Mix Tapes and Back-Alley Matzah Deals

I loved bar mitzvah season, all the bar mitzvah swag... Some bar mitzvahs cost more than my wedding probably will; I remember one dance floor was basically an aquarium with fish swimming in it – poor fish. There is no one standard bar mitzvah but mine certainly wasn’t like all my friends’ bar mitzvahs. First of all, it was 3 months after my 13th birthday, and it was at an orthodox synagogue with just my extended family and the regulars. My actual birthday party was the big “hurrah” for me and my friends.

To explain why my bar mitzvah was a bit different I have to go back at least one generation. In the Soviet Union, Judaism (and all religion for that matter) was explicitly banned. My mom told me a story about how as part of her “girl scouts” duties, they were forced to stand in front of a church (another group stood in front of a synagogue) and literally stop people from entering. The communists called religion: “the drug of the masses” and saw it as a threat to their power over human behavior. Under communist philosophy, religion was equal to drug addiction, so soviet Jews were forced to go through high profile “mitzvah deals” to keep the 5000+ year old traditions going. My dad literally had to go through back-alley deals to get “the goods,”a.k.a. matzah, for Passover; pieces of thin, dry, crumbling bread were suddenly on the same level as the most addictive of drugs.

So, fast forward to Los Angeles; I’m a 12-year-old boy and my dad had just begun going to synagogue every now and then. He brought me to Shabbat one time, and the rabbi comes up to me and tells me, “it is time.” I thought, “alright… I guess I’m spending every Sunday in a synagogue for the next year.” At first I was a bit hesitant; I vaguely remember that all the other boys there were biblical scholars with mini-beards. However, the rabbi there was very inspirational, and I started enjoying the classes on Jewish history, holidays, and the cool, swirly Hebrew letters that were transformed into the vibrations of air molecules through mystical melodies. As my bar mitzvah was coming up I remember getting a tape with my haftorah portion on it, and I’m aging myself because I literally got a tape. Some of you may not know what that is, the little rectangles that go into a boom-box; the cantor basically made me a mixtape. How romantic. I remember playing that tape on repeat for months; I was like a little Eminem getting ready for my freestyle battle that was Shabbat, and I was ready to bust out that Hebrew freestyle no problem. If only I knew what it actually meant… Although in a way this made the experience more mystical, more personal because I could interpret the Hebrew in anyway I chose.

As a 13.25-year-old I led an orthodox congregation full of regulars on Shabbat, but I didn’t return to that synagogue often after my bar mitzvah, just on the major Jewish holidays. During a Yom Kippur in my late-teens I realized that I was the first in as long as anyone in my family could remember to have religious freedom – the freedom to connect with my ancestors through the exact words and rituals that they performed. With this realization, I’ve been trying to dig and see what I can find in this beautiful history of the Jewish people. I’m fascinated by the idea of the literary and ritual seeds passed down from generation to generation to flourish in the unique soil of each generation’s experience. I’ve vacillated with respect to how much I believe all the biblical stories to be literally true, but that complexity is part of the beauty of our journeys.

To finish up, I want to bring attention to our journeys here tonight.

Tying my story back to the holiday we’re celebrating today, if I had to summarize Purim in one sentence it’d be a story of how the Persian Jews managed to escape annihilation. Most of us have heard a family story just two or three generations removed from us about narrowly escaping the holocaust, pogroms in Russia, or the pogroms in the middle east and north Africa that are often over-looked. I’m not saying this to dwell on the past, but rather to draw your attention to the actual miracle that whether you’re Jewish or not, somehow through the winding and seemingly random life paths across cities, states, and continents we all made it here tonight, to this room to celebrate this holiday full of revelry. This is what my bar mitzvah now means to me: the beginning a journey of awareness and appreciation of life that will never end. With that, I say cheers!  

 

The Not Bat Mitzvah by Alex Geboff

I grew up in an interfaith household. My dad was Catholic — loosely — and my mom is Jewish — loosely. Neither of them really practiced religion much, and my father passed away when I was 7, so there wasn’t a strong Catholic tradition in my household. My mom, also, has always been much more committed to mysticism and spirituality. When I’d come home from Catholic school (where I was sent because that’s where my parents believed I’d get a better education), and I’d ask why we didn’t go to church like the other families at school, my mom typically gave me a response that was half-Jewish (because shabbat is on Saturday) and half-druid (because you can just celebrate the higher spiritual entity by taking a walk in a park and talking to the trees). In short: I didn’t really know what to think about religion or religious practices when I was a kid. But I knew, from a very early age, that my mother is Jewish, which means that I am Jewish. But my mother always told me that, when I was about to turn 13, I’d go to Hebrew school and learn what it means to actually be Jewish — the history of our people, the traditions, the rituals, the language (although, if she had it her way, I probably would’ve learned about the healing powers of crystals). Then, on my 13th birthday, I’d get: A really. Big. Party.

So, naturally, when I saw 13 on the horizon, I asked about my Bat Mitzvah, which, at this point, for me, was synonymous with party. I knew that, translated into spanish, it meant “hija de la ley” (daughter of the law), but I had no real idea what it meant in the grand scheme of Jewish history: Where the tradition originated, why it came about, how recently women were allowed to partake — nothing. I just thought it was a really big party. And that sounded awesome.

So, when I asked my mom about it sometime between my 12th and 13th birthdays, she gave me a confused look and said, “Well, but, we’re Mexican, so how ‘bout a quinceañera instead?” And, trying to be a good daughter and please my mom, I agreed wholeheartedly. And then 15 rolled around and she suggested we have a sweet 16 instead, because, well, we live in the States. And then at 16 (I’d stopped asking at this point, but she felt obligated to let me know, just in case I was wondering), she suggested that I have a graduation party — or how ‘bout a really big trip to Europe or Israel or wherever? It really seemed like, according to my mom, I couldn’t properly enter adulthood until something momentous happened — some sort of big celebration. She was of the opinion that there needed to be ceremony attached to my coming of age, pomp and circumstance. But, for me, coming of age felt like it should be quieter, more personal. I thought I’d feel like an adult at 18, or after high school graduation, or when I could finally buy my own alcohol. As far as I was concerned, my “coming of age” moment finally came three months after high school graduation, when I packed all my worldly belongings into my brother’s car and he drove me from San Diego to Stanford. It really felt like a separation from my childhood — both physically, leaving my childhood home, and emotionally, facing a brand new world all on my own.

Throughout college, though, I realized the importance of lifecycle milestone markers. The ceremonies that mark significant moments in our lives are an important chance for us to celebrate with our loved ones, our community. Like weddings, and graduations, and new beginnings, certain birthdays are markers of new responsibilities we take on — especially as we grow old enough to take charge of our own beliefs and sustain the traditions and tenets of our communities and religions. As an adult, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bummed that I didn’t get the chance to celebrate my coming of age moment with my loved ones, becoming an “official” part of a community I belong to.

Fast forward to my late 20’s, when I met the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. When he mentioned me to his parents for the first time, he told me his mom said, “She’s Mexican? ...But she’s Jewish?” And he affirmed that I, being born of a Jewish woman who was born and raised in Mexico, was, in fact, Jewish and Mexican, all at once. But I felt like it was a lie. I mean, I never had my Bat Mitzvah. I went to Catholic school. I felt like an imposter. When we got engaged, I reached out to the wonderful (and amazingly patient) Rabbi Mychal of Interfaith Family (formerly Stanford Hillel), desperate for confirmation that I was really Jewish, despite the lack of a Bat Mitzvah. If I never came of age in the Jewish way, did I lose my Jewishness? Was it enough that I could make challah from scratch basically by heart? What did it mean to be Jewish, really? I learned, from Rabbi Mychal, that it was okay. That it wasn’t too late. That women weren’t even allowed a Bat Mitzvah until the 1920s and 30s. That, if I never decided to have a Bat Mitzvah, I could still find my own Jewish way. And, now, as my husband and I are making decisions about our own family, and as I start to affirm my Jewish heritage more deeply, I wish I could rewind and go to Hebrew school, and have a Bat Mitzvah, and celebrate that milestone firmly, instead of feeling it gradually, but I know that I can only look toward the future and shape my own path to living a Jewish life.

 

Alex Geboff is a Stanford grad (class of 2007) and proof that you can, in fact, get a decent job as an English major. She's a technical writer (which is cooler than it sounds) and lives in Mountain View with her husband and none-eyed dog, Odin (who was named when he was a one-eyed dog). She's originally from San Diego and doesn't believe in Bay Area burritos, but she does believe in the healing powers of challah.

 

My Two Bat Mitzvahs By Koca Wen

I became an adult girl when I was 12.

Not a woman. An adult girl.

I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I wasn’t a Jew at that point. I am Chinese, and it was when I began living wholly by the Confucian philosophy and the essential Chinese value of filial piety that I came of age as a Chinese adult. Filial piety, or xiao shun, according to the Chinese, delineates the correct way to behave towards one’s parents. Love them. Be respectful. Polite. Loyal. Helpful. Dutiful. Obedient.

I was called to duty, you might say, when I was 12 years old. My father had a stroke while I was attending a schoolmate’s bat mitzvah (I mean, could God throw me any more messages?). My mother was left grief stricken with an incapacitated husband and two young daughters to take care of, with no immediate source of income. She was ‘forbidden’ to work by my father. In line with traditional male-dominated Chinese thinking, he wanted her role to be at home, denying her a potentially fruitful international modeling career.

My mother, desperate, sold most of our possessions and moved us to Taiwan to live with our grandparents. She borrowed money and started some small businesses that never ever really succeeded. I wonder now how we survived financially.

As the elder daughter in the family, I took responsibility for everything else. No, I didn’t become a child slave. I wasn’t of legal age to work nor capable of earning any money. I, however, took on the emotional and psychological burden of taking care of my family. I sheltered my sister when my mother would weep every night with suicidal cries. I helped my father go to the bathroom. I pleaded with my mother to try to find solace and did everything I could imagine to make her feel better. I absorbed the emotional duress of a family under strain, holding the fraying edges together with my little arms. As an “adult,” I went about my teenage life as if all was normal — that was the Chinese way. We didn’t talk about it.

This lasted another two decades. When I was 20 years old, and graduated university, I also took over the financial responsibility for my family. But in my eyes, and that of my family, I had become an adult when I was just barely in adolescence. In those years after my father’s stroke, I lost a lot of my childhood, and gained a lot of maturity. I was no longer a child with no accountability.

Fast forward to my conversion to Judaism as a woman in my thirties. I married an Orthodox Jew, and was deeply drawn to aspects of the religion including, probably unsurprisingly, respect for elders and ancestors, tradition, history and responsibility to your community and God. I wanted to be part of a tradition that honored family and elders above all else.

