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.