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. 

 


Worship Wear Gone Wrong. And Masks? Word #20.

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Holy Wear

בגדי קודש
Tetzave

 

This past week a lot of Jewish drama around  sacred fabrics that one dons or doesn’t  where and why and by whom or not. The Pope’s Prada pales next to the volume of coverage on the Women of the Wall’s continued fight for freedom to pray and wear shawls and I’m honored to be helpful in the televising of the revolution, to no doubt a noble resolution up ahead. For me this week provided a weird twist on the wearing of this sacred shawl – with plenty reasons to  pause and ponder the power and politics of religious wear.

My personal prayer shawl saga continued curiously from the Western Wall to my brother’s synagogue in the heart of Jerusalem’s Greek Colony. Last week I smuggled  prayer shawls into the Western Wall and wore mine there in a baffling privileged act of defiance. Here at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, the youngest son of the much beloved rabbi in this bustling Modern Orthodox congregation, I wasn’t actually expected, as in, supposed to, wear a prayer shawl at all.

In my family’s custom – Mainstream Ashkenazi, unwed men don’t typically wear a prayer shawl. At 43, even as rabbinic student and 3 kids later, my wearing one at shul in the immediate circle of my family of origin’s Orthodox context – is an eyebrow raiser, a breach of protocol. Not a big deal but still.  O well. I don’t remember when I first starting wrapping myself in prayer shawls – ones that I’ve made. 15 years, at least. But rarely back on the family turf…There have been events in the past years, family reunion weekend or a Shiva minyan in which, wrapped in one, I  got some comments from the more pious and tactless- but I’m not sure that it was just because I had one on or because my usual prayer shawl is a recycled beige Sari with gold brown silk patches, a work of art with one red string attached to the fringes – a gift of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. THAT gets a lot of comments.

I stand out with or without it. A thin veil over who I am within the black and white prayer shawl world of my childhood. And sometimes one doesn’t want to stand out so much..

So I wasn’t sure whether I should come to this Bar Mitzvah with my shawl or not.

And also because I forgot to iron it. Just a few weeks ago, back at ye Western Wall, as the family gathered super early in the cold morning for my Bar Mitzvah nephew’s first wrapping of Tefilin – my mother looked at me through the crack in the fence that separated us and pointed at my shawl and made a face. Later she advised me to try ironing it better or better yet, getting a newer one – “it just doesn’t look very dignified. May have had its day”.

So I went without my prayer shawl that morning, but in each hand held a child’s hand instead. Ezra on the right and Alice on the left, on a sweet short visit from NY with Sally, one of their two moms. As we walk over to the synagogue  I explain to the kids, 6 and 4, that unlike our shul back in NY, in this shul the men and women sit separately, and they can take turns being with Mommy upstairs, or Abba downstairs, and we can play and hang outside. We get there just before my nephew starts to beautifully chant the Torah, and both sections are jam-packed. So we head to the courtyard where the candy tables for later are heavily guarded and a kids service is starting, led by a few of the dads. And just before we sit in the circle I get this craving for a prayer shawl – this total sense that I want to be wrapped in one as I sit here on the grass, with my children, at a prayer service with mostly people I don’t know but who in some part, today, are  family and extended family and congregation. And whatever custom – it’s what made sense.

From the rack in the back I borrow a regular, formerly white wool full length prayer shawl with black stripes and yellowed fringes and wrap it around my shoulders, and kid in each hand, enter the mens’ section in a little step that somehow meant a whole lot more. It’s not like ‘I passed’ or ‘belonged’ but more like I played a part in a play with just the right outfit and felt just right. A costume? perhaps.  Religious wear that felt just right.

On our way out a few minutes later, one of my nephews stops me, smiling – what’s with the boring talit? you’re not going ortho are you…

You can’t win. or maybe I just did?

The power and the politics of holy wear go back a long long time. In this week’s Torah text, Tetzave, the instructions for construction of the tabernacle detail on – including the religious fashion department – and every detail matter, as Moses finds out:

“make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for splendor and  beauty.” Ex.28

The priestly collection which is described here in Vogeuesque detail, inspired later, post-temple  sages to sanctify the worship-wear for all, and not just for the sons of Aaron. What was once the privileged costume of one (male) leader, became, with time, the symbolic vestments of all, or of most of us, till recent times. The prayer shawls, like the Torah dress, are our modern priestly vestments, and all of us – single or married, male or not – are our modern priests. 

Prayer shawl or beanie or burka or bow tie: Here’s to the right to wear what we wish, as we, hopefully, choose to honor our existence with the garments that make us feel like we belong, more special, sacred, beautiful and ourselves, wrapped within our flimsy truths, and truly wrapped in comfort. 


