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.