Elijah Gordon’s Bar Mitzvah Speech

A year and a half ago I posted reflections on my daughter Sula Gordon’s speech on her becoming a Bat Mitzvah: http://lewisrgordon.com/sketches/sula-gordons-bat-mitzvah.html. I here offer my son Elijah Gordon’s speech. I continue to be moved by the image of a child carrying so immense a responsibility as Torah. It is marvelous as it is not about the physics of the matter. It’s about placing such expectations on children, which, as we all know, many will be able to bear, while others could be crushed by even the thought. Our Rabbi who officiated Sula’s was recently injured and could not fly to the event. The circumstance created an opportunity to listen, so to speak, and so we did. We decided on a Mitzvah not often discussed. Elijah’s became the first Bar Mitzvah ceremony officiated by the only out African American Rabbi from the LGBT community, Sandra Lawson. As it turned out, the weekend was the culmination of Gay Pride week in the Hartford and West Hartford area. It’s an example of what we call a Baruch HaShem moment. Sometimes things happen for the right reasons. Mazel tov, Eliyahu and Sandra! Here is what our new Bar Mitzvah had to say.

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Elijah

First, I want to thank my family, Sandy Freedman for preparing me for this special day, Sandra Lawson for being the officiating Rabbi for this ceremony, thanks to Capers Funnaye for having been my Rabbi for over the past decade, and all of you, my relatives and friends, who have joined me today. Rabbi Funnye had an accident that prevents him from traveling, so he is not here today. We send him Torah blessings for his recovery. Sandy Freedman worked really hard with me. She is a dedicated, inspiring teacher.    

I also want to give thanks to those who are no longer alive but who I wish were here at this eventful day.  Thanks to my late grandmother Yvonne Patricia Solomon-Garel, my late-step-grandfather Jack Garel, our wonderful family friend Gary Tobin, who co-founded Be’chol Lashon, my paternal grand-Aunt Thelma Chong-Young, my uncle Lewis Samuel Gordon (known as “Tafari”), and my maternal grand-cousin David Levy.

My Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, although specifically about spiritual spies, could also be read as a story about how some people see only the negative sides of a situation and others see its good potential. This is also a reflection of important debates in many Jewish communities. Some Jews only see the bad side of things, while others see good in them. My family is an unusual Jewish family because we belong to at least three lines of Judaism: Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardic. (For those of you who are not Jewish, Ashkenazi mostly means European Jews, Mizrahi means East African and Middle Eastern, and Sephardic means North African and Mediterranean Jews.) There are other kinds of Jews, but these three are the ones in my family. Some people might say there is something strange or even wrong about my family not being only one type of Jews. This is because they have a problem with mixture.

My family is not only religiously mixed as Jews and also non-Jews. My family is also mixed in other ways.   Through my mother, my family has people who are German, Lithuanian, and South African. Through my father, we are very mixed. He calls us “Jewmaicans.” We are Jamaicans who are of East and West African, Chinese, Cuban, Irish, Palestinian/Israeili, Panamanian, Scottish, and Tamil Indian descent. Some people think diversity and mixedness means being “impure” and “not real.” They think being a person like me means I don’t properly “belong” to any group.

I, however, think there is no such thing as anyone being truly “pure.” Second, instead of not belonging, my experience with my relatives is of always belonging. Third, I know what each of these groups is like from the inside. It is like my Torah portion because I can learn among each group, even from those who don’t always know I am a member of another group. Fourth, visiting my relatives means I travel around the world and learn what people are like in many places. And finally, the people who only think negatively forget that people all around the world are human beings. I get to see and experience our common humanity.

There are others who share my view of mixtures as strengths. My Jewish education includes two special organizations: The Friday School in Providence, Rhode Island, and Be’chol Lashon in San Francisco, California. They are inspiring examples of “strengths”: They bring together Jews from many backgrounds and they ask us to think about how to make Judaism more inclusive. With their help, I grew up knowing the true diversity of Jewish people.

Ironically, I also learned about being a Jew through some special people who are not Jewish. First, there is Mr. Patterson from St. Paul’s School. He taught many life lessons on how you should treat people you don’t know.  And he also loves awful puns, which makes him like my maternal Jewish grandfather. It’s a combo plate.  Second, there is Ms. Higg who was my first-, fourth-, and fifth-grade teacher. She encouraged me to aim at growing into a good person. Third, there is Uncle Paget, who is really my godfather, and he is so close to us that we call him “Uncle.” Then there are the Tucker boys: Eric and Will. They understand love, family and community. And then there are Matthew Kos and Joshua Bruneau. They insist on working hard at our talents to see what life offers. All these people support love, family, community, and building a better world. These, as we know, are important themes of Torah, of Judaism.

A Torah portion is an important part of Jewish learning. My Jewish learning began with my Mom and Dad.  My Mom taught me many Jewish prayers and helped me greatly with my Hebrew. My Dad has taught me the history of Judaism from a very young age and its importance for our family. Both my parents taught me that Judaism is not about some old bearded man bullying us through life. It is about taking seriously two sides of the meaning of G-d. One side is about there being a world in which we live. The other side is about taking responsibility for that world. It’s about ethics. It’s about at least trying to be the best we can be.


Thank you,

Eliyahu Shlomo

© Lewis R. Gordon