I believe I was especially drawn to the idea of community in Judaism. When a part of the community is down, the rest rise up to help. I never really had that — as a kid, I felt like Atlas with every burden on my shoulders.

But when I finally I dipped in the sacred water of the mikvah, I came out after the third dip as a Jewish woman. And a Jewish woman can accept her mitzvahs, including a maturity and wisdom earned as a kid, and an appreciation for the fragility of life that for many take a lifetime to achieve. That was my true “bat mitzvah,” where I became a Jewish adult woman.

My conversion to Judaism didn’t mean I renounced my Chinese or Confucian heritage. I am still deeply Chinese. I live in Shanghai. I speak Chinese, celebrate Chinese New Year and Tomb Sweeping Festival. I still believe in loyalty and respect. I am equally part of the Jewish community in Shanghai. I am raising a Jewish son with my Orthodox husband. In our Jewish household, we honor where we come from and have deep respect for our traditions and values. And I expect my half-Chinese, Jewish son to do the same. Except, of course, he will have both Chinese and Jewish responsibility. Double whammy!

I came of age — twice, once in each of my cultures. I call them my two bat mitzvahs, 24 years after one another. The first one the circumstances pushed me into. The second one I chose. I’m an adult, several times over, which I believe that makes me about 92 years old now. But I still feel like an adult girl.

Originally published in The MashUp Americans.

Koca is a Chinese-Jewish-American yogi, mother, and bon vivant living in Shanghai, where she speaks Chinese and is deeply involved in the Orthodox Jewish community. You can find her on Instagram @kocawen.

19 Cracks by Matt Baram

At my service of Bar Mitzvah, I suffered the indignity of having my voice crack 19 times during my Haftorah alone. Yes, my friends counted. And yes, I led the whole three and a half hour service, where I valiantly squeaked my way through prayer after prayer in front of 300 friends and family members.

Now, at the age of 29, the first thing people often notice about me is my voice. It's deep, booming, and doesn't care what wall or obstacle is in its way. It's authoritative and yet kind, energetic and full, engaging with more than a twinge of goofiness. And it's loud. In other words, my voice is me. But as I often tell people, I earned it.

And it wasn't just at my service of Bar Mitzvah. My voice cracked from the summer going into 7th grade until the end of senior year of High School. I had nicknames ranging from crackles, to high pitched, to Big Poppa Squeaks. During my adolescent years, an already difficult time of physical, emotional and mental development, I literally struggled for almost 7 years to find my voice.

Seven years is a long time for a voice to crack, but those years really helped turn me into the man I am today. Despite the constant threat of another squeak, I didn't let my voice stop me from starring in community theater productions of The Pajama Game, Anything Goes and Damn Yankees. I didn't let my crackly moments keep me from delivering d'var torahs and speeches as the Membership Vice President of USY. I've always been proud of the fact that despite seven years of incessant voice cracks, I never shied away from leadership roles, public speaking opportunities, singing, or any of the other stuff I loved to do.

Many B'nei Mitzvah speeches talk about the challenge of becoming an adult and finding an authentic voice - discovering who you are and what your place is in the world. But at my Bar Mitzvah, I, quite literally, had to find my voice and be brave enough to use it, no matter how many times it cracked along the way - a lesson that has stayed with me even as my voice has settled into the deep, squeakless, baritone that I am known for today.  

Matt Baram: Matt is the Millennial Director at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles where he oversees all of the Teen and Young Professional Programming.

13 Again By Kinga Dobos

Hi. My story begins in Transylvania, in a city built around a mountain, surrounded by tall trees and crisp air. My family was part of a large Hungarian minority in Romania. I spent my childhood in a simple, hardworking home during the chilly days of the Communist regime. All of my relatives were Hungarians, all Christians, and ingenious people who were forced to adapt to living under a dictatorship. During the 1980s, poor living conditions, political persecution and discrimination were part of our everyday lives. There was, however, one safe place where we could meet without harassment: church.

I have fond memories of church. It was the place where during the Ceausescu regime I could see my Hungarian friends. Unlike our homes and schools, our churches weren’t torn down by the government. Unlike regular school, we had no homework. We simply showed up and listened to Bible stories that helped us endure our daily challenges. In public, we could be attacked for speaking in our mother tongue, but at church we could speak Hungarian freely.

But with each passing year, living conditions were getting worse and worse. Food was rationed and unavailable. We didn’t have heat, electricity, or water. We didn’t own passports or a television set so we had no access to foreign news. We could not get a decent education. So when I was 13, my parents took a leap of faith and escaped to Hungary. My brother and I were left in the care of our grandparents.

It took my family eight months, a revolution and the fall of communism to reunite in Budapest, Hungary. During the separation, I turned 14 and it was during those early teenage years that I learned to see the world from a different perspective. I am grateful that my parents paved the way for my brother and I to move to a new country, but it is because of that dark era in Romania that I learned to look beyond myself and appreciate the good life when I see it.

Life in Hungary was a 180-degree turn. During our first few months in Budapest, my mom and I couldn’t get enough of wandering inside a supermarket. Although Hungary was also a former communist country, there was fresh bread, cheese, meat, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and even shampoo in the stores.

And yet, Hungary had other forms of prejudice I hadn’t expected. Hungarians in Hungary didn’t like immigrants—not even Hungarians from another country. They discriminated against us, as well as Jews, gypsies and gay people. Within a few years, I began to view the country as a stepping-stone to something better. Over time, I missed the sense of community that comes with being part of a small group that must fend for itself. I missed seeing people like my parents, who had a burning desire to ensure their kids could go to college. And I missed seeing people fight for greater hope. So I decided to leave Hungary after high school. Although I didn’t have a clear direction of where I was going to find that life, I knew that a sense of community and of belonging were two things I was going to find and invest in.

In 1995, when I was 20, I moved to London to be an Au-pair, and for the first time in my life I met and lived with a Jewish family. I worked incredibly hard, but they treated me fairly and supported my wish to learn English. After a year, I came to the United States to study filmmaking and experience the country where Freedom of Speech is everyone’s First Amendment right.

After college and a decade of living in Los Angeles, I realized that all the people I had worked for or lived with in this country, were Jewish. Nearly everyone who took me in or encouraged me, were Jewish. Then, when I traveled back to Hungary for the first time, I felt not only culturally American, but I also felt culturally Jewish. I realized then that Judaism is the religion that provides all the elements I had been seeking.

At its core, Judaism provides a strong community. It is a culture that prioritizes family, education, and perhaps most importantly, expects its members to practice Tikkum Olam. While growing up Catholic, the emphasis was on being a good Christian – which meant that one had to live a righteous life in order to make it to heaven. In Judaism, I learned that the emphasis is on the life we are living right now! In Judaism, we don’t do good deeds merely because we want to be good people; it is a commandment, not a choice. And I love that. I love it when great things are expected of me, and when I can live up to those expectations.

About five years ago I realized that although I felt culturally Jewish, I needed to officially belong—so I decided to convert. In my conversion classes we were encouraged to “temple shop” before choosing the community that shared our sensibilities. For me, Rabbi Wolpe and ATID have provided the community I’ve been seeking. With inspiring sermons, regular programs for young professionals, and a strong sense of community in a big metropolis, ATID and Sinai Temple have given me a new home. And this community has enticed me to expand my conversion with a Bat-Mitzvah. So this month I’ll be 13 again!

For the past year and a half I’ve been studying with a group of 10 women. In two weeks, on Shavuot, I will be an active part in celebrating the holiday of receiving God’s commandments, and I will participate in the holiday that remembers Judaism’s first convert, Ruth. I will be doing that as an official member of a tribe that I admire. As an adult Bat-Mitzvah and a convert to Judaism, I will be carrying on a tradition of family, education and of giving back. I’m excited to connect to a tradition where giving back is not an option, but a must.

To me, that in itself, is a dream come true.

Originally from Transylvania (Romania) Kinga Dobos came to Los Angeles to pursue her interest in cinema. She studied film production at UCLA and works as a freelance video editor. Along with movies, Kinga's greatest passion is writing. After film school she adapted two books into feature films; currently she's writing her memoir, a collection of short stories about her cultural experiences in Europe and the United States. kingadobos.com

             

           

 

Solidifying My Roots By Lauren Maddahai

I had a very traditional upbringing. I grew up in a Persian-Jewish household with two amazing parents and two wonderful siblings.  We celebrated Shabbat together every Friday night with both sides of my parents’ family – 40 people easily! I would sit in my grandmothers’ kitchen trying to learn their amazing recipes in a wonderful mix of broken English and Persian. My connection to Judaism was always evolving, but at its core was very strong. I have been attending Sinai since Mommy and Me classes. So my story for tonight is a different one, but nonetheless important.

When I was in the sixth grade, I decided to apply to Harvard-Westlake and leave Sinai Akiba a few years early. I was excited for this new educational opportunity, but I had a feeling the change was going to be weird. I would be leaving all of my friends I’ve made since birth and going from a totally awesome Jewish school to a completely secular one. I had no idea what to expect. Sinai was my home in more ways than one. My parents got married here, and my mom was always involved in the PTA and Sinai temple board.

Socially, when I started Harvard Westlake, it was a scary change. 50% of the kids in my new school were Jewish by association, but I was one of only 4 Persian kids in my grade of 260 kids, which meant that I couldn’t really identify with anyone there. So although there were lots of Jewish kids there, I felt pretty alone as someone who is both connected to Judaism and to another ethnicity. I remember going home to my parents asking why I couldn’t have boyfriends or go out on Friday nights like all the other kids. I felt frustrated because the answer was usually “Lauren, this is just the way it is. We value our heritage and so will you.” Kids were having birthday parties on Friday nights – what? That was so strange to me. Friday is for Shabbat not birthday parties! Of course that meant that I couldn’t go. I was battling between fitting in at my new secular school and holding on tightly to my rich Jewish traditions – no matter how much I may have resented them at the time.

The crux of feeling like I was between two worlds came during my bat-mitzvah. I invited all of my new friends to my service and luncheon. As it turned out, my bat-mitzvah was the same day as homecoming at Harvard-Westlake. We were just kids, not even in high school yet, and homecoming was still a big deal. I remember not seeing any of my Harvard-Westlake friends in the crowd at Sinai or at my house for the luncheon. They had said they were coming, but I guess they were caught up in the excitement of homecoming. No doubt, I was hurt. At Sinai, we couldn’t wait for our friends’ bnai mitzvahs. At Harvard-Westlake, it seemed to be just about the party. It was so foreign to me that a school event would trump a friend’s rite of passage any day.

