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Chapter Twenty-Three

 

High Expectations

 

                                                                   

 

Though it’s not written in the Torah, Hebrew tradition expects children, especially boys, to be held accountable for their actions and begin taking life more seriously at the age of twelve.  This was the age of Jesus when he discussed our faith with learned men in the temple.  We simple Nazarenes, however, like all Galileans, have generally ignored this stage.  My parents were no exception.  The holy books, themselves, have never been clear on when we are held accountable for our actions or sins, so there was much leeway.  In backwoods towns such as Nazareth, I would learn, it was not uncommon for young men to be in their twenties before they set forth on their own.  Until that time, they were expected to act their age and do their fair share.  Though no ceremony was attached to it, the twelfth birthday was, until Samuel and Gamaliel’s invention, a point separating us from children—nothing more.  According to tradition, when passed this age, parents should no longer distinguish between older and younger brothers.  We were all no longer children, so we should act our age.  In parents’ mind this meant we should work harder and take responsibility for our chores.  Since Jesus, James, and Joseph were wage earners, they had greater responsibility, which moved them up on the ladder of accountability, and yet our parents had never given them any special ceremony for reaching a certain age nor had they been strict about enforcing the rules.  Because we all looked so different from each other, few people would have guessed that we, Joseph’s sons were, in descending order from the oldest brother, only one year a part.  Although the girls were also expected to become accountable for their actions, they were still too young.  Tabitha was eleven and the twins had recently turned nine years old.  The fact is, as I record in my chronicle, no such acknowledgement was ever made for them.  Tabitha, I would learn later, resented being left out, but my sisters were quite happy in their state.  None of us expected or wanted to be singled out.  The remainder of us, including Uriah and Michael, had passed the twelve-year mark, yet, with the exception of Jesus, were still children at heart—a state of affairs that would soon end now that Gamaliel was in town. 

As my brothers, friends, and I embarked upon our education at Rabbi Gamaliel’s school, it was Samuel’s decision to mark this period in our lives by a special ceremony that he and Gamaliel dreamed up, which the rabbi called “Coming of Age”—a common theme among people I’ve found in my travels, but back in Nazareth it was a frightening notion for Galilean children to comprehend.  Gamaliel was mostly concerned about making us serious students in his class.  The real reason behind all this, though, that our parents found so troublesome, was Samuel’s concern about the unruliness of Papa’s sons.  Like many Galilean children they lacked proper breeding.  Though Papa pointed out that James and Joseph were the only unruly ones in our house, Samuel informed him that Simon kept falling asleep at school, Michael appeared not of this world, and Uriah, who was his father’s son, was picked on constantly by James and Joseph in class.  Not a word was said about the girls, who were of no consequence to him, but Samuel confessed his disappointment that I wanted to be a soldier instead of a Pharisee or scribe.  Unfortunately, I had boasted about this to my family and friends.  It was, I saw clearly then, foolish for uttering this in the old man’s presence.  It was one more challenge for Gamaliel to educate us properly, especially me.

In spite of the benefits of education, I feared my life would become a frightful bore.  So much was expected of me as the newest prodigy in our family.  As the ceremony drew near, I had, like everyone else, mixed emotions about the rabbi and Pharisee’s plans, but my concern went beyond the readings dreaded by my brothers and friends.  I almost envied the girls because of their anonymity in Gamaliel’s school.  Though Tabitha hoped to have her chance one day, she and the twins remained unaffected.  All they had to do was show up.  Simon, Uriah, Michael, and I, like James and Joseph, would be on public display.  For different reasons, we were anxious and fearful about the ceremony ahead.  Simon, a slacker, Uriah, an underachiever, and Michael, who had shown little progress, were terrified at the prospects of reciting in front of a group.  James and Joseph had been insulted because they were lumped into our group, and now felt intimidated because they were matched against me.  I, of course, was confident of my delivery.  More than anything else, I was afraid of its outcome.  What was going to happen after that day?  How would it affect my life?  Would our childhood automatically end and, as Gamaliel suggested, make us give up childish things?  This is what Samuel believed.  “Don’t waste that mind being idle,” the rabbi chided as I daydreamed in class.  “You, like Jesus, must live up to your potential,” called the Pharisee, as I ran off to play.  The most ominous thing ahead of me, though, was their plan for me attending Nicodemus’ collegia in Jerusalem.  This might be James or Joseph’s goal; it wasn’t mine.  I had no intention of being a rabbi or doctor of the law.  There was even a brief spell before the festivities in which I actually considered spoiling the event.  A poor reading might make the others lose their nerve.  It would make us the laughing stock of Nazareth but take the pressure off us for a while.  Everything would get back to normal as Gamaliel lowered his expectations, and, perhaps, left Nazareth in the dead of night.  My brothers, friends, and I could enjoy our childhood again, instead of balancing our time working and going to school. 

