Reflections on an Impossible Age

Thirteen is a difficult age. I know this as a parent, and I also know it as a rabbi who interacts with lots of 13-year-olds. I know this as well as a student of Torah. And now I know it as a moviegoer.

Every parent should see the movie “Thirteen.” If you are the parent of an adolescent, you should see it with your child. The movie is based on the true story of Nikki Reed, a 13-year-old girl at my daughter’s middle school who fell in with the wrong crowd.

The pressures our children live with are extraordinary, and the response of this one insecure 13-year-old is heartbreaking — and true. We want to believe that this couldn’t happen in our families, but it could, and it does. We just don’t talk about it.

Our tradition, though, doesn’t shy away from confronting the challenges of age 13.

In the book of Deuteronomy, parents of a “wayward and defiant” son are instructed to bring him before the town elders. “Thereupon the men of the town shall stone him to death…” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

Strange law, isn’t it? It is even stranger when you know what the Talmud says about it: “The stoning of a son who is wayward and defiant never happened and never will.” Then why was this law put in the Torah, the Talmud asks?

The rabbis answer: It was put in the story simply so we could study it and receive reward for our learning.

But then one rabbi speaks up and says: “You are wrong. It did happen once!”

The Talmud continues: When is a son too young to be considered stubborn and a rebel? The answer is: until his bar mitzvah. And when is a son too old? When he is all grown up.

So what is the window here — the time this law might apply? It begins at age 13.

We study this law about stoning the wayward and defiant son not because it ever happened, but because it puts us on notice that 13 is a difficult age. It is a vulnerable time for young people, a time of separation and experimentation, of testing new ideas and exploring independence.

But our tradition gives us some help in reframing for our 13-year-olds what it means to be a young adult. It’s called a bar or bat mitzvah. Through the ritual we try to teach our young people that to be an adult means to be part of something bigger than yourself, a tradition that calls on us to make a difference in the world, where we are responsible for the consequences of our actions, where what we do in the world really matters. What is important, says the bar mitzvah ritual, is not how trendy you are, but how you treat other people. Adulthood is not measured by freedom to engage in excessive behavior, but in mastering an ancient text and teaching it to your community. Being an adult means that you have obligations as well as privileges.

The whole community has a stake in our young people becoming adults; that’s why the bar mitzvah ritual takes place within the context of a synagogue, a caring congregation. The kind of isolation that led to Nikki Reed’s descent into hell in the movie “Thirteen” could have been prevented if she were part of a loving, intergenerational community.

Not all b’nai mitzvah convey these values. In fact, some of the excessive celebrations connected to b’nai mitzvah convey the opposite message. So I am not saying that a bar or bat mitzvah will keep a teenager safe. But I am saying that an ongoing connection to a caring community rooted in spiritual values can. That’s why we want our kids to continue their connection with the temple after bar mitzvah, to be part of our madrichim (leaders) program, to join the youth group, to study for Confirmation, to join the junior choir or to participate as a board member of our teen endowment tzedakah foundation. What teenagers do at temple doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they are staying connected.

Consider again the Talmud. You recall the majority opinion: “The stoning of a son who is stubborn and a rebel never happened and never will.” But remember the ominous minority opinion? “You are wrong. It did happen once.”

The one time it might have happened, suggests the Talmud, was before the child reached 13. In other words, our tradition seems to be saying to all of our 13-year-olds, if we haven’t executed you before your bar or bat mitzvah, it means we don’t see you as wayward and defiant. It means that we, your parents, your rabbis, your congregation, the whole Jewish community, in fact, have faith in you.

It means that we believe that you will be strong enough to stand up to the kind of peer pressure that Nikki Reed succumbed to, the seduction of the materialism that is all around us, and the nihilism so prevalent in popular culture. It also means that we will stand by you and help you make good choices, and be there to support you when times get tough. It means that you never have to feel alone.

Laura Geller is rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

The Nose Knows

What is it like to be one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People? I have no idea.

I can tell you what it’s like to work closely with one of these magically attractive people day in and day out, to wake up to Matt Lauer and Katie Couric discussing his muscles and come home to dozens of e-mails asking how I can possibly control myself working with such a "hottie."

As anyone who marries a supermodel can tell you, you get used to the kind of intense physical beauty that first stops you cold. It dulls over time until there are days that you don’t even notice it. Of course, there are days you do, because flat out, undeniable, in-the-eye-of-every-beholder beauty has a way of piercing through your day.

I see how other people react to this paragon, whom I’ll call Hunky Carpenter Guy. There’s generally a quick, almost imperceptible pause when he walks into a room. New people need a second just to take it in, to adjust to the fact that someone so genetically different from us has arrived. The moment passes, but I never miss it.

I was happy for him when he made People’s list, because he’s a decent person and I’m no player hater. But I am human, so I prepared myself for a few days of good old-fashioned self-doubt. I’d need a fuzzy emotional sweater for the week that issue was on the stands, and for weeks after, because it was going to get mighty cold in his beautiful shadow.

Right away, I told myself all the usual things, the things you may even be thinking to yourself right now — beauty is meaningless, it’s just a favorable recombination of DNA, it isn’t a reflection of a person’s soul or their contribution, it isn’t objective and it isn’t lasting.

These notions, while true, miss the point. The more I churned them through my head, the more convinced I became that they were nothing but a sad salve for poor losers in the genetic lottery.

