. We school kids loved the action-adventure movie Gunga Din (1939) in which Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. played British soldiers stationed in colonial India. The bad guys were the Thuggee, who fought the British and who captured the three good guys.

The movies of the 1930s also could be frank about disaster. In San Francisco (1936) Clark Gable played Barbary Coast saloonkeeper Blackie Norton, and Spencer Tracy was his lifelong friend Tim Mullin, a Catholic priest. They fight over a singer (played by Jeanette MacDonald)—but the year is 1906, and the earth shakes, buildings topple, and people panic and flee in one of the most realistic disasters Hollywood has ever presented. (The final scene has the three stars reunited on Nob Hill singing hymns along with other survivors.) John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937) showed a realistic storm, toppling palm trees and buildings in ways that, upon a recent viewing, were as eye-popping as when I was 9 years old.       

At the movies, we learned about more than harmless gathering; there were stories of vice crime. The Prohibition era produced a new type of crime in the United States: the illegal manufacture, transportation, and sale of liquor. It went way beyond the people we knew in our neighborhood who made wine for their personal use—that was not illegal. It didn’t take Hollywood long to jump on the gangster bandwagon. In Little Caesar (1931), Edward G. Robinson played an Al Capone-like figure, glaring menacingly and threatening. Crime didn’t pay in the movies, and Little Caesar (also known as Rico) gets it in the end. As he lies dying he gasps out the words, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

In Scarface (1932), Paul Muni played Chicago mobster Tony Camonte, whose racket is selling illegal beer to speakeasies. Parts of Scarface were risqué. The morning after a wild party, a man picks up off the floor a feminine undergarment that had been shed there the night before. Then there were the gangster films of James Cagney, known for hitching up his trousers with his forearms and uttering the phrase, “You dirty rat!” We knew these stories were make-believe, but we schoolboys mimicked him for fun. 

With stories of crime came stories of guns. And so, with our pocketknives, we whittled blocks of wood into guns that we armed with rubber strips cut from automobile tire inner tubes. With wood and metal clothespins we made pistols that fired lighted matches when we pulled the trigger. We wanted to imitate cowboy stars like Tom Mix, who lent their names to pairs of six-shooters with holsters that every toy store sold. We had cap pistols that we loaded with rolls of caps that exploded when we pulled the triggers.

The movies weren’t all about good vs. evil. There was great comedy that taught us about what was funny about the country. Comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their film debut in a movie they made about Army life, Buck Privates. In 1940, the United States initiated a pre-Pearl Harbor military draft, and the comic team depicted their version of life in the Army of that time.

And the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (and for a time, Zeppo) could make anything funny, even the severe immigration restrictions of the 1930s. In Monkey Business (1931), the four try to pass an immigration checkpoint by each in turn presenting the French singing star Maurice Chevalier’s passport as their own. When the immigration official remarks to each passport holder that he bears not the slightest resemblance to the French singer, each begins to sing “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” a Chevalier standard. Harpo played a mute, and when his turn comes, he sings exactly like Chevalier, to the moviegoer’s surprise. But then we discover he is playing a portable record player strapped onto his back.                       

I recently came across the 1998 list The American Film Institute compiled of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. I have seen 96 of them. I’ve always devoured stories, whether in the form of movies, fiction, or non-fiction. Americans have an almost insatiable need to be entertained, and Hollywood has filled that need for over a century, and hasn’t stopped yet. Of all the movies I’ve seen, my favorite is The Wizard of Oz. I first saw it not long after its release in 1939 and have seen it many times since. I never fail to be taken in by the fantasy and by its lessons—that there’s no place without troubles and there’s no place like home.

Manuel H. Rodriguez taught in local Los Angeles schools for 41 years, 35 of them at Los Angeles Valley College. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

Will ‘Bro Mitzvah’ find roots in African American community?

Decked out in a black tuxedo, a brimmed hat set fashionably on his head, Douglas LeVandia Ulmer Jr., better known as DJ, walked down the aisle to the beat of two African drummers.

This was the night of his 16th birthday, and his mother, Lillie Hill, was celebrating his coming of age as an extraordinary black young adult with what she dubbed a “bro mitzvah.”

Hill knew that 16 marked a turning point in DJ’s life. And while she had looked into several African rites of passage, she believed the Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony, with its emphasis on family heritage and good deeds, gave her the best blueprint to validate her son’s dedication to family, school, community and church and to pass on her family’s values of education, worship and social outreach.

“This was a way to give him a stepping stone to build upon as he crosses into his adult life,” said Hill, who grew up as the youngest of 10 children in rural Indianola, Miss., and is a trained social worker who is currently teaching.

