The Farbmitzvah by Chris Farber

My story doesn’t start with a Bar Mitzvah. I didn’t have one. Instead, it starts with my second circumcision. 

I’m in a mikva... it’s a clammy, damp basement. It’s like a steam room without the heat. The process is simple. You pray, and then submerge in the ritual bath in the middle of the room, and then pray some more. One caveat is that your physical connection to the water must be uninterrupted by clothing, jewelry or contact lenses. So here I am, naked and blind, while the fuzzy figures of the beit din, three fully clothed and bearded rabbis with perfectly corrected 20/20 vision watch me and we chit chat about sports, the weather and the Jewish concept of Shalom ha-beit, peace in the home.  And then one of them reaches for my penis.

Now before I get back to my 31-year-old phallus, I want to step back and explain how I got there. There are many liminal stages in our lives. For me, being born to a non-practicing atheist Jewish father, and a non-practicing atheist Catholic mother, I was in a perpetual liminal stage, neither here nor there. Jews didn’t consider me Jewish because my mom was a shiksa, and everyone else did. And anyway, I was raised to discredit religious hierarchy, more or less wholesale. God, in my adolescent mind, was a cartoon old man sitting on a puffy cloud and nothing more. 

But it always gets complicated. Growing up, I felt very connected to being Jewish. My closest friends are Jewish, I went on Birthright. And through it all, there was something familiar and comfortable about it. About Jews, about Judaism, about Israel.

And then it got more complicated. Evolving as my Jewish identity was, I started to take a harder look at where it came from. My paternal grandparents fled pre-world War II Europe, and their families and past lives were ransacked and eradicated by the Nazis behind them. My grandparents never let my father forget it, and he, in turn, never let me and my sister forget. Despite his disdain for religion, he raised us, intentionally, or not,  to identify with the Jew. Find the Jew in the crowd - he’s your friend, he’s like you. That’s what Jews do. We connect with other Jews. And I did it. 

And yet, my father did not want any part of the Jewish world. His Judaism was an affiliation with death. With sorrow. With suffering. Not from the texts, or teachings, but from his own life experience. Judaism, for him, began and ended with the Holocaust. He grew up watching his mother shed tears over brothers, and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents, all of whom , as family lore tells it, she waved goodbye to on a dock one spring day in Poland in 1938, still just in her early 20’s. Her entire family whom she would never see again. My father's witnessing of his mother's torment had whittled down his Jewish experience to a single, solitary event. And a lonely, isolated connection.

So I tried to reason with my father - maybe you would be less obsessed with anti-semitism and would stop reading all those books about the Holocaust if you joined a synagogue. You know, go on Friday nights, make friends with guys named Morty and Chai, shove herring and bagels into your mouth and complain about Obama with some like-minded friends. Subtext - Isn’t there more to this religion than the Holocaust? Shouldn’t identity derive from social efforts, community building and faith in something other than “they’re coming to get you someday. Watch out!”? His response? Son, honor your father, love him, but don’t tell him what to do. Subtext - “Fuck off”.


So I went on my own search. I wanted to learn what it meant to live as a Jew, and I wanted more than to just read some books. I really wanted that it be guided by a rabbi. When you do approach a rabbi to convert, he or she is supposed to send you away three times to test the strength of your convictions. It didn’t happen to me. In fact, the first rabbi I met with, a reform rabbi, said “What’s the issue? We acknowledge patrilineal Judaism in the reform movement. You’re all set. Now go find a Jewish girl and I’ll marry you.” I left disappointed.  

What did it mean to already be Jewish? My deepest identity behind me was the rubble of World War II, and my high-pitched imagination was the boundless milk and honey ahead of me. That rabbi had picked me up and put me down in the exact same place. I didn’t necessarily need to be told I was a Jew. I needed to know what that meant. Eventually I met a conservative rabbi I felt comfortable with. I took classes, I read books, I went to services, I fasted, I got constipated from matzoh. I even kept kosher and prayed in the morning with t’filin. It all culminates with the ceremony at the mikvah.

And that brings us back to my naked, near sighted self, with the rabbis, one of whom has a lancet and small piece of gauze and is reaching straight for my junk. The symbolic bris, as it’s called when a man has already been medically circumcised at birth, achieves the same things as the baby version - it welcomes a male into a covenant with God, the community, and the world to come, and that covenant is marked by blood. 

