Still No Abomination. My Imagined Bar Mitzvah Speech is back

This coming Shabbat marks 32 years since I chanted my Torah portion in an Orthodox Synagogue in Manhattan. Here is the speech I didn’t make, re-released, per popular demand.  This round goes out to all of us who want to read the coming out of the narrow place called Egypt as a reminder of coming out of all paces of frustration and fear towards more freedom and a life of flourishing. Coming out, taught my friend and teacher R. Steve Greenberg – happens every day. Coming out of Egypt happens at least once a year..

Read it in UNSCROLLED

I Am No Abomination:Rewritten Bar Mitzvah Speech, 30 years later.

http://amichai.me/i-am-no-abominationrewritten-bar-mitzvah-speech-30-years-later-word-28.html

 

April 2013.

This week marks my 44th birthday, and this week’s Torah portion, Achre Mot-Kedoshim, is the one I chanted, back in 1982, at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.

This double portion has the mixed blessing of gems such as ‘love others as yourself’ alongside the prohibitions on sexual unions that are deemed abominable- then, and often, still, now.
At age 13 I knew that something was up with my sexuality and I suspect I already knew how to name the love that was not to be named. But I can’t remember what it felt like to stand on that synagogue’s main stage, surrounded by family from all over the world, and chant the verses that suggest that I ought to be executed for the sexual choice that I may or may not have chosen,  already in my mind, blood, or heart, or DNA or whatever.
I think I was aware of some tension but had to smile and wave, bury whatever questions I had deep inside, for a few more years. And so it was.
Recently I was asked to write a personal take on this Torah portion, to be published in an unusual anthology of personal reflections on Torah, titled ‘Unscrolled’. Born out of the reboot network’s creative collective and midwifed by the tireless Roger Bennett, it will feature some interesting takes on ye old five books of Moses, due, I think to be published this coming fall.
I decided to go back to that day in 1982, and put words in my own mouth, 30 years later.
Here it is, courtesy of the editors:

Becoming a Man: My Bar Mitzvah Speech Thirty Years Later

 I grew up Orthodox in Israel. By the time of my bar mitzvah—in April 1982—I was living in New York City, a sweet kid in a polyester suit. A little on the chubby side, perhaps. My dark blond mop of hair covered a pimpled forehead.

Being Orthodox had its advantages. Chanting my bar mitzvah portion was no problem. I rattled it off with ease. The problem was the speech. There was so much I wanted to say, but my English wasn’t good enough, and anyway, my speech had been written for me by my uncle, a renowned rabbi, who gave me a tired presentation expounding on the laws of charity.

Thirty years on, I would like to think that if the choice had been mine, and I had been able to summon the courage, this is the speech I would have delivered at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.

As I write it, I imagine my forty-three-year-old self as a man in a black suit with a trim beard, standing directly behind that chubby bar mitzvah boy and visible to him alone.

Esteemed rabbis, my dear parents, family, and friends:

Shabbat Shalom.

Thank you for coming to celebrate with me on this day on which I become a man. Many of you have traveled very far to get here. My parents and I appreciate it very much.

My bar mitzvah portion, Achrei Mot, is about laws and limitations. Laws, I understand, are necessary, because without them things go wrong, and people can get hurt. The portion begins with the reminder of what had happened to the two sons of Aaron the high priest, and how they died by a “strange fire” because they did not observe the law, and were not careful enough when they entered the holy Tent of Meeting.

There are many different kinds of laws in this portion. These laws, I was taught, were given to us by God so that each of us can live a holy life, as part of a bigger, healthy society.

I started learning how to chant my Torah portion two years ago, back when we were still in Israel, from a cassette tape. I played it over and over again to memorize the verses by heart. At first, I didn’t think about what the words meant.

But over time I started paying more attention, and I began to wonder about the meaning of some of these laws, especially the ones about not seeing people naked.

There is a list, in this portion, of relatives that you are not supposed to see naked.

I figured out that “seeing someone naked” was a euphemism—a biblical way to talk about “having sex.” But I couldn’t understand why some relatives are on the list and some aren’t. And I had other questions, also, about some of the other laws.

My teacher, Rabbi Motti, didn’t want to talk about this too much. He said I’d understand when I am more grown up. When I become a man.

And I guess that day is today.

I don’t know if I’m as grown up as my teacher intended, and if I’m really already a man, but as I turn thirteen today, I think I’m just old enough to ask you all a question about these laws, and about one of them in particular that I’ve been thinking a lot about.