At the black-tie celebration, held last July at the West Palm Beach Marriott in Palm Beach, Fla., with about 45 people in attendance, DJ was embraced by his grandmother, mother and three sets of aunts and uncles from his extended family. They spoke lovingly of his hard work at Palm Beach Lakes High School, his mentoring of youngsters through the Children’s Coalition and his youth group work at SunCoast Church of Christ in Lake Worth. DJ’s father, Palm Beach County firefighter Douglas Ulmer, had died almost two years earlier.

A church elder, Lowrie Simon, presented DJ with his own Kente cloth, a colorful woven stole depicting his African and slave heritage as well as his family’s now predominant professions in education and psychology. Mayor Thomas Masters of nearby Riviera Beach gave the keynote talk, focusing on the troubled fate of many African American young men.

“It was very emotional; my family doing something so special,” DJ said.

Hill believed that she had created the bro mitzvah herself, learning only later of the Disney Channel’s 2006 episode of “That’s So Raven,” in which Corey finagles a bro mitzvah at the Chill Grill for the monetary rewards. Later in the episode, Corey reconsiders his motives, donating the gifts to charity.

And just last October, unaware of Corey’s fictional bro mitzvah and DJ’s real one, Paul Marx, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven and author of “Utopia in America” (Burke Publishing, 2002), wrote an opinion piece in the New York Jewish newsweekly, The Forward, advocating a ritual for 13-year-old black inner-city youths that could help steer them away from gang life.

Purposely refraining from calling it a black bar mitzvah, Marx suggested the ceremony be held during Kwanzaa and fall under the Kwanzaan principle of kuumba.

“Its principle is that blacks should do as much as they can to leave their community more beautiful and beneficial than they inherited it,” he wrote.

He envisioned a ceremony encompassing a serious initiation in which boys would cross a symbolic chalk line and take a vow committing themselves to certain ways of behaving. There would also be plentiful gift giving.

Marx didn’t receive his hoped-for response, but he said he is inclined to try again.

General guidelines for throwing a bro mitzvah are readily available on eHow.com, but most people are unaware of the ceremony, and it remains rare, at best.

And while Jews and non-Jews alike laud the bar mitzvah as a powerful ritual in which the Jewish community stops and takes stock of its youngsters at a crucial juncture in their lives, both Jewish and African American educators question whether a ritual can successfully be adapted from one religion or culture to another.

“I think it’s very tricky,” said Julie Batz, director of programs for Jewish Milestones, a nonprofit that serves as a community resource for San Francisco Bay Area Jews preparing for life-cycle rituals.

Batz believes that the essence of a bar mitzvah as a rite of passage — an exploration of identity; a connection to heritage; an intellectual, spiritual or physical challenge, and a gathering of witnesses — is transferable.

“But when you get to the specifics, when somebody’s studying Jewish texts or learning to lain [read] Torah, I think that doesn’t translate, and it’s difficult cross-culturally,” she said.

But everyone agrees that there is a definite need for a rite of passage ceremony in the African American community.

“The whole concept of black manhood has been kind of devalued. We have racism on one side and lack of self-valuation and self-affirmation on the other side,” said Yitz Jordan, otherwise known as Y-Love, the black Chasidic hip-hop artist whose debut album, “This Is Babylon,” was released March 1.

Jordan, who knew from age 7 he wanted to be Jewish and who underwent an Orthodox conversion almost 10 years ago at age 20, pointed out that becoming a bar mitzvah, a son of the commandments, is actually a universal concept.

Jordan bases his statement on the Noahide Laws in Genesis, which, advocating such commandments as don’t kill and don’t steal, form the basic building blocks of morality and which are applicable to all humanity.

“According to commentaries in the Talmud, the nations of the world are commanded to do this when they’re 13, so really there is no cultural misappropriation,” he said, after checking with authorities at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Darkei Noam.

But others, such as Maulana Karenga, professor of black studies at Cal State Long Beach and creator of the pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa, feel strongly that the ritual should come from within the African culture. “There are literally hundreds of rites of passage for young black men around the country,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange.

Karenga, whose Organization Us created Majando, a rite of passage model used by various churches and institutions across the United States, favors rituals that don’t deal with real or imagined pathology but rather address the ancient motive of transforming boys into men.

A Ukrainian City’s Coming-of-Age

It’s not too often that a 13-year-old boy can change the world — or at least the world in which he lives.

So, it is difficult to underestimate the significance of the recent bar mitzvah of Menachem Mendel Moskovitz, known as Mendel.

As the eldest son of the Venezuelan-born chief rabbi of Kharkov, his calling to the Torah represented a coming-of-age of the Jewish community in post-Soviet Ukraine and of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in particular.

