My Bar Mitzvah in Abu Dhabi
My Bar Mitzvah was a commitment to accept life’s true messiness and to take responsibility for my own.
Fresh from America in 2010, I was a program coordinator for New York University Abu Dhabi. My title meant nothing.
“I coordinate programs,” I’d explain to anyone who asked, a half-joke that left neither one of us more enlightened.
I'd never been anywhere in the Middle East, outside of family visits to Jerusalem and a two-week jaunt to Morocco. I had studied the worlds that might be unlocked by Arabic, but they had never been real.
And here I was, the guide to prospective faculty on tours to the refulgent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the world’s eighth largest. If it seemed like I knew anything, the American professors would ask, casually, “So, you’re Muslim?” And I’d tell them the truth, hoping they’d laugh. Mosque tours from the unbarmitzvahed Jewish boy.
Within weeks, I was restless. Within months, I was aimless. And then, in my first December in the Gulf, two men came to visit us bearing the unique scent of home in their scraggly beards. They both took off their baseball caps, and under them – yarmulkes.
Dressed and bearded to the nines of Hasidic custom, these two Chabad rabbis had come via Dubai from Brooklyn to light Hanukkah candles with relocated Jews on the fortieth floor of our brand new apartment building, where everyone I knew lived stacked on top of one another.
I hardly thought of myself as a Jew in this place. Jewish, sure, but I felt about my Jewishness the way you might feel about being left-handed. To those who knew me, I was a white American. To those who didn’t and saw me in a suit, I lived somewhere in the spectrum of well-situated tan. But for tonight, I belonged to the Jews by dint of ancient nationality.
We were going to have a real Hanukkah shindig high above the mosques and down sweet Manischewitz above the tee-totaling deserts.
I didn't know who had invited the orthodox rabbis to Sama, but I was for sure going to go. Not out of Jewishness, and not for the religious community that wasn't mine, but because we were going to have a real Hanukkah shindig high above the mosques and down sweet Manischewitz above the tee-totaling deserts.
Rabbi Shuki and Rabbi Yisrael led the blessings, touching the shamash to five candles, now burning brightly with the green light from the minarets below. It was the fifth night of Hanukkah, nicknamed “the darkest night” for falling every year on the new moon. Although the lunisolar Hebrew calendar prevents it from ever falling on the Sabbath, the week’s most holy day, the fifth night is distinctly holy. The rabbis resolved the paradox: clearly, this day must need no help to get holier.
We all reflected in the polished tile under florescent lights. All around us, we perceived Gentile expatriatism and an image of Islam in low resolution. I felt the contrast not as a mark of oppression, but one of distinction: what made us run-of-the-mill deli patrons in New York now made us bakers of homemade bagels and fasters at unpredictable seasons. We were Jews! And with shared distinction comes a kind of solidarity, a kind of fort-like refuge. I didn’t want to build a moat – however much we welcomed each other in, I feared keeping the outside out. But with blessed juices flowing, chocolate coins clinking against the tile floor, and kids screaming at their dreidels, I slipped into the comfort of familiar things. For a moment, the impulse to do something! quieted. The wandering urge slowed, and I began to feel attached.
It was a more Jewish gathering than I'd ever gone to in Pennsylvania, where we did lip service to the High Holidays and moved quickly on to the wine. This was my great-grandfather's territory, where Soviet identity cards considered "Jew" a nationality; for me, it was like I had come home to a home I'd never known.
I don’t always look “White” but I check it on boxes. And within the standard boxes, Jewishness conflates concepts of ethnicity (call it race) and religion, and even nationality in the straightforward sense; to the unfamiliar, “Jewish” and “Israeli” often substitute for one another (When did your family come from Israel?) – though none of the people who had ever made people who made me had ever lived there. But to tangle it all more, I had family in Israel now, and I felt close to them.
My identity, the part of it that defined me as different from the most accepted of mainstreams – male and white and connected and upwardly mobile – was a murky one. I couldn’t even tell if it was murky, if it made me different or if it just reinforced my sameness with The-Way-Things-Are.
Jewishness was the single thing about my biography, my heritage, that I was most aware was most objectively different. And I accepted that distance most readily, I think, because it was the thing that allowed me to make some variety of joke at the expense of (us) outsiders. And in that permission to mock one minority, the “inside” gave me its blessing: to declare myself and to be also “outside”. And yet, to the degree that my outsider status had ever been felt – it had been felt most in memory.
“Have you ever put on tefillin before?” Rabbi Shuki asked. I waffled – I couldn’t remember what that was exactly.
In the suburbs of Philadelphia, in New York, I was not forced outside for that thing that made me different. Those memories were older: my grandfather threatened in a Pennsylvania coal mining town for being of the tribe that killed Jesus. That was what I remembered, though I’d never seen it: him running.