So...we did it. I was very relieved at the lack of pain caused by the blood letting, a little prick, if you will. I looked closely with as much curiosity as the rabbis to see the little drop of blood on the gauze. Then it was into the ritual bath I went, bleeding weenie and all, to finish it all up with some final prayers.

Despite the mikvah marking the official end of my conversion process, it didn’t make me feel any more Jewish. It didn’t bookend a process in my mind or heart. No magical threshold crossed. That identity, as confused and stunted as it had been, was already in flux and on its way to somewhere fresh and new. But the sight of that little drop of blood on the gauze…blood that once had symbolized the death of a people had begun to symbolize their birth to me. 

Two months later, a group of 25 friends threw me a celebratory party at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, a party they affectionately called “The Farbmitzvah”. There were inflatable saxophones, snap bracelets, and a group huddle at the end of the night, when we swayed and sang “That’s what friends are for”. The invitation to the Farbmitzvah began with a quote: “Freud, Einstein, Farber: Two Jewish geniuses and a schmuck that got circumcised twice.” It was yet the next step in finding the confidence and security of knowing that that schmuck was me.

Chris Farber is co-founder of the reBar project with Rebooter Brian Elliot. Chris is a filmmaker and photographer. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife. His greatest accomplishment was winning The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest (Contest #95).

Un-Bat Mitzvah By Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Growing up in the Five Towns of Long Island, Shabbat passed by the house I grew up in every Friday night, waiting for me to join her, as a parade of men in dark suits and children in colorful dresses accompanied her to Young Israel of Woodmere.  In 1985, the year that would have been my Bat Mitzvah, I was still eight years shy from the time I would join any Shabbat procession. 

My un-Bat Mitzvah happened during SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) for 18 minutes every morning at Woodmere Middle School.  As a child actor, I usually used this time memorizing lines for auditions that would take me out of school early by LIRR-chariot to the Big City 23 miles away.  On days that I had no sides, I would take a random book off of the shelf of coverless and torn books, and see what would stick.  One grey morning in late autumn, I touched the peach skin pages of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen.”  I remember the sensual fuzz of the front page as my fingers touched it.  Opening the book, I settled into my chair.

I read the book with a heart longing, hiding my tears behind its slight paperback, and consuming its every word with wonder, curiosity and shame.  Reuven and Danny’s world of Jewish meaning was filled with intellectual rigor, passion and a drive for truth.  “I want to know this,” a voice deep inside me whispered, “I want to learn Talmud.” 

The thought was an absurdity.  How could I ever?  Judaism seemed a locked door; every particle of its being an unknowable entity, hidden in multiple foreign languages I would never learn.  My father grew up on the border of Bed-Sty and Williamsburg, where the book took place; yet, a world away, as my father was the son of an intermarriage that ended in divorce before 1950.  The discontinuity extended to my mother’s side of the family as well, as my grandmother grew up in a Catholic home where she was placed by the foster care system after her mother died.  I was a latchkey kid, raised in a house without Judaism for no sexy ideological reason. My working class parents were not children of Bund members, socialists, atheists, or Holocaust survivors. They were just uneducated Jews from broken families who lost their connection. How could I ever own this part of me when I felt like such an imposter to my own heritage?

Today, I am a rabbi.  I speak Hebrew.  I read Torah.  I am still no Reuven or Danny in Aramaic and Talmud, but I can hold my own.  And I never had a Bat Mitzvah.

What moves me towards Judaism is what moved me towards theatre and acting as a child – the heightened awareness and experience of the sacred in a moment through language and ritual.  Except, as someone of Jewish heritage, the script is Torah and the play is your life. The Open Temple, the community I founded in Venice, CA, is a creative community to explore this interplay, and where all people – unaffiliated, disaffiliated, lapsed, alienated or seeking – can embrace and awaken their Jewish curiosity and choose to return.  With or without a Bat Mitzvah. 

Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder of The Open Temple centered in Venice, CA, Lori seeks to take her experience from her broad background in the arts and academia, and serve unaffiliated and disaffiliated seekers. Prior to founding Open Temple, Lori was the Director of Jewish Life at USC Hillel. Lori spent time living and studying in communities of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Non-Denominational Judaism. A current fellow with CLAL/Rabbis Without Borders Clergy Leadership Incubator, Lori is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA and Barnard College. Lori and her husband, Dr. Joel Shapiro, live in the Venice (CA) canals with their daughter Harel.

From Bat to Maharat by Leah Sarna

When I turned twelve, I had no idea that just over a decade later I would be in school again, learning how to replicate that day for others. Back then, Orthodox women had no place in the clergy.

