Taking the BM out of Bar Mitzvah

On this, the last day of Momalon’s five-for-ten, Theme: Yes, I turn to a right of passage that I tried with all my heart and soul to say “no” to, but failed.

Today marks the 36th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, that strange day when, as a little Jewish boy, I had to stand up before the congregation and, with a squeaking voice say, “Today I am a man.”  Hah!

I begged my parents to let me out of the whole ordeal, but my father said, “My father got Bar Mitzvahed and hated it, I got Bar Mitzvahed and hated it and you’re going to get Bar Mitzvahed and you’re going to hate it.”  To me it was like being in some fraternity that I couldn’t remember pledging.

The whole being Jewish thing always confused me.  Firstly, it was deadly boring.  Secondly, my knowledge of Jewish history suggested that everyone hated the Jews and wanted to kill them, and so it was a bit hard to understand why this was something to embrace and amplify.  Third, when I looked around the world, from Dirty Harry to James Bond, the cool guys were not Jews; abandon all hope of cool, you who join the Jewish Youth Group.  As an ardent non-joiner, my cultural and religious heritage was the last thing I wanted to join.

My Buby, on the other hand, went to a real temple, not a bourgeois fashion-show temple like my parents (where on Yom Kippur, you left early and went out to lunch at someplace like Jonathan Livingston Seafood—and who is to atone for naming a restaurant like that?).  Even though Buby’s temple could be boring, it also pulsed with a spirit that was nowhere to be found in my parents’ pretentious and empty excuse for a temple with its bellicose and absurdly stern rabbi who seemed to fashion himself after Lenin.

On the morning of my Bar Mitzvah I recall covertly pouring myself a scotch from my dad’s liquor cabinet to steady shy nerves.  I was mere hours from manhood, and men drank scotch, that much I had learned about the world.

The only thing I actually remember about my Bar Mitzvah is staring out into the crowd and seeing one brown face in a sea of white.  That was Lulu, beaming at me with a smile so wide and real and full of God that I carry it with me to this day.  Kind, tall, wise Lulu had pretty much raised me, always being around when my mom was off at luncheons and running around doing nineteen sixties lady-things.

Lulu had told me that she was Jewish—from the “lost tribe,” but beyond all religion, she was a great spirit, a spirit Mother.  She had held my hand and walked me to the corner to catch the bus to preschool, she let my guinea pig hide in her apron pocket, she knew how to give the sort of hug that actually made things okay.

And while my Bar Mitzvah was not much of a spiritual experience for me, Lulu’s presence there foreshadowed many interesting later experiences; it hangs as a sort of inverse mirror of one of the most powerful dreams I ever had, coming around the time of my Buby’s death in my twenties.

In this dream I am in a church in Harlem and I am the only white person in a sea of African American faces.  I had been to churches in Harlem for Gospel shows, which were amazing enough, but in my dream the music and the spirit are so strong that I literally rise out of my seat, floating up until I am hovering by the balcony.  I feel like a fish out of water, yet the energy of love and acceptance all around me is so transporting that I feel more at home, more welcome and more connected with spirit than ever before.  I get scared about being so high above the seats and I am somehow able to will myself into a calmer state, gently floating back down to my seat.

That was more than twenty years ago, and as I try to feel my way forward in terms of spirit I feel connected with many cultures—Celtic, Native American, Chinese, Japanese, Latin, Inuit, Mayan, Christian, Muslim, Hindu… but particularly African.  There is something that I resonate to deep in my soul, and in my collective memory, which is at once Jewish and African.

Many dreams, friendships and synchronicities have only further reinforced this feeling (like a certain “bromance” my kids tease me about with a gifted musician friend I met in LA, who is originally from the inner city in Detroit, but who was raised Jewish by a mom who emigrated from the south, bringing her Jewish roots right along with her).  I am particularly honored when my African American clients (often movers and shakers) let me, the white Jewish guy, help them with their issues, but particularly when I get to assist with the most sacred of tasks:  parenting.

