March 13, 2008
Will ‘Bro Mitzvah’ find roots in African American community?
This was the night of his 16th birthday, and his mother, Lillie Hill, was celebrating his coming of age as an extraordinary black young adult with what she dubbed a "bro mitzvah."
Hill knew that 16 marked a turning point in DJ's life. And while she had looked into several African rites of passage, she believed the Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony, with its emphasis on family heritage and good deeds, gave her the best blueprint to validate her son's dedication to family, school, community and church and to pass on her family's values of education, worship and social outreach.
"This was a way to give him a stepping stone to build upon as he crosses into his adult life," said Hill, who grew up as the youngest of 10 children in rural Indianola, Miss., and is a trained social worker who is currently teaching.
At the black-tie celebration, held last July at the West Palm Beach Marriott in Palm Beach, Fla., with about 45 people in attendance, DJ was embraced by his grandmother, mother and three sets of aunts and uncles from his extended family. They spoke lovingly of his hard work at Palm Beach Lakes High School, his mentoring of youngsters through the Children's Coalition and his youth group work at SunCoast Church of Christ in Lake Worth. DJ's father, Palm Beach County firefighter Douglas Ulmer, had died almost two years earlier.
A church elder, Lowrie Simon, presented DJ with his own Kente cloth, a colorful woven stole depicting his African and slave heritage as well as his family's now predominant professions in education and psychology. Mayor Thomas Masters of nearby Riviera Beach gave the keynote talk, focusing on the troubled fate of many African American young men.
"It was very emotional; my family doing something so special," DJ said.
Hill believed that she had created the bro mitzvah herself, learning only later of the Disney Channel's 2006 episode of "That's So Raven," in which Corey finagles a bro mitzvah at the Chill Grill for the monetary rewards. Later in the episode, Corey reconsiders his motives, donating the gifts to charity.
And just last October, unaware of Corey's fictional bro mitzvah and DJ's real one, Paul Marx, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven and author of "Utopia in America" (Burke Publishing, 2002), wrote an opinion piece in the New York Jewish newsweekly, The Forward, advocating a ritual for 13-year-old black inner-city youths that could help steer them away from gang life.
Purposely refraining from calling it a black bar mitzvah, Marx suggested the ceremony be held during Kwanzaa and fall under the Kwanzaan principle of kuumba.
"Its principle is that blacks should do as much as they can to leave their community more beautiful and beneficial than they inherited it," he wrote.
He envisioned a ceremony encompassing a serious initiation in which boys would cross a symbolic chalk line and take a vow committing themselves to certain ways of behaving. There would also be plentiful gift giving.
Marx didn't receive his hoped-for response, but he said he is inclined to try again.
General guidelines for throwing a bro mitzvah are readily available on eHow.com, but most people are unaware of the ceremony, and it remains rare, at best.
And while Jews and non-Jews alike laud the bar mitzvah as a powerful ritual in which the Jewish community stops and takes stock of its youngsters at a crucial juncture in their lives, both Jewish and African American educators question whether a ritual can successfully be adapted from one religion or culture to another.
"I think it's very tricky," said Julie Batz, director of programs for Jewish Milestones, a nonprofit that serves as a community resource for San Francisco Bay Area Jews preparing for life-cycle rituals.
Batz believes that the essence of a bar mitzvah as a rite of passage -- an exploration of identity; a connection to heritage; an intellectual, spiritual or physical challenge, and a gathering of witnesses -- is transferable.
"But when you get to the specifics, when somebody's studying Jewish texts or learning to lain [read] Torah, I think that doesn't translate, and it's difficult cross-culturally," she said.
But everyone agrees that there is a definite need for a rite of passage ceremony in the African American community.
"The whole concept of black manhood has been kind of devalued. We have racism on one side and lack of self-valuation and self-affirmation on the other side," said Yitz Jordan, otherwise known as Y-Love, the black Chasidic hip-hop artist whose debut album, "This Is Babylon," was released March 1.
Jordan, who knew from age 7 he wanted to be Jewish and who underwent an Orthodox conversion almost 10 years ago at age 20, pointed out that becoming a bar mitzvah, a son of the commandments, is actually a universal concept.
Jordan bases his statement on the Noahide Laws in Genesis, which, advocating such commandments as don't kill and don't steal, form the basic building blocks of morality and which are applicable to all humanity.
"According to commentaries in the Talmud, the nations of the world are commanded to do this when they're 13, so really there is no cultural misappropriation," he said, after checking with authorities at Brooklyn's Yeshiva Darkei Noam.
But others, such as Maulana Karenga, professor of black studies at Cal State Long Beach and creator of the pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa, feel strongly that the ritual should come from within the African culture. "There are literally hundreds of rites of passage for young black men around the country," he wrote in an e-mail exchange.
Karenga, whose Organization Us created Majando, a rite of passage model used by various churches and institutions across the United States, favors rituals that don't deal with real or imagined pathology but rather address the ancient motive of transforming boys into men.