I have been on many stages in my life. As an actress. An author. A public speaker. But no stage was quite as big and terrifying as my bat mitzvah. I think that it is a fair assumption to say that most Jewish kids would say the same. And with the recent release of Adam Sandler’s new film, You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, it’s no wonder my own big day is very much on my mind.
I grew up in Chicago and was a child of the Reform movement. I can still remember Aug. 21, 1982, as if it were yesterday, even though 41 years have now passed. My colors were lavender and pale blue. We had giant, handmade Hershey’s Kisses wrapped in foil that perfectly matched my color scheme all over the room. I wore a lavender suit and an orchid wrist corsage, which was the style of the day. I can even remember pieces of my Torah portion: Shoftim from Deuteronomy. I was less than enthused to have to write a d’var Torah about fruit trees, and why we should keep them alive when waging war on a city. I couldn’t have had something like the Ten Commandments, or Noah and the ark?
But what I remember most about that time was what happened to me when the dancing began at every party that I attended. One of the hallmarks of any early 1980s bar or bat mitzvah party was the “snowball” moment: The one being celebrated would step to the center of the dance floor, the DJ would start to play the slow song of the moment, and a partner would be chosen. When the DJ said, “snowball!” the couple would part and then choose new partners until the dance floor was filled with teenagers. Slow dancing. Hands on shoulders and waists. Hoping that this might be the start of something magical.
But I was never picked to dance. Not a single time at any party. Because no one wanted to dance with “The Girl With the Afro.” And they weren’t afraid to say it—behind my back, of course, but always when I was within earshot. And always loud enough for me to hear them. Even during the fast dancing that occurred in small friend groups, I sat off to the side; watching with my heart aching to feel as if I belonged, while kids pointed, laughed and whispered about me. Always about my hair. Born Black and Ashkenazi, and adopted by white and Jewish parents, I was the only nonwhite Jewish girl in my community. I stuck out everywhere I went. And I wore my hair in an Afro that I was tortured about for many years.
My beloved Bubbie told me that I looked like the late Harry Belafonte’s daughter, Shari Belafonte-Harper, who wore her hair the same way and was one of the world’s most famous models at the time. But I did not feel like a beautiful model. I felt like an outcast. And it hurt.
I came home in tears from party after party, crying about the things that were being said about my hair and how humiliated I was to always be the only person not included in the dancing. And so, as my own bat mitzvah approached, my parents told me that my DJ had become sick and as there wasn’t time to find another, we would not be able to have dancing at my bat mitzvah—deftly ensuring that I would not be left mortified on my own dance floor and protecting me, as they always did, from the cruelty of a world that too often would not open its arms to accept me as I am. I knew what they had done, but I let them think that I believed the story about the DJ’s mysterious illness and said a silent prayer of gratitude for their deep and abiding love.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t wonderful moments from my bat mitzvah; poignant, funny, awkward moments that I treasure to this day. Like when my then 2 1/2-year-old brother stuck his hand into my gorgeous, enormous cake because he just wanted to take a bite. And who could blame him? It looked amazing! My favorite photo of my beloved father, whom we would lose to leukemia when I was 19, was taken that day. Or how my feet hurt so badly in my first pair of high heels—black Pappagallo pumps with gold trim—that I kicked them off. On the bimah. And while the rabbi was waxing poetic about what a wonderful student I was, I shrank, much to my mother’s horror, 2 inches in front of the entire congregation.
It was as beautiful a day as it could have been.
But, even so, when I think of that day, my memories are always pulled back to this.
It isn’t only that I was denied an awkward preteen slow dance. I was also denied the joy of dancing at my own bat mitzvah. There was no exuberant hora. I was not lifted on a chair by smiling, strong-backed men to the sound of my peers and loved ones cheering me on. And my family was denied that seminal moment, too. All because I was different from the other kids and they latched on to my Afro as the way to make sure that I knew that I would never be one of them.
They started calling me “The Girl With the Afro” at my Jewish summer camp and it would follow me to regional NFTY (the Reform movement’s teen program) events in high school and through college, when they added “pube head” to the mix for additional humiliation. The taunting always came at the hands of my peers who inhabited my Jewish world, an environment so small and contained that we all pretended to be friends. Even though we weren’t.
I know now that I was gaslit at that tender age into believing that I was ugly. Unworthy of respect and a sense of belonging. Unworthy even of dancing. Simply because I looked different from everyone else. And that horrible lie stayed with me for decades.
But perhaps far worse than being reduced to being “The Girl With the Afro” when I was 12 is knowing that, to some, I am still only that. At a recent Jewish community event, I heard a voice yell out, “Hey you! With the Afro!” And then I heard the familiar laughter. One of my peers from back in those days called out, wanting to take us both back to 1982. I turned, on sickening Pavlovian instinct, knowing that they were absolutely talking to me and wryly laughed silently because, that day, my hair was blown out perfectly straight. No longer a vulnerable teenager, I confronted my childhood bully and silenced him, which felt like a long overdue gift to myself.
While in 1982, this would have been written off as “kids being kids,” today we know that this is bullying rooted in racism. More and more, it is being called out for what it is. And, for that, I am grateful.
Clearly, there are those who might still want to try to exert this kind of power over me. But they no longer hold it. I am still often the only nonwhite face in Jewish rooms, but today I stand tall and proud of who I am. I never shrink. And I no longer live in pursuit of anyone’s approval for I know that Jewish spaces should have always been expansive enough for all of us. In a Jewish world that is only becoming more racially diverse, even if the conversation about it has grown more and more quiet in the last couple of years, my heart is buoyed knowing that I am no longer alone in being nonwhite and Jewish, and the community is only more beautiful for it.
I recently posted a photo of myself from my bat mitzvah weekend on social media and semijoked to two friends that we should redo my bat mitzvah party today at our favorite spot in Los Angeles and have an ’80s dance party with the hope that, at long last, I might get asked to dance.
But the truth is that there remains no guarantee that I will have a partner on the dance floor. And that’s OK. For while I admit that I do still dream of a sweet slow dance with a very cute boy, I now know the joy and freedom of dancing with myself. Just like the 1980s Billy Idol anthem encourages us all to do. With nothing to lose and nothing to prove.
At 53, I’m grateful to know deeply what my heart could not believe possible at my bat mitzvah. No matter how many times those who love me tried to tell me.
I am worthy. Of respect. Of love. Of belonging. Of wearing my hair in any way that I please. Of being seen as beautiful. And, of dancing.
Cue the Billy Idol.
Marra B. Gad is a writer, producer, and public speaker based in Los Angeles. She is the award-winning author of The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl.