Social Justice in Action
Erik Kolacek's Adult Bar Mitzvah Talk • June 18, 2016
Erik Kolacek is an East Bay native and currently lives in Alameda. He is a visual and lighting designer in the music industry.
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.
In the first five years of my life, she would often take me up into our attic and bring out really cool objects from the old country … things like very old violins … and each time she would share with me some background on what the object was, who it had belonged to, and great stories about where our family had come from and why we came to America.
She explained to me that her mother had come here on a boat with her own parents, that our family was Jewish and Slavic, that we came here with almost nothing, and we eventually became grocery store people in the Midwest. She told me that I should always be proud of that fact … even if I did not fit in with the kids in our neighborhood … even if they gave me a hard time about the fact that Yiddish, Czech, and Slovak were spoken in our home … and especially if they ever teased me about our foreign appearance and the fact that we were definitely not the Brady Bunch.
I ended up losing my mom when I was five, and from that time forward I was raised by someone who truly did not care for my mother's heritage, or her ethnicity, and who also resented my grandmother for trying to instill cultural values in me that reflected who I was.
For the next 30 years, I basically wandered through life knowing that I was a Jew of Eastern European descent, feeling completely separate from what is considered “normal and acceptable” in popular American culture. I made several attempts to fit in and look as “American” as possible, but I always felt a big hole in my heart whenever I met a Jewish person, or made a Jewish friend, or spent time with a Jewish family.
I wanted to say, “Hey! I'm one of you guys … one of us … may I please be part of your life?” … but I was usually too scared to connect because I felt like I did not look Jewish enough … or because I had my father's Christian surname … and basically because what I knew about Judaism and Jewish culture could fit in a thimble. I spent many years like this … alone during the holidays … quietly missing my mom and my grandmother. No one to talk to or ask about who I am or how to be a part of the community.
Today is extremely important to me because it was nearly 10 years ago that I just happened to spot a flyer out of the corner of my eye while waiting for a bus. I don't recall what the exact phrasing on the flyer was, but it was words to the effect of: “Hey! Are you Jewish? Do you want to maybe hang out with some Jews? Well guess what … we meet on Fridays and you don't have to know anything about Judaism. We would love to have you for supper.”
I got up my courage and went to what turned out to be a Jewish Gateways evening of Shabbat dinner and learning, and was amazed by how comfortable I felt. It was fine to be there with my Hebrew tattoos and my rock and roll haircut – I work in the music industry -- and my lack of knowledge about Judaism. My secret hobby had been reading everything I could get my hands on related to Judaism, but now I’d found a way to do what I longed for – participate in Jewish life in a place where I didn’t have to worry about doing something wrong.
I got a small booklet of prayers from Rabbi Bridget and started learning them. I’ve carried that booklet with me to so many places, and it’s been such help when I need grounding. I learned more about Jewish holidays, history, understandings of God, Torah, and much more. The spiritual hole I’d had in my life started to fill up.
I could probably write a 40-page report on how much that single flyer I saw at the bus stop changed my life, but I now stand before you as a grown up, regular everyday Jewish guy … happy … feeling loved … finally being a part of the family that I lost when I was 5.
In closing, if I may inject my humble opinion on freedom and social justice… I think that we as Bay Area residents really pride ourselves on our progressive views. We speak loudly and forcefully for people without voices, and (to use a metaphor) we are the actual place where the rubber hits the road. I have personally witnessed people in this community working hundreds of hours and giving the shirts off their back at times in support of the oppressed and the needy.
I would like to point out that Jewish Gateways is what I consider to be social justice in action. Jewish Gateways literally changed my life. It gave me a way in to the identity I longed to reconnect with. We accept everyone … Jewish and non-Jewish ... who wants to be a part of our family … we offer love and acceptance to everyone … and we don't mind reaching out generously and boldly to wandering souls like me and saying: “You are not alone. You have a family. We love you.”