My niece Shirley is a delight: a hilarious mimic (when she was around 10, she floored me with her impression of a YouTube eyeliner influencer), gifted visual artist, font of K-pop knowledge, kind human. I am quite fond of her dads, my brother Andy and brother-in-law Neal, too. I figured I’d enjoy her bat mitzvah. But I was not prepared to be profoundly moved by it.
Shirley grew up at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue. Andy and Neal regularly read Torah there. She’s got a ton of friends there. There’s an early childhood program, a Hebrew school, and a program for teenagers on American Jewish activism that’s paired with a spring break social justice trip to D.C.
The congregation feels more diverse to me than it did when I first visited in the mid-’90s. There are folks of all ages, races, gender expressions. The community mobilizes not just around LGBTQ causes, but also around immigrant and refugee rights, anti-racism, Jewish-Muslim outreach, ending mass incarceration, helping the environment. CBST got a new home near Tablet a couple of years ago, and its design feels attuned to the breadth of the Jewish community. There are design elements from Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi cultures. The building reflects awareness of the needs of different bodies: There’s an audio induction loop for people with hearing issues, sanctuary lighting recommended by the Jewish Guild for the Blind, mezuzot placed so that people who use wheelchairs can kiss them. Services are live-streamed for people who can’t make it in person, whether because they’re living far from New York, because it’s not safe for them to be out, or because they’re not in great health—like Shirley’s Poppy, who was home with her Nana; Shirley began the Friday night service by mouthing, “Hi, Poppy!” and waving at the camera.
The bat mitzvah began on the sixth night of Hanukkah, which was fitting since Andy and Neal have always called Shirley their Hanukkah miracle. They met her when she came into the world on the third night of Hanukkah 13 years ago, the happy conclusion to Andy and Neal’s too-long and too-painful adoption journey. CBST’s chorus sang the Hanukkah song “Al Hanisim,” which means “For the Miracles.” That was probably a coincidence—it’s a pretty popular Hanukkah song—but maybe it wasn’t.
We welcomed Shabbat with “Lecha Dodi,” the traditional song by Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, a 16th-century mystic, born to Jewish refugees in Thessaloniki. “Lecha Dodi” was written in a place of despair, in the midst of a terrible crisis for our people,” Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum (fresh from her appointment to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) reminded the congregation. “But it is full of hope in the future. It tells us, ‘Wake up, look up; be aware that the destruction you’ve experienced—personally, politically, communally—is not the end of the story.’” The Jews of the 15th and 16th centuries had been kicked out of multiple countries; they lived in exile and under oppression. “But this piyyut [liturgical poem] is about believing in the possibility of rebuilding,” Kleinbaum said. “Not forgetting, not losing sight of the destruction, but understanding that there’s a long game here. We have to believe in the possibility of a future. And the only way we get from here to there is by not giving up, not giving in. Hitoriri: Wake up. Get up, get dressed in your finest. Wake up, for your light is shining. God’s presence is inside you, waiting to be released.” She paused. “‘Dress in your finest’ reminds me of the great Torah of Jerry Herman: ‘Put on Your Sunday Clothes.’” She was, of course, quoting Hello, Dolly, a musical by Jerry Herman, who’d died earlier in the week. (The link in the preceding sentence takes you to a performance of the song with—spoiler alert—SURPRISE PUPPIES. You want joy? I’ll give you joy.)
Jerry Herman was invoked repeatedly over the next 24 hours. In addition to urging us to put on our Shabbos clothes, he urged self-acceptance and self-celebration via one of the great Pride anthems of all time: “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles. The world would be a better place if everyone studied the Torah of Jerry Herman.
Shirley aced her Torah reading—from a scroll that survived the Holocaust and traveled three continents to find a home at CBST—and then she aced her haftarah reading. Finally, she gave a thoughtful drash about the art of interpretation, comparing her years of interpreting images at the Art Students League to the biblical Joseph’s interpretation of dreams. “Interpretation allows people to look at the same thing with different lenses,” she said. It’s cool to have different interpretations of art and stories but choosing to misinterpret science and reality can be dangerous, she noted. Take, for instance, climate change. “Some people insist that it isn’t an issue, or if it is, that it’s not a problem,” Shirley said. Like so many kids today, she’s passionate about battling environmental catastrophe; she chose to donate to #TeamTrees, an organization founded by a YouTuber—yes, Shirley enjoys the YouTube—that helps the Arbor Day Foundation plant native-species trees around the globe. “Interpretation matters,” Shirley concluded. “It’s important to be careful to find interpretations that bring beauty, light, and insight.”
More beauty, light, and insight came from Marge Piercy’s poem “Nishmat,” an adaptation of the Nishmat Kol Chai. It goes in part,
We are given the wind within us, the breath
To shape into words that steal time, that touch
Like hands and pierce like bullets, that waken
Truth and deceit, sorrow and pity and joy,
That waste precious air in complaints, in lies,
In floating traps for power on the dirty air.
Yet holy breath still stretches our lungs to sing.
We stand in the midst of the burning world
Primed to burn with compassionate love and justice,
To turn inward and find holy fire at the core,
To turn outward and see the world that is all
Of one flesh with us, see under the trash, through
The smog, the furry bee in the apple blossom,
The trout leaping, the candles our ancestors lit for us.
In a world on fire, Shirley’s bat mitzvah reminded me that some things have actually gotten better. “When this synagogue was founded in 1973, it was impossible to be both openly gay and deeply Jewish,” Kleinbaum said. “It was impossible for two men to meet and fall in love in the context of a Jewish community. It was impossible for them to have a daughter.” She looked at Shirley, Andy, Neal, and all of us. “We’re not just celebrating some imaginary miracle. Shirley, you are all of ours; you are a miracle.”
Shirley promptly handed Neal a box of tissues. Then she grabbed one back and dabbed at her own eyes. “Shirley,” Neal said, his voice breaking. “We first learned about you when we were in this community in 2006, preparing for Yom Kippur. Your birth mother called us about an hour before Kol Nidre.” Fifteen weeks later, during a more joyful holiday, Shirley was in Andy and Neal’s arms. And 13 years after that, my brother stood next to his husband and child and talked about gratitude. “Gratitude is a spiritual muscle we need to constantly strengthen and stretch,” he said. “This enables us to see the blessings in our lives and not focus on only on what we’re lacking. We hope you’ll see life’s miracles as they appear before you.” The rabbi grabbed a tissue.
I was grateful and weepy, too. In 2002, Andy and Neal had a Brit Ahava, a “covenant of love,” a commitment ceremony that was meaningful to them and to us, but had no legal standing whatsoever. In 2008, Andy and Neal got married legally in Massachusetts while tiny Shirley sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” In 2015, their marriage became legal everywhere. In Shirley’s own lifetime, so much has changed. A congregation that in the ’80s and ’90s lost nearly 40% of its membership to AIDS is now thriving and using its deep well of energy (and rage, and sorrow, and gratitude) to fight battles for other beleaguered populations.
When I got home I tweeted, which is a thing I do with my excesses of emotion. I shared two photos of Josie, Maxie, and Shirley being gleeful and young and adorable together. One was taken at our Seder 11 years ago, the other at another cousin’s bat mitzvah last year. I tweeted: “So much in the world (except baby Yoda) seems terrible right now. I am so scared and angry and sad so often. But it’s important to remember and celebrate the good, too.”
And so I do, and so I will.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.