For most Orthodox women, becoming Bat Mitzvah has no ramifications as regards their synagogue life. Boys begin to wear tefillin, count in the minyan, regularly lead prayers and get aliyot. For boys, their status in the synagogue is permanently changed. For girls, it’s the same as it was: attendance sometimes suggested.

My bat mitzvah was different. My Orthodox synagogue had a Women’s Tefillah Group, where adult Jewish women read from the Torah and led tefillot. I had attended with my mother for as long as I could remember, walking back to synagogue on Shabbat afternoons hand-in-hand, talking and singing together. Within the context of Women’s Tefillah, my Bat Mitzvah marked a synagogue change for me. I read from the Torah and led services in a room crowded full of women and girls. I felt a soaring sensation, a connectedness to the Jewish past and present, and a glowing relationship with the Almighty. The day was empowering: I am now an adult, and I have the status and capabilities to be a ritual and religious leader within the Jewish people.

Sort of.

Throughout middle school and high school, I fell in love with Talmud study and deepened my already intense connection with prayer and ritual. I delivered Divrei Torah in school and in my synagogue. I tried to convince myself that I was going to be a lawyer. After all, that uses the same analytic skills as Talmud study, right? I loved the synagogue, but women worked in Orthodox synagogues as secretaries, not Rabbis.

Until 2009, with the ordination of the first Orthodox woman and the creation of Yeshivat Maharat, where I now study for ordination.

If I could relive my Bat Mitzvah, I would transport it to 2015. I would cut out all of the years of disempowerment, all the years of looking ahead at a glass ceiling and believing that it was bulletproof. I wish I could have believed, at age 12, that this profession, like any other, was open to me if I worked hard. That the love I felt for the synagogue, on that day, was not unrequited.

Leah Sarna is a first year student at Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to offer ordination to Orthodox women. She is also a Wexner Graduate Fellow. Leah grew up in Boston where she attended the Maimonides School, and she has since studied at the Beit Midrash for Women at Migdal Oz, and Yale University, where she earned a BA in Philosophy.



My Delayed Jewish Tweendom by Beth Pickens

My favorite part of being an adult is recreating my youth –over and over again – and getting the details right this time. For example, I did not grow up Jewish. I was born into a secular family whose religion was the Pittsburgh Steelers and whose spirituality was a sort of Christian Capitalism. No church but we celebrated Christmas and Easter and I had no idea these holidays were about Jesus. My parents never mentioned god.  I asked my 4th grade teacher about the history of Easter and he, being a paranoid public school employee, said, “I can’t talk to you about that. You need to go home and ask your parents.”

I like to delude myself with fantasies that, had I been born Jewish, I would’ve been like Tavi Gevinson, the savant fashion writer who got famous at 13 for her blog Style Rookie. If you don’t know who Tavi is, then you haven’t been on the internet in 6 years but you should memorize this face because this 18-year-old -who was born when I was graduating high school - will own all liberal media within a decade.

My fantasies about a brilliant Jewish tweenhood are surely going to be dispelled by other stories tonight .. at 14 my bedroom was a confused mix of unicorns, Kurt Cobain, Edward Scissorhands, and –inexplicably- Batman. And me at 12 and 13--- well, I was all eyebrows, oily skin, and SO MANY upset feelings.

I was born a spiritual seeker. Within two years of these photos, I got really into Taoism and decided I would move to China one day and commit myself to the Tao. Following that, I had a born again Christian Death Metal boyfriend who was constantly trying to “save me” and bugging me to anoint my genitals with olive oil.

Luckily, at 18, I moved far away from my home in Western Pennsylvania. During college and graduate school in the Midwest I found both lesbians and feminism. And truly, being a rigid, rage-filled lesbian feminist led me to Judaism. Reading 70s radical feminist texts during my late teens and early 20s, I found that a disproportionate number of these feminist writers and thinkers were Jewish and this made me curious.

In 2005, during my queer immersion years, I was visiting San Francisco for the first time. It was Pride Month and I went to Sha’ar Zahav for a pride Seder. This blew my mind wide open! Spirituality and queerness? I was hooked and started reading books about Judaism and taking conversion exploration classes at the only synagogue back in my Midwestern college town. I didn’t tell the Rabbi I was gay because I’d heard he was homophobic and none of the other queer Jews in town participated in anything at the temple. I let him believe I would get married to a man and start having babies, both paths to my own personal hell on earth.

