Like me, actress, comedian and author Tiffany Haddish will celebrate her bat mitzvah in December. But that’s where the similarities end between our coming-of-age ceremonies. Mine was on the eve of my 13th birthday in the suburbs of New York City, while Haddish’s will be a red carpet gala with celebrities on her 40th birthday, the day that her special “Black Mitzvah” is released on Netflix.
“For a long time, I didn’t even know black Jews existed. I didn’t know anything about Judaism for a long time,” Haddish told me while discussing people’s reactions to her opening up about her Jewish identity.
“Black Mitzvah,” which will be released Dec. 3, is basically one long d’var Torah. Haddish talks about what she’s learned in life, from her dealings with men to her experiences in foster care, to when she bombed a stand-up show on New Year’s Eve because she was extremely hungover.
She even talks about her history with other religions. Haddish’s mother, Leola, was a Jehovah’s Witness, and Haddish had a brief stint with Scientology. Catholicism didn’t quite do it for her either, she said.
And of course, she talks about Judaism. “Black Mitzvah” opens with Haddish being carried onstage in a chair by four men while she sings “Hava Nagila.”
“That’s one of my favorite songs,” Haddish said. “The reason I love that song is because what it’s saying is, ‘Let’s celebrate, to life, let’s party, my brothers, let’s come together, let’s enjoy life. This is the life we have to live, so let’s celebrate it together.’
“That is so powerful, and I feel like that’s what I was doing. I was celebrating the life I have to live,” she said. “I was celebrating with the people that were in the audience, and the people that were going to be watching. And it might not be perfect — life isn’t perfect, I’m not perfect. But we should celebrate the opportunities that we have to live. That’s why I wanted to open with that: It’s a mitzvah, a celebration, we’re alive.”
While Haddish wasn’t always familiar with Jewish liturgy, she’s no stranger to the b’nai mitzvah circuit. She was first introduced to the Jewish community in 1996 when at age 17 she began working as an “energy producer” (aka, dancer and MC) on the bar and bat mitzvah scene. She held onto that job until 2009. By her count, she’s worked more than 500 of them.
“As I got into that profession as an energy producer, I started learning more and more about the Torah,” she said. “I could really relate to it. And when I met my father, it really resonated with me. I was like, ‘This is what I am.’ I did my 23&Me, and it said the same thing. I [thought], well, I can’t deny this. I wanna claim it.”
Haddish met her father, Tsihaye Reda Haddish, an Eritrean Jew, for the first time when she was 27. He told her about his Judaism and what it was like to live in Eritrea, where it was illegal to be Jewish. He attended her wedding, and although they had a turbulent relationship — as she writes in her memoir, “The Last Black Unicorn” — ultimately she found herself through learning about her heritage and history.
Now, as the day of her bat mitzvah approaches, Haddish recalled her fondest memories of working bat mitzvah parties — the father-daughter dance.
“I wish my father was still alive so I could dance with him,” she said. “I mean, I danced with him at my wedding. But that was … I guess that’s enough. I’m looking forward to getting lifted in the chair; I’m excited about that. That’s my favorite part.”
At her bat mitzvah party, Haddish will have a grand entrance, there will be a candle-lighting ceremony, a montage, and “lots and lots of dancing.” Her old colleagues — all the people she used to work with at bar and bat mitzvahs — will be in attendance, along with celebrities like Sarah Silverman, Billy Crystal and Sinbad.
“We’re all gonna break it down like the good old days,” Haddish said. “We’re a lot older so I don’t know how good we’re going to do, but we’re definitely going to be breaking it down.”
Her mother will also be there, which is no small feat. After surviving a near-fatal car accident when Haddish was 8, her mom was diagnosed with a mental illness and institutionalized.
“I got her out of that mental institution,” Haddish said. “That’s one of my proudest accomplishments: getting her out the mental institution, buying a house for her, getting her the proper care that she needs, and seeing her slowly transform back into my mother that I remember.”
Her mom’s institutionalization sent Haddish and her siblings into foster care, eventually ending up living with their grandmother. When she turned 18, her grandma kicked her out and Haddish was homeless for a while.
No stranger to challenges, Haddish said the hardest part of preparing for her bat mitzvah service was “learning to read Hebrew. I can say it, but to actually read the Torah, learning the alphabet, learning shin, sin, gimmel, mem …”
The other hardest part? “The way you sing,” she said. “First off, I love that I get to sing, that’s the best part, right? I’m so excited. But learning where it goes [sings] … My goodness! Oh, my. Oy vey! But I love it, I love it.
“The main thing I hope that I take away from [the bat mitzvah] is that I inspire some of my friends to maybe study the Torah. Inspire my friends to, you know, dig a little more into their background and their history, and build more community and create conversation.”
Finding Her Truth
Haddish also said she hopes that by opening up about her journey to understand her heritage, it will encourage others to do the same.
“Something that I feel like a lot of African-Americans have been stripped of is their history,” she said. “We don’t know what our origin story is, because that was taken from us. And it talks about that in the Torah, I think it’s so powerful. I feel like more people should figure out who they really are. Find out your bloodline, what you are, study that and learn from that.”
When I asked if she feels welcome in Jewish spaces, Haddish responded, “Well, it depends on what synagogue you walk into, honey. It depends on where you show up. It depends on how old the people are. Some of these people, they come from a time when everyone is supposed to be separated from each other. They come from segregation.”
But Haddish has no problem speaking up for herself, even using Jewish values to defend her point.
“It’s sad, and it’s totally against what the Torah teaches,” she said. “The more information I know, the more I’m like, ‘No, no, no, Mrs. Goldberg, let me show you something! Now right here in Genesis it says …’ It’s so funny how some of them don’t even know the Torah! But they’re like, ‘I’m a devout Jew.’ Oh, you are?”
Haddish said she hopes her special helps viewers find their own truths.
“I was trying to figure out a way to tell my truth, my experiences in life, and also maybe open other people’s eyes to the fact that in African-American culture, there is nothing that says, ‘OK, you’re officially a woman,’ or ‘You’re officially a man.’ There’s no ceremony. There’s no rite of passage,” she said. “One of my homeboys said, ‘You know, I’ve been to jail like three times, I’m a man.’ Going to jail — I don’t think that makes you a man. Knowing who you are, knowing where you come from, that’s what makes you an adult. And being able to share your story.
“That’s what I love about Judaism, because it’s all about sharing your stories and questioning and learning from each other.”
Emily Burack is an associate editor at Alma. This article was provided by the JTA global news source.