(RNS) — I was not supposed to like Netflix’s “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah.”
Here is why.
Thirty years ago, I created my own rabbinical cottage industry — observing and critiquing bar/bat mitzvah, American style, and working on ways to improve it.
That is what led me to write my books: “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah“; “For Kids — Putting God on Your Guest List: How to Claim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Bar or Bat Mitzvah“; and “The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary.”
Here was my basic point: American Jews need to restore both sanity and sanctity to the bar/bat/b’nai mitzvah (which many communities now call b-mitzvah or bet mitzvah). I intended for my books to be tools in that quest.
So, what did I think of “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah”?
Not as bad as it could have been; not as good as it needed to be.
“YASNITMBM” is a sweet movie about Stacy Friedman’s bat mitzvah process. It is about the various trials of early adolescence. Adam Sandler’s wife and daughters star in the film, which makes it all a little bit more heimisch (“homey”).
This is not the Adam Sandler of Saturday Night Live’s Jewish celebrity-naming “Hanukkah Song.” This is what happens when you grow out of extended adolescence and become a parent.
Idina Menzel plays Adam Sandler’s wife — again. She and Sandler played a highly dysfunctional married couple in “Uncut Gems,” which portrayed a far less wholesome side of upper middle class, suburban Jewish life. You don’t want to think about what a bar or bat mitzvah in that family would have been like.
Which leads me to an observation about movies that feature bar/bat mitzvah. The kid always rebels against the peripheral, materialistic aspects of the celebration, and decides they don’t want to do it, and sometimes even runs away. You see that in “The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick,” “Unstrung Heroes” and “Keeping Up With the Steins.”
True to form and cinematic precedent: A version of that rebellion/escape happens in “YASNITMBM.”
A second observation — this one, about movies that feature rabbis — they are inevitably older men, pedantic, boring and irrelevant. (Though it turns out that the oldest, most traditional, Old World-style rabbi in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” is the most relevant).
So, let’s talk about the rabbi in “YASNITMBM” — Rabbi Rebecca, played by Sarah Sherman.
She is cool, playful with her students and a little over the top.
On the one hand, I cringed.
On the other hand, we are seeing a rabbi who is trying to connect with kids and seems to be succeeding.
(The cantor? Could we have heard some real chazanut — cantorial artistry — in addition to the guitar strumming?)
At one point, Rabbi Rebecca threatens to cancel Stacy’s bat mitzvah ceremony because she hasn’t fulfilled the requirements. How many rabbis, cantors and educators have been tempted to do precisely that?
Rabbi Rebecca wants to hold kids to the synagogue’s educational standards. As they say, this is “good for the Jews.”
So, where does “YASNITMBM” leave me?
I loved Adam Sandler and I loved his daughters.
I liked seeing so many kids, in all their diversity, in a synagogue, which was played by Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto.
But the movie still leaves me worried about the role of b’nai mitzvah in American Judaism, and its implications.
Non-Orthodox Jewish life has become b-mitzvah-centric. Once upon a time, bar mitzvah (before bat mitzvah became popular) was simply a phrase in the paragraph of a Jewish life.
Today, it has become the defining paragraph.
Let’s start with the whole bar/bat mitzvah industrial complex. We are talking about a gazillion-dollar business in America — with DJs, performers, themes, souvenirs, swag, sweatshirts from the celebration that serve to remind the dweebs who weren’t invited that they are not the cool kids — complete with stuff that just wastes kids’ time, like having to create entrance videos(!). You know the cliche: “too much bar, too little mitzvah.”
Not like the problem of Jewish celebrations is new.
Back in 16th-century Poland, one of the greatest Ashkenazic legal authorities, Solomon Luria, didn’t like what he saw either. (What were the party themes in the 1500s? I shudder to imagine.) He condemned bar mitzvah parties as “occasions for wild levity, just for the purpose of stuffing the gullet.” It got so bad that rabbis passed laws to limit spending on festivities — to protect the dignity of the less wealthy and probably to protect the Jews from the (lethal) anger of jealous gentiles.
The over-focus on celebration is not an image American Jews want to promote — for ourselves and for our young people. We are so much better, so much deeper than this.
Jewish education has become b-mitzvah-centric. In the world of supplemental Jewish learning (synagogue schools), bar/bat mitzvah has cannibalized Jewish education. To quote one of my colleagues: we “teach to the test” — the ceremony.
Consider this: The majority of Jewish kids disappear from Jewish education right after the singing of “Ein Keloheinu” at the end of the service. All too often, the family leaves the synagogue as well.
Precisely at a time in their lives when kids are capable of higher thinking, of grappling with the real issues of life, and precisely at the time when their Jewish identity will come under the most challenges: the vast majority of Jewish kids will be stuck with 12-year-old notions of Judaism and Jewish life.
What about the service itself? It was good to hear Adam Sandler yelling at his real-life daughter, getting her to study her haftarah.
But why do we opt for performative Judaism, which merely seeks to sound good on a Shabbat morning?
Here is the thing. There is less and less time available for Jewish education — even and especially for kids below the age of 13. Educational programs have gone from three times a week, to twice a week, to once a week — and increasingly, to every other week.
And from this, we expect to teach kids how to read and chant Hebrew?
The whole system is unsustainable.
What is Judaism, anyway? What is the role of Judaism in this movie? Yes, the ubiquitous notion of tikkun olam — repairing the world. Yes, the (also ubiquitous) mitzvah project — visiting elderly Jews in a nursing home — certainly, a meritorious Jewish value.
It’s about reconciliation, forgiveness, becoming a mensch — a good, ethical person — which should be the very essence of Judaism. Or, frankly, of any religion. A religion that isn’t producing that person simply isn’t doing its job.
But, there is far more to Judaism than simply being a good person.
Let’s have a serious talk about bar/bat/bet/b/mitzvah — as in the meaning of mitzvah itself.
Most American Jews pronounce it as mitzveh. This is the Yiddish, folksy meaning — a nice thing to do.
But, in Hebrew, the word is mitzvah, which means an obligation that emerges out of the uniquely Jewish relationship with God, Jewish texts, Jewish history, etc.
As Elana Stein Hain taught this summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem: American Jews need a new narrative of obligation and empowerment. Because “It’s not about you.”
So, my idea for a movie about b-mitzvah in America.
Kid is a candidate for the rite of passage, confronts vapid Jewish education, over-emphasis on the celebration, clueless parents, etc.; skips town, goes to Israel on a Jewish spiritual quest, has adventures, encounters various teachers and role models, comes back with a new sense of Jewish identity.
Does anyone know a good agent?
When my book “Putting God on the Guest List” was first published, the Israeli statesman Avram Burg reviewed it for Haaretz. It was one of the proudest moments in my career.
The title of the review (in Hebrew): “Don’t forget to invite God to the bar mitzvah!”
There is still time for us to remember to do that.