Our Adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah students share their stories
Growing up in a liberal, educated, secular social circle, there was little opportunity to explore my relationship to G-d and prayer. For years I internalized the idea that religion is childish, anti-scientific, and antiquated without really ever examining it personally.
A turning point came when I started a Buddhist meditation practice in college and really resonated with the concept of nonduality – Oneness with the universe – or no separation between me and you and everything else. This perspective catalyzed a shift and I began to get curious about my own religious traditions.
When I was 13, I started writing down at least one hundred points in a flip notebook for creating a utopic society. They comprised samples from dozens of science fiction books, from Robert Heinlein to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke to Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, and all the works on fascism, anarchism, communism, and socialism I could get my hands on. What I ended up with, if one were to read it back to back, is a fascinating journey from authoritarianism to the counterculture.
Why did I decide to embark on becoming a bat mitzvah at age 35? What have I learned? What have I discovered about myself?
Simply put, I wanted to learn more about this religion and people I was born into. I’ve been attending services my whole life. I studied the history of the Jewish diaspora quite thoroughly in college. I’ve visited abandoned synagogues in Poland and partied in the vibrant nightlife of Tel Aviv. But I’ve always felt on the periphery of the religion, whether because I don’t speak Hebrew or don’t “look Jewish,” as I am often told.
I was born to Jewish parents in the early 1970s, and before I had learned to read, marital estrangement, divorce and remarriage meant I was raised in a nominally Christian household. As a kid, there were things I liked about church, mostly the singing and the formality of the Sunday services. They felt serious, and important, but they never really fit. By the time I was in college, I had drifted away from religious observance of any sort. I had a sort of half-remembered connection to Judaism; I ate matzoh and had a vague knowledge of the seder; when I traveled, especially in Europe, I looked for remnants of Jewish history.
I grew up in an atheist family, Jewish by descent and cultural proclivities. When I was 13, I had no interest in bat mitzvah, or Judaism. But, there was an empty space inside of me. It’s taken me until now, at age 72, to see if that empty space might be filled within the religion of my birth.
I initially decided to become bat mitzvah in honor of my ancestors, who through millennia had cared enough about being Jewish to not forsake it, even in times when life would have been much safer if they had.
My journey towards becoming a bat mitzvah has led me to find joy in studying Torah.
The Torah is a cornerstone of Jewish tradition. However, I felt challenged by it. The portrayal of a vengeful, punitive, violent God and the inequality of women within the Torah never sat well with me. I also couldn’t get past the fantastical stories that contradict current scientific knowledge.
I thought, what is the point of studying Torah or having it be part of our religion if all this inaccurate and awful stuff is in it?
The Torah portion for this week is known as “Chukat” or decree. It details a ritual that was in use thousands of years ago when Judaism was a very different religion and was centered around an enormous Temple in Jerusalem to which all Jews tried to make a pilgrimage.
The ritual is for the purification of a person who has come in contact with a corpse. Until the defiled person is cleansed, they cannot enter the Temple area, and are cut off from society.
My name is Erik, and I'm an East Bay kid, born in the city of Oakland.
I am Jewish on my mother's side, my maternal family having emigrated from the former Czechoslovakia during the years between 1900 and 1910.
When I was a small child, my father was drafted and spent what felt to me like several years fighting in Vietnam. His absence put all of the responsibility for raising me onto my mother, who I bonded with intensely.
Learning, culture, and community have been defining pillars in my life. Having traveled abroad and fallen in love with language and all things spicy, I spent years passionately pursuing issues outside myself. I realized that there was a disconnect; I had not embraced my own cultural and spiritual identity.
Despite my previously undefined and recent tumbling into faith, the unconditional welcome into our B’nei Mitzvah cohort this year created more than just a framework for spiritual learning and personal reflection. It helped me identify and build links of strength and awareness with this shared rich spiritual tradition and cultural history, its evolving commentaries and narratives, and tools which inform my world outlook moving forward.
I'm going to talk today about the Kaddish, the prayer we say in memory of those who have died. First I want to tell you a bit about how I got here. I grew up in Mineola, Long Island, New York. My parents were smart, but didn't have much money. My dad was a meat salesman for American Kosher Meats, which meant he not only sold the meat but also delivered it ... yep, a hardworking, blue-collar man. My mom stayed home with my older sister and me.
My parents were both first generation Americans, whose parents had immigrated from Lithuania and Russia. They knew the importance of education, and they bought a small home in one of the best school districts, which was about 50% Jewish.
Let me begin by acknowledging that Torah reading can be challenging. The writing may be dense or at first glance seemingly nonsensical or profoundly irrelevant! I find Torah study much like law school. Why study 18th century criminal codes? What does this have to do with the practice of law today? What does Torah have to do with my life and how I choose to live it?
When I began Torah study with this lively, intelligent, sincere and inquisitive group, I approached it much like I did law school. Much like law school, I had the false impression that I was entering with a relatively clear mind.
A central theme of my experience of Judaism has been feeling like I was never Jewish enough. My mother is Methodist. I didn't go to Hebrew school as a child. I married an agnostic man raised Catholic. At least a Jewish friend reassured me about this. He said, “Your husband is a doctor? You really are Jewish!” But I didn’t want my future children to feel the same inadequacy I felt without the matrilineal bloodline. So I decided to affirm my Judaism with our adult b’nei mitzvah group before starting a family.
My parents didn’t join a synagogue until it was time for my younger brother to prepare for his bar mitzvah. My sister and I were told that it wasn’t important for girls to have a Jewish education. While I resented this, I was also relieved. In suburban New Jersey circa 1974, organized Judaism seemed like it had more to do with the fashion show in the temple parking lot on Rosh Hashanah than anything else.
Still, I always felt that something was missing. Over the years, my path toward meaningful Jewish learning has taken many swerves and turns. But here I am on my 56th birthday, finally a bat mitzvah. I am grateful to those who inspired me along the way, including my daughter who became a bat mitzvah last spring, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, and Rabbi Bridget Wynne who so graciously guided the members of our B’nei Mitzvah group as we prepared for this day, so long in coming.
My family has inspired me to be here today to become a Bat Mitzvah. Both of my parents fled Germany because of persecution by the Nazis. They met in San Francisco at a JCC dance and married after my father returned from the European front. After starting married life and a family in San Francisco, they moved to Los Altos and became founding members of Congregation Beth Am.
I was raised celebrating Jewish holidays, attending religious school, being confirmed in tenth grade and participating in the temple youth group -- in other words, a practically ideal Jewish background to start my adult life! My parents had the courage to take on the unknown and learn new things -- in my own way I hope to emulate them.
Why am I being bar mitzvahed at 70?
Being Jewish -- culturally, not religiously -- was a significant part of my upbringing in the 1950s in a heavily-Jewish North Shore suburb of Chicago. I was not encouraged to become a bar mitzvah, despite being the only boy I knew who wasn’t.
However, I was sent to Sunday religious school where I listened to the Chicago Bears football game on my transistor radio with an ear plug, and where I met my lifelong friend Richard Schram. I completed religious school and was confirmed.