Beautifully crafted memoir of Jewishness and a Joburg youth

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

My Thirty-Minute Barmitzvah, by Denis Hirson (Jacana)

Anyone who has an even rudimentary knowledge of this Jewish rite of passage would know that the barmitzvah ceremony and subsequent celebration can last for hours. It is such an important milestone for both boys and girls (who have bat mitzvahs), shaping much of their lives ahead.

So it was with curiosity that I approached My Thirty-Minute Barmitvah by Denis Hirson.

What a simply beautifully crafted book. A slim volume with an engaging cover that gives the feel of an old-fashioned read, this is a real gem of memoir.  Hirson grasps us from the first page as he recounts his rather odd ceremony but in lyrical prose giving nothing away. He intrigues us:

“There was no Hebrew spoken at my bar mitzvah nor did I read out aloud a portion of the consecrated biblical text. Everything happened in one language or possibly two but Hebrew was neither of them.

“There were no guests.” And so we want to know more…

Growing up in Johannesburg in the 1960s, Hirson came from an Anglicised Jewish family. Father, Baruch, is a physics lecturer and mother Yael, a doctor. From an early age he realises he is different from his Jewish friends, his ramshackle home is furnished with towers of books, “adopted” furniture bought from auction rooms and a moth- eaten garden and the secrets…” which he knew he should not ask about.

And then there is the matter of the unkosher sandwich offered to a fellow Jewish boy at his school, discarded loudly and further cementing the fact that Hirson’s family was not like other Jewish families in the area.

His father never enters the home of his parents, Granny Lily and the terminally depressed Grandpa Joe but the young Denis sees them often, attends Passover celebrations and is seemingly his father’s “message of conciliation”.

Hirson’s writing propels you forward – in many ways it is a dance as he moves backwards and forwards across the years, uncovering the secrets of his family and that of the South Africa of the early 60s. The activism, the uncertainty, the menace of apartheid and his own political awakening are poignantly written with the sensitivity of the accomplished poet and author he is.

But he employs a light humour that softens the edges of what he sees as a 13-year-old boy and, as he matures and makes his adult choices, the understanding of that time.

This is a memoir to be savoured as each of his descriptions envelop you. As you ache for that sense of belonging, knowing that he will find that in later years but how his earliest recollections remind him he is not “Jewish enough”, and yet, that really is enough.

The book reads almost like a detective novel as strand by strand the younger Denis meets the older and the circumstances of his bar mitzvah acknowledge the shape of the man he has become. It is a reminder that what we view as children, with the distance of age, can take on a completely different hue.

Now living in France (since 1975) he has been something of a long-distance Jew and a self-confessed long-distance South African.

In his acknowledgments he tells us that this book would never have been written had it not been for his daughter Anna who, when she turned 11, brought him back to looking closely at his relationship with his father.

How fortunate for us as this is a story that will resonate with so many, not only those who lived through the turbulent South African times but globally as we all piece together the childhood that made us the adult we are today.


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