Regardless of the pain I felt that day, my bat-mitzvah was one of the most special days in my life to celebrate with family and friends. I realized how important my Jewish identity was to me at that moment. We had a luncheon because my grandfather had passed away that summer and to honor him we did not have a huge night party. In lieu of candle lighting (since it was Shabbat) I planted a tree in Israel for each person honored at my luncheon. These two decisions connected me to my Judaism deeper than I ever had been before because I was the one who made the choice to honor my heritage instead of focusing on the party aspect of it all. I felt accomplished and nothing was going to bring me down! As time moved forward at Harvard-Westlake, I began to find a balance between my secular life there and my Jewish life at home. For example, when I got my license, I balanced Shabbat and friends by spending time with my family for dinner and then meeting up with my friends afterwards.  And this is a balance I strive for now daily.

As I continue to grow and individuate here in LA as a professional and as a young Jewish woman, I continue to draw lessons from my bat mitzvah day: Family always comes first, and yet friends are significant, too. The way I was hurt on my bat-mitzvah day was not something I would want anyone else to feel, so I understand how important it is to support your friends no matter what. I also realize how crucial it is for me to renew my connection to my Jewish heritage each week at Shabbat; I understand that sometimes work, life, other commitments can get in the way of my Jewish roots, but that’s exactly what they are – roots – and it would take a lot to destroy them. I am in control of the decisions I make for my life and as I look to my future, I know I want to raise kids in a Jewish home with a solid Jewish education. I want them to grow up connected to their Persian to their Jewish and to their American heritage. See, as we get older and these decisions become relevant, we need to keep our foundation, or our roots, solid. The wind and other elements may sway the tree from time to time, but the roots only grow deeper and more grounded as the years go on.  

Lauren Maddahi is a Registered Dietitian practicing at UCLA. She loves anything and everything related to healthy food, and is always looking to create lighter interpretations of classic Jewish dishes. She remains very involved in the LA Jewish community through Sinai Temple and other organizations in the area. 

The Hebrew Tutor and Bar Mitzvah Party DJ by Anna David

While several reasons have been given over the years for why I never had a Bat Mitzvah, there’s really only one: my mom was not into being Jewish.

You could, in fact, say that my mom did/does not realize that she’s Jewish. She is, 100%, but these are some of the things I’ve heard her say:

“Jews weren’t allowed in the country club in Minnesota in the 40s and 50s.” (Mom’s family was in the country club.)

“Happy Easter! Do you like your basket?”

“You’re lucky you don’t have my hook nose.”

And yet my mother has always been quite Jewish in other ways. Some other sample dialogue:

“Did I tell you I talked to Mrs. Morris and Marjorie is now CEO of that Fortune 500 company? I can’t imagine how she does that with those two children.”

“Where did he go to school? What was his major?” (This in regards to a man I am dating.)

“Please don’t take this as a guilt-provoking comment the way you usually do but are you coming home for my birthday?”

Dad’s family, on the other hand, was aggressively Jewish. By this I mean not only that they were obsessed with talking about their Judaism and going to temple and guilting family members far and wide into flying in to celebrate the holidays with them but also that they made being Jewish highly unappealing. I’m not entirely certain that they even knew there was meant to be a spiritual component to Judaism. They just did what they thought they were supposed to and they did it (as well as everything else) angrily. But this made Dad into a believer.

I can picture the conversation Mom and Dad probably had when they first discussed having kids.

“We’ll raise the kids Jewish, of course,” said Dad.

“Of course,” said Mom.

“Sunday school, Hebrew school. I definitely want them reading and speaking Hebrew.”

“Oh, me too.”

And then the kids were born and I think they both pretty much pretended the conversation never happened. Judaism was Dad’s thing. Mom stayed away from temple while Dad forced us to go. In my memory, I was the only one he managed to entangle. My brother, who was two-and-a-half years older than me and far craftier, always seemed to escape. An unfortunate added aspect to this: Dad is borderline narcoleptic, or at least he was when it came to temple. He also, despite not being a drug dealer, had a beeper. Most of my temple memories are of me trying to shake him awake as his beeper caused the service to stop.

When it came time for us to discuss learning Hebrew, Dad decided that regular old Hebrew school would not do for his kids. No, he needed us to speak and read it better than anyone and how could a school with all those other kids make us the very best?

So a tutor was hired. It was decided that my brother and I would be tutored together, even though I wouldn’t need to start learning Hebrew for another couple years. In my dad’s mind, that surely meant that I would only be more superior at reading and speaking the language—the best of the best.

In my memory, this is how the tutoring sessions went: a man named Eli came over and wouldn’t really teach us anything because, I remember thinking, he was far more interested in flirting with our mom. I don’t remember learning a thing. And so it made sense to me that, when my brother got to the point where he met with the Rabbi to go over what he would read during his Bar Mitzvah, my dad got a distressing call.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” I was told the Rabbi said. “But your son can’t read a word of Hebrew.” He added there was a solution: my brother could read the Torah phonetically.

Discussions took place. I was not a part of them. The end result was that my brother would not proceed with his Bar Mitzvah. Somehow it was also determined in that conversation that I wouldn’t have a Bat Mitzvah either. I don’t remember how I felt about this; I’d guess, based on my lack of a memory about it, that I was sort of indifferent. A few years later, I went to a lot of Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s but I don’t remember the temple part, only the parties where everyone got the same amazing DJ: a guy who went by the name Mark Spaz. This part I remember perfectly.

I recently shared my memories about our would-be Bar-Bat Mitzvahs with my brother. And I learned a few things: Eli was actually named Elay and he tutored us in a number of subjects, Hebrew only one of them. He was, my brother swore, an excellent tutor. Also apparently he was gay, so the slacking-off-while-he-flirted-with-Mom theory was shredded.

Does this mean that all my other memories of the decision not to move forward with Torah reading and blessing reciting are faulty? And was the choice (or non choice) destined to make me not have much Jewish identification (beyond a love for Philip Roth and the assurance that I was among a group of people that were always smart and funny)? I don’t know about this but I do know that I didn’t really regret my lack of a Bat Mitzvah, not even when my dad had a second Bar Mitzvah (yup) a few years ago. My life took a surprising turn over a decade ago and suddenly spirituality became a significant part of it. That spirituality has crossover with Judaism but nothing to do with reading from the Torah, becoming a woman in some public way or an enormous stack of presents. Yet when looking around my life, I find that most of the people in it are Jewish and that I—despite not having my mother’s hook nose—most decidedly am too, with or without a ceremony.

Still, I’m not going to say I have no regrets. Mark Spaz was a great DJ.

Anna David is the editor of the website AfterPartyMagazine and a NY Times bestselling author of six books. Her adult teeth grew in much straighter than those baby ones.

 

My Hip-Hop Jewishness By Adam Klein

At 12 years old I was balancing several identities. I dipped in and out of so many different worlds because that’s all that made sense to me.

  • I was a young hip-hop freestyle rapper stealing cassettes and rap magazines and hanging pictures on my wall
  • I was a student finishing up my time at a tiny Jewish private school that my grandfather in Ft. Lauderdale had been paying for me to attend 
  • And I was the firstborn son and the go-to interpreter for my parents, a deaf couple who utilized their responsible kid to help them get by in a hearing world.

I had three very distinct modes I was living in and I reveled in being that kid that was living this unique life. But it was tough. And it was confusing at times.

I didn’t know anyone else going through this type of situation. Whenever my folks and I were in public, people would stare when my parents signed with me or spoke with affected deaf speech. I went with them to the bank, Home Owner association meetings and any other event they needed to have a voice at. I felt like an adult in a kid’s body. It was no fun being in this role but I knew nothing else. Often I wished I had someone that could help me with this and the only person I could rely on was my Grandpa—who was 3000 miles away.

My grandfather AKA Papa Ben, was the adult I looked up to the most. Most of my idols were rappers who bragged about going from rags to riches and helping their crew, and Papa Ben had that same story, coming from the slums of Krakow and making it in the boogie down Bronx—and because of his hard work, I was able to get a Jewish education and learn my culture and history.

I looked forward to my Bar Mitzvah. To me it wasn’t about coming of age, I kind of felt I had already had gone through a few tests that made me feel like I had made it past boyhood. What I really dug about the Bar Mitzvah were two specific things:

1. The idea of going through a Jewish ceremony. This was a cultural event ceremony I could invite friends to, and show them what my people were all about. Where I lived, no one knew what a Jew was. Where I grew up I had a neighbor that would borrow our Menorah after Hanukah and use it for a Kinara for Kwanzaa.

2. There was another reason I was looking forward to this though, and that was I would get to see Papa Ben and show him how that education he got me had paid off.

I had a ton of excitement in what I was going into. I knew how to read Hebrew so there was no worry about ace-ing my haftorah and maftir. To put it in today’s terms, I was walking into this with some serious swag. I’d go to my lessons twice a week, get a cassette recording with the part I got to practice and come back next week like “I’m set, what’s next”!

With the big day approaching I was ready to go. I walked in to synagogue a day before Shabbat finalizing everything with the rabbi and he asked me about my haftorah. I told him which portion I was doing and he looked at me kind of seriously and said. That’s not the right one; you’ve been studying the wrong portion…

I’m not going to lie I freaked out a little bit. My granddad would be watching and all of a sudden all my studying meant nothing. I didn’t have time to memorize a whole new portion. I was sure my grandfather would know and I’d disappoint him and myself. But like the great rapper I felt I was, I knew I had no choice but to freestyle my way through this and win the crowd over.

The event proved to be a success on all levels bringing together all three of elements of my life. My reception was made up of a combination of the neighborhood kids, my Jewish family, and my parents’ deaf friends. The event is a good example of how I’ve had to live my life balancing everything put on my plate and finding the elements that will make me stronger. Over time, I’ve managed to move to a better neighborhood and toned down the hip-hop persona, but I still utilize all the values I took from that part of my life and use them in my continual hustle through adulthood.

The experiences that all these facets of life provided shaped me into the man I am today. I have used my hip-hop hustle to produce several shows and my experience in the deaf community to reach out whenever I see a hearing impaired person trying to communicate with a person who doesn’t know sign language.

But it is in the Jewish element that I’ve found the biggest connection lately. I started attending Atid events here at Sinai last August with the hopes of reintegrating into a Jewish community. I’ve enjoyed all the experiences I’ve had here, but this one; being asked to speak is the one that I’ve looked forward to the most. This is the one that makes me feel like I’m finding a place here and I hope to keep with it for years to come.

Adam Klein is a television & documentary producer currently working on several television series. He is also record collector/ music writer/ and DJ spinning around various venues in the Los Angeles area. Every once in a while he still volunteers as an American Sign Language interpreter (upon his parents request).

