The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - EX­PE­RI­ENCE

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


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