*severe spoiler alerts
Ruthie, in her gold dress, mumbles a line of her speech about Judith and then is silent. Her hands tremble. We see her cue cards. But she’s not reading what’s on them.
Cut to congregation members who are shouting at her: Louder / Can’t hear you / Speak up / What’s wrong with her / Is she a mute?
Finally, cut back to Ruthie. She responds:
You ask me to be louder, when I’m normally told to be quiet
You ask me to smile, eat more but diet
You tell me today I’m special, when I’ve never been before.
I’ll give you louder… (music begins, voice changes, new scene) hear me roar!
When we decided to make a film that reflected a key moment in Jewish women’s experience, the Knish Collective decided to focus on the moment just before delivering the bat mitzvah address on the bimah. This hyper-important moment, emblematic of the transition into adulthood, is a staple scene for all bar mitzvah films; it’s a sign of the trope. The ‘Bimah moment’ might be said to characterize the genre.
Indeed, there exist a number of films that celebrate bar mitzvahs, made popular most recently by the latest Coen brothers’ offering A Serious Man (2009). Framed by a boy’s bar mitzvah, this layered existentialist movie traces a 1960s middle-American suburban family story, and in particular the Job-like father’s quest for knowledge, certainty, and answers about morality and truth (answer: there are no answers). Produced just a few years earlier, the British-based film Sixty Six (2006), set this time in 1960s London, tells the tale of loner Bernie’s doomed bar mitzvah: he can’t wait to get some family attention, but as it turns out, his bar mitzvah falls on the day of the World Cup Final. As in ‘Serious’, the nebbishe father is also a victim of endless misfortune, causing further damage to Bernie’s chances of ever being noticed; but the bar mitzvah day is saved when he learns what it means to be a man (let go of things you can’t change, accept your father for the nebech that he is). In a less serious vein, Hollywood’s Keeping Up With the Steins (also 2006) tells the story of Brentwood-based Benjamin’s bar mitzvah, satirising the parental hijacking of the whole event; it, too, is a tale of the father’s development, tracing his relationship with his own father, while Benjamin, who is self-conscious about his weak voice, learns what it means to become a man (be responsible, make decisions, give up trying to prove yourself). One might trace elements of all these films to the 1976 British classic, Bar Mitzvah Boy, by the great and much-missed Jack Rosenthal. In this clever made-for-TV movie, the action takes place over the 24 hours of Elliott’s bar mitzvah day. He is dismayed by hypocritical ‘Judaism’ around him and by the immaturity of the men in his family, whom he refers to as children and babies. But even he, finally, learns what it means to come of age and grow up (in this case, lie). Praying with Lior (2007), is American film-maker Ilana Trachtman’s poignant documentary about the bar mitzvah of a Jewish boy with Down’s syndrome. Against the backdrop of the mother’s death from cancer, seven years previously, Trachtman unravels the complex emotions of each family member towards the boy and his bar mitzvah. The film explores Lior’s own hopes for his adulthood and celebrates the bar mitzvah as one of the most important events of his adult life.
These films, ranging from Hollywood comedy to independent British to arthouse, share several common themes. Each one explores the ambivalent meaning of manhood, simultaneously seeing the bar mitzvah as a chance to parade family wealth, prove Jewish worth, pull the family together and, somehow, define a family identity. Most of the films converge on the idea that coming of age is not simply a loner event, nor is it one that stops at adolescence. The bar mitzvah, and these movies, concern the intersection between an intimate journey of pubescent growth and its wider context within a father-son relationship, a family, a culture, even a whole Jewish history. It’s a moment where personal growth and public expectation collide and in these films it’s not just an awkward teenager reciting a parsha, it’s a whole family transition.
Almost all of these films and their respective themes culminate in a moment of suspense on the bimah: What will happen? Will private impulse and public expectation coalesce? Will the right tune come out? Will the boy come of age?