A Bat Mitzvah Immersion By Jessica Tulley

I went through great changes when I was 13 and they had nothing to do with my Bat Mitzvah. In fact, I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. Nobody I knew was having Bat Mitzvahs.  The only Bar Mitzvah I ever attended was my cousin Jeffrey’s when I was 4 years old. I remember it being very special and very important that we attend. Even as my own family was unraveling.

Cousin Jeffrey’s Bar Mitzvah took place in a greener part of New York State than I’d ever seen before called Bear Mountain. All I remember was that everyone was really tall, wearing suits and there was this wiggly plate of green jello on the dessert table at about the same height as my head. I was smitten. Probably more for the form than the taste. Hey, I was 4.

 

This one and only Bar Mitzvah happened right before my freshly radicalized 33-year-old mother left my dad and took me and the dog and moved us from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Frederick Street. It was 1974 and we matriculated into the heart of Haight street bohemia. And there were not many Bat Mitzvah’s in bohemia.

Part of my coming of age transformation had to do with bussing, actually. I could go to a new school with funding for magnet classes. My mom and I soon moved to San Jose and joined an urban commune. We had the odd distinction of living in a zip code with the worst schools in San Jose. Somehow thanks to this distinction, it meant I was eligible to go to the best school in the city.

So I was going to get to go to school with real middle class white people. The kind with sharp hair cuts to go with their sharp features. The kinds of kids that were dropped off to school in NEW cars! Who had coca-cola in their refrigerators, that had MTV, where nobody tried to tell you that carob was just as good as chocolate.

 

This was so distant from what I was used to. I grew up going with my mom to her most feminist consciousness raising group – The Agnes Smedley Brigade. This was the 70’s and early 80’s in downtown San Jose – and beyond that, these hippies, feminists and former black panthers and raza movement leaders were looking at the environmental affects of a nascent silicon valley – from how they made their microchips, to whose contracts they were fulfilling. They tried to defeat proposition 13, they went out on strike WITH the teachers. They supported my local schools’ bilingual program, eventually enrolling me in it. But they were also long-winded & there were no good snacks. But there were plenty of felt markers and computer paper – & so I curled up and drew. I drew AMAZONS. Lots and lots and lots of Amazons. Strong women dancing, working, and gasp, even meeting.

 

I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah to mark this transition. My Jewish life was simple and home-based.  My mom’s last name was Perlmutter. We were agnostic, strike that, atheist ethnic Jews. But we celebrated Hannukah, and we celebrated Passover – especially how it resonates with the stories of all oppressed peoples.  As the Coup eloquently puts it, “We got love for the underdog.” AND see the connections that link all of us. If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night. This is still very true today. More about this at another time.

 

We had Shabbat candle sticks, but never lit them ceremoniously on Friday nights. But we ate matzoh brie as a frequent weekend breakfast treat. We were very, very close to my grandparents, my mom’s folks. I knew I was Jewish because Lenard and Dena Perlmutter would arrive each summer from Fla-ri-da with two coolers along with their luggage. One would be filled with smoked fish delights, lox, nova, whole whitefish, and pickled herring – and because my grandfather Lenard had a vaudevillian sense of humor – it would be labeled “human blood” in his not-educated beyond-8th-grade script. The other had plenty of bagels and cream cheese – they were never too sure cream cheese could be purchased in the Bay Area in 1983.  We ate them slowly, trying to make them last the entire six weeks of their visit. My grandparents spoke Yiddish and fondly taught me phrases and words and wrote them out in Hebrew. My grandfather wore a mezuzah amulet necklace. He was a Cohen and was given some special treatment and responsibilities back in the old country of Brooklyn. But, this did not amount to much when he could no longer afford to belong to a Synagogue. And then the line was lost because he had two daughters, no sons. Or was it?

 

When I was 12, I was allowed to throw a pretty big birthday party and at some point it was casually mentioned to me that if we were really Jewish, this year would be the year of my Bat Mitzvah. Girls get to have theirs when they are 12 and boys when they are 13. Ha! My mom remarked, once again evidence that girls mature faster than boys. And she continued, but Bat Mitzvah is really just a 20th century American invention. Usually this ceremony only happens for boys – SEE HOW SEXIST RELIGION IS?!

But my mom warmly (embarrassingly) gave me this big mortifying book called PERIOD. Emblazoned on the front was a period in the title after the word period. And it was red. I was devastated.  And coming home from play practice one afternoon soon thereafter, I sheepishly told my mom, I had actually gotten my period. She yelled “Mazel Tov” and promptly coiled back and like something from a Marx Brother’s movie, pantomimed a slap in the face, hardly brushing my cheek. But energetically, I felt a dizzying blow. And she said “now you know what it feels like to be a woman.” Wait WHAT?

She told me that is what they used to do, that her mother had done the same pantomime routine. But in shtetl times, it was a real slap and that this gesture was passed down from Jewish mother to Jewish daughter and so on….

Although I didn’t have a traditionally religious Jewish upbringing, my Jewish life feels pretty rich and sustained, if not deepened. We celebrate all the high holidays, with my parents and my extended family of choice. My partner speaks Swiss German and I think it’s totally hot when he understands the root words and pronunciation in Yiddish better than I do. It becomes a conversation. My closest friends are Jewish, Chicana, Filipina, Black, Korean, Chinese, Iranian and a myriad of mixes therein. Along with a friend Stacy, I share Shabbat dinners and throw what we are told is one of the best Hannukah parties around, Latkepalooza. Traditional vs. Root down.  And yes, we always use the Cell Phone Sleeping Bag I designed for The National Day of Unplugging a few years back, now in it’s 5th reprinting. Us and 20,000 others around the world.

But as I consider my Jewish past and my path moving forward, I still wouldn’t have a traditional Bat Mitzvah, nor do I welcome the ritual slap. I think that something more powerful for me would be emersion in the mikvah as a coming of age ceremony.  For our young women, just starting their cycles, what other ritual could help reframe coming of age? I suggest drawing a soothing bath for our young women. And saying, “Welcome to the sisterhood, may your life as a woman be filled with blessing!” Let's do a little ritual that you can do every month to honor the return of your body cycle, to ensure you well being, and to welcome the restoration of your energy. And asking “What is it that has lost potential this month, what are you letting go of? What is developing in fascinating ways that you wish to nurture? What blessings and strengths do you hope to draw upon, as a new cycle of days begins?”

Rivkah Slonim, director of education at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University in New York said: “Mikvah is about the immersion of the soul”.

For Jewish women (and some men) immersion in a ritual bath to spiritually purify oneself has been practiced for four thousand years. Though monthly use of a ritual bath is less prevalent today than in other times, a broad range of Jewish women, from feminist to ultra-otharodox, participate in the ritual.

My reBar would offer a group or community a unique opening to deepen our spiritual and community ritual practices in a group. From traditional mikvehs to salt water pools, to hot springs.

For my close-knit family, the Torah was never studied and Hebrew was never spoken. Currently, with almost all traces of my mother tongue/s lost, one place of deep spiritual connection that remains with me is a love of the water. My maternal grandmother did not teach my mother nor I our language but she did teach us water was a joyous pure thing to dive fully into whenever possible. So when I do finally dive in, you are all invited! Thank you for coming on this journey with me.

Jessica Tully is an award-winning artist and organizer working primarily in video and participatory practices. Her site-specific rock operas, civic engagement strategies and performance videos take place underwater, on football fields, at State Capitols, major museums, unionized cultural institutions, the Bay Bridge and the ballot box.

 

 

Becoming A Man By Dan Wolf

It’s July 23, 1988. I’m one part Michael Jackson, two parts The Coreys, and all about the jacket I chose as the centerpiece of my Bar Mitzvah outfit. My hydrogen peroxide bangs have faded from brownish red back to dark brown. My mothers’ comedic classic fumble of her speech is still fresh in our minds. My great grandma has been prepping me for years that she might not live to see this day, but she’s here. My best friends, my family, and every cute girl I could possibly invite is here as well. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for – shake with the right, take with the left – and yet despite the maturity I’ve been promised, my Bar Mitzvah did not make me a man.

It’s just past the crack of dawn in 2012 and I’m on set to shoot an Italian cheese spot for a French Canadian company. I’m clean shaven, dressed as a chef and practicing my one line. “MozzarelLIsima”. “MozzarelLIsima”. “MozzarelLIsima”. The director comes on set, acts like he’s never seen me before and without hesitation (or irony) shouts “Get this guy a man maker!” Seconds later a production assistant arrives with an apple box and stands staring at me, waiting for me to move. I move a few steps to my right and he puts the box down where I was standing and instructs me to step up on it. I do and in that moment I guess I became a man.

It’s early morning in 2000 and I am walking down a freezing cold street in Hamburg, Germany. I’m newly arrived in a country I never intended on visiting. I’m here with my band to play a show at a club called The Betty Ford Klinik. We’re staying on the fourth floor above the club in an apartment with no beds, only mattresses on the floor, and two DJs from Switzerland sleeping in the other room. That’s where I leave my band mates as I walk out the door that morning not knowing what I was looking for. I walk out onto the world-famous Reeperbahn, past the club where the Beatles had their start, past the brothels, and the bars, and the bratwurst stands that line the street. I step over broken glass, and feces, and walk amongst the guttural sounds of Germans still drunk from the night before. I walk on cobblestone streets that hold the stories of betrayal I have heard my whole life. Undoubtedly my grandparents have walked here too. With each step forward I go back, hearing my parents voices in my head, “Marry a Jewish girl. It’ll just be easier.” I’m not sure what that means. I don’t really know any Jewish girls and the ones I know annoy the shit out of me. And then I stop. Or am stopped by the sight of a huge building covered with a word I know I have heard before. Opperettenhaus. The Operrettenhaus is a 1400 seat theater my great grandparents owned before the war. And now its home to the German version of the musical Cats. That’s when it all hits me. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to be alive. We weren’t supposed to survive. And then the swell starts, all the emotions of my past, my parents, my grandparents boils up in side of me. In that moment I know why it is important for me to be and to live Jewish, whatever that means. I want to put it into words but how do you articulate the moment when every fiber of your being knows why it’s on this planet? It’s an overwhelming feeling when your fate becomes clear. The moment when your culture and your creativity collide. I am alive. I’m a man. And so I did what came naturally to me. What I hope any of us would do in that moment. I shouted at the top of my lungs “Fuck you, I’m here!”

It’s after dark in 1992. I’m in Israel, the only time I’ve ever been. I’m sitting on the roof of our dormitory overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. I’m with my best female friend, the Rabbi’s daughter, and we’re drunk. We’re not supposed to be but we are. There had always been sexual tension between the two us but up until then we had remained friends. Maybe it was the Goldstars or the Maccabees but somehow the conversation moves into unknown territory. We start talking about kissing and sex and blowjobs. She mentions she’s always thought I was cute, I say the same thing about her. She says we should act on it someday. I say why not right now. She agrees. We start kissing and touching and before I know it she says she’ll ‘give me one’ if I promise to let her know before I’m done. I’m sure I agreed before the words even left her mouth. So there I was, over looking the holiest of holy getting the holiest of holy.

