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Bedside bar mitzvah inspires an ‘almost true story’

Bedside bar mitzvah inspires an ‘almost true story’
Aleza Goldsmith
Jewish Bulletin

Jewish Bulletin

In a poll of the holiest places on earth, the foot of a bed might not make the list.

Unless, of course, Joseph Sutton were polled—because that’s where he celebrated his bar mitzvah.

As a 13-year-old living in Hollywood, the now 60-year-old San Francisco resident and author actually marked the rite of passage in his parents’ bedroom. His recently published novel, Morning Pages: The Almost True Story of My Life, recounts the experience, and many others, through a loosely autobiographical character named Ben Halaby.

“By the time Ben Halaby—the fifth son of a very religious Sephardi father—turned 13, his parents had run out of the joy one usually gets from giving a bar mitzvah,” said Sutton. “So one day, when his dad was sick in bed, he called Ben into the bedroom and had him read from the Torah for 15 minutes. As soon as Ben finished, he kissed his parents and headed off for a baseball game. I’ve always considered that my bar mitzvah. And I probably remember it better than if I’d had a bar mitzvah in a synagogue and been showered with presents.”

In Morning Pages, Sutton incorporates several short stories—amalgamating truth and fiction—which appear as if written by Halaby. A writer, Halaby is “having trouble writing” until he stumbles across Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. Halaby (Sutton, in reality) uses the book to overcome writer’s block and anthologize his life.

“In Cameron’s book it says to write three pages every day without stopping—letting everything come out of your subconscious,” said Sutton of his own experience. “It certainly helped me, because out came this book. It helps Halaby as well,” he added. “Every day, without realizing it, he writes a story about his past and present life.”

Although he’s been a full-time writer since leaving his job as a costume jewelry salesman in 1988, Morning Pages is Sutton’s first published novel. He did, however, publish another work, Words of Wellness: A Treasury of Quotations for Well-Being, in 1991.

Sutton was “lured to the great city of San Francisco” 25 years ago because he always wanted to live here. Upon arrival, he worked as a substitute teacher in the San Francisco school system and then as a jewelry salesman, always writing on the side.

Sutton had considered a full-time writing career as far back as college. Once a Fairfax High School football star in Hollywood, he often pondered story ideas while sitting on the bench as a fourth stringer at the University of Oregon.

“Being a fourth stringer was like being an outcast on my own team,” said Sutton, who continued to sit on the bench despite scoring a couple of touchdowns when let into a game against the University of Washington. “I remember telling a teammate of mine, ‘Someday I’m going to write about being a fourth string football player. I’m going to let the whole world know what it feels like to be treated like cannon fodder.'”

His story “The Fourth Stringer” will be published in his next book, The Immortal Mouth and Other Stories, due for release in 2002.

While Sutton is a storywriter, he and his wife Joan— known as “Joan, Joan the ice cream cone” in the community as a children’s storyteller in the Jewish tradition—have no plans to collaborate. “But anything,” said Sutton, “is possible.” Even a bar mitzvah at the foot of his parents’ bed.