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.”