As I considered spoiling the ceremony with a poor reading, I shuddered at the thought.  I could never deliberately make my teacher or benefactor look bad.  Nor would I shame my parents or allow myself to look foolish in front of my family’s friends.  My parents needed Samuel’s help now.  I needed the knowledge Gamaliel put into my head.  I had become puffed up, and, in truth, I couldn’t wait to outshine the others on that day.  The prospects of me stumbling in front of an audience even accidentally seemed remote.  Perish the thought!  It was more likely that, at least James, Joseph, and Uriah would, in fact, do well, and it had been mean spirited of me to wish them ill.

Alongside of Samuel’s motives of making us grow up, was Gamaliel’s task of enlightening our rustic minds.   Not only was the rabbi teaching us to read and write, he was presenting to us, in glowing terms, the history of our people and sharing with us those portions of Greek science and philosophy acceptable for young minds.  Though demanding discipline in class, Gamaliel treated us with respect, never calling us names or brandishing a rod as Joachim had done.  Yet we were, even the girls, expected to act our age and do our best.  Already, in the early weeks of class, our teacher was addressing us by our full names.  My Romanized name was no longer appropriate.  I was no longer Jude; I was Judah bar Joseph.  This was all right for the other youths, whose namesakes weren’t notorious rebel leaders.  To make me feel better, the rabbi told us the story of Judah Maccabee, a great Jewish leader who once defeated the Greeks.  Not only were we students of the Torah, but we were students of our people’s history of which my namesake was an important part.  Unfortunately, reminded Gamaliel, this meant we were required to put away childish things and concentrate upon serious matters, such as becoming good carpenters in order to provide for ourselves as we go about doing God’s will.

Hah, such fine words!  Gamaliel didn’t have a clue.  No one in my family, except Uriah, and perhaps Jesus, wanted to follow Papa’s trade.  James, Joseph, Simon, and I had no desire to stay in this backwoods town.  Of course my parents didn’t expect us to suddenly grow up at the stroke of midnight, but I sensed, without knowing the exact word for it, that our lives as fun-loving children would never be the same.  Gamaliel was one of the important people of my life, and yet when I considered the implications of the Coming of Age ceremony, my debt to Samuel, our family’s benefactor, fell like a shadow on my path.  Why, I asked myself, did everything have to change because of that old man?  Even our education, apart from the ceremony, itself, was intended to shape our lives.  I knew Rabbi Gamaliel would teach us things I needed to know, but he wanted me to be a teacher and rabbi like himself as I worked as a carpenter or some other menial trade.  I wanted no such thing!  The world awaited me.  I would be a free-spirited adventurer, with a fine horse, not a penniless rabbi or narrow-minded doctor of the law.   I was, unlike my brothers and friends, conflicted: both happy and sad, much like my feeling of guilt and happiness about my gold. 

 

******

Nothing like the Coming of Age Ceremony planned by Gamaliel and Samuel had ever occurred for simple Galilean rustics.  Nor would they have wished it upon themselves.  Because it was expected (at least by tradition) that a youth should be able to read from the holy scrolls by the time he reached his twelfth year, James and Joseph had learned just enough Hebrew to utter a few quotes, and they had done this during synagogue school before my family’s break with the rabbi of our town.  No one made an issue of it back then.  There was no thought for a ceremony or fanfare for being twelve years old.  Now, here I was, arriving at Gamaliel’s school an illiterate child, and, within a short while, far surpassing the others in reading, writing, and knowledge of our holy scrolls.  After being lumped in with younger boys, James and Joseph couldn’t be blamed for resenting my gifts, especially when they had to work so much harder in class.  Looking back now, I know that Samuel had done us a great favor when he brought Gamaliel to our town.  My parents had never thought much about our coming of age and never taken seriously Papa’s notion of a family school.  Compared to Jesus’ astounding confrontation with the doctors of the law and ability to quote from our holy books, James and Joseph’s performance as intellectuals had been quite pitiful.  But that was before Rabbi Gamaliel had arrived in our town. 

