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You're never too old for an ancient rite of youth

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As anyone familiar with "Romeo and Juliet" well knows, 13 was once considered old enough to wed. From time immemorial, 13 has also been the age when Jewish boys (and in this past century, Jewish girls) celebrate their bar (or in the case of girls, bat) mitzvahs.

"Today I am a man," a staple phrase from the typical bar mitzvah boy's speech, is a declaration that brings a smile of amused recognition to anyone who's experienced a bar mitzvah. The manhood (or womanhood) being celebrated is, of course, a religious coming-of-age, meaning that the young person has demonstrated the ability to take full part in religious services.

Traditionally, he (or she) has studied with a rabbi, learned to read Hebrew, recite prayers, and read aloud from the Bible before the assembled congregation. Although in America in the latter half of the past century, bar mitzvahs often came to involve big parties with dinner and dancing (rather like weddings), for centuries before, the bar mitzvah was a far more sedate, matter-of-fact rite of passage.

There are some Jewish boys who have never had a bar mitzvah. Perhaps their families were uninterested in religion or cultural identity. Perhaps, like David Hays's parents, they did not belong to a synagogue or temple at the time.

Hays managed, nonetheless, to grow up to lead a rich and busy adult life. As a lighting and set designer, he worked with the likes of ballet choreographer George Balanchine, theatrical directors Tyrone Guthrie and Elia Kazan, and designer Jo Mielziner. He went on to found the National Theatre of the Deaf. More recently, he and his son sailed their small boat round the treacherous waters off Cape Horn, an experience recounted in their book, "My Old Man and the Sea."

At age 66, Hays was still eager to try new things. A fortuitous conversation with a local rabbi persuaded him it just might be possible to make up for his lost bar mitzvah. Hebrew, the rabbi assured him, was not that difficult to learn. A man who'd rounded Cape Horn could surely rise to the challenge of joining a class of 12-year-old boys and girls engaged in studying for their upcoming bar or bat mitzvahs.


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