Sula Gordon’s Bat Mitzvah Speech

Sula Gordon, center, is joined on the bimah by her brother Elijah during her Bat Mitzvah. (Diane Tobin/Be’chol Lashon)

Last Saturday my wife, Jane, and I had the honor and privilege of standing on the bimah to participate in the ceremony of our daughter reading her Torah portion, Ha’azinu, as a Bat Mitzvah. About Moses being barred from the Promised Land, it is ironically one of the sections of Torah to which I often return in my books, especially in discussions of postcolonial leadership. Among the memorable moments of the ceremony is the powerful image of her carrying the heavy Torah scrolls in her arms as she walked around the 120 relatives and friends in the audience.

Holding the living words of G-d is no small responsibility, and to see my 13-year old daughter carry that responsibility brought to mind the inner strength that so many young people before her had to bear as they faced what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles. It made me think of Ralph Ellison’s response to Hannah Arendt when she attacked black parents for permitting their children to face white mobs in the struggle to integrate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Election, Ellison reflected, is no small task, and he expected Hannah Arendt, as a Jew, to understand this, which she eventually did.

The importance of taking on the responsibility for responsibility, as my daughter reflected in her powerful speech, is a task too big for some but fortunately not crushing for most. So, I share today, Sula Gordon’s speech:

First, thank you all for being here to celebrate this day with me. Thanks especially to my mother, father, Grandma Jean and Papa John, my brothers and sister, Sandy Freedman for her excellent tutoring, and Rabbi Funnye for officiating this ceremony. Uncles, aunts, friends — everyone, thank you for being here with me today.

My portion is one of the very last sections of the Torah. It is about G-d telling Moses that he will not enter the Promised Land of Canaan and he will die in exile from the rest of the Israelites. Even though Moses was a brilliant leader who served the Israelites well, he was now a liability for the future of the nation that was to be built. His fame and growing arrogance threatened the focus of the Israelite’s devotion to G-d. This was a sad but important lesson to be learned from the story of perhaps Judaism’s greatest hero. He who leads you to the Promised Land may not be the best to guide you once you’re there.

Moses’ story tells us something important about what Torah teaches us about life. It does not sanitize it of its difficulties. My haftarah, for instance, has King David poetically thanking G-d for rescuing him from violence but then celebrating the vicious destruction of his enemies. It shows gratitude and a hunger for vengeance. This is only one example of the many contradictions in Torah and in the history of the Jewish people.

Reflecting on becoming a bat mitzvah, I ask: What does it mean to be a Jew when I am also inheriting a history of contradictions?

Let me begin with the traditional view. A Jew is someone whose mother is a Jew. But there is so much more. To be Jewish, for instance, one must also follow the Jewish religion or Judaism. But some people follow Judaism whose mother is not a Jew. To make matters even more complicated, in Torah, one was born an Israelite if one’s father was an Israelite. One is born Jewish through one’s mother in Rabbinic Judaism. But, as we know, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism permit one to be born a Jew by having a Jewish parent, whether it is one’s mother or father. But there is an additional and important point, to be Jewish also means to take responsibility for Torah. So however one was born a Jew, one also becomes a Jew. Today, as I become a bat mitzvah, which literally means a daughter of the Torah, I am a born Jew who also is becoming a Jew.

Being a Jew, for me, is shaped by the experiences of my immediate and extended family. To understand their story, consider Langston Hughes’s poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Langston Hughes is talking about the part of me that is black. He is also talking about more when he speaks of rivers since he is describing what it is to be of humanity that comes from every continent. I am from South African and Jamaican Jews. And they are from Lithuanian, German, Irish, and Palestinian Jews because of people who left Jerusalem before the State of Israel was founded in 1948. I am from Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim. But I am also from people who were not Jewish. Some were Rastas. Some were Hindus. Some were Catholic. And some were I do not know what. Some were enslaved. Some were masters. Some were freedom fighters. Some cooked for communities, which is something my family continues to do. All were immigrants at one point or another. In that regard, they faced some of the challenges I read about today from the Torah — namely, what it is to build a new life in a foreign land.

Key to doing that successfully is having people who bring separate people into a community. Two of the most powerful models of this that I have known are two people whose absence I feel intensely today. The first is my paternal grandmother, Grandma Pat. Grandma Pat came to the United States from Jamaica in 1969 with only five dollars in her pocket. She was twenty-six years old and a mother of three boys. She worked her way through difficult times in the South Bronx and eventually managed to purchase a small house and also adopt two more children. Many considered my grandmother to be their mother. While she was giving, she was also only 5 foot 1 and was very brave. She fed people who needed food. She helped people with their bills. She took care of other people’s children. She also rallied in support of union struggles and, with people of all different religions, she fought for the Democratic Party. My Grandma Pat really knew how to live and how to love. For her, everyone mattered.

The second person I’d like to mention is an extended family member, Gary Tobin. Like Grandma Pat, Gary was amazing at bringing people together. He always thought about others. Even as he was dying from cancer, he made everyone laugh while reminding them of the many important things that still needed to be done. He was someone from whom I learned a lot about Judaism and what it means to be a Jew. His wife, Diane, and he created Be’chol Lashon, the organization in which I met other Jews like me. It brought together outstanding Jewish leaders from all over the world. They were smart, creative, dedicated, and kind. They understood the meaning of a mitzvah. Gary’s love for his family and for the Jewish people led him to work tirelessly for the growth of both. His deeds reached to Uganda, where there is now a Gary Tobin Hospital, to San Francisco, where there is the Institute for Jewish Research and Community, to South Africa among the Lemba people, to South America among communities returning to Judaism, and, of course, to Israel.

For me, Grandma Pat and Gary Tobin are models of what it means to be a Jew. Being a Jew should not be about conquering your enemies. It should be about trying to make the world a better place. It is about taking the responsibility for the appearance of G-d on earth.

I want to conclude my Dvar by discussing the meaning of my name. I am named after my maternal great grandmother Ursula Seeliger (and then Rakoff). Since she was South African, my parents used the Zulu version “Sula,” which means both a new beginning and to wipe clean. I was born into a world of new beginnings. It was not only the final year of the 20th century, it was also the start of South Africa without apartheid. In the old South Africa it would have been illegal for my parents to marry and have children. This was also the case in the United States less than 70 years ago. But my name is also connected to my Torah portion. The Israelites wanted to enter the Promised Land as a new beginning and to wipe clean their past. But they held on to Torah, which is also a kind of memory. Even though Moses did not enter the Promised Land, we remember him. Grandma Pat and Gary Tobin are not here, but we remember them. With all of them, and with all of you here, we remember that we are each other’s responsibility and each other’s hope. Our task, as individuals and as a community, is to remember one another so that we may move forward.

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