My difference was not in what I had chosen to be, but in what I inherited. It meant my identity, as a thing that distinguished me from others, depended on a life older than mine. And in that way, lightly, I felt very old.
As with any Jewish gathering – there were these bits of back and forth, of bargaining. Existential questions writ tiny, little requests standing in for something giant.
“Have you ever put on tefillin before?” Rabbi Shuki asked. I waffled – I couldn’t remember what that was exactly. He explained: tefillin are boxes containing bits of scripture that very observant Jews may wear on the arm and head during morning prayers, known also as “phylacteries.” It sounded like a kind of nosy dinosaur you’d meet at the pharmacy. I wasn’t sold.
“Uhh, I don’t think so. I was never Bar Mitzvahed.” Sheepish, I told him how my parents had offered me the choice when I was seven or eight to go to Hebrew School and prepare for a Bar Mitzvah. It wasn’t a big deal to them and seeing my Jewish friends complaining and missing hours of playtime on Wednesdays and Sundays, it wasn’t a big deal to me either. It had always just seemed like a bad investment.
“Come join us tomorrow morning – it will be your Bar Mitzvah.”
It was all so fast. These were the guys I’d always given a berth wider than earshot on the Columbia campus or on subway platforms for fear of joining a Jewish cult or missing The Office. But in Abu Dhabi, I felt I could listen.
I had always defined my Judaism with terms of exclusion: I’m Jewish but, though, not, I don’t.... It was easier that way, to reject the uncertain territory I had never trod, and to have an excuse ready for my inaction or ignorance. The rabbis asked me to forfeit one of my most prime excuses.
“I... I have to be at work tomorrow,” I explained.
“We’ll do it beforehand – plus, isn’t that your boss?” The provost was sipping Manischewitz by the window.
Could I really change my identity as an unbarmitzvahed Jew that quickly? So efficient and convenient to my work schedule? Wasn’t religion supposed to be difficult?
But it wasn’t really religion. For me, it was a tradition all its own, with roots in a place I recognized but didn’t know. This was some descendant of a rite that someone with my nose might have performed five millennia ago – not in words, not even in faith, but in some kindred sense of conviction.
And Yisrael then, perhaps unknowingly, made the perfect appeal to the absurd. “Where else,” said Yisrael, “if not in Abu Dhabi?”
I might have seen the lights atop the minaret wink.
The next morning, already late for work at 9:30, I ascended to the apartment the rabbis been given for the night. Shuki answered the door, welcoming me in to an apartment strewn with tchotchkes no longer common on the Arabian Peninsula.
Yisrael handed me a skullcap. He lifted the tefillin and wrapped the leather strap of the shel rosh around my forehead, the shel yad round and round my left arm, down to my palm and several times around my middle finger. Each held a box filled with unknown words – one pressed against the head, the other wedged against the heart.
I held a page-long prayer, written in English. “God understands all languages,” said Shuki.
Sacrilege! I imagined the whispers of the orthodox turning sour. But Yisrael and Shuki smiled at me as I read, and they were staunch defenders of the orthodoxy. Still, I feared the unknown others who would have found me an immensely unsuitable candidate for this procedure.
By the Book, though, I was already a bar mitzvah. A Jewish boy automatically becomes a “son of the commandment,” rite or no, at the moment of his thirteenth birthday. But to be bar mitzvahed meant, to me, something else. To partake in the ceremony is to accept the responsibilities of adulthood, to make a sanctified promise to follow new rules.
I wouldn't make the promises – not by the standard rulebook at least – but I could try to make good on small resolutions. Fear would no longer excuse a lack of action or the lazy comfort of simple assumptions. If I’ve become a man, I said, accepting the celebratory Mekupelet chocolates Yisrael brought from Israel, I’ll try to do the same.
Looking out at decades of Islamic architecture and a cityscape adorned with mosque domes and enormous pictures of the founding sheikhs, I performed the Jewish liturgical version of a Las Vegas Wedding. An hour late for work, and with a regional revolution just around the corner, what would it mean to make the lifelong commitment to adulthood?
Looking back, what first attracted to the Middle East was of a kind of childish reasoning: my parents, my community, my country said: don’t go. Like a true teenager, I said: watch me!
But when I accepted the rabbis’ absurd offer for an Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah, I was asking myself to acknowledge the responsibilities of adulthood – to making choices rooted in something more than childish rebellion. I was neither my parents, nor their opposite. That, I think, is the way of childhood best left behind.
I was in this part of the world (as expats always called it) to see what it was really like. If I was only there because my parents told me not to, I’d never be able to engage with actual life in the modern Middle East – I’d see everything good as a reflection of my parents’ ignorance and my own bravery, and everything bad as an exception to a rule.
My Bar Mitzvah was a commitment to accept life’s true messiness and to take responsibility for my own. And where else, if not Abu Dhabi.
Excerpted from Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East by Adam Valen Levinson. © 2018 by Adam Valen Levinson. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.