Nitzavim: A Memory



by John E. Hirsch, PhD

I wrote this drash in honor of (or is it in memory of) the fiftieth anniversary of my bar mitzvah on 21 September 1957 at Temple Beth Israel in Macon, Georgia. At not quite 13 – my birthday was the next day, the 22nd -  it was, for so many reasons, one of the great defining moments of my life. Bar mitzvahs were relatively new at our very old classically Reform congregation – founded by German Jews in 1859. That Shabbat morning, Temple Beth Israel had both a new Rabbi and its first air conditioning system. It was only the third such bar mitzvah (and rabbi) in anyone’s memory;  I wore neither a kippah nor tallit with my new charcoal grey suit, a white shirt with French cuffs, monogrammed handkerchief in my breast pocket, and a grey and green tie. I was tiny in that very grown-up looking outfit; but on that day I felt very, very grown-up, dapper, formal, elegant – and, for the first time in my life – tall.  I stood tall in the pulpit. For someone who never got much past five feet in stature, this was truly important.  I had a message to deliver!

My bar mitzvah was scheduled a week earlier than it should have been because the holidays would have prevented our out-of-town relatives from attending; so, that year, Nitzavim was read twice.  Even Moses delivered this sermon (a charge to the people Israel) but once. For a really short person, these were very big sandals to fill. In many ways, I would have preferred stilettos.

My rabbi, Rabbi Gelfman, had just arrived at our congregation. As his first official act at Beth Israel, he stepped back and let me shine; it was my pulpit.  It was at that moment that I first thought of becoming a rabbi.  It was at that moment that I gave Moses’ charge to the people.

Ye are standing this day all of you before the Lord yourGod: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even allthe men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and thy stranger thatis in the midst of thy camp, from the hewer of thy wood unto the drawerof thy water; that thou shouldest enter into the covenant of the lordthy God- and into His oath-which the Lord thy God maketh with thee thisday that He may establish thee this day unto Himself for a people, and that He may be unto thee a God, as He spoke unto thee, and as He sworeunto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

The standard canard of the day in the 1950s was today I am a man. Although I may have looked like a miniature man; I didn’t feel like one.  I had never felt particularly male; always something other. I did not know who or what I was; I was never comfortable in my skin;never liked “boy” things. I had been more involved and engaged by there-decoration of our home (picking fabric colors, choosing lamps and the like) and the party planning – flowers for the pulpit (our glatt Reform congregation had no bimah) than in any other aspect of the summer or the bar mitzvah. The Torah Portion had come easily; so had the preparation of the speech.  In those days, one did not give what we call today a D’var Torah, so, fifty years later, here I am.  Today I am a man; a queer one, but a man nevertheless.

Ye are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God,”resonated then, as now, for me as the most inclusive statement in Torah.  No matter who I was – man-child, queer-in-training, untested gender – Moses had included ME in his charge to enter into the covenant on that day.  I know that I never before felt so included in anything until that morning; I am not sure  that I have ever felt quite that included since.  No matter what or who I was – I was a Jew, first class, legitimate, honored to be there.

For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off.  It is not in the heaven,that thou should say: “Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?”  Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say “Who shall go over the sea forus, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?”But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thou mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

Empowering!  This gave me the first empowering moment of my life.  I could take charge; despite the super conventionality of the time (the 1950s) and the place (Macon, Georgia)and the family (very conventional parents, lawyer father, stay-at-home mother), I could one day be ME.  God and Moses were empowering little queer Johnny Hirsch. In those days “queer” had no positiveconnotation.  It was an ugly, demeaning, vituperative word; a word whose meaning I did not yet know nor could have understood.

Finally I recited

See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil, in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and His statutes and His ordinances; then thou shalt live and multiply,and the Lord thy God shalt bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it. But if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I declare unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish; ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passest over the Jordan to go into possess it. I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; to love the Lord thy God, to hearken to His voice, and cleave unto Him; for that is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which the Lord swore unto the fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.