The room is stilled. My mother, up in the women’s balcony, is looking at me with a grave, strange look. My father, in the front row, turns to my uncle who is seated next to him and whispers something in his ear. The uncle shakes his head, confused.

After the list of relatives one is not supposed to see naked there are a few other laws that describe prohibited sexual behaviors. One of the laws forbids sex with animals. Another of the laws prohibits sexual relations between men. It’s called an abomination. And whoever does it can be punished by death.

SILENCE.

I’m sorry if this is weird, and maybe neither appropriate nor the speech you expected me to make today. But a few months ago, when we walked home from this synagogue, I asked my father what it means to be a man, and he told me that to be a man is to be honest and not be afraid of the truth.

And the truth is that I’ve been thinking a lot about this law, and it makes me afraid and ashamed to think about it and to talk about it, but it also makes me angry and confused.

I know it’s wrong to question God and the Torah, and maybe I’m too young to understand. But I don’t think that the law about abomination is fair, and I don’t think that people who break it deserve to die.

Today, you say, I am a man. But in fact I think that it already happened.

I think that I became a man almost a year ago, when I kissed for the first time, and felt like a grown-up.

I kissed another boy, a friend of mine, a friend I love.

It made us both afraid and nervous, but it didn’t feel dirty, or wrong, or like an abomination, whatever that is. It felt holy, whatever that is. It felt right.

DON’T LOOK UP. DON’T LOOK UP. My mouth is dry. My heart beats faster than it ever has. I am aware my life will never be the same again. I read on.

I am not an abomination. I don’t deserve to die because of whom I love.

You are all looking at me now, and it’s not pleasant, but I’ve held this secret, this abomination in my stomach, long enough.

If today I am a man, then on this day I tell the truth and face it, like a man. And you, who came from near and far, if you really love me, will love me still, I hope, just the way I am.

I know the Torah says it’s wrong.

I know it’s disappointing to you, my parents and siblings, relatives, friends.

But maybe the Torah does not mean what I’m feeling, because I don’t think—I don’t believe—that God thinks I am dirty, or sinning, or an abomination. Because isn’t that how God created me, in God’s own image, just the way I am?

Today I become a man, and I am who I am, with all of my questions, and doubts, and hard choices, and truths.

I think that’s what becoming a man is all about.

I want to thank you, my parents, for helping me so much in preparing for today, and for being the best parents possible. I’m sorry if I surprised you now, but I hope that you understand. Thank you to my brothers, and my sister, for coming all the way from Israel for this occasion and for always being there for me.

My family are all looking at the floor.

Thank you for listening, and for joining me on this most important day of my life.

Shabbat Shalom. 

I close the folder and dare to look up. Will somebody say something? Someone please hug me. My mother is crying. My father still stares down. Don’t hate me. Please say something.

And there I stand, thirty years later, placing a hand on my thirteen-year-old self’s shoulder and whispering, softly, “It’s going to be all right.”


Shabbat Shalom. 

 


Esau Mask for Halloween: First Super hairy Jew to Wish he Wasn’t (Jewish)? Unscrolled #6, featuring Foer

Unscrolling: This year I’m reading the weekly Torah portion through the eyes of 54 creative wrestlers in Reboot’s new book Unscrolled. My year long journey will be blogged weekly as commentary on their commentary, quoting quotes, plucking pearls from this pool of biblically inspired juices for a more inspired now.

He’s a hairy hunter, redhead, scratch golfer, ice Skater, tasseled loafers, class ring, eggnog dripping from bushy mustache Jew. And he’s on JDATE.
Meet Esau: First and ultimate GoyJew.
Joshua Foer calls him “the first Jew to wish he wasn’t.”
How’s that for a Halloween costume?
Foer’s unscrolled #6, Toldot,  zooms in,  with what I think is more than just affection – on the first firstborn of Isaac, who ends up married three shikasas to become the brother who turned other. Eventually an enemy. But wait a minute. Must it be so??  Foer’s version of Esau feels like family, including the familiar dysfunction –  and he’s certainly  a familiar figure in the life of modern (Jewish) America: the Jew that got away.  Esau the disengaged and/or assimilated Jew features large, if nameless, in all recent surveys and studies that lament the numerical decline of American Jewry.
Esau is unloved by Jews since the days of the Bible. From Isaiah to Heschel, poets and rabbis linked his lineage to mortal enemies:  Roman Empire, Vatican, Haman, Hitler.
But Foer’s 2013 Esau is the goy next door, who’s really Jewish (Paula Abdul? really?) but not really into it, or sort of is but vaguely and with Christmas tree, and s/he is in our beds and boardrooms and family trees and speedials and hearts. Esau is us. A lot of us anyway.
Esau is family. Enough with the fighting already. Welcome home.
(Maybe college campuses should have Esau Clubs celebrating hyphenated identities and co-sponsored by the NRA but secretly funded by Hillel?)
Inspired by Foer, I think I’ll go as Esau for Halloween this year. Not NRA outfit exactly, but something very goyish, non rabbinic, red, fur, celebrating  this o most pagan of holy days with almost as much relish as its spring sister holiday – Purim. Halloween is a dress rehearsal to the more spiritually complicated Purim in which Esau as Haman is annually hung and reviled but through masks and intoxication we get to actually love him again and forget who’s good and bad and get over it and try to be united again, with all the voices in our head and life.
I’m thinking top hat and furs and maybe some sexy. Masking self and becoming briefly something different than my daily to dance with other selves, other voices, an other turned brother inside me, sinister sister, a chance to turn things upside down in the ultimate hope of lesser divides. Goy style.
Walk a night in Esau’s boots or loafers to remember what it feels like to be both twins, again. Jacob was the first to try that… The voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau.  Welcome home, bro. Trick AND treat.

