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.