I read a fascinating non-fiction book last year by a writer named Tudor Parfitt, The Lost Ark of the Covenant, which is a sort of real-world Indiana Jones story.  In the end he finds himself deep in the heart of Africa with the Lemba who appear to be “the lost tribe” of Israel.  Their rituals, while highly guarded, eventually reveal themselves to be a mix of classic Jewish rites and prayers along with more traditionally African motifs.  When Parfitt had genetic tests run on cheek-swabs from the Lemba, they came back with as much Jewish genetic material as Chassidic rabbis living in Israel.

African Americans and Jews have had an interesting relationship.  Heschel and Martin Luther King were connected with each other and fought together for civil rights; yet there have also been tensions, racism and divides.  Chicago was a very segregated city when I grew up, yet my first movie job ever was working as a lowly Production Assistant for Fred Williamson, football star turned actor/director.  At the end of a long day holding a walkie-talkie out on Rush Street while he filmed in a bar, Fred invited me into his trailer, and, despite his towering African American presence, towel around his neck against the thick August humidity, said, “Let’s kibitz.”

We ended up hanging out and chatting about film school and the biz with him sharing his hard-won wisdom.  On subsequent jobs, no director ever took an interest in me like that, and that small moment stays with me, teaching me not how to be a filmmaker, but how to take an interest in people and be kind and encouraging.

After the money came and before it went again, my parents once took us on holiday to some grand resort in the south where up until just before that time Jews were not welcome (my dad explained this on the way and I could only think,  “Why on earth are we going there?”)  We certainly didn’t fit into this very white and WASPy place (aspirational travel?) where presidents had once arrived in private sleeper cars while at the same time our relatives were running from Cossacks or being herded into cattle cars.  I mean, really—WTF were we doing there?

I found myself riding the elevator with an old African American bellhop who’d probably been working there since the nineteen twenties; he turned to me, looking piercingly into my eyes, and with warm gentleness said, “You’re an Israelite, aren’t you?”  I was fifteen and it had been two years since I’d stepped foot in a temple, but I acknowledged that I was indeed an Israelite.  I imagined that many people at that hotel may have wondered as much, but he was the only one who spoke any truth to me.  It was perhaps the only moment on that trip that I connected with anyone and, for a fleeting afternoon elevator ride, I felt seen, kindred and at home.

We all come from Africa.  I don’t know what color Abraham was, or Jesus, or Buddha, but I do think that they all embodied the same message of unity.  I really learned “parenting” from Lulu, and between she and Buby, who are my spirit guides in this regard, life goes full circle, being cared for and caring for until we learn the ever unfolding eternal lesson:  we are one.  To me, the Jews are not “the chosen people,” but unity is the chosen consciousness—the consciousness that makes this world.  Our big choice is to choose love.  To this let’s say:  Yes!

So, on this day when once (and quite ridiculously) I said that I was a man, I choose instead to say that, just like you, today I am a human being—standing with you in the service of our world, and all its collective children.

Shalom, Namaste, Ubuntu, Bruce


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10 Responses to “Taking the BM out of Bar Mitzvah”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Mazel tov on your Bar Mitzvah anniversary, Bruce. As a woman who was raised Catholic and who is now the wife of a cultural Jew (son of a Methodist convert mother who is now a rabbi), it took me awhile to understand Judaism as a culture and not just a religion. And it was actually comparisons drawn to African-American (and, unrelated to your post, Italian-American) culture that helped me understand the phenomenon of connection to an identity that transcends space and time and rigid adherence to dogma.


  2. Saska Says:

    I’ll drink to that (my veggie juice) and stomp on the glass at the end!

    Happy human-day Bruce! and thank you for bringing us all together in this microcosm of connectedness, Rumi’s field of LOVE (as you said) that shouts YES to ALL.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      “Careful around that broken glass, Saska!” Shouts my inner Buby, but she’s just kidding.