Jesus is the high-water mark from which all of mankind falls short.  Back then, though on a much smaller scale, it was no different.  My parents were shocked by his audacity in his twelfth year when he argued in the temple with learned men.  They had never ceased to be amazed afterwards at how little they knew about their oldest son.  Everyone, including me, had been diminished by his stature.  Now, lo and behold, it appeared as if I was a prodigy too!  That there was another wonder in the family rankled James and Joseph that much more, yet I remember how proud Papa was of James and Joseph when they returned begrudgingly to class and began applying themselves.  They had, thanks to Samuel’s invitation, been given the opportunity to learn from a great rabbi and scholar.  Even they realized how important this opportunity was.  It was only their stubbornness and pride that stood in the way.  They would be able to read, write, and speak Hebrew and obtain knowledge about our history and the workings of the world.  What James and Joseph didn’t want was to look foolish when it was their turn to read.  More than anything else, they dreaded being compared to me.  That the Coming of Age ceremony might do just that was one more bone of contention for the second and third oldest sons.  Knowing full well that when it came my turn to quote from to read scriptures I would outshine everyone else, as Jesus had done, they politely protested this time so as not to lose another week’s wage.

“Papa,” Joseph groaned, as I eavesdropped below the windowsill, “Jude has a good memory.  We all know that.  But memory is not the only measure of intelligence.  He’s lazy and willful.  Let’s not forget that.  It’s unfair that he be raised above us, which will happen when he shows off his memory in front of people from our town.”

Papa, I noted after a quick glance, gave Joseph a disappointed look. “I’ll ask Jude not to overdo it, if that’s what you want, but neither Simon, Michael nor Uriah complained.”

“Simon’s lazy and doesn’t care,” explained Joseph, “Uriah only wants to be a carpenter, and Michael’s addled in the head.  All this education is wasted upon them.”

“That’s nonsense,” Papa said impatiently, “you have a low opinion of your brothers. You will both attend the ceremony.  Even your cousin John wants to be there.  He’s studied the Torah as much as me.”

James muttered unhappily, “No, no, Papa, this is not right.  Where in the Torah does it demand we make spectacles of ourselves?”

“The Torah demands obedience,” Papa grew testy. “If you understood our laws, you’d recall the words ‘honor thy father and mother that thy days be long before the Lord.”

James and Joseph couldn’t argue with such an important passage.  When Papa returned to his shop that day, they remained behind him grumbling to themselves.  As Simon, Uriah, and I stood in the shade of the fig tree gloating at their predicament, their protests rose carelessly as they passed by the kitchen window.  By then Papa was out of earshot, but Mama heard their exchange and flew suddenly out of the door.

 “So, you wouldn’t attend this event to please one old man?” She shouted angrily. “Shame on you Joseph and you, too, James.  Samuel’s thinking about your futures.  I expected better from you!”

“James’s right,” fumed Joseph, “it’s not in the Torah.  Samuel’s ceremony is a stupid idea.  It’ll be humiliating when we’re compared to the youngest son.”

“You shall go—both of you!” she cried, wringing her fist. “Jealousy of Jude is no excuse to sulk about like jackals when Samuel, our friend, and Rabbi Gamaliel are giving you this opportunity you might never have had.”  “Go!” She pointed irritability. “Concentrate upon helping your father in the shop!”

I could scarcely control my glee.  Simon, Uriah, and I had ran from the garden, peeking around the corner of the house, our ears pricked up, stifling our laughter as Mama herded them into the shop.  I could see all of Joseph’s resentment toward me boiling up in his dark eyes and scarlet colored face, as if his head might just explode.  James, always the more reasonable of the two brothers, argued more calmly with Mama, as Joseph stormed off to the shop.

“Mama, there’s no point in this,” he reasoned gently. “Joseph and I don’t need to go through this ceremony.  We’ve passed the twelve-year mark.  This should be Jude and his friends’ hour, not ours.  Like all your children, you and Papa celebrated our birthdays—the twelfth is no different than the rest.  Joseph and I started learning the Torah before we were twelve.  That should put an end to it.   It takes time to learn Hebrew.  In Galilee you’re not reckoned a man until you twenty years old!” 