It’s 2008 and we’ve been up most of the night. My wife, pregnant with our first child, our son, is in labor. We’re moving from the bed to the bouncy ball to the floor and I’m tracking her contractions. Somewhere in the middle of the night my wife has an amazing 15-minute contraction. As it subsides she looks at me and says “I’m taking drugs when I get to the hospital.” Yes dear, I say, whatever you want. Somewhere in the next hours she looks at me and says “I need to push!” so we jump in the car and head to the hospital. As we check her in the nurse tells us she’s 10+ cm dilated and almost ready to go. The bad news – it's too late for drugs. The midwife arrives at the hospital and tells her she can start pushing. As the baby’s head starts to crown the midwife looks at me and asks me if I wanna catch the baby. I do! She tells me to wash my hands. I’m so excited I lather all the way up to my shoulders including my short sleeves on my t-shirt. I assume my position and catch the boy as he comes out. I cut his cord and lay him naked on my wife’s chest. I am now a dad.

It’s February 5, 2015. I’m working hard to create some sort of centrality to my life, a space where my work, my art, my family, and my spiritual practice melt into a cohesive whole. I did end up marrying a Jewish girl but that doesn’t really mean much. Although our upbringing is very similar our views are so different I often joke that I’m in an interfaith relationship. But it doesn't really matter because we love each other and have this amazing little family. But some days when I’m at home in the evening with my kids I get the feeling that we are all waiting for the adults to show up. Then I realize that no one is coming, and I wonder when did I become a man? I know now, it wasn’t in one big moment at my Bar Mitzvah. It was this series of small but monumental moments. I am now an adult. I am a man. 

Dan Wolf, actor, rapper, playwright, director, producer and educator who is a founding member of the Hip Hop collective Felonious, adjunct faculty at A.C.T. and managing producer for JCCSF's 3200 Stories.


Sissies & Sodomites by Irwin Keller

Am I the only person on the planet to have loved his Bar Mitzvah?

I loved it. I loved preparing for it. Learning my Torah portion. Spending extra time at Hebrew School. Buying my first tallit. Even choosing this classic 1973 sports jacket – tasteful plaid, which came with both blue pants and cranberry colored pants.

For me the hard part wasn’t the ceremony. It was having a public celebration of becoming a man. Because on the question of manhood I was decidedly unresolved.

I had always been unresolved about it. I learned young about gender roles, and the importance of sticking to them. I remember being four or five. My best friend, David, lived two doors away and we would play house together. He’d be the husband and I’d be the wife, because that’s how you play house. I’d kiss him goodbye and he’d go to work. I would pretend to bake while waiting for him to get home. This worked pretty well for me and it worked just fine for David too.

But then I was ratted out by an eyewitness, David’s mother, an enduringly lovely and loving Jewish woman who, nonetheless, was living in a suburb in 1964, five years before Stonewall, 18 years before AIDS, 34 years before Will & Grace. What could she do but tell my parents? And so I was, that very same day, taken aside by my father. He told me that from now on if David and I play house, we should be brothers.

And so we tried that. But I couldn’t figure out what the fun in this was supposed to be in it. Should we pretend to go into business together and then have a feud? Maybe we should pretend to put our parents in a nursing home? I think we pretended to talk about cars. And then we gave up.

But I learned a valuable lesson: if you’re going to do something not strictly boyish, it will have to be on the down low.

And so it was! When my next-door neighbor Nan and I would play Barbies throughout elementary school, I would stoically operate the Ken doll to uphold the honor of my sex. And if, when we played, Ken happened to be hairdresser and gave all of the Barbies up-dos, well, that was just our little secret.

So I went along and I learned how to look like a boy, how to walk like a boy, cross my legs and carry my books like a boy. I learned these skills like learning a foreign language. I felt like a spy, posing as someone I wasn’t, fearful that someone with a keen ear might pick up on my accent and know that I wasn’t a native. (I was wrong, though. A keen ear was not remotely necessary. All the other kids knew I was lying about who I was.)

Now it wasn’t that I wanted to be a girl; but I didn’t not want to be a girl. And regardless, I wasn’t much liking the boy thing. What was expected of boys, the way bone fide boys behaved, looked to me like what I would’ve called, if I’d had the words at the time, goyim nakhes.

Mostly I wanted to be me. I just wanted room in the world for girly-boy me.

And that was the problem with “Today you are a man.” If any adult even used the word “man” in my presence, it made me feel like a failure.

But here’s where being Jewish saved me. When I was in third grade I read a story about Rabbi Hillel as a child. He nearly froze to death on a rooftop, eavesdropping on rabbis who were discussing Torah all night, because they’d thought him too little to come in. This was the kind of person, the kind of man, if I could’ve stood the word “man,” that I wanted to be. And a world that would tell a heroic story about someone who wanted desperately to learn rather than someone who wanted to defeat armies or monsters was a world that was safer for me and people like me.

In Hebrew school I was valued for my learning, and the fact that a 50-yard dash took me 10 seconds or more was politely overlooked.

Eventually I landed on the Bar Mitzvah track. Because of the number of kids in my temple, my Bar Mitzvah date ended up pushed back two months after my birthday. If it had been on my birthday, I would have been reading from Deuteronomy, a portion full of laws and bride prices and consequences for misbehavior.

But instead, I got the bit in Genesis where Abraham tries to talk God out of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is bargaining – if there are 50 righteous people, shouldn’t the city be spared? God agrees it should. Abraham pushes. What about 45 righteous people? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? A simple minyan. And God agrees.

No portion could have been better. I walked away with the idea that sometimes things aren’t fair in the world, and if you perceive that to be so, you have to be brave and speak up. Even against God. And it just might get better.

So I had the Bar Mitzvah. I had the party, complete with the requisite bunny-hop.

I was self-conscious about my party. It felt too lavish to me. I didn’t want people to think we were rich. But my father was a beloved bandleader in Chicago, who had played hundreds of Bar Mitzvahs and weddings – if you’re from Chicago, ask your parents who played at their wedding. Fifty-fifty it was him. Everybody adored him, so everybody showed up – the musicians and the photographer and the caterers and the cake makers. So I got a party that was beyond our means.

But I got through the Bar Mitzvah. I got through the party. I got through junior high. And high school too. Eventually so many of the seeds of those early years took root for me and flourished.

I got my chances to be girly. Twenty-one years of chances.

I got to follow in Abraham’s footsteps, spending a decade advocating for the rights of Sodomites.

I got the chance to have lots of Jewish learning, and to pass some of that learning forward.

Oh, and I married a man, and we play house every day. And I don’t bake.

And the years go by. And the generations advance. And last spring, along with our co-parents, we celebrated our purple-haired kid’s Bar Mitzvah, a kid who, so it seems so far, has no problem being himself.

Reb Irwin Keller has served as Spiritual Leader of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati since 2008. His background includes linguistics, Near Eastern languages, and law. He is the author of Chicago's gay rights ordinance, and was Executive Director of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel of the Bay Area. Keller recently retired from the stage after twenty-one years touring with the Kinsey Sicks, America's Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet, a group he co-founded.

Somewhere Out There: A Space Camp Bat Mitzvah by Jessica Minnen

When I was 12, the tallest boy in my class barely reached my shoulders. My glasses were the size of my face. My hair was even bigger.  

That summer, my aunt and uncle sent me to Space Camp.  

Space Camp was a Bat Mitzvah present, a nod to my obsession with a galaxy far, far away. We arrived at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center on Monday and on Friday we simulated a full space mission. The most coveted roles were in Mission Control. Everyone wanted to be the Flight Director. Somehow, the nerdy girl from Paducah, Kentucky got it. The success or failure of our mission was in my hands.  

Learning my Torah portion was stressful, but nothing compared to the pressure of being the Flight Director. On Tuesday we ran a practice mission to give everyone a sense of their role. I botched the landing, our equipment was damaged, we had to abort the mission. It was a bad day.  

Fresh from this failure, we shuffled into the Space Dome for an IMAX movie. I settled into my seat, deflated. A few minutes later a boy sat down next to me. His name was Sean. He was from Amarillo, and everyone called him Tex. Tex was my height. Tex was 15. Suddenly, the failed mission seemed far, far away. About halfway through the movie Tex put his hand on my hand. A few minutes later when I resumed breathing normally, I turned my hand over, and our two sticky palms locked together like moist magnets. Flight Director! Holding hands with a boy! It was a good day. 

I like to think of Jewish ritual as a set of tools and experiences designed to help us confront liminality. How do we hold the space called becoming? At its best, ritual answers this question. It helps us recognize who we are, and it helps us become who we need to be.  

I became a Bat Mitzvah at Space Camp. Directing a mission, holding hands with a boy -- I took my first steps into the zero gravity world of adulthood. I stood up without slouching. I saw a little clearer through my enormous glasses. I reached for the stars, and somewhere out there began to feel more comfortable with myself in the world. Not bad for a 12-year-old.  

And the mission? Accomplished.  

Jessica Minnen is the Rabbi in Residence at OneTable and the founder of Seven Wells. She is an alumna of Washington University in St. Louis, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, Baltimore Hebrew University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

"Why Can't I Be You?" by Aimee Suzara

Between the ages of 13-18, I wanted to look like Robert Smith.  In case you’re too young, or not melancholy enough to know who this is, Smith is the lead singer for the Cure – the band that provided the soundtrack to many a shoe-gazing loner of the late 80s and 90s. 

For this little get-up, I remember searching through my Dad’s closet – finding his outgrown velour jacket from the early 80s, I paired it with my own ruffle shirt. I tousled my short angled bob-cut that hung over the left side of my face, using lots of Dep gel and aerosol hairspray.  Then I drew on thick eyeliner and smeared on some grey eye shadow to add some deathly charm. It was a costume, but a part of me wished I could wear it all of the time.

What did this girl, in gothic attire, have in common with any other Filipina-American of her age?

Not much. Contrary to stereotypes, I didn’t grow up eating Pancit and lumpia, hanging out at fiestas, or learning cultural dances.  That one of the Cure’s famous songs was “Why Can’t I Be You?” is fitting, because growing up, I often didn’t feel at home in my own skin.

At this age, some Filipino-American girls would be getting ready for a Debut – an expensive party thrown by the well-to-do. My Mom didn’t have a Debut, nor would it have made any sense for me; I would have rather been eaten alive by a tiger than to prance around in a frilly dress with a bunch of strangers.  