And then there’s Purim, coming up this wknd, a chance to change and put on briefly any thing you want, shawl or mask and shoes of others, Michelle’s bangs or Sarah’s dress, upturn politics of yes or no, taboos and boos, put on the masks we don’t dare wear every other day, enter like High Priest Aaron into the Holy of Holies of Self, like Queen Esther into the royal chamber of possibilities, possibly against the law of the land, wrapped in beauty and in nothing more than one thin and sacred shawl. 


Wrap it to go. 


Shabbat Shalom

Perfectly Purim!

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

Mirror, Mirror, on the (Western) Wall, who’s the… Word 15

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worship

עבודה

 

 

 

 

 

The Western Wall is almost empty and pretty cold at 6:30 on this Tuesday morning.  A cat slinks away a long crack in one of the huge stones in the men’s section but none of the black-clad men busy praying loudly in small clusters notice. A few women  stand in solitary silent prayer, apart from each other, across the partition. A sanitation cleaner sweeps the floor all the way up to the wall itself, shoos the cat, and adds, along with the discarded tissues, all the carefully folded notes that were tucked into the cracks in the wall but were unlucky enough to fall to the ground during the night. *

I’m here with my family to celebrate my 13 year old nephew’s Bar Mitzvah season- today he’s binding himself in leather straps for the first time. Even my father, in a wheelchair, didn’t want to miss on this almost last grandson’s rite of passage.

We find a Table right alongside the partition, the women peer through the cracks in the fence, and the business as usual morning prayers progress with efficient speed. Cameras click on both sides of the partition, and some laughs, and it’s nice to be with the family, but I find it hard to join them in the prayers. I walk off to the side, close my eyes.

It’s not just that this is not my kind of prayer experience or valued form of contemplation. Too many words. Not a fan of speed read through psalms and pages, not anymore. It doesn’t work for me. And definitely not here.

I’ve come here all my life, as kid and soldier and student, sworn in to defend the homeland and detained for co-ed prayers, and I’ve prayed here and cried here, alone, and with others.

Most memorably and recently with rage.

I’ve been coming to the wall in the past months and years on the new moon, to support the Women of the Wall  in their right fight for dignity and religious expression.

This has become an immensely  important and complex symoblic fight for religious freedom in Israel. and it’s about to get more complicated.

 

As of two months ago the women can’t even enter this area with a prayer shawl, let alone wear one. Nor pray aloud.

 

And here I am today , a privileged Jewish male, free to pray as loudly as I want to, in my (‘It needs to be ironed” says my mother later) own talit worn any way I choose.

I can pray here freely – but actually I can’t.

How can someone pray in a place that is silencing the prayer of another?

I know this fight is right.

And when you think about it, the fight for religious freedom of expression is at the heart of the Jewish story – it’s the core of the Exodus saga and also found in this week’s Torah text – Bo.

From the get-go, Moses’ core demand of Pharaoh – Let My People Go – is not for freedom from labor- it’s for freedom to worship – or labor – for their own God.

let My people go,  So They Will Worship Me Exodus 10:3

 

The Hebrew word for ‘worship’ and ‘labor’ is the same – Avodah. The same word used to describe the slavery is the word used to articulate the demand for time off for religious freedom, a human dignity of choice of how to worship.

 

We always think of Moses as this great national liberator – and that does happen – but the initial fight is for religious freedom.   It isn’t clear if the demand to go worship is a pretense for escaping or a genuine plea for group bonding on religious grounds as  first step to national unity. Or all of the above. Either way Egypt refuses. And then it’s too late.

 

Mirror, Mirror, on the Western Wall: Who’s the Pharaoh here?

It’s also the Pharaoh, btw, past the locusts and down to the last two strikes- that finally relents to the Hebraic call for worship but on condition that only the men go. Moses refuses:  Everybody goes. Together. Ex. 10:11

Pigeons fly above us, someone quotes a poem by Yehuda Amichai about pigeons at the wall, and soon we will go home for bagels and coffee and a simple celebration and maybe one day this will all be something else and no prayers will be thrown into the trash.

And then I close my eyes again and try, and ask, for inner peace, and the courage to hope,  and  for all prayers to be prayed, here and everywhere – freely.  For all.

shabbat shalom

 

 

 

 

(*Now these personal petitions are trash. Do they still matter? Does the magic work if the notes are no longer  tucked in the cracks? does ‘it work’ if they stay?

and what does ‘work’  mean here anyway?

 

It works, we say, when something clicks right. Zeh Oved. And it’s the same, sometimes , with our prayers, true expressions of the soul that come from within, personal poetry, words cross our lips or written out by our fingers and tucked in a wall or talked to the stones or the sky. It’s like hitting SEND on a message you’ve crafted and are ready to send to the world. IT works when you’ve done your best to articulate your needs, request, suggestion, prayer. Regardless of reply, the rest will happen as it will.)

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org