Mendel’s story began in New York, where his parents — Moishe Moskovitz and Miriam Amzalak — met and married and made their decision to move to the Soviet Union.

In the late 1980s, Soviet Jews were finally gaining a measure of freedom but — following 70 years of suppression — lacked direction and leadership.

Jews from abroad stepped forward to fill that gap and, in 1990 with eight-month-old Mendel in tow, the Moskovitzs headed for Kharkov.

"It’s hard to look back and try to remember what it was like," Rabbi Moskovitz said. "The wall was starting to come down in Eastern Europe and changes were taking place — but we didn’t know much about Kharkov and we didn’t know a word of the language."

But Miriam added they soon realized they were welcome in Kharkov and that they were to be part of something special — the rebirth of the city’s Jewish community.

The massive, red-brick central synagogue on Pushkinskaya Street had recently been returned by the government, after having served as a state-run sports club for most of its existence, starting shortly after its construction in 1913. Both the synagogue and the city’s Jewish community were in need of a rabbi.

"When we finally reached Kharkov, two boys met us and told us in English, ‘We’ll be your friends,’" Miriam recalled. "On the first Friday, we had 1,000 people for Shabbat, and 3,000 for the first Rosh Hashana."

They also had concerned parents — the rabbi’s father comes from Hungary and his mother from Venezuela; while Miriam’s father is from Egypt and her mother from Czechoslovakia. She was raised in Australia.

"Our parents were very proud," Miriam said.

Her husband remembers their families’ fears. "No one knew what was going to happen," he said.

Rabbi Moskovitz said his parents’ uncertainty stemmed from the experiences of his father, Nissan, growing up in Eastern Europe — and the time he spent at Auschwitz. But his son’s success in Ukraine over the past 13 years, including the December opening of the new Holocaust memorial in Kharkov’s Drobitsky Yar, has tempered Nissan’s reservations.

"My father objected to my coming here at first — but he did come to understand the importance of the work here," Rabbi Moskovitz said. "Watching his son standing beside [Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma] — the symbol of Ukraine — my father had tears coming down his cheeks."

The Moskovitzs decision to come to Ukraine represented a long-term commitment. The Chabad movement sends its emissaries to the former Soviet Union — and elsewhere around the world — for a longer term. They learn the language, buy homes and raise their children in what turns out to be a dynamic, cosmopolitan environment.

The Moskovitz family is no exception. Mendel is the oldest of eight children, which includes one brother and six sisters. They all attend schools launched with the help of the rabbi and the synagogue — and they all inspire the new generation of Ukrainian Jews.

"Mendel is the city mascot and symbol," Miriam said. "When people see him growing up, they also think about the development of the community — and he has a positive influence on the other children as well."

Mendel — who has curly dark hair and brown eyes — takes it all in stride. He has a calm demeanor and an intelligent face — he speaks English, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew and he likes to study music and physics. And for someone who has become the mascot for the 40,000 Jews who live in Kharkov, he was remarkably calm for his bar mitzvah, despite the ramifications of the special day on the community.

"For me it’s a very special day," he said, adding, "though I’m not as nervous as everyone thinks I am."

Having been born in New York, Mendel identifies as an American. He’s also traveled the globe, visiting family in both South America and Australia. He said he enjoys Ukraine, too, because it is the place he’s spent most of his life, a place he has watched grow up around him. The synagogue, for instance, continues to undergo extensive renovations — thanks in part to the support of the George Rhor Foundation — but is already one of the most beautiful and arguably the biggest in the country.

"I think Chabad and the Jewish community is very respected in Ukraine," Rabbi Moskovitz said. "And we’re becoming a more mature community, too — when we first came here, all the help was from the outside; and now part of that help comes from the inside, and that ability to make a difference is an important part of the community."

The rabbi said Chabad’s commitment to staying in Ukraine and proving itself was a key to its success in Kharkov.

"When the media first interviewed us when we arrived and asked how long we would stay, I told them I wanted to be the last Jew to shut the lights off in the synagogue," he said.

Moskovitz helped establish a kindergarten, boys’ and girls’ schools, a medical clinic and a food program for the elderly, and he is actually helping build a legacy that can be left for future generations of Jews in Kharkov and Ukraine — who will be able to build on the foundation being laid today. On hand for the bar mitzvah, the rabbi’s mother, Ada, commented on the progress she and her husband have witnessed over the years.

"When we came to Ukraine, first there was nothing, and now there is everything — and we see our son progressing in his community, too, and that makes us very happy," she said. "It’s a big challenge to be a rabbi here, but seeing the community growing is his reward."