Two years into my conversion approaching my time for a Beit Din, I came out to my Midwestern rabbi and he promptly stopped answering my phone calls.  By that time, I was pretty focused on moving west to San Francisco and I pushed down the feelings of rejection. I lived for 7 years in this beautiful city by the bay but I never really landed in a Jewish community. I tried a temple for a couple years, volunteered at lots of Seders, and begged lesbians who were latent Jews to be in a Shabbes club with me but, like my experience in the Midwest, I found it difficult to find queers my age who wanted to be in a spiritually active Jewish community.

Now, I’m 35. I live in Los Angeles where I’m a member at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, about to join an adult women’s Bat Mitzvah group. My Hebrew name is Shulamit in homage to the late writer and New York Radical Feminists founder Shulamith Firestone.

I’ve done a lot of research about Bat Mizvah. The first one was held in the US in 1922 and, in many ways, it was a radically feminist act. My rabbi, the wonderful Susan Goldberg, tells me I already am Bat Mitzvah. It’s a legal status and I’m way over 13 and already obligated to uphold the mitzvot. But, she tells me, being called to the bimah to chant from the Torah is a profound act and it’s something I want to share with my friends and my wife.

My Bat Mitzvah ceremony will take place in January 2017; in two short years, I intend to be able to read Hebrew and carry a melody in front of other human beings. I will chant from the Torah, Parshat Shemot, which means ‘names’ and tells the story of Moses. I will turn 38 years old. It will be 13 years since I started my conversion. At 38, I will publically become a Jewish adult. I am tempted to have friends make contributions to radical organizations in lieu of gifts although I am seriously considering collecting money to pay off my student loans.  I’ve already booked my Bat Mitzvah band. You will all be invited.


Beth Pickens is a consultant for artists and arts organizations. Before relocating to Los Angeles in 2014, she was based in San Francisco where she served as Senior Program Manager at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Managing Director of both RADAR Productions and the Queer Cultural Center. She specializes in supporting queer artists, women, and artists of color. She was also the founder of the now-defunct San Francisco Food Adventure Club which gained notoriety for eating a human placenta two ways.

Ethan’s Bar Mitzvah: C+ By Ethan Kuperberg

In order to prepare for Rebar, I recently watched my Bar Mitzvah video. I haven’t had such a horrifying viewing experience since the Ozymandias episode of Breaking Bad. There may have been fewer Neo-Nazi methamphetamine makers at my Bar Mitzvah than in the fictionalized version of Albuquerque, but I felt the same emotions that I did while watching that episode: nausea and terror as I watched a beloved character die. In this case the beloved character was my memory of myself as a suave, charming thirteen-year-old A.E.Wright Middle School Honor Roll rockstar. Just like DEA Agent Hank Schrader, the character that I remembered myself to be was also fictional. And dead.

As a screenwriter, I spend most of my day writing screenplays-- and by writing screenplays, I mean watching television and then reading online recaps of the television I’ve just watched. In the spirit of this event, my daily psyche, and the terror of that video, I’d like to analyze my Bar Mitzvah as if it was an episode of groundbreaking television. This feels masturbatory, but then again, this is about me at age thirteen.

Ethan’s Bar Mitzvah: C+

I’ve heard a lot about the Bar Mitzvah episode of Ethan’s life -- not since the “College” episode of the Sopranos has there been so much hoopla over a coming of age story that involves family tension. But not only did Ethan’s father not strangle anyone, he spent the whole video choked up himself. It was embarrassing.

The episode takes a simple but promising premise and does absolutely nothing with it. The entire point was that Ethan becomes a man. Pretty unrealistic. To be fair, the episode is clearly weighed down by fan expectations, but not only does Ethan not kiss a single girl at the reception, it’s still, spoiler alert, several seasons away.

Overall the episode foreshadows many things, but none of them manhood. Ethan’s inability to enjoy the present moment and his odd relationship with his family both become so overdone in later seasons that it’s important to remember how ground- breakingly original they were when this episode aired. Kudos to the writing staff for realizing this potential for awkwardness.

Also, the relationship between Ethan and his family felt forced -- there was an almost jarring lack of chemistry. The character of Ethan’s mother (underused but always terrific) is extremely proud of him, and yet it’s clear he has no idea how to communicate with her. Will Ethan resolve his issues? It’s a plot that will rear its head again in the Emmy- nominated season 25 episode “Therapy.”

