The first time I’m a thirteen-year-old boy, I’m twenty-one. My hair is not short-short yet.
I’m at a bar mitzvah party in Los Angeles, my friend from high school’s little brother’s. It’s a modern and extravagant affair.
As I head for the sashimi station outside, the party planner stops me with her strong arm.
Sorry, sweetie, kids have to stay in the ballroom.
I’m wearing a white button-down, size XL children’s from Old Navy, and an oversized blazer I stole from a frat house at my school.
I stole it ‘cause I deserved it.
I guess she doesn’t technically call me a boy.
At my bat mitzvah, the rabbi tells me my name means awesome in the Torah.
But not awesome like how kids use it, awesome like mighty, like terrible and terrific.
Like how when after Moses parted the Red Sea and led the Jews out of Egypt, he sat them all down in the desert and said:
We don’t ever have to worry anymore, because God is on our side, and he is AWESOME.
We don’t ever have to worry anymore, because God is on our side, and he is NORA.
Awesome, she tells me, like your shiny gold dress.
Ten years later it’s July. I live in Brooklyn. I have a job teaching writing at a fancy art camp.
As I exit the building, trailing a hoard of middle schoolers, a man calls to me from across the street.
I’ve heard this before, all over the city, Orthodox Jews on a mission to ensure the chosen people choose back.
He crosses to my sidewalk and sticks out his hand.
Have you had your bar mitzvah yet?
When I am eighteen and manic, I get a tattoo. It’s of Noah’s Ark. Pairs of animal outlines on a crooked boat, his name in cursive underneath.
I get it because it’s funny. Plus I’m pretty sure I’ll die if I don’t.
Later I say it’s a good metaphor, starting over after a flood.
Also later I say, Could I still date a guy named Noah?
Which I soon amend to, Could I still name my son Noah?
But it isn’t until much later, years later, that I realize how close Noah is to my own name.
Did I know it on the table, feel the needle, and forget?
The night after I get my hair cut short-short, I go to a bar in Atlanta. Bouncers have always been difficult. Even when I looked like a girl, I looked young. But now everybody cares.
They ask how I got in.
You climb through the window?
They ask if I’m twelve.
Are you literally twelve?
They ask my name.
Then they walk away triumphant, mystery solved.
It’s a female, boys!
That night I lie awake in bed. I feel my heart pulse in my hand, through my chest and breast.
I look over my shoulder for kids, coworkers. None.
Yes I had my Bar Mitzvah. Last year in Los Angeles. It was a modern and extravagant affair.
The man is pleased.
He introduces himself as a rabbi-in-training and do I have a free minute to recite a prayer with him. I’d done something like this before, with some women by the subway. Shook the lulav and the etrog for Sukkot.
I tell him sure but that I’m heading to the park and so we need to do the prayer near there. Like maybe behind a rock or something. Where nobody can see.
As we head east on Carroll Street, we discuss my parents’ interfaith marriage (bad) and their search for a new synagogue (good). I tell him we made the big cross-country move last fall, a few months after my Bar Mitzvah.
He asks me if I like New York. I tell him yes but winter is hard. He asks me for my name. I tell him Noah.
At my bat mitzvah I chant a Torah portion from the book of Exodus. In it Moses and the other Jews are stranded in the desert. God orders them to build a portable temple called a tabernacle, so they can pray to him wherever they go.
God is really prescriptive about it. Like the arc for the Torah must be this long, this wide. And carve two cherubim on top.
But in my speech I ignore that part. I say what it means is you can reach God anywhere, like far away from your old home or a temple that’s destroyed. Or a temple where your shiny shoes match your shiny dress. A tabernacle is whatever you can build for yourself.
A tabernacle is whatever you can build for yourself.
Bars keep getting worse after that first bar. Or at least the bars where people haven’t really met a lesbian. In Brooklyn, I’m gay, or a girl, hair cut short. But other places I’m a child star.
The greetings are aggressive.
Are you fucking kidding me?
Or worse, fraternal.
Nice job, buddy! High five!
I start collecting stock lines to say back, like a kid whose mother has equipped them with a toolkit for the bullies.
Don’t talk to me.
I don’t care about you.
Can’t you see my multiple facial piercings?
But most have their own stock response, delivered flatly or with laughter or shock, whenever I open my mouth.
