ADAM VALEN LEVINSON
AN AMERICAN Jew is a funny thing. Competing motors: the fresh individualism of the new country to the West, crammed alongside the old, old traditions with roots in a community of constant transplants. When I was about ten, my parents offered me a choice: to barmitzvah or not to barmitzvah, to follow some of my friends off the bus from school to another bus to another school, or to go home.
It was a kind of parenting that certainly prized the American over the Jewish, the new freedoms over the ancient practice. It wasn’t about assimilation or sparing me from the shul boredom they remembered. My dad had gone to Hebrew School, my mom hadn’t — perhaps because her dad and every Jew in coal-mining Pennsylvania had been constantly chased and bullied and beaten as a local pastime, but almost certainly because he simply thought it wouldn’t change her.
My parents gave me what they thought was the greatest American gift: freedom. I should’ve skipped soccer practice and gone straight out to learn who Kierkegaard was, just to quote him to Mom and Dad: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom!” All I saw then was a choice, a commitment to something symbolic and old. At 10, I wasn’t ready to make it.
I wasn’t ready to make any choices. I practiced indecision as a religion in its own right, with its own rites: every time I came to a fork in the road, I asked, how I can I keep all the tines together?
After school in first grade, I tried to play in the Balinese gamelan at the university, and the town’s soccer team, and learn karate at the strip mall dojo up the street. I remember the panic when I had to drop one of them. (In the suburbs, it was easier to forget the value of self-defense.) That might have been the last in-or-out choice I made for a decade.
Preparing for a barmitzvah had no place in all this, I thought. I could not do it — and so I didn’t.
It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be Jewish — quite the opposite. I was proud of my dad for leading the seder, I was proud of my grandparents for being alive. But Judaism wasn’t something that had ever been a choice for me. I felt about being Jewish the way you might feel about being left-handed, mildly distinct and occasionally proud, and doubtless. I loved the Marx Brothers after all — my Jewishness was something no one could take away.
It wasn’t until I was living in Abu Dhabi, a half-season into a first-jobafter-college, that the childhood choices I’d left unmade started leaking through the walls. While elementary school led to middle school led to high school, then college — after college, there was no clear path, and choices were everywhere and always.
Every single one — from what curry should I order,to why am I here in Abu Dhabi, to why am I here on Earth — I overthought.
And then, two Chabad rabbis popped over from Brooklyn on a Chanukah candle-lighting tour through Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and discovered my secret. “Let’s have your bar mitzvah tomorrow,” they said, in the fiftystory linoleum-lined high-rise we transplants lived in.
“Where else, if not Abu Dhabi?” For the overthinker, there is nothing like absurdity to cut through all that logical cake.
Seven years later, I was asking a hip hop producer in Ramallah about using his tracks for a launch party for my book. “I didn’t get why the title has barmitzvah in it, do explain please,” he said.
It was about a coming of age, I said. “When I became a man,” said St Paul, (who was very certainly bar mitzvahed), “I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
As I child, I ran from choice. Even if I didn’t know fully why, eight years late by tradition but right on time, perhaps, in the scheme of slowcooked American adolescence, I embraced the first choice I knew I could make.
And once I did, it was like a promise I made out loud, like an RSVP to a host’s face. The ways of childhood I’d come to the Middle East to challenge — fears built on ignorance, oversimplifications, comfort — I said I’d wrestle with them. I couldn’t not.
The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East by Adam Valen Levinson is published by W M Norton