I tried to clutch at whatever maturity was within my grasp but it slipped away, replaced with a wailing siren in my brain screeching "Why? Why aren’t I perfect? Why?" If you can remember how Nancy Kerrigan sounded after getting slammed in the knee, it was a lot like that. And studies show hearing Kerrigan’s voice in your head is the first sign of madness.

"Let’s face it, even at my fighting weight and on a good skin day, I’m lucky to make Cat Fancy Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful Cat Owners," I told a friend over the phone.

At this point, there was an emotional pileup that went like this: real emotional pain over something petty; guilt over feeling pain over something stupid when other people have real problems; discomfort resulting from trying to shove down feelings that aren’t on the "approved feelings" list; and, finally, excessive snacking.

I needed a way out and it was right there, plain as the Semitic nose on my face.

For the first time in my life, the idea of a rhinoplasty seemed genius. That week, the world became a world of noses. I didn’t notice the person owning it, just the nose, the nostrils and the bridge.

For someone who doesn’t even own a full-length mirror, I couldn’t stop looking at my profile. I ran my fingers over the bridge of my nose so often it bordered on a creepy tic. Is there a bump or isn’t there? Does it curve under? To me, there was no difference between those jagged, pointed noses featured in Shylock caricatures and my own. It went from nose to shnoz to major life obstacle before you could say, "Hey, look what happened to Jennifer Grey."

I recalled some postings about me on an Internet message board. One said, "Go back to the mall, JAP." Another read, "Your nose is sexy LOL." LOL? What’s so funny, dude?

The nose knows. And I knew it had to go.

No more fears about being shallow, culturally self-hating, selling out. No more worries about the political ramifications of being a Jewish girl with a nose job. My only worry would be how to save up for the procedure, where to stay during recovery, how to juggle all my new work opportunities. The second I got the idea I latched onto it, carried it with me, let it soothe me when I caught a bad angle of myself or saw an unflattering photo.

What happened next will seem too pat, too "wrap up this column with a pretty bow." But it’s the truth. I was trying on a dress with a friend and I had one of those moments of self-esteem grace. I looked beautiful to myself. I did a quick nose check and a voice from somewhere easier and more divine whispered, "It’s your nose that’s making you beautiful."

The problem with this story arc is that it reoccurs. Insecurity comes and goes with all the loyalty and unpredictability of an outdoor cat. Ugly as it may be, this is the truth for me, and to paraphrase John Keats, "Truth is beauty, beauty truth."

Keep your eye out for the latest collector’s edition, People Magazine’s 50 Most Truthful People. If I can avoid that nose job, I might just make it. Hope they allow airbrushing.

Teresa Strasser can be seen Fridays 8-10 p.m. and weekdays at 5 p.m. on TLC’s
“While You Were Out” and is on the Web at

Confront and Comfort

Avi Schnnur doesn’t get a lot of sleep these days. Schnnur, a West Los Angeles physicist who works for the defense industry, now spends nearly all his nonwork hours putting the finishing touches on a communitywide conference he has organized, billed as “Spiritual Responses to September 11.”

Slated for Dec. 2 at the Radisson Hotel at LAX, Schnnur was inspired to create the event because the nation has exhibited an “unprecedented reaction to what really was this generation’s Pearl Harbor,” he told The Journal, “Even people who were not directly affected by the events of Sept. 11 have a pervading sense of insecurity. I hear it everywhere I go: people realize they need to find ways to treasure the people around them, and to look for ways to find spiritual answers to this horrendous attack. They want to add more meaning to their lives.”

The conference, presented jointly by the Westwood Kehilla and Aish HaTorah, will feature some of the nation’s leading Jewish speakers, including Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, best-selling author of “The Committed Life,” and Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Center in New York.

Other speakers include Rabbi Joel Zeff, former rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla who made aliyah several years ago, who will give an Israeli’s perspective on America’s terrorist threat; and Rabbi Michel and Feigi Twerski of Milwaukee, both dynamic speakers on topics of Jewish spirituality.

George Steuer, an FBI special agent, will also address the gathering about the nation’s state of preparedness for bioterrorist threats, and a New York member of Hatzalah, a Jewish emergency medical response team, will provide an eyewitness account of his rescue efforts at the World Trade Center.

Remarkably, although nearly 175 Hatzalah volunteers worked side by side with New York firefighters on Sept. 11, only one Hatzalah volunteer sustained any injuries, despite having worked in the inferno.

In addition to the feature presentations, the conference will offer smaller workshops on a variety of topics, including: making our home lives more harmonious, building communities, how to speak to God, women’s spirituality, and making a blueprint for living life happily and meaningfully.

Schnnur believes that Los Angeles is the first Jewish community in the nation to organize this kind of conference. “We hope that this will be a beginning and not an endpoint,” Schnnur said. “If we have an enthusiastic response to the workshops, they will grow into ongoing projects.”

Schnnur also plans to make planning materials available to other communities as a template for their own conferences. “As Jews and as Americans, we are obligated to take these terrible sacrifices and somehow translate them into growth that can yield greater strength than we had ever seen before 9-11. At one level, this is a way to absolutely deny victory to the terrorists.”

The conference will run from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Radisson Hotel, 6225 W. Century Blvd. Admission is $36 per person, including lunch. Walk-in registration will be accepted, but please call ahead if possible. For a full conference schedule and online registration, go to , or call 310-441-5288 ext. 29.