At this age, too, a young Catholic Fil-Am would be getting ready for Confirmation, a sacred rite of passage – and this I was. 

But I’m not going to tell the story of these traditional rites. Instead, I will talk about a turning point. For isn’t this what a rite of passage is: a point after which things change?

But first, let’s back up at bit and talk history. We as Fil-Ams inherit a fragmented sense of identity.  With colonialism by Spain for over 300 years, and the United States for 50, sprinkle in war, conquest and martial law - identity was a complex thing for us before folks even came here. 

Enter my parents, who immigrated in 1969 with little to their name, and kept separate from their relatives. Always seeking a better job, a better life, we lived like nomads, briefly settling in small towns and big cities throughout the country, from coast to coast. In an effort to prevent my sister and me from facing discrimination, due to the accents they feared we’d inherit; and mistakenly believing that if we were bilingual, we’d have trouble with English, my parents chose to speak to us in only English, not teaching us their native tongues.  And so I grew up in a household where Tagalog was their secret language. Between this and the outside world, which told me to be as American as apple pie, I was a child who often wished I had lighter skin and blue eyes.

So I was a part of a story of constant change, of piecing together an identity from the old and the new, and sometimes of self-hate.

Over the course of moving, I began to believe that I could re-invent myself in the face of change.  I remember getting ready to leave for Florida just before 9th grade, our fifth move across the country (we’d already lived in New Jersey, Washington, Texas, and California), thinking that I could be whomever I wanted to be – the flip side to the heartbreak of getting upheaval.

From ‘92-94, we lived in a desert town east of L.A.; the backdrop to my high school life was tumbleweeds, Joshua trees, and lots of dust. How much further could you be from the tropical Philippines?  There were only few folks of color at my school, and they were lost among the clicks of jocks, cheerleaders, and outcasts. I became even more introverted, solitary, and sullen, even further resembling Robert Smith, and not just on Halloween.  I couldn’t wait until it was time to leave the desert and go to college to start my own life.  While other kids were partying on weekends, I stared at the Angeles Forest under the moon or made paintings of angels and cages on empty freeways. (Yeah, I was a real barrel of laughs.)

In 1992, when I was seventeen, something profound happened: my parents took me and my sister to the Philippines, their first trip back in 23 years.  On this visit, I met my grandparents for the first time.

When we arrived at the airport, I could feel the sticky, hot air push through the vents, embracing my skin; I felt all these brown faces surrounding me, something I had never experienced before – imagine, people looking just like me! And then I saw my grandparents’ silhouettes as we entered the arrival area. It was like the myths came alive – my Lolo, whom I had only known through the letters he’d sent me, stood, this slender military man with thick glasses, – and this small woman with a smile that lit up her face.  Embrace: Embracing them for the first time seemed to suture together, in one moment, the past, present, and future.  

You don’t realize how displaced you’ve been until you find your place.  So this, I’d say was my true rite of passage.  Meeting my grandparents, visiting my parents’ homeland, initiated a lifelong journey of embracing my roots.  Until then, my parents had believed it was better if I were to blend in; but in this skin we could never truly “blend in,” and this was the mistake of the Melting Pot myth. Instead, I had to learn to inhabit my own skin, my own history. Over 2 decades later, people are surprised to know how estranged I had been from my culture until that point.

But that’s what rites of passage are about: crossing a threshold; finding that self you were always meant to be.  

How would I do it over again? 

Well, I’d give my parents less grief.  Like some of you, my teens were rife with rebellion and anger, of locking myself in my room and threatening to run away.  I would, if I could go back, be wise enough to thank them for doing their best under the circumstances. I’d tell them I know that this world wasn’t welcoming for them -- so I get why they tried to make me more American for this world. 

But see, I realize now that they, too, needed a rite of passage. They arrived to both the illusion of the American Dream and the harsh realities of racism and prejudice.  Maybe they needed someone to say to them when they arrived with borrowed money and wide eyes, “it’s going to be hard here.  You are going to struggle, be treated like outsiders. But you belong. Keep loving yourselves.” 

So, if I could re-do my rite of passage, I really wouldn’t.  I certainly wouldn’t have benefitted from a Debut, and my Confirmation would still be a rite of obligation. 

It was through this journey of wanting to be someone else that I eventually became who I am: now, a proud pinay, a writer, an educator, hoping to light the path a little for others.

And yeah, on parts of that journey, sometimes I looked like Robert Smith.

Aimee Suzara is a Filipino-American poet, playwright, and performer whose mission is to create poetic and theatrical work about race, gender, and the body to provoke dialogue and social change. Based in Oakland, Suzara has graced stages nationally, from Florida to Washington. Her debut poetry book, SOUVENIR (WordTech Editions 2014) was lauded as “a powerful meditation on history and the legacies of race, family and identity,” (David Mura), and her poems appear in numerous collections, including Phat’itude and Kartika Review.

The Commie Crucible by Jacob Kornbluth

Firstly, I was raised by communists, I don't believe in God, and I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah.

Second, I can’t really remember who I was at 13.  I remember vaguely, but not specifically.  I’m terrible with dates and specifics.  I’m more of an emotional memory guy.

You might say “thank you very much for that wonderful and evocative reBar story”, but hang on.  I’m a documentary filmmaker.  There are questions here.  Questions I’d like to investigate. 

Let’s take a look at the evidence:

Here are my parents.  New York, 1970’s… they don’t make these square 1970’s photo paper any more.  I’m the kid with them in each picture:

This was me as a boy in NY a little later:

I was wearing a suit.  All the time. I’m wearing a blue one here, but I wore bright red ones, tweed ones, whatever.  It may look innocuous, but this was me, rebelling.  My parents were unemployed communists.  I rebelled by wearing a suit every day to my tough NYC public school.  And my parents couldn’t call it a school.  They had to say that I was going “downtown” to my “job” and I was going to put my stuff in my “locker”.

There was also this: 

Thoughtful.  Having some “coffee-milk”.  Reflecting.  I insisted on drinking coffee from a young age, and my parents gave in by giving me a little coffee in a real mug, mixed with lots and lots of milk.  It’s gentle rebelling though.  You can see it in the photo, I was kind of a nice commie-jew-ish” kid, circa 1970’s boho New York.

Now take this:

This is me at 14.  I’m #30, screaming like an athletic animal. 

Something happened, right? 

These coming of age rituals like Bar Mitzvah’s are about going through a crucible and coming out an adult.  For many, it’s enduring cheesy pop music or hip hop songs and gifts.  For me, that crucible was moving from New York City to rural Michigan. 

My father died when I was 11.  My mother moved us to rural Michigan.  There weren’t any Jews in the town.  Not only didn’t I have a Bar Mitzvah, but I wasn’t invited to any, either.  When I cut my hair into a kind of mullet / Mohawk, one old lady in the town asked where I kept my horns… and I just said “I don’t know”.  I didn’t even know that was an anti-semitic comment.

I not only had no cultural history – I had no cultural context. 

At 13, I was a freshman in High School because I had started school early.  That year I also became one of the first freshman in the history of Whiteford High School – I always joke that there was a good reason it wasn’t called “Hispanic-ford” or “Black-ford”, Whiteford it was called and Whiteford it was – to play varsity football for the Whiteford Bobcats of Monroe County Michigan.  I had no Jewish identity, no identity at all.  But we were going against the biggest team in the league, and my coach had an idea he had to use small quick guys to get around the big guys.  I weighed about 180 pounds, and I went up against a guy that was 260.  Before the first play, I remember the crowd cheering, vibrating my shoulder pads it was so loud.   I was terrified that I ran circles around him and had 8 tackles.  Coolest thing of all – at 13 I got my name in the paper.   By channeling my anger and confusion into athletics, I made it through.  That was my coming-of-age crucible. 

Now, I’m a filmmaker.  When I think through the crucible that was that early teen period, I think of how lonely it was.  Not in the sense of not having “friends” – I had lots of friends and was even captain of the football team and president of the student council – but of not sharing a common experience.  I think that’s why I’m a filmmaker. I need an outlet – an outlet that helps someone who has had a tough relationship with identity to say who I am. 

So that’s my lesson – if you don’t give your kid a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they’ll become a filmmaker.  Take it from a filmmaker -- whatever you do, being a filmmaker is a rough existence, so DON'T DO THAT TO YOUR KIDS! 

No, seriously.  I’m married. I have a son, and another child on the way.  Anyone whose been through that knows how crazy it seems to turn from an single / individual focused on how different you are into a ‘husband’ and ‘father’.  How did this happen to me? 

Then you realize it isn’t so bad.  That’s why I’m here.

I didn’t grow up with any Jewish traditions, but as I get older and go through milestones like being a husband and father, I realize I’m a part of something - the fabric of humanity.  I share something with others.  That’s a good thing.  It’s something I want for my son, Eli and for my daughter-to-be, whose in utero name is “she-li”.   

Do I want Eli and She-li to have a Bar / Bat Mitzvah?  Honestly, I don’t know.  Ket, my wife who is the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister (of all things!), is open to it.  I still don’t believe in God.  But I’m starting to feel that – as a communist-ish, Jew-ish kid – communist parties just aren’t that fun.  Being Jewish is as close to a real community as I have, and I want a community for my kids.  I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah, but I wish I did.   Just to connect to a culture, to ground me through the insanity of those teen years. 

So what do I want their coming of age look like?  If Eli and She-li want to wear suits, that’s cool (though I'm no revolutionary, so this won't be as good of a way for them to piss dad off as it was for me).  And – if they can talk their mother in to it – playing sports like football is cool, too.  I’m not sure I’ll be cool with the whole God thing if they want to believe -- but I'll try.  I know this -- if they want to be part of a Jewish community, have a Bar/Bat mitzvah, and not believe in god, I'm all in!

I hope they question authority.  I hope they don't buy into cultural norms just because they are there.  So when I envision what I want for them…since I don't have anything to go by, I can imagine whatever I want.  I have to admit that when I picture joyful ceremonies, I generally imagine being in the woods on a sunny day in flowing comfortable garments.  I want a fantasy-hippie-rave -- but I want a hippie rave where people listen to the Pixies or the Clash and discuss ideas and eat delicious food.  

Whatever they choose, what I really want is a dialogue.  About the value of being an individual, and the value of being part of a group.  That’s the joy of being part of something but finding your own way in and relationship to it. 

An award-winning writer and director of feature films, TV and theater, including the feature films “Haiku Tunnel” and “The Best Thief in the World” and the documentary “Inequality for All.”

Besalah by Todd Krieger

The Decision Tree

I hadn’t really thought too much about what I might do differently at my Bar Mitzvah before reBar. But there was a moment that day in January, 1981 on which I have reflected from time to time.

