Before the close of 2009, my family will have attended six Bar Mitzvahs and one Bat Mitzvah. No, we’re not Jewish, but—as the saying goes—some of my best friends are.
I was raised Catholic, and my coming-of-age ritual was Confirmation—pre-Vatican ll. For those of you who aren’t Catholic (and old), that was a time when little Catholic children suffered gruesome deaths if they accidentally ate a hot dog on a Friday; thought ejaculations were prayers one mumbled after confession; and nodded convulsively like bobblehead dolls whenever they uttered the name of Jesus—which was often.
All I remember about my Confirmation were nuns making clacking noises, Mary Catherine lifting her navy blue pleated skirt to show me the elastics holding up her stockings, and the crush I had on Rocco Conti. Of course, I also recall the Bishop’s slap, and being told that I was a “Soldier of Christ.” This was before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Confirmation has come a long way since then. Those to be confirmed are older, training is more rigorous and relevant, and community service is required. However, I wish neither to evaluate the secular or religious significance of Confirmation, nor to compare it to Bar Mitzvah, but simply to recognize the coming-of-age aspect of the latter—the celebration of the child standing at the threshold of adulthood.
From my queer layman perspective: “Today you are a star.” And in those turbulent adolescent years of being told most everything you do is wrong, how wonderful to have a day that you are held up by your community as someone unique, precious, and listened to.
For me, the most meaningful part of the ceremony is the D’var Torah, when the child (soon to be an adult) finds personal meaning in his Torah portion, and shares it with his community––in a way, teaching his own Torah. Two of the Bar Mitzvahs I’ve attended this year were for boys I’ve known and loved since they were babies. I was overwhelmed by their critiques of present times through the lens of ancient text, and of ancient text through the lens of present times.
So, it was with this rather sentimental mind-set that I attended Family Week in Provincetown this past summer—my family’s 13th. Mona was 10 months old when we first attended Family Week, where hundreds of GLBT families find community. This summer, she took part in workshops of COLAGE, a national movement of children, youth, and adults with one or more GLBT and/or queer parent(s). She roamed Commercial Street with friends she once eyed from the safety of her stroller, or clinging to Jack’s or my hand. Actually, she screamed most times we strapped her in a stroller, but you get the idea.
The tribe of 12- to 14-year-olds didn’t all share a similar religion, ethnicity, or race, but they were linked culturally, nonetheless. They know firsthand what many of their mainstream peers only read about in history books and in scripture: the challenges of being marginalized, and the struggles of individuals and communities to meet such challenges.
At a teen panel where the children of GLBT folks spoke about their experiences and perceptions, one young woman shared that she recently had met her birthmother. She observed that the experience was OK—not as earthshaking as she had anticipated. She also mentioned that she couldn’t imagine her life without her adoptive moms, and that she treasured her community—speaking of the other teens on the panel, and the parents and young folks sitting in the audience. She is rooted strongly in an identity formed among families headed by one or more out and proud GLBT adult.
Like this young woman, I believe that Mona also is rooted deeply within this burgeoning community. Last October, for her 12th birthday, she asked school friends and other party guests to make donations to COLAGE in lieu of gifts, and raised $425.
Mona also was asked to write an article for Just For Us, a COLAGE publication, in which she makes clear how much attending Family Week and being a part of COLAGE means to her: “The people I see at Family Week have grown with me, and we have all faced the same obstacles. I love them like they are my family. Oh, yeah! They are.”
During Family Week, Mona was asked to speak at a COLAGE reception. As my soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter spoke, and I watched our beautiful queer families listen, and hold her up as someone unique and precious, I thought of D’var Torah. Her words were not in response to the Torah, but they were in response to themes that run through such ancient texts: oppression, liberation, and community.
Unless Mona someday chooses to convert to Judaism, she will not become a Bat Mitzvah, but last summer, in a hall opening to the pristine coastline of Cape Cod, at the threshold of womanhood, she stood confidently among her peers and elders, speaking of facing challenges, becoming strong and proud, and cherishing her community.
Vince Sgambati’s writing also appears in the anthology Queer and Catholic (Routledge, 2008), and will appear in the Journal of Family Studies. He recently completed a contemporary fiction manuscript—set in the 11th hour of Italian-American urban life. He lives in Syracuse, New York, with his partner of 34 years, their 13-year-old daughter, his 98-year-old mother, and two dogs.