Additionally, what happened to the character of Becky Friedlander? What was the point of all of the fantasy sequences between Ethan and Becky if she didn’t even show up to his Bar Mitzvah? And why did the fantasy sequences continue even after it was clear she had no interest? And why are the fantasy sequences still continuing?

And why won’t Becky Friedlander follow Ethan on Instagram now? He likes her posts.

Finally, re-watching the episode made me realize just how seriously Ethan takes everything. This thirteen-year-old is so focused on adequately reading a foreign language that he’s completely missing out on the entire supporting cast. Hopefully he’ll learn how to appreciate the present moment. Or maybe the show just needs a better actor.

On the plus side, the production design felt both authentically Jewish and awkward (kudos to the wardrobe consultant who designed Ethan’s tie).

Ultimately Ethan’s Bar Mitzvah is a subpar episode of television. No Jewish rite of passage can save an underdeveloped protagonist. Or an unlikable character. But maybe that’s what being a man is: being able to look back on past episodes and recognize that you’re a character who’s constantly developing, and look to future seasons as opportunities to accept the way the characters around you are written.

Luckily, some of these issues might finally be addressed now that Therapy is getting its own spin-off.

Would you light my candle? By Jennifer Bleyer


An Updated Candle-Lighting Ceremony

To be recited in front of the classic Bat Mitzvah sheet cake whilst lighting candles.

Making zines about girl power

Mosh pits are for women, too

Scrawling slut across our bellies

Riot Grrrl, this light's for you.

Torah and Shabbos, mamash a gevalt

Shlomo Carlebach showed me what I never knew

Like that music is prayer and yiddishkeit sweet

And one can be a misfit and still be a Jew

Dust storms and heatstroke and lips dry as snakeskin

The playa's a harsh and tempestuous bitch

In a good way of course, such unspeakable fun

Is on deck when you scratch that old Burning Man itch

Jennifer Bleyer is a writer and teacher at New York University. She was the founder and original editor of Heeb Magazine, and has written for the New York Times, Salon, Monocle, the Christian Science Monitor, Tablet, New York magazine and a bunch of other places.

Pretty in Pink By Wendy MacNaughton

I've always passed. When I was young most of my closest friends were Jewish, but they had no idea I was, too. How could they? I didn't go to Sunday school, my hair used to be straight, my last name is MacNaughton, and I never had a Bat Mitzvah. Half my family is Jewish (moms), other half is Episcopalian (dads) so I had one foot in each. I was bi-cultural, I guess - but I always identified more as Jewish but never felt like I really belonged. I wasn't part of the club….there are other areas of my life that i've been bi, leaned more heavily in one direction and passed - but that's a different topic for a different night.

So now, 25 years after I would've had a Bat Mitzvah I strongly claim my Jewishness, but i still don't feel part of the club - often I still feel a little like a faker. I think it's cause I never had any official ceremony around it.

I never any ritual or celebration that said "welcome". I never had The Party.

Here's where I should mention: I'm from Marin.

There are New York Jews, LA Jews and SF Jews, but there's really nothing like a Marin Jew and definitely nothing like a Marin Jew's Bat Mitzvah party.

I went to a lot of Bat Mitzvah's mind you - but I don't remember anything about the ritual itself. The bimah and the Hebrew and the meaning of it all - that went over our heads. What we found meaning in was The Party.

And I got to enjoy the perks - the candy and the dancing and the full size carnival rides (seriously - Marin Bat Mitzvahs, (I'm telling ya), but I never got to wear The Party Dress. What I always wanted--  the Bat Mitzvah party dress…

So I started thinking -if I were to have my ceremony now, if I were to have a party, what dress would I wear?

So I did a little research into the history of the Bat Mitzvah party dress through the ages (or really, just since the 50s cause before that women didn't have Bat Mitzvahs) and here is what I found:

Since I was born in 1975, I would have a had my party in 1988. I think we can all agree the late 80s were a fantastic time for Bat Mitzvah dresses. After some rigorous research, study, inner contemplation and reflection - here's what I would have worn. 

Wendy MacNaughton Illustration.jpg

Ok, so the more I learn about my Jewish history and culture, the more I learn maybe it's not all about the party. That a Bat Mitzvah is really a passage way to being a Jewish adult - both feet in - and the values that come with it. And maybe someday I’ll actually do some studying and have a Bat Mitzvah. I’m told by a lot of people it's never to late… but I don't need a party – I don't need a big thing at all… but maybe I still want that dress.

Wendy MacNaughton is an illustrator. She draws for publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and has some books coming out.