Although I knew that this was the Parasha read at Yom Kippur,I could not have at 13 fully appreciated the beauty of this passage,its personal meaningfulness for me and its importance in the entire body of Torah.

I had no way of knowing of the truly dark days ahead for me. Of learning what being queer really meant; of discovering the ostracism and the hate – of facing disapproving parents upon its revelation. Of gay bashing. Of choosing a way that everyone would perceive at least as unconventional, at worst lost. But never did those words of Torah leave me because I was included; I could choose life – maybe not the life everyone else chose for me – but an ultimately authentic Jewish life. So, in the early 1960s I did not choose to become a Rabbi, to live hidden like a Marano. This was not choosing Life.

Who could have guessed that 10 years after this monumental day in my life that “choosing Life” – my life – would lead me to a 40-yearrelationship – holy and sanctified – because my partner and I were included by Moses in the people of Israel.  We chose life.  It took us an additional 33 years to stand under the chuppah, fulfilling the Mitzvah of the Morning Prayers to the rejoicing of the angels.

The land spoken of in the Portion was ancient; the State of Israel was oh so new.  In 1988 we traveled to the Land to give thanks to God and to Moses at the Kotel for having chosen life, for the Mitzvot - and for including us in the People of Israel.

John E. Hirsch, PhD served eight years on the North American Boardof the Union for Reform Judaism; chaired its Gay & Lesbian Taskforce, co-edited the first edition of Kulanu: A Handbook forCongregations Implementing Gay and Lesbian Inclusion and has served on numerous National Committees.  He was instrumental in the presentation and passage of the 1987 Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ historic resolution calling on congregations to welcome gay and lesbian members. In 1990 he founded the URJ Greater New York Council’s Gay& Lesbian Resource Committee of which he is the Chair.  A lifelong social activist, he served on the URJ Social Action Commission for six years.

He is a 33-year member of Temple Beth-El of Great Neck where he served on its Board of Trustees and has taught in its religious school since 1980. In 1990 he founded its Gay & Lesbian Inclusion Committee and has chaired it ever since.

Dr. Hirsch holds a BFA from the Ringling College of Art and Design,an MFA from New York University School of the Arts, and a PhD from NYU Graduate School of Arts and Science.  He is a professional designer and painter, a member of United Scenic Artists Local 829.  His paintings have been seen in galleries and museums all over the US, Europe and Israel, and his work is in numerous private collections.  He is Director and Curator of the Elsie K. Rudin Judaica Museum at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck.

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4 Responses to “Nitzavim: A Memory”

  1. avatar

    What a truly touching story. I am sure your journey was difficult, non the less you have,as many have proven society wrong.
    It does not matter…….
    For all you are, for all you do……
    God Bless you for being a great role model in our Temple.
    Sincerely,
    Maxine Ahmed

  2. avatar

    John – I was so moved by your blog and want to wish you Mazel Tov on the 50th anniversary of your Bar Mitzvah. Fondly, Fern

  3. avatar

    Great story, Dr. Hirsch! That sounds like a wonderful experience and memory to cherish. Too bad few children today will ever enjoy such an elegant and meaningful Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation, since respect for the sanctity of such events is being so terribly eroded by materialism. In addition, the ever-more-traditional minhagim of our congregations are barriers to the comprehension and appreciation of liturgy, Torah, and lifecycle events. You are very lucky that you had your formative years in a congregation such as that one, at that time. Though in the 50s LGBTQ acceptance was abysmal, pretty much everything else about the Reform Jewish experience was vastly better in my opinion. I think I may have been born half a century too late…

  4. avatar

    Shanah Tovah, John!
    How well you write to describe in such a positive way what must have been a very difficult journey for you. But I have ALWAYS viewed you as such an upbeat person, whom I admire greatly.
    May the New Year bring much joy and many blessings to you and Herbert.
    Love,
    Helene

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