Emerging from a Locked Room

September 3, 2012
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Stephen Hazan Arnoff

As I turned to the story of my old friend Jonah to write this essay, I returned to a recording of a rock opera I composed more than a decade ago: The Tale of A Boy Who Would Be King. What grabbed me about Jonah when I first wrote the music still grabs me now: Within the cacophony of rough-edged, quick-tempered, hyper-poetic voices of the prophets, Jonah is and always will be unusual. What makes him unusual is also what makes Jonah a compelling and fresh model for young people.

As the great teenager of the biblical narrative, Jonah wants to slam the door in the face of authority and responsibility. His judgment of the world around him (and within him) strikes not only at mere mortals, like the judgments of so many other prophets, or at God, like those of a special few of his prophetic peers. Rather, Jonah grits his teeth and furrows his brow and shakes his fist at the perceived folly of both humans and God. He sees injustice everywhere, and it makes him furious, sullen, and exhausted — just like a teen.

Jonah complains about his boss, his role, and the people he has been asked to serve. Then, he throws himself into the deeps of the ocean, where human and divine hypocrites can never bother him again. And then, locked in his room — the belly of a great fish — with the door slammed watertight behind him, he starts to understand that if he ceases to blame others for his plight and if he acknowledges that he can change his own destiny, his sense of his own power and purpose will increase.

When Jonah emerges from his locked room and is released to the shore, he may be calmer and stronger because of his time alone, but the world around him hasn’t changed. His responsibilities are the same: Nineveh awaits and God is still in charge. But rather than running away, Jonah is ready to assume his matured identity and the task before him.

Teens thrive when they have opportunities to pour their sense of injustice and a bit of “this is the most important thing that ever happened to me” grandeur into a mission or project — the Sturm und Drang of friendship, of course, but also sports, the school newspaper, a play, or work with a team of peers. Indeed, in recent years we have seen a dramatic rise in teen social justice work and philanthropy. Teens seem to be built for immersion in projects that feel as if they contain the entire world within them.

But, of course, Jonah’s lesson, just like that of any teen, is more complicated. Teams lose, friendships fade, and lines of a play get flubbed. The passion that engages a teen does not always translate well to the rest of the world — be it fashion or music or a great plan to change the world. Part of the joy of being a teen is creating one’s own bubble, even when the realities of the outside world want to burst it. It is God who is the obvious choice to play the “heavy” in sharing this hard truth, calling out Jonah at the end of the story for presuming to understand things the way they really are.

So much of teen life is about struggling for autonomy and control in a world that requires an artful balance between the individual and the larger community, between destiny and free will, and what “I” want and what “you” want. Part of the beauty of Jonah is that, despite all of his ups and downs, his ins and outs, the ultimate lesson of the story remains open and unresolved. It is very much like a parable, meant to be heard and reflected upon long after its telling is done.

When I listen to Jonah, I learn about the complexities of being an individual who wants to be of use to the community. I learn that fiery indignation and expectation need not be extinguished by the imperfection of the people and places the dreamer carries within.

This lesson makes Jonah a wonderful choice to read on Yom Kippur as penitents emerge from internal reflection to the realities of the mundane world. It is also a profound story for understanding the imperfect, frustrating, and beautiful passion and power that teens show as they strive to create themselves and be in the world.

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Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff is executive director of the 14th Street Y, home of LABA: The National Laboratory for New Jewish Culture, which he founded.

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