The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah

  • Review
By – October 22, 2019

Why does a nice Jew­ish boy, a recent col­lege grad­u­ate, go to Abu Dhabi for his years-late bar mitz­vah? In brief, he didn’t. Going to Abu Dhabi came first — the bar mitz­vah was unplanned and spur-of-the-moment, all because of an encounter with two Chabad rabbis.

This is how Adam Valen Levin­son came to cel­e­brate his bar mitz­vah at twen­ty-one years old in the island city of Abu Dhabi, cap­i­tal of the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates. It is only one of the sto­ries he tells in The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitz­vah: Fear and Love in the Mod­ern Mid­dle East.

What took Levin­son to Abu Dhabi was a posi­tion as pro­gram coor­di­na­tor for New York University’s Abu Dhabi branch, which began with an inten­sive study of Ara­bic pri­or to his leav­ing the coun­try. Defin­ing him­self as the prod­uct of 9÷11” which he felt gave him lens­es” to see the world, Levin­son board­ed a plane to Abu Dhabi in 2010. Pri­or to this, the only Mid­dle East­ern coun­try he vis­it­ed was Israel on fam­i­ly trips. This time, he would end up trav­el­ing to the region’s coun­tries that are noto­ri­ous­ly unwel­com­ing to Amer­i­cans and Jews, like Iraq, Syr­ia, Yemen, and Soma­lia. Levin­son was look­ing for adven­ture, thrills, and some lev­el of under­stand­ing of the area and its people.

One win­ter day in Abu Dhabi, two Chabad rab­bis from Brook­lyn showed up at the NYU high-rise apart­ment build­ing where Levin­son lived. They had come to light Hanukkah can­dles for any Jews liv­ing there, which he didn’t want to miss. When the rab­bis learned that he nev­er had a bar mitz­vah, they insist­ed he return the next morn­ing so he can expe­ri­ence this Jew­ish rite of pas­sage. Tak­ing part in a Jew­ish rit­u­al, guid­ed by Ortho­dox rab­bis for an un-ortho­dox man and over­look­ing Abu Dhabi’s mosques, appealed to Levinson’s sense of the absurd. So, he showed up the next morn­ing before work for his bar mitzvah.

Then came the Arab Spring, and Levin­son want­ed to escape the air-con­di­tioned bub­ble” of an Amer­i­can in Abu Dhabi and instead con­nect with the rev­o­lu­tion­ary moment hap­pen­ing in the Mid­dle East. So off he went, lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly cross­ing bound­aries as he trav­eled to these protest­ing coun­tries. He knew it was dan­ger­ous and risky, but thought it was also excit­ing, as he sought to define his own sense of him­self through encoun­ters with the oth­er” on their own turf. In what­ev­er way he couched his pur­pose, he was dri­ven by a need to test his own limits.

In his flu­ent style, Levin­son is play­ful and warm, hon­est and thought­ful. Yet, he can also dis­play a youth­ful arro­gance that calls into ques­tion some of his per­cep­tions of his experiences.

At the end of his jour­ney, how­ev­er, he learned to ques­tion the gut feel­ings” and the assump­tions that guid­ed his actions and may have led him to mis­tak­en con­clu­sions. Per­haps, most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, he learned that his free­doms real­ly weren’t lim­it­less,” which ulti­mate­ly exhib­it­ed Levinson’s growth.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

Discussion Questions