My temple in those days (as it is now) was on California Street in San Francisco. My home was, depending on what app you use, 23.7 miles away to the south on the Peninsula. The family had recently returned to the Bay Area from the North Shore of Chicago and I was to be a Bar Mitzvah at the temple where my parents had been congregants when they had previously been San Franciscans. I was what you might call a commuter Jew. 

I also had somehow ended up with two girlfriends, one in each location. And as I did not drive, and this was before the ubiquity of GPS and Social Networking, the near marathon distance may as well have been a continent away. And as such, I hadn’t considered what might happen when both of my ‘girlfriends’ were in the same physical space. When both of said young ladies were seated nearly side by side in the audience at my Bar Mitzvah.

And so, as I stood on the Bema and shared my aspirational desire to continue my Jewish education, (see image of actual notes) and gave my precision analytical reading of Besalah, Moses’s journey to the Promised Land, I too was trying to divine how I would get to my own promised land. Into whose arms would I find myself at the end of the service. The decision tree wasn’t horribly challenging but it was a distraction as I tried to think about what I was going to say once I descended from my pulpit before the Ark.

 It’s a funny adolescent moment but given this gift of reBar and the opportunity to think on this anew, it strikes me that with the benefit of all these years I might have been better served contemplating the whole of the congregation vs. the cute red-headed girl with the ice cream name and my other more Teutonic crush. That really soaking in my grandfather who would pass a few months later, and taking note of all that was around would have created a more lasting memory, a richer fabric to carry me forward. But hey I was 12 so I give young me a little (but not too much) slack. And oh yeah, I’d think twice about that Roller Disco party as my Bar Mitzvah celebration. 

Todd Krieger is the Editorial Director at Deep Focus, a leading digital advertising agency.. When he’s not strategizing on behalf his clients he rides his road bike through the streets of San Francisco, spends as much time with his wife and daughter, and still gets excited when new comic books come out every Wednesday.

 

 

 

 

Recherché du temps perdu: Searching the Lost Time By Gregor Ehrlich

Like (I suspect) most people, the significance of ritual consecration of my Bar Mitzvah was pretty much lost on me at 13. My recollection of my Bar Mitzvah primarily involves the material things: buying a three-piece Pierre wool Cardin suit, the novelty of drinking ginger ale, and later, sitting in my room watching a rotating fiber optic lamp while listening to Exile on Main Street and eating a tray of extra hors d’oeuvres while counting my savings bonds—all great fun, but I didn’t think too hard about why any of it was happening. Youth, obviously, is wasted on the young, and even though Jews decided on adulthood at 13, it’s a rare kid who has any sort of developed spiritual consciousness and isn’t focused on boners and toys. So it was mostly a big birthday party, and the only part I recall from being on the bimah was worrying about screwing up my haftorah portion.

Now that I have had a few decades to spend my time in scholarly contemplation, I’d like to report that I have somehow evolved, that I no longer am stuck in the material realm, and spend my time dedicated to something useful. But that’s not even a little bit true. For one thing, I didn’t spend much time in contemplation, scholarly or otherwise. For another, I don’t know that I have done much useful. That’s not to say that things haven’t shifted for me. Back then, on my big day, I had a much shorter attention span. Pretty much as soon as I cut the Mazel Tov cake, I had forgotten the whole experience. Nowadays, if a car merges into my lane in a way I didn’t like, I can easily spend the rest of my day stewing about it.  So I guess that means I have developed something? Not patience, certainly. But maybe something like persistence.  Not the good kind, but the kind that lets me nurse a grudge.

I also find myself, somewhat amazingly, only a few years out from hosting my own son’s Bar Mitzvah. So now I think about that, and what I have to pass on to him. And the whole impenetrably dense, confusing spool of life that I had in front of me then, now seems to offer, if not quite renewal for me, at least a chance to see what promise might be held for him. So I feel the (vicarious) version of the momentous ritual approaching, and, like my bris, don’t quite know what to make of it, only that I know it feels important, kind of thrilling, and thinking about it makes me wince in a kind of anticipatory pain.

Gregor Ehrlich is a writer and producer.

In Solidarity With The World By Esther Chung

Janice Clark said that “Today’s everything-available-at-all-times culture encourages putting off adulthood and commitment as long as possible—not to allow time to develop mature judgment and self-knowledge, but to keep it light, to jitter from smartphone to tablet and back again, quickly bounce away from any unpleasant experience and cultivate distraction at any cost. We can maintain, if we choose, a safe distance between ourselves and the world, a glowing screen as our shield, avoiding ever knowing ourselves or each other.”

I wanted to step beyond “the glowing screen” and break this life of being sheltered and complacent. It was August 2010. It all began the second I took my first step off the plane – when I took my first step onto Haitian ground. The landing was coarse and the entire airport consisted of patches and patches of uneven grass. I remembered thinking to myself, “are we really here?” I expected something a little less glorious than LAX; at least an airport with lights, lanes, structures, workers, and other airplanes. Instead, there were only patches and patches of grass. It was over 100 degrees outside with 70% humidity. It felt like a sauna, only I couldn’t be still, I had to keep moving. When I exited the airplane, sweat was dripping down my face so excessively it began to blur my vision if I didn’t wipe it off fast enough. The air was so thick I thought it was going to swallow my thoughts whole. I unconsciously began to envision an icy cold Mango-a-go Jamba Juice drink, something cool to distract my mind from these first hot, overwhelming minutes. Going through customs was another ordeal of yelling in Creole, more sweating, and just complete utter chaos. As team leader, I had to instinctively gather and account for my group of 30 17-18 year old high school students. I was only 19, about to enter my sophomore year of college. Before this, I thought I had everything; stellar resume, great family, bright future. I thought I had a clear sense of self. But that very moment I got off the airplane, I felt disoriented, lost, and found myself suddenly wishing I wasn’t there. A part of me wanted to go home and forgo this mission. But, I couldn’t. I silenced my fears and moved forward.

When my team and I arrived, we visited several refugee camps outside of the capital of Port Au Prince providing clean water, food supplements, and moral support. Back home, news of the 7.0 earthquake devastating the country of Haiti blurred among other world current events. It wasn’t my country, it wasn’t my life that was torn apart. I wasn’t displaced. It was irrelevant. But as I physically stood there, standing before the endless refugee camps, I saw that these temporary homes were made of scrap metal and cardboard. That these people just wanted to survive one more day. I met a woman named Zehira who through her tears shared her story about how she lost her home and had to provide for her four children. I held her hand and in that moment I smiled weakly, my words lost in translation, hoping to channel inner strength and encouragement from God knows where. I didn’t know how receptive she would be, whether she would find it offensive or just plainly ignore me. But Zehira returned my smile. And even though we didn’t speak the same language or were of the same color, we exchanged something that I believed to be so pure. And through this exchange of silent smiles, I found Zehira’s resilience to be inspiring. To smile with a life like this, with a home like this?! That even though she had nothing, she had everything. She put more value on her life that I’ve ever done for mine.

Being in a third world country, in the wake of a natural disaster with a position of responsibility, I felt as though I’ve aged, confronting the challenging realities of being an adult.  My previous complaints and petty thoughts suddenly seemed trivial and small in comparison to this desolate country. My perspective, my attitude, my heart, and my dreams all gravitated toward a purpose greater than myself: a purpose to serve others and to have hope.

And so I’ve realized that my coming of age story isn’t of a cultural nor an ethnic celebration. But once past the turbulence of adolescence, I am always coming of age in some way, that personal growth and betterment are lifelong pursuits. And there will constantly be a celebration of myself, my heart, and my dreams blossoming into something more profound, breaking that safe distance between ourselves and instead, being in more solidarity with the world.

My life mantra: to live is to love. I am a recent college graduate, humanitarian, youth pastor, and aspiring international lawyer. I have served impoverished communities around the world in Haiti, Mexico, and South Korea and have advocated for human rights at Amnesty International. I currently have the honor of being in a position where I can impact my local youth ministry at KwangYum Community Church.

13 By Mark Anthony Thomas

There are my Grandmother’s relics that I remember most. Her uniquely African-carved walking cane. Her worn, yet cherished bible. And her ring―which included all eight of her children’s birthstones.

She was crazy about me―but I played grandson really well. I was well behaved, quite inquisitive, and her sisters called me “thin man,” which I hated … but I did have these big curious brown eyes.

She was thankful for me and, she never failed to remind me that as a newborn child, I was fragile and sickly―but I was a fighter.

As a preteen―in the midst of my parents’ divorcing―I found solace in transforming my Grandmother’s guestroom into my own physical space of stability. With space again to dream—and disconnect from the chaos of watching my parents disembody the pillars of our core family—I found in my grandmother, someone I could believe in, listen to, and bounce-off the ideas shaping my value system … she was there; there when it really matters. And she was perfect.

In between afternoons of Price-Is-Rice and Supermarket Showdown and evenings of bible studies and Nintendo; She taught me how to not just cook, but how to REALLY make a meal that was worthy of celebration.

See, my parents’ divorce coincided with the most vulnerable age of an adult-in-formation’s journey. I remember feeling like an intruder, as my parents essentially checked-out of parenting.

In retrospect, they were both two 30-somethings, self-determining that they needed two separate paths. It’s only natural, for a child, to get lost in that moment. Grandma was a pretty good consolation prize. An angel in disguise; Honest, giving, full of joy, and most importantly—present.

Yet, I would only have her for 13 years. As a child in the 1980s, I was well aware of my country’s history. Life was unkind to my ancestors and the collateral damage was much more present than the progress we’ve made.

Heaven was a sought-after-dream for lives filled with racism, pain, struggle, then-accepted domestic violence, and “holding on until everything would be alright.” Death could not be taken personally; it was the only glory that seemed sustainable.

With my grandmother’s death, I honestly felt that the adult in my life left the room. As we prepared to celebrate her life, in her obituary, my family included a simple hallmark poem.

In reading it, I didn’t believe the poem captured her life. Yet, these simple lines were aimed at defining her. I saw her story lost in a reflection that captured just a small part of who she was, and who we were, and thus, who I was.

From that moment, I questioned every story and whether we were properly capturing people’s lives in the words and reflections we wrote about them. I wanted to study stories and media and understand the power within. Autobiographies, music, news media, literature, and poetry … the fascination meshed well with my inquisitiveness.

From that experience, I started to write … I wanted to do my small part to better capture life. I started to share the stories of my classmates with my classmates; I begun using the poetry of my community to build a community. In my own journey—in real time—I wanted to extract the universal emotions that were left unsaid … As a pre-teen, that was quite different behavior. But, it allowed me to find a purpose in a moment where fear of the unknown was the prevailing norm.