Pro Choice and Ready to Go: Rebbecca Rises. Unscrolling #5

Unscrolling: This year I’m reading the weekly Torah portion through the eyes of 54 creative wrestlers in Reboot’s new book Unscrolled. My year long journey will be blogged weekly as commentary on their commentary, quoting quotes, plucking pearls from this pool of biblically inspired juices for a more inspired now.

 

“Look I may be a virgin but I’m not an idiot.”

Here comes Rebbecca, center stage, clicking high heels. This is Rebbecca Hana’s new take on classic Torah in unscrolled installment #5  and in this take the Matriarch-in-the Making is a babe with a brain. And she’s got a tale to tell about her becoming a biblical celebrity, overnight.
A tale about a young woman’s courage to choose the life she wanted. Rare then – rare now.
I like how Hana takes the  tiny Torah moment in which young Rebbecca is consulted about her choice of groom, and expands it to deliver a heroine who is positive pro-choice (kinda) role model to little girls and all the rest of us. Speak up your mind, she reminds us, voice your truth, choose to choose the life you want.  Even when the choices aren’t so great: make one.
This past week mayors were elected in Israel – lowest voting numbers in Jerusalem! A lot of people chose to not choose or let their voice determine the future. Idiots. We need new Rebbeccas to shake things up and remind people of the right and duty to choose.
Miranda got it. And she’s going to talk about it this coming Shabbat in NYC as she becomes a Bat Mitzvah.
She’s worked hard for over two years with a great team of Storahtelling-Lab/Shul educators and she will raise her voice proud and loud – following Rebecca’s footsteps in exploring what it’s like to make up your own mind, make decisions, and speak up. We rehearsed earlier this week and I was blown away by the reflections she wrote and memorized by heart. Here was a young woman standing up to take center stage of life. She broke into a delighted dance at the end of the rehearsal.. proud and excited.
I’m so proud of Miranda for choosing to celebrate her coming of age ceremony and for choosing the creative route, for her diligence and passion in voicing her very own opinion, hand raised high, ready for life. Mazal Tov! Welcome to the grown up club of the Choosing People! May you speak up your mind and make good decisions as often as possible, with courage, compassion and care. Just like Rebbecca.

A Psychopathic Patriarch and Lindelof’s Twitter twist: Unscrolled 4

Unscrolling: This year I’m reading the weekly Torah portion through the eyes of 54 creative wrestlers in Reboot’s new book Unscrolled. My year long journey will be blogged weekly as commentary on their commentary, quoting quotes, plucking pearls from this pool of biblically inspired juices for a more inspired now.

 

