A young American takes on the Middle East

During his spirited romp through 13 countries, Adam Valen Levinson manages to celebrate Hanukka in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI: An unlikely setting for a bar mitzva, but it worked out for Adam Valen Levinson nonetheless (photo credit: REUTERS/AHMED JADALLAH)
ABU DHABI: An unlikely setting for a bar mitzva, but it worked out for Adam Valen Levinson nonetheless
Instead of going to graduate school or getting a sensible job, when Adam Valen Levinson graduated from college, he went to the Middle East to try to redeem it for Americans who, after September 11, 2001, were taught to fear the region and everyone who populated it.
With a few semesters of Modern Standard Arabic and an intensive Arabic-only summer program under his belt, Levinson, a Jew by birth but not so much by inclination, wants to make sense of the culture in which the events of September 11 took root. “In my bones, I felt that I was the product of 9/11,” he explains.
The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love In The Modern Middle East, is divided into 13 chapters, each of which features Levinson’s adventures in a different Middle Eastern country – though none of them is Israel.
The title comes from an incident described early in the book. Hanukka has come to Abu Dhabi and with it come two Chabad rabbis, sniffing out the Jews. Levinson spends a few pages addressing his marginal Jewish identity.
“I hardly thought of myself as a Jew in this place. Jewish, sure, but I felt about my Jewishness the way you might feel about being left-handed,” he wrote. “To those who knew me, I was a white American.”
Levinson is funny, in a culturally sophisticated way. The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah is packed with clever riffs on sometimes obscure cultural references. It may be easier to appreciate the nuances of his humor if you’re under 30 and were raised in a marginally Jewish urban environment. Readers with other backgrounds might conclude that they’re not quite cool enough to read this book.
There’s a Hanukka party, which Levinson seems to not want to miss because of the delicious irony of celebrating Hanukka in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. “[S]weet Mary and Joseph! – we were going to have a real Hanukka shindig high above the mosques, and down sweet Manischewitz above the teetotaling deserts.”
There’s a lot of drinking woven into Levinson’s numerous adventures on and around the Arabian Peninsula.
At the Hanukka festivities, one of the Chabad rabbis learns that this young American Jew never had a formal bar mitzva. Faster than a latke can be fried, one is arranged for him right there in Abu Dhabi. Unable to deny the “appeal to the absurd,” he agrees.
The morning of his bar mitzva, Levinson doesn’t know what tefillin are, except in the vaguest way. When the rabbi explains that they are “boxes containing bits of scripture that very observant Jews may wear on the arm and head during morning prayers,” he tells the older-thanaverage- but-still-young bar mitzva celebrant that tefillin are sometimes called phylacteries. Hearing the word phylacteries for the first time, Levinson jokes that, “It sounded like a kind of nosy dinosaur you’d meet at the pharmacy.”
Pronouncing the hastily arranged Abu Dhabi bar mitzva “the Jewish liturgical equivalent of a Las Vegas wedding,” Levinson finds himself “accepting the celebratory Mekupelet chocolates Yisrael brought from Israel,” and heading to work as a program coordinator for New York University Abu Dhabi a mere hour late.
Levinson is a gifted writer and comes across as highly genial, despite, or perhaps because of, his tendency to jump directly into the fire. Without any familiarity with the Middle East though, the frenetic pace of his travelogue can be confusing, leaving the reader feeling like they came into the theater in the middle of a movie.
Reflecting on his 13 months in the Middle East, Levinson said, “I treated myself like an experiment, in a series of trials kept mostly random by deliberate ignorance, to test the hypothesis that had been worded for me on September 11: you can’t go there.”
In a word, Levinson went on this wild, some might say foolish, adventure to prove that he could, in fact, go there... and live to tell the tale. It is a book only a privileged young man could have written.