      I love this Rumi’s field where we can all meet and shout out YES to ALL indeed. L’chaim, Namaste

  3. Alana Says:

    I’m not sure exactly what it was about today’s post, but you struck a very deep chord and I have tears in my eyes. Something about connection…being seen…I’ll sleep on it as my heart joins in the chorus of “Yes!” being shouted around the web and the world.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I’m with you Alana in feeling the energy of the chorus of yes without completely understanding what it all means. Sometimes it’s good to let our heads nap and allow our hearts to lead the way. Namaste

  4. Linda at Bar Mitzvahzilla Says:

    Bruce, I don’t know if you know this but you’re not that different from the majority of American Jews who last looked at their Judaism through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old forced into a ritual they hated and barely understood. I sometimes consider myself very lucky indeed to NOT have been Bat Mitzvahed and that I had to struggle to find my way back to Judaism when so many forces were pulling me away, like my parents troubled relationship with God after the Holocaust, and my family’s extreme assimilation.

    For a long time I defined Judaism by the stodginess of the people I saw adhering to it, believing it incomprehensible and closed off from how big God really is. But the other day I was reading The Idiots Guide to Understanding Judaism (yes, that’s how much I still don’t know) and in the part about God the book said that the two Hebrew words for God indicate that God is both male and female, Adonai and Elohenu. I just sat there flabbergasted that my religion, the one I thought was so circumscribed, was not that at all.

    Judaism, of course, is a religion and not a race. Any photograph of present day Israel shows that easily. My larger family reflects that as well, though I’m not sure how much my nephews and great-nieces identify as Jews.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Yes, Linda, I find this all quite interesting. I find that I must at least own the path of my ancestors and learn more about it. Yet I also yearn to find a unity consciousness that honors every path.

      In reading the Torah I have also learned that “adonai” is what is pronounced when one arrives at four hebrew letters that are not to be pronounced, but which derive from God’s answer to Moses’ question: Who are you?

      The answer was elliptical, something akin to “I am that I am,” which, mythical or not, hints at a much less patriarchal or anthropomorphic sort of God-consciousness—beyond masculine and feminine.

      I also came across the following in Jeremiah 31:33, speaking of a new covenant to occur in a future time: “I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts.”

      While I tend to read all religious texts more like poetry than law, I like to think that this idea is harmonious with Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious, the notion that we all carry wisdom and higher consciousness innately within us.

      Whatever gets us more awake, connected and not fighting about what spirit aught to be called would seem to move us in the right direction (especially if it deeply respects the validity of the perspective that does not believe in God, religion and anything intangible).

      The closer we get to the inclusive and loving embrace of the everything, the wide embrace within which everything is true all at once, including the dark and the utterly bewildering, the better I imagine we will be doing as humans.

      I so appreciate your sharing your experience and perspective with me here in this place… in the service of all kids, of all cultures.

  5. Sarah Says:

    Well, Bruce, you said it in the end. I have to admit, I was waiting for it. “We are one.” It is so clear and so simple, and I’m not quite sure why others don’t get it, see it, or accept it. What good does it do to split us all up into groups? I just don’t know.

    I love your description of the dream. So vivid. So real. And amazing that it has stuck with you for so many years. A powerful spiritual moment, indeed!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I’m so glad to be connected with you, Sarah, in the shared perspective of our unity. While things always ebb and flow, this particular moment in time seems special to me, this small inter-connected corner of the wider blogging universe is a bit like that cool neighborhood just before the first Starbucks opens up.

      As our circles grow, it becomes harder to fully engage directly and reciprocally with everyone in our community (I love your video in your bathroom, so honest, so real). And yet each person we meet here, and in life, that resonates with that ineffable sense of “I feel like I know that person, I feel like I get where they are coming from” affirms that we are on our right paths.

      Again, I thank you and Jen for having the courage to put this up and out there, it felt exhilarating, non-commercial and transformative (at least for me).

      This time in our lives is also a spiritual moment, one that means a lot to all of us, even if it’s under the radar of the wider culture.

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