“Oh, this from my Torah waving son?” She placed her hands on her hips.  “Now you want to wait until your twenty years old?  “Off with you!” She made scooting motions with her hands. “This has nothing to do with common sense.  This is jealousy, James—plain and simple.  It’s not enough you and Joseph have envied Jesus all these years.  Now you’re envious of Jude.  You’re afraid he’ll outshine you during this event.”

“That’s not the reason,” James said, shaking his head. “I’m proud of Jude too.  I just don’t like my nose rubbed in it.  It’s not our fault we weren’t born with perfect memories.  Like our younger brothers, Joseph and I were unable to finish our schooling.  We’ve spent a lot of time helping Papa in the shop.  Now suddenly, we awaken to the fact that our family has another wonder—a boy who remembers everything he hears or sees.”

“Oh, I understand your feelings.” Mama waved impatiently. “You’ve had to suffer because of our charity toward Mariah and her son and your older brother’s strange ways.  You’re tired of all these people being in our house.  Your list of grievances is long.  It’s made you and Joseph bitter.  I don’t blame you; sometimes it makes me bitter too.  Why couldn’t we have a normal family?  I dunno, James, but it’s God’s will.  Not only do I have to worry about Jesus, I must worry about Jude now.  I thank the Lord that not all my children are so blessed.  Yet, like Jesus and Jude, you and Joseph are special in your own way too.  God has bestowed each of my children with His gifts: cleverness, diligence, intelligence, and good memories.  Who knows what great things my sons will do?  This is a special time for our family—all of us.  Unlike me, my children are being educated by a great rabbi; they shall know our history and our law.  It’s true that Jude, like Jesus, is different, sometimes in a vexing manner, but we should be proud of the youngest son.  What Gamaliel told Papa and me is amazing—beyond my wildest dreams.  I was worried that he would go astray as Michael once did, but now I see a path ahead for Jude too.”  “It’s not just his memory,” she added huskily, “it’s his ability to learn.  It’s also the visions Jesus told me about.  Jude, like Jesus, is a very exceptional son.  You should be proud of him like Simon, Uriah, Tabitha, and the twins.  I don’t envy him for some of his gifts.  A child’s head should never be filled with such things.”

“What things?”  James wrinkled his nose. “You mean those funny dreams?”

“You heard about them?” Mama gave him a startled look.

“Yes, but not on purpose,” he answered with a shrug. “I remember him talking to Jesus about them.  They thought we were all asleep, but I woke up just in time to hear them talk about Jude’s dream of the three crosses—”

“No, no, James!” Mama wrung her hands. “Please, never speak of this again.  You’d make me a happy mother if you’d honor Samuel’s request.  Don’t trouble yourself about Jude’s dreams.  I don’t understand them.  Even Jesus doesn’t understand what they’re doing in his head.”

Peace had been made between mother and son.  Mama had, in an effort to raise his spirits, told him that he and Joseph, like Jesus and Jude, were special.  They had special gifts.  I couldn’t imagine what they might be, but James was satisfied with her words. 

“As you wish.” He bowed obediently. “I’ll talk to Joseph.  He’s always wanted to be a great teacher, himself.  Unlike Jude, who learns effortlessly, he has to work very hard.  It’s made him sensitive.  I admit it: I’m afraid of standing up in front of all those people at that ceremony. But I’ll do it for you and Papa’s sake.  I’m certain Joseph will too.”

“Oh thank you, James.” Mama kissed his cheek. “That’ll please us very much!”

At that point, Simon, Uriah, and I grew tired of this conversation.  James had regained Mamas’ confidence and was given a long, backslapping, hug.  We had been reassured that, like it or not, he and Joseph would recite the Torah with the others in Samuel’s great hall.  I would undoubtedly overshadow them, unless I deliberately fumbled in my recitation, which I surely couldn’t do.  Even my mother understood the importance of my memory and visions.  I would therefore sparkle at this special event for my family and our friends.  That James knew about my troubling dreams surprised me very much.  A day would come, of course, when he and the rest of us, Jesus’ disciples, would know the meaning of my dreams, but, during our time as a family, neither Mama, James nor I would mention such visions again.

 

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