Exploring the Complexity of B’nai Mitzvah in Film
An Awkward Journey to Adulthood
The Jewish Tradition of Bat Mitzvah
In the Jewish faith, the transition to adulthood occurs at the age of 13, a moment that is often filled with awkwardness. While religiously, one becomes mature enough to read from the Torah and take on the responsibilities of adulthood, the reality is that most 13-year-olds are still scared kids grappling with their own growth and the discomfort of hormonal changes.
In 2003, I experienced my own bat mitzvah, which was mortifyingly preceded by getting my first period. This personal journey is now depicted in the new Netflix film “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” based on Fiona Rosenbloom’s young adult novel published in 2005. The movie, directed by Sammi Cohen, follows Stacy Friedman (played by Sunny Sandler), who dreams of a memorable bat mitzvah celebration with her best friend, Lydia Rodriguez Katz (Samantha Lorraine). However, the challenges of middle school interfere with their party plans, leading to moments of ill-advised crushes, embarrassing flirtations, and the cruelties unique to disgruntled 13-year-olds. In the end, Stacy takes to the bimah to read her Torah portion and learns valuable life lessons that come with growing beyond the self-centeredness of youth.
The Cultural Significance of B’nai Mitzvah in Film
“You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” joins a rich cinematic tradition of exploring the humorous, bizarre, and sometimes traumatic transition from childhood to adolescence through the lens of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. Director Sammi Cohen, in an interview, highlighted the Jewish and human experiences inherent in figuring out one’s identity and attempting not to make mistakes while stepping into the spotlight of friends and family.
While these coming-of-age ceremonies can be an excellent narrative tool, some films and shows tend to focus on the extravagant spectacle and superficiality of the post-service celebrations, often negating the cultural and emotional significance these ceremonies hold. The spoiled bar or bat mitzvah child is an overused trope, often serving as a source of comedy. However, there are instances where filmmakers examine the nuanced and confusing intersection of faith and capitalism, particularly within Jewish American culture.
Exploring Awkwardness, Social Class, and Identity
The Hulu series “Pen15” offers a masterful portrayal of discomfort by having 30-something actors Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine play 13-year-olds in middle school. Although their characters are not Jewish, the episode featuring a bat mitzvah showcases the gawky unease that comes with the pressure to impress amidst learning about the Holocaust. Furthermore, “Pen15” emphasizes how social class can add complexity to the tradition of bat mitzvahs.
Cooper Raiff’s film “Cha Cha Real Smooth” features a bar mitzvah as a backdrop, providing an exploration of the protagonist’s insecurities as he navigates life alongside much younger b’nai mitzvah attendees.
In contrast, the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” delves into the fabric of Jewishness, particularly through the lens of Larry Gopnik’s son, who becomes extremely stoned before his bar mitzvah. The disorienting visuals and existential questions raised during the ceremony capture the faith’s introspective nature. Todd Solondz’s “Life During Wartime” takes a darker approach, using the bar mitzvah of Timmy to unveil horrific revelations about his father, showcasing the pain and confusion of growing up.
The Complexities of Real Kids
Even in cheerier b’nai mitzvah stories like “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” there is an acknowledgment of the genuine stakes and complicating factors in the lives of real kids. Betrayal, gossip, and embarrassment highlight the moral dilemmas faced by young individuals, capturing the complexities of friendship.
As I look back on my own bat mitzvah, I am filled with nostalgic warmth, but also a mix of complex emotions. The connection to my faith that I let fade and the absence of loved ones weigh on my mind. I think about the friendships that have waned over time. The exhilaration and fear of facing the world as a young teenager remain vivid in my memory. These thematic potentials highlight the true essence of b’nai mitzvah, and it is gratifying to witness filmmakers occasionally capturing it authentically.