It’s a girl.
I duck under high fives and walk out the front door, two pink-nail-polished middle fingers thrust high into the air.
And honestly the bars in Brooklyn maybe make me feel worse.
I see a lot filled with dumpsters and tell the rabbi-in-training to stop. We find a spot behind the gate, guarded.
He reaches a hand into his bag and pulls out two small black boxes.
Have you heard of tefillin?
I have. Every morning during prayer, orthodox men strap one of these boxes to their foreheads and the other to their arms. They’re supposed to serve as a reminder of the Exodus, when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt.
Wearing tefillin is one of the greatest mitzvot, or good deeds, that a Jewish man can perform for God. And it’s the very first mitzvah performed by thirteen-year-old ex-boys after they’ve turned into men on the bima.
He straps one to my forehead, the other to my arm, and begins to chant.
V'ahavta et Adonai elohecha
I join in.
b'chol l'vavcha uv'chol nafsh'cha
I said it on the bima too. There was nothing on my forehead. I remember every word.
The worst bar happens one night in February. I’m almost 24.
It’s a huge crowded club on the Lower East Side that plays top 40 and Sweet Caroline in thirty-second fragments.
The comments start immediately, and everywhere. Screaming whispers half a foot from my face. Or just regular screaming, to my face. Fingers extended across the steamy room.
Two people sneak behind me, take my photograph.
A bouncer on the balcony shines a flashlight at my head, yells down he’s heard reports. A second bouncer appears to my right. I hand him my ID before he asks.
No shit. He laughs. Again, No shit.
And the bouncer on the balcony keeps shining the light.
So how do you guys feel about gay people?
The rabbi-in-training and I have finished the prayer and emerged from our post behind the dumpsters. He’s taken my tefillin and stuffed them in his bag.
Um, I don’t think we have those.
We’re on 8th Avenue now, separated by a car.
But if you did?
Well we would think that was very strange.
Because everyone in the world has one soulmate, and a man’s soulmate is not a man. He pauses. You’re not going to marry a man, are you, Noah?
No. I smile. Definitely not.
When I tell the rabbi-in-training story, I end it on the gay part. It’s a fantastic punchline. And I did really leave right after.
I say I didn’t tell him the truth because it might have ruined his whole life. If he thought gay people were strange, what would he think if he knew whose real head he had strapped tefillin to?
I didn’t tell him the truth because I didn’t want to.
It was the summer I started binding my chest all the time, even when people could see.
At the end of Deuteronomy, the Torah’s final book, God leads Moses up the mountain of Nebo and shows him the promised land: Gilead, Judah, the valley of Jericho. A whole city of palm trees, “as far as Zoar.” And Zoar was pretty far.
It was what Moses had parted the Red Sea to reach, why he’d wandered the desert for forty years. But God won’t let him go inside.
Moses dies on the mountain. That’s how the Torah ends.
There is testosterone, which makes your skin thick, biceps hard, jaw sharp, voice deep, hair more but not on your head.
There is top surgery, which makes a chest without breasts.
There is doing one thing but not the other. Like just the second one, and what will you be.
Skin thin, arms soft, face round, voice high, chest a plank and bald, like an angel, like a smooth, smooth doll, like a magic nature could not think up.
Or like a boy.
The final passage of the Torah showers Moses with lavish compliments. It says there’s never been a prophet like him since. No one with “all the mighty power,” no one who performed all the “great deeds of terror” that he did “in the sight of all of Israel.”
Those quotes are from the English Standard Version. The New International Version is pretty much the same, except instead of performing “great deeds of terror,” Moses performed “awesome deeds.”
This time that Hebrew word for terror and awesome isn’t nora—it’s hamora, a variation of mora. Mora (מורא). Nora (נורא). Same thing pretty much. If you change just one sound.
Awesome deeds. Great deeds of terror. In the sight of all of Israel.
At the thirty-second Sweet Caroline Club, I walk from the dance floor to the bar. The crowd clears a wide aisle as I move. The ones who whispered before, the ones who whisper now, the ones who take my photograph. Repel. Magic. They turn to me, to see.
I look ahead. My path is clear.
Go on. Part.
August Nora lives in New York. They co-created the comics musical Magical Realism, which was syndicated by Hobart. This is their first solo publication.