In Lior’s tale, the apprehension is overwhelming, chiefly because of his Down’s syndrome. There is a pause. He does it beautifully. In A Serious Man, the son approaches the bimah stoned; he, too, pauses in front of the torah, trying to focus so the letters stop dancing and he can actually see the words. The rabbi starts off his lines, and for a moment we are concerned. But then, cracked voice, marijuana and all, he gets through it and becomes a ‘man’ (evoking a truce moment between his fighting parents as well). In Sixty Six, the bimah drama is not interrupted by congregation voices, but by ‘England’ chants coming in from outside football fans; Bernie, however, ignores them and sings like an angel. In Keeping up with the Steins, there is a long moment of suspense before Benjamin launches into his cacophonous lyrics: his heart beats loudly, he makes strange noises, the congregation chuckles at his awkward first line and whispers encouragement. He remembers his friend’s advice — if you get nervous, grab your balls. This he does and the rest of the parsha and speech goes perfectly. Bar Mitzvah Boy strays from this trope when Elliott — instead of getting up onto the bimah — actually runs out of the synagogue onto the High Street and buys a Mickey Mouse mask. But even the unusual rendition of his parsha — given while standing on his head against a tree — is deemed kosher by the rabbi, and the evening party with 117 kugels goes ahead as planned.
Unlike Benjamin, Ruthie, our heroine, has no testicles to squeeze. And, in our film, the bat mitzvah does not go according to plan. Nor does Ruthie run away — she confronts the crowd straight on. Like her male film counterparts, she pauses at the bimah. Initially this pause is a moment to gather her feelings before attempting her speech, a half-hearted and tokenistic tribute to Judith who saved the Jewish people. But this pause does not evolve into the expected course of things. Instead it constitutes a shift into Ruthie’s thoughts, a shift of scenario which takes the day out of its expected format and into her fantasy. The day goes to her plan, not to the plan of her parents nor the synagogue. At this juncture the film turns into a musical with Ruthie as its star; Ruthie’s bat mitzvah is a celebration of the individual, the antithesis of her assuming her place in a long historical tradition. She defines her womanhood not through an earnest speech about the biblical Judith but by embracing the tradition of other relatable Judiths: Judy Blume, Judy Chicago, Judith Plaskow and Judith Butler.
Female creative collaborations are rare. Some theorists and feminist psychoanalysts argue that this relates to a lack of female initiation rites. It is their participation in initiation rites that enables men to feel part of a community, setting them up for further communities in the future. Working on this film together as Jewish women, we were bat mitzvahed as Jewish artists, scripting and re-scripting, collecting hard-boiled eggs at 5am, unclogging toilets, pulling Japanese knotweed out of the ground in an East London carpark. Managing the many disputes, artistic and practical, was an education in, at times, letting go, and at times, stepping up. I hope that this film opens some doors and some eyes, and encourages us to rethink the bat mitzvah and its potential importance as a ritual.
It seems that bar mitzvahs are in the air. This autumn the UK Jewish Film Festival celebrated its thirteenth year, and screened a slew of bar mitzvah themed films around London, including several of the ones I have mentioned. Aside from Bar Mitzvah Boy, all the films were released after 2006, since when bar mitzvahs have entered the common lexicon and even featured on American TV shows (American Dad, Sex and the City, and Entourage). What is it about this zeitgeist? Perhaps there is a feeling that we are, as a people, living a moment of transition. A pause. Perhaps this common theme says something about contemporary Jewish life and the point we have reached regarding intermarriage and assimilation, the new terrorism and political threats, Israel and religion. Perhaps we are interested in transitions because we are growing up again, maybe a bit more than usual. Maybe we are at the bimah of something new.
The Knish Collective is a London-based group of Jewish female creatives (Judy Batalion, Mekella Broomberg, Claire Berliner and Rachel Mars). Their script for the short musical comedy film I am Ruthie Segal, Hear Me Roar won a UKJFF/Pears Foundation short award and was in this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival. It was directed by Minkie Spiro and produced by The Knish Collective in Association with Third Man Films