Storytellers make another stop at the bar mitzvah

Frizzy hair, cheesy photos, awkward family moments — all were on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum last week as five writers, performers and artists took the stage to revisit their bar or bat mitzvahs and coming-of-age experiences.

The storytelling event on Jan. 8 was called reBar.

Heather Klein and a congratulations card from her bat mitzvah

“At the moment our faces are bursting with acne and our voices are cracking, we stand up in front of family and friends and chant something we don’t really understand,” said the host, Rabbi David Kasher, as he kicked off the event, which was co-produced by Reboot and presented in partnership with the Young Adult Division of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

To underscore their adolescent awkwardness, speakers projected photos from their bar/bat mitzvahs or early teenage years as they told their stories. Standing in front of a photo of her younger self, sporting long curly hair, a short white skirt and matching tallit, soprano Heather Klein, who sings opera and Yiddish music, remarked, “I was one hot Jew.”

She was already an accomplished performer, as well. In addition to chanting in Hebrew in front of a crowd at her bat mitzvah — a task intimidating for many teens — Klein also sang in two additional languages, Italian and French, at the party afterward. At the CJM, she belted out selections from those two arias.

“I wish I could have focused on family, on tikkun olam, on the responsibility of being a bat mitzvah,” Klein mused. “As a preteen, I was more interested in performing.”

Taking time to reflect back on one’s bar/bat mitzvah is more than just kitschy, according to Robin Kramer, Reboot’s executive director.

“It’s a novel way to think about a moment in Jewish life that is so important, and at the same time, when many people leave [the synagogue],” Kramer said.

Reboot launched its somewhat whimsical look at the bar/bat mitzvah about 18 months ago, when two of its network members, Christopher Farber and Brian Elliot, began talking about what they would change about their own bar mitzvahs. That conversation evolved into, where people reflect on their bar/bat mitzvahs, warts and all.

Irwin Keller in front of a photo from his bar mitzvah day photos/drew himmelstein

“When you read through these stories, many are full of pain and worry; some are very poignant, some are hip and a little sarcastic,” Kramer said. “It makes you think about your family, who you are now, who you were then and what those words meant to join a community and belong.”

The first reBar live storytelling event was held in Los Angeles in late 2014, and there will be an East Bay reBar show on Feb. 5 at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay. Reboot teams up with more than 700 community groups nationwide, including JCCs, museums and synagogues, and will likely hold more reBar events with them, Kramer said.

At the CJM, author and illustrator Lisa Brown took the stage with her husband, Daniel Handler (the children’s author also known by his pen name, Lemony Snicket) and presented photos from her bat mitzvah album annotated with the comments she imagined her late grandmother would have made about them (“Dead, dead, dead; this whole table’s been wiped out”).

Artist consultant Beth Pickens, who is in the process of converting to Judaism, shared how she will have her own bat mitzvah in two years at the age of 38, more than a dozen years after beginning her Jewish journey.

Aimee Suzara, a Filipina American writer and performer, reflected on how getting in touch with her cultural heritage was integral to her own coming-of-age story.

Reb Irwin Keller, who performed as Winnie with the drag troupe “The Kinsey Sicks” for 20 years, said he loved his bar mitzvah but was uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a “man.” As a child, his parents told him he couldn’t play house with a male friend, and he had to teach himself how to walk and talk “like a boy.”

“I learned these skills like a foreign language,” Keller said. “Mostly, I wanted to be me.”

Now, Keller, the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, is married to a man.

“And we play house every day,” he said.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.