My Thirty-Minute Bar Mitzvah by Denis Hirson is a must-read memoir. Its nostalgic without being sentimental, whimsical without lapsing into silliness, and aptly depicts the sense of detachment and alienation felt by a boy grasping for adulthood, while surrounded by a blanket of secrets and withheld information about his own heritage.
Don’t assume to know what Hirson’s story is, just be reading the title. He alludes to this pivotal thirty minutes throughout most of the first half of the book, and in the remainder of the book attempts to fathom how and where the relationship between himself and his father fits into his life, and who he is meant to become.
Only many years later, when his daughter Anna is preparing for her bat mitzvah ceremony and announces which biblical text she has chosen to work on for her personal presentation, does HIrson truly take stock of the impact of his father’s actions on his family all those years before, and on HIrson’s own formative years.
I found the author’s descriptions of a child of ‘The Struggle’ to be starkly moving; the way he was so often confused, unsure and adrift – so utterly uncertain of where he fit in – must have been highly unsettling. But as was the way at the time, one didn’t ask questions and simply kept one’s head down and carried on, figuring things out along the way.
An interesting difference I found in this “local” book (we might certainly claim it as local, it has a local publisher – Jacana – but the author has lived in France for many years) is that instead of making use of well-known, recognisable landmarks, the author has done quite the opposite. He has avoided any mention of areas, suburbs, street names or schools, other than one particularly significant Joburg landmark (which I’m not going to mention, as I don’t want to share any spoilers). Hirson is deliberately obscure in his descriptions, specifically the way Johannesburg appeared to him as if it was split in two, so vast was the difference between the suburb where he lived with his parents, and the one where his paternal grandparents lived.
The writing is lyrical and there are so many quote-worthy passages, but I’ll leave you with this one, which I think many will resonate with:
“I was born in England, but remember nothing of that, having arrived in South Africa before the age of two. There is no other country I can really sai I come from. Nor will I ever be an ex-South African, an more than I will be an ex-child, ex-son, ex-father, ex-immigrant. I am all the things I have become. South Africa swarms in my memories, my family, my friendships, my reading, my writing; my ineradicable accent, which I have no wish to eradicate.”
Buy this book. Read it. Absorb it.