February 22, 2020

Bar mitzvah film school

Over the years I’ve attended several bar mitzvahs — most of them at the movies.

Not being Jewish, I’ve only attended one actual bar mitzvah — which took place during the Nixon era — and the only memories I have of it are eating Baked Alaska and trying to swipe whiskey sours from the bar. As a result, I still look to the movies to educate me on this coming-of-age ceremony.

One of the earliest films on the subject is a drama aptly titled “Bar Mitzvah,” produced in 1935. Although it was an American production, the entire film is in Yiddish with English subtitles. “Bar Mitzvah” stars Yiddish theater pioneer Boris Thomashefsky in his only feature film appearance. Thomashefsky, a Ukrainian immigrant, is credited with bringing Yiddish theater to America at the end of the 19th century, and with his wife, Bessie, founded the National Theater in what would become New York’s Yiddish Theater District.

The film, based on Thomashefsky’s play of the same name, tells the story of a woman thought to be lost at sea for 10 years who returns home on the eve of her son’s bar mitzvah to find her husband remarried, resulting in “shock, tears and laughter,” according to the National Center for Jewish Film. Largely uncirculated for years, “Bar Mitzvah” has been restored and is available on DVD.

Decades followed during which bar mitzvahs in movies were rare, if not altogether absent. And when they appeared again, they were often portrayed with satire, humor and an abundance of angst.

In 2006, British filmmaker Paul Weiland reveals his anxiety in “Sixty Six,” a “true-ish story” about his bar mitzvah. Set in 1966 London, Weiland’s film tells the tale of 13-year-old Bernie Reubens, a sickly nerd who feels he’s invisible to the world around him. When his rabbi describes Bernie’s upcoming bar mitzvah as “an epic two-day festival at which you are the absolute center of attention,” the boy becomes obsessed with making it the “ ‘Gone With the Wind’ … of bar mitzvahs.”

But Bernie’s elaborate plans are soon thwarted, first by his financially strapped parents — who have planned a much cozier event — and then by his fear that England will make it to the World Cup final, which falls on the same day as his bar mitzvah party (imagine trying to compete with the Super Bowl here in America). When the English team does make it to the championship, guests begin making excuses as to why they can’t attend his celebration.

Weiland decided to turn his childhood trauma into a movie after telling the story at his 50th birthday party, where his film industry guests encouraged him to do so. Helena Bonham Carter was so impressed by the anecdote, she asked Weiland if she could play his mother in the film, which she did.

The 2006 comedy “Keeping Up with the Steins” offers another angst-ridden tale of bar mitzvah planning, but this time, the parents are the ones with the grandiose aspirations. The film opens at Zachary Stein’s lavishly produced “Titanic”-themed party on a cruise ship featuring celebrities, a yarmulke-wearing killer whale, and the bar mitzvah boy making a spectacular entrance on the bow of a Titanic replica, proclaiming “Today, I am king of the Torah!” Determined not to be outdone by his professional rival, Hollywood agent Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven) vows to throw his son Benjamin “the biggest bar mitzvah in the history of bar mitzvahs!” Adam decides on a baseball-themed event at Dodger Stadium, with Neil Diamond singing the national anthem and Wolfgang Puck catering the bash with chicken paillard baseball mitts and sausage foie gras shaped like Louisville Sluggers.

But Benjamin wants no part of his parents’ elaborate plan. He’s more concerned with trying to understand the meaning of his Torah portion and overcoming his “haftarah phobia.” And while his parents are busy treating his bar mitzvah as a fierce competition, Benjamin prefers a more meaningful theme to celebrate his rite of passage — family. The boy nixes the overblown plan in favor of a downsized backyard event, serving mom’s matzah ball soup, grandma’s brisket and Neil Diamond performing “Hava Nagila.”

Benjamin’s “haftarah phobia” seems fairly common among 13-year-olds preparing for their big event. Another example can be seen in the 2000 comedy-drama “Keeping the Faith,” where a New Age rabbi (Ben Stiller) is helping an anxious boy prepare for his bar mitzvah. “I suck,” the boy declares about his singing, but the rabbi encourages him to embrace his “suckiness,” successfully boosting the boy’s confidence if not his vocal ability.

Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann’s 2006 documentary, “Zorro’s Bar Mitzvah,” gives us an intimate and humorous look at four 12-year-old boys and girls, each from different Jewish cultures, preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs. The film reveals the behind-the-scenes anxiety and drama of these preparations, as well as an ambivalent view of Jewish traditions and their varied interpretations.

One of the most memorable bar mitzvahs in recent movies comes courtesy of Joel and Ethan Coen in their 2009 film, “A Serious Man.” Although the action takes place in a 1967 Minnesota suburb, much like the one where the Coens grew up, the story is not necessarily autobiographical. In fact the brothers’ original idea, as revealed in the film’s DVD bonus documentary, “Becoming Serious,” was to make a short film about a bar mitzvah boy who visits an aged rabbi. The rabbi was based on one the Coens knew, whom they describe as an “aged kind of sage who said nothing, but had a lot of charisma.”

Instead, the Coens developed their idea into a feature, with the bar mitzvah supplying the film’s climax. In order to keep things as authentic as possible, the Coens cast a real cantor as well as actual members of the Minnesota congregation they used in the film.

The highlight of the film is when Danny, the bar mitzvah boy, disoriented from having just smoked marijuana in the temple bathroom, gingerly makes his way to the podium. Once he reaches his destination, the zonked-out boy is stunned by the gazing congregation and by the long pages of Hebrew text sprawled out in front of him. Danny finally manages to pull himself together and complete his task. Afterward, he has an audience with the synagogue’s wise old rabbi who offers Danny words of wisdom, quoting from the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love.”

The Coens were concerned about how synagogue members would react to the unorthodox scene as well as their satire of Minnesota Jews in general. But they needn’t have worried because, as they explain in the DVD doc, “Everybody connected to the synagogue knew about the getting high scene, and they all had a sense of humor about it.”

So, what have I learned about bar mitzvahs from these movies? They can be diversely extravagant, intimate, competitive, stressful, comical, solemn or psychedelic. But invariably, the parties are a raucous festivity where each newly crowned Jewish young adult can proudly proclaim, “Today, I am king of the Torah!”