The line between faith and insanity is sometimes as sharp as knife.
Anne Reidy, the stenographer who stepped calmly  up to the microphone in the Senate this past week to denounce the politicians for not obeying God (and something about masons) was dragged out and sent for evaluation. Clearly, a person taking advantage of access to power and chooses, like a prophet, to call out their version of God’s truth to the masses is a psychopath. Or at least ‘slightly off’.
Or is she?
Reidy isn’t the first to publicly blur lines between  pious and psychopath. Our Patriarch Abraham got there first.
Damon Lindelof  thinks so, anyway. In Unscrolled, chapter 4, he takes on the MegaMythic Binding of Isaac,   sending  Abe to the psych ward,  diagnosed for ‘Cycloid Pscyosis’,  interrogated repeatedly in the aftermath of his attempt to kill his son. Is he crazy – or what?
Abraham is often seen as the ‘knight of faith’ for his will to obey God’s demands, including child sacrifice. But his is a small step and big leap from faith to fundamentalism. For all of us who want to be connected to spiritual truths but worried about ethics and not foaming in the mouth – he’s a very problematic role model.
Which is maybe why this mega myth  is at the core of our cannon.
This is a crazy story about the crazy state of mind called faith. Damon messes with our minds here as he likes to do so well and suspends our disbelief:  If Abraham is really crazy – what does that say about the faith tradition that reveres him and annually relives his legacy  of religiously inspired violence?  What does this say about us?
Maybe the whole point of repeating the story of this Psychotic Abraham is to serve as a warning sign, a telling tale of caution: watch out for when religious fervor turns to force,  respect, suspect, and resist it.  Notice this voice Inside ourselves and all around us. Sometimes we miss the signs until its too late and gets out of hand.
Reidy didn’t hurt anyone. But there are so many examples of people fueled by faith who take the lives of countless others.
That’s what happened in Tel Aviv, 15 years ago, this week. Yitzchak Rabin was shot by a zealot who said that God told him to do so, for the sake of the Land of Israel. Psychopath? Not legally. Yigal Amir is serving life sentence in top priority Israeli prison.
President Clinton talked about the Binding of Yitzchak at the funeral in Jerusalem, the only leader to quote Torah and link the myth of sacrifice and binding to the price paid by this latter day Isaac, and still paid today by so many people. In the so called name of God.
I want to believe that the story of the Binding is an allegory for our inner ability to give up what’s precious for a better and more deeply connected sense of being in the world. I don’t want to endorse a saga that celebrates a parent’s ability to sacrifice a child. Not even as allegory. It’s crazy and unhealthy. Enough is enough.
Can we be unbound from the Binding?  Can we retell it differently and embrace a bit less crazy in our lives of faith?
(If Damon was still on twitter I’d hope he rt this homage but he  and I guess that’s his way of sacrificing something precious for a greater good? )
Crazy for some. Sacred for others. Go figure. In peace.

Scripture’s First Surrogate Sex Worker, Soloway Style: Unscrolling Week 3:

3. Surrogacy, Sex Slavery, Soloway

Stom, Matthias (c.1600 – after 1650)
Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham

She isn’t just the first surrogate womb in the Bible. She’s possibly also the first human traffic victim. Thank you Jill Soloway for reminding us in this week’s unscrolled moment how delicate and fragile the line between delight and disaster.

Here’s Aggie, blond young pretty, diamond cross in cleavage, fresh from Florida, now Sarah and Avi’s new nanny in New York. Little baby Isaac, privileged Jew kid loves his new nanny, and Avi likes her too. A lot. Enough to get his hand on her thigh one day when they’re alone at home, and bam – she’s pregnant.  And  then fired.

 

Welcome to Genesis, Soloway style.

Family values, unlike what some righteous readers of the bible would want us to believe, are not a Disney movie.  The Abrahamic saga is a family mess.

The third portion of the Torah, Lech Lecha, charts the original journey of the Hebraic dynasty, Abraham and Sarah, barren, brave, take  a leap of faith away from  familiar territory  to lesser chartered futures, pick up their lives and travel to an unknown destination that happens to be Canaan, future promised land. Welcome home.  Along the way they pick up Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl (some say princess) who becomes a walking womb for so far sterile Sarah. Did she want to do this? Do we pause to ponder?

Eventually there will be two moms, two baby boys, one father, one God with two different names, a brutal split, and the Jewish-Arabic conflict.

But for Jill, my delightful soul sister and most recently creator of much touted indi film Afternoon Delight this isn’t about politics. It’s about desire.  The patriarch Abraham is just a dude with an urge, and Sarah is a bitter mom, and Hagar a sexy shiksa and the Torah text is up for grabs reminding us that in the beginning and at the end of the day and often in the middle it’s all about the urge to merge and boundaries broken and the deep desire to be whole, and loved, and held and home. Sexy Aggie, belly growing, homeless, will meet an angel in Manhattan, who will send her back to her employers, like so many other sex workers who end up being held up where they have a roof over their heads.

Hagar isn’t just the first surrogate mom and sex slave in our story. She is also the first to meet an angel and the first to pray and be sure that someone’s listening and help is on its way. Yishamel is born, Abraham and Hagar’s firstborn son whom his mother names God Will Listen.

When it comes to plights of people in our lives and stories, so should we.