Writing gave me discipline and reason. It gave my empty spirit a soul. It became my ladder, not just for an escape from the short-term realities I faced … where it’s easy to feel trapped in an invisible community … but ammunition to empower myself.

Years later, I’d be able to write the poem I wish my 13 year old self could have articulated …

and while my eyes

have led me down

winding roads, along railways

and onto flights;

too often have I left

my instincts to be educated

by wolves

believing I could

walk on life’s most

turbulent bodies of water

armed with just a

substitute for love.

crashing into darkness.

only to see, the

kaleidoscope of all the love

you’ve given me,

is all I must aspire to be.

This would be my tribute. Thank you!

 

 

Mark Anthony Thomas is a writer and creative artist, and has served in executive leadership roles in publishing, communications, and the public sector. Mark Anthony Thomas is the inaugural Fuse Corps Executive Fellow in the City of Los Angeles, serving a 12-month appointment as the Senior Advisor, Livability.

Reflections on my Fiesta Rosa By Karla Vasquez

It was the first Saturday in October 2002, I was riding in a black limo wearing the enormous, poofy, light pink ball gown dress that I wanted- it was perfect. After all, it was custom-made so it fit like a glove. My hair was curled exactly how I had dreamed – soft wavy curls, just like the actress I had seen on the telenovela. My makeup was spot on - nothing about it was clownish or inappropriate, just flawless. I was about to arrive at my church, just 4 blocks away from where we are sitting right now. I was turning 15 and this was the day of my Fiesta Rosa.

In El Salvador, the country where I was born, people celebrate their young women’s coming of age when they turn 15 and we call it a Fiesta Rosa or Pink Party.

For my parents, this Fiesta Rosa meant so much. I was their pride and joy and to celebrate this day with all our family and community was phenomenal. But it was more than their love for me that made this day of my Fiesta Rosa unforgettable. It was also their sacrifice that made this day grand. My family had surpassed many and incredible hardships, both in El Salvador and in this country. They survived poverty, persecution, violence, and whole journey to a foreign land that would later be their new home. My family left their home in the late 80s because of a civil war. It had destroyed so much of their life, their family, their neighborhood, their innocence and their dreams.

When they arrived in the U.S., they didn’t have much in their pockets or much at all, except for hope and a three-month old baby girl who needed a future. They were young parents who needed to make sure that they gave their daughter, now a civil war survivor, the best chance at life. Part of their hope was to do what they never could in their homeland. Having this Fiesta Rosa was one of those things. My turning 15 was important because I would be the first woman in more than 5 generations, both on my mother and father sides of the family to celebrate this rite of passage. The magnitude of that when I was 15 weighed deeply in my heart because I knew that this honor was a new thing for my family. And it was a new thing for our new found church community, as most of the people in our congregation were also immigrants from El Salvador, and various parts of Latin America. They also shared in my parent’s sense of accomplishment.

So they went all out. When I say that, I’m not exactly talking about the ballroom hall at the Hilton, but instead a modest, decent and the prettiest pink party you could imagine in the basement of an almost century old church. With all the fresh flowers you could imagine, with tulle, beautiful linens, and everyone wearing their most elegant outfit. My mother, who has always had an eye for style, always said, that one could hit hard times, but it didn’t mean you’d have to compromise good taste, so the party and the guests all showed up.

The party was perfect. But something wasn’t right. I had a secret. I did not want a Fiesta Rosa.

I was fourteen going on fifteen, in my awkward stage and going through an identity crisis! The last thing I wanted was attention from everyone I knew, for a whole day! Going through high school was plain torture for me. Not only was I trying to survive teenage hood, but during those years, was the first time I realized this inner struggle that I woke up to every day, questioning, if I'm Salvadoran or American, and what portion to whom at what time? Why does my English have an accent or why don’t I know Spanish sometimes. Where do I belong? Whoever said high school was supposed to be the best four years of your life didn’t know what it was like to be an immigrant kid with an identity crisis with an upcoming super Salvadoran party. High school was awful. I was awkward, with frizzy hair, and hairy potter glasses and the thing that pained me the most was my need to belong. This need was so powerful that it compelled my shy, awkward, frizzy haired self to try out for every single women’s sports team at my school. I tried out for swimming, volleyball, softball, crosscountry, soccer and the list went on and to my utter devastation, I never made it to any team. Every single time I tried out, it was the same disappointment, the same pain and rejection. I’d rush to the gym office and when I finally got the list of names, I’d scan all the way down “Vasquez, Vasquez, Vasquez…” and I never saw my name. It broke my heart. I longed for identity, to belong, and on the day that I should have felt all that to the highest degree, I instead felt uncomfortable, awkward and like I didn’t fit in even though it was a party to celebrate me.

Maybe if I had found the right words to express to my parents how I felt, how I didn’t want this party, they would have graciously said to me, “its ok sweetie, don’t worry about it”. But I didn’t say anything. But I couldn’t say that to them and break their hearts. Break my abuelita’s heart, my abuelos’s, my whole community who had survived this war, who had dreamed of days like these.

At the end of my Fiesta Rosa, everyone was at my house and they were all watching me open all my gifts. It was late and everyone was laughing because I received several bath sets, you know the ones with all lotion, the bath gel, and body spray…there’s all this gift wrapping everywhere, all this pink paper and I’m in the center of the room, on the carpet, opening gifts, laughter all around me and still feeling the same. Awkward, isolated and alone.

I finished the day feeling glad it was over. I put the dress and shoes away, put a pair of new pjs on, washed away the perfect makeup and went to bed.

Today, I’m no longer 15 and THANK GOD! I’m actually nearing 30, and I feel great. I’m no longer shaken when I don’t know a word in Spanish, I just look it up. Now, when my Salvi accent comes out in my English, I love it. It lets people know, “this Karla, she’s not from here.” And yes, I’m not – let me tell you where I’m from. Let me tell you about my people, their stories, their pains and their joys. I never made a sports team in high school but I did create a team. After high school, my team was made up out of all kinds of people, young and old who have taught me that comradarie and companionship extends across: occupation, boundaries, borders,

incomes, races, and religion. I love my team. They are my family, friends, activists who champion the struggles of the people, foodies, artists, truth seekers, dreamers and in general people who love life.

If I could do my Fiesta Rosa all over again, I would be so excited, because I know who I am. I know the legs I stand on. I know my strengths. I know my weaknesses and I’ll keep getting to know them more I’m sure. I know how to give. And I know what to offer now. This Fiesta Rosa would be a coming of age for all of us, because it would be a party that celebrates all that we’ve overcome. We’re all survivors. And we survived for each other.

Karla T. Vasquez is a Los Angeles Resident. She was born in El Salvador, and migrated to the States at a very young age. She is a Food Justice advocate in her community in Pico Union. Her passions include community health, food, food history and story telling. On her off time she practices her sign language and her ukulele skills.

Open-Toe Shoes By Gayle Wald

  In the barefoot photo, I am dancing with my grandfather, Charles   Wald  .

In the barefoot photo, I am dancing with my grandfather, Charles Wald.

I know B Mitzvah’s are supposed to be the stuff of becoming an adult in a spiritual way, but I will always associate my own ritual celebration with an earthier version of adulthood, one involving the open display of painted female toes. In a phrase, my Bat Mitzvah marked not merely the first time I recited Torah from the bimah, but also my inaugural experience of wearing (what I then called) “open-toe shoes.” Such shoes offered, to my mind, access to the exciting but also terrifying world of grown-up women, fully initiated into the rituals of adult sexuality, including rituals of male seduction.

 

While my mauve (and quite cute, I thought) Bat Mitzvah dress had been purchased well in advance of the occasion, and had been pre-approved by my mother and modeled for my grandmothers, the shoes were part of a frantic, last-minute errand I conducted, incongruously, with my father. Why my father got involved with the buying of his adolescent daughter’s shoes is lost to memory. Maybe my mother had grown weary of taking me to the girls’ sections of department-store shoe salons and having me reject everything as too prim, even as the “ladies” sections beckoned with shoes that had too much heel or too much vamp. Maybe she and I had run out of energy in figuring out what color of shoe would complement my verging-on-dusty-pink frock. What matters is this: We had less than 24 hours before the event, and I still had no shoes, and we had exhausted all of the most obvious retail options. We may even have assayed Lord & Taylor, considered by my mother to be the ne plus ultra of Philadelphia department stores.

Somehow, then, I ended up with my father in the shoe department at K-Mart the evening before the big event. I had already painted my toenails an acceptable shade of taupe, noting with some revulsion that my big toes, like other parts of my body, had sprouted telltale hairs. After having searched for appropriate shoes at Wanamaker’s and Gimbels and Sears, as well as every “young miss” specialty store for miles, I was prepared for disappointment: Perhaps I would just wear my clogs to my bat mitzvah and hope that no one noticed? But I also felt confident, secure enough in my middle-classness to know that at K-Mart I had nothing to lose, since my father was unlikely to reject a potential choice as “too expensive for a 13-year-old.”

It was there, among the faux-leather loafers and Mary Janes that I found the perfect pair of maroon (not black or brown) strappy shoes, with a sensible (no more than 2-inches), square heel and with faux (or maybe it was real) suede and patent detailing. They may well have been on sale, which would have considerably sweetened the deal for my father, who had trouble resisting a bargain, even if it was in Girls’ Shoes rather than Household Tools. If I recall accurately, we even bought an alternate pair of shoes (returnable with receipt), something more along the lines of woefully babyish Mary Janes, in case my mother disapproved. She did not.

            More than three decades later, I feel a great tenderness toward the wearer of those shoes, as she performed both her Torah and Haftorah portions (along with extra readings, because she was that kind of kid), kissed multiple rouged cheeks of her mother’s happy friends (wiping off the stray lipstick stains), and disco-danced her way into a tenuous adulthood (complete with painted toenails). She already possessed plenty of self-consciousness about middle-ness, class- and otherwise. She knew what it meant, in the hierarchies of the larger Philadelphia Reform Jewish world in which she had learned about Jewishness and identity, to be somewhere in between K-Mart and Lord & Taylor. She knew that the shoes, on the borderline of “cute” and “sexy,” would pass the muster of parents themselves ambivalent and unsure about their daughter’s sexuality and a developing femininity to which, despite their authority, they had little access. She herself intuited the pleasures and dangers of adult female sexuality, liberated from the need for parental sanction. And she knew, despite the assurances of the rabbi and Jewish law, that the rituals of Judaism did not make her an adult, not even close. But that was okay, because as much as she enjoyed that day and those shoes—which, it goes without saying, she never wore again—she was also content in those clogs, the toenail polish chipping off her adolescent toes. 

Gayle Wald is a writer and Professor of English at George Washington University.