When Adam Valen Levinson’s parents gave him the option of whether or not to have a bar mitzvah, he decided it wasn’t necessary. After all, he told NJJN, he knew he was Jewish and, having seen all of Mel Brooks’ movies, he was pretty sure he knew what it means to be Jewish.
About 10 years later, he had what he described as “the Las Vegas version of a bar mitzvah, in and out with tefillin,” in, of all places, the Persian Gulf city of Abu Dhabi.
Having the ritual ceremony at that particular time and place seemed perfectly fitting to Levinson, coming, as it did, during an extended excursion through 23 Middle Eastern countries whose people many Americans had come to fear in the aftermath of 9/11. Friends and family members had warned him against going to places where there was likely to be an inordinate amount of hatred of both Jews and Americans, but Levinson said he wanted to challenge those assumptions with what he now admits may have been a “childish response.”
“I have a contrarian spirit,” he said of his decision to set out to explore such countries as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, to prove the naysayers wrong.
He was in Abu Dhabi during Chanukah, when several Chabad rabbis came to light candles with the small expatriate Jewish community. Upon learning that Levinson had never had a bar mitzvah, they insisted it was time. He agreed, albeit with some reluctance.
“They got me in my sweet spot,” he said during a phone interview. “Being an ‘un-bar mitzvah’d’ Jewish guy,” he said, had at times come in handy. “If someone said I was acting immaturely, I would tell them I never officially transferred to adulthood.”
But when one of the Chabad rabbis said, “What better place than Abu Dhabi?” Levinson said, “I figured I had come to the Middle East to challenge my norms and get out of my comfort zone, and this seemed to play into that.
“There was nothing to argue with. I said to myself, ‘Why not Abu Dhabi?’”
The next day, a rabbi handed Levinson something to read aloud in English — telling him, “God understands all languages” — and the rite of passage was completed.
Levinson wrote about his adventures in “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East,” a book chronicling his unexpected experiences during his year and a half of travel shortly after the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings of 2010.
On Sunday, March 17, Levinson will speak at Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst.
Growing up in Swarthmore, the Pennsylvania college town, Levinson said, he was exposed to little anti-Semitism, and the atmosphere of academic and free-ranging inquiry into a host of topics piqued his own intellectual curiosity.
Levinson is now 30 years old and a journalist and affiliate of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., and a fellow at the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University — where he is also doing doctoral research into comedy as a way to facilitate cross-cultural understanding.
Along the way, Levinson has also written, filmed, and photographed for Al Jazeera, The Paris Review, and Haaretz, among other media outlets.
After college, where he studied Arabic, Levinson landed a job as program coordinator at the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi. It was to be the beginning of what he realizes now was a risky undertaking, done perhaps for the wrong reasons. But looking back on the experience, it is one he wouldn’t have traded for anything.
Yes, he was confronted by an AK-47 in Afghanistan — not loaded but still scary — and was watched by Syrian secret police while visiting Aleppo. But he also got to drink 12-year-old Scotch with locals in Islamic Pakistan, where alcohol is officially forbidden.
Through it all, Levinson never hid the fact he was Jewish and American and was astonished that there was little adverse reaction to either identity.
“A majority of Americans and the Jewish community have this existential dread of places and people who we think want to do harm to us,” said Levinson. “But when I would tell people I was Jewish, I never got the reaction people thought I was going to get — which was ‘Go get him’ or start running in the other direction.”
Reactions did vary depending on the country. For instance, in Yemen, which has a long Jewish history, people assumed he was of Yemenite ancestry and welcomed him.
“I actually have had more anti-Semitic experiences in America than anywhere,” said Levinson, who related a recent meeting with a chasidic friend in a Brooklyn diner. Levinson ordered food, but his friend could have only coffee. After a time, the manager came over to demand that if they were going to stay, the friend should order food. When Levinson explained that his friend’s religion prohibited him from eating there, “the manager started going on about why this isn’t the place for you, and you are an embarrassment and don’t belong here.”
Levinson said he felt real anti-Semitism behind the manager’s tirade, but the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel feelings he encountered in the Arab world seemed without substance. He saw anti-Israel graffiti and heard such classic tropes as “Jews control all the money,” but when he questioned people about them, they didn’t know what was behind such an attitude and “they had no details to flesh it out.”
And they were fine dealing with him as a Jew.
“This is a story about being wrong over and over again,” said Levinson. “I think this is a story that can apply to people basically anywhere.”
If you go
Who: Author Adam Valen Levinson
What: “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah”
Where: Congregation Torat El, Oakhurst
When: Sunday, March 17, 11 a.m.
Cost: Prepaid reservations, $15; $20 at door. Book available for purchase ($18) and signing by author.
Reservations: Call 732-531-4410 or visit torat-el.org. A light brunch will be served.