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From Saccharine to Satire

A brief history of the television bar mitzvah

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In The Chosen Image: Television’s Portrayal of Jewish Themes and Characters (1999), Jonathan and Judith Pearl argue that, although Hollywood movies tend to depict the bar and bat mitzvah as trivial or materialistic (the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Wedding Singer, the Ben Stiller role in Starsky & Hutch), television has taken a far more nuanced approach: “Often great pains are taken to explain the meaning of the ceremony, its importance to the family, and its significance in Jewish life.” They’re right, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. For the first, say, 30 years of television, it was a far more cautious medium than the cinema. It either didn’t treat the religious aspect of people’s lives (there were no b’nai mitzvah on, say, The Goldbergs), or it treated religion with an earnestness that would make us squirm today. By the 1980s, it was acceptable to poke gentle fun at a rite like the bar mitzvah. And in the 1990s, when television shows like The Simpsons and South Park were fearlessly lampooning and satirizing everything, nothing was sacred, not even religious practices.

Theodore Bikel, Cloris Leachman, and Ernest Borgnine in 'The Bar Mitzvah of Major Orlovsky'
Theodore Bikel, Cloris Leachman, and Ernest Borgnine in The Bar Mitzvah of Major Orlovsky (CBS/Photofest)

Here, then, are 10 memorable TV b’nai mitzvah, moving over the years from well-meaning, almost saccharine reverence for ritual to critical, even scathing send-ups.

1. “The Bar Mitzvah of Major Orlovsky,” 1962. In this installment of General Electric Theater, Orlovsky, a Russian defector, falls in love with Miriam Raskin, the widowed daughter of a rabbi. Although Orlovsky fell away from religion as a child—fleeing home, serving in the Russian army—he re-connects to his tradition through Miriam, who is preparing to celebrate her son’s bar mitzvah. Orlovsky returns to Judaism and decides to become a bar mitzvah.

2. Car 54, Where Are You?, 1963. Joey Pokrass, about to become a bar mitzvah boy, is afraid no one will attend his big day; his father is a widely loathed landlord, and the Pokrass name is mud in town. So officers Toody and Muldoon bring over prisoners from night court to watch Joey at the bima; others show up, too, persuaded by the cops’ genuine pleadings. Old Man Pokrass is so touched at this outpouring for his son that he mends his ways and begins to fix up his tenants’ apartments. “Yesterday my son was bar mitzvahed,” he says, “but it was me who became a man.”

3. The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1966. Buddy Sorrell, played by Morey Amsterdam, has been acting funny, ducking out of the office for unclear reasons and with odd excuses. Rob and Sally speculate whether he’s having an affair, but it turns out that he’s been meeting with a rabbi: As a young child, he had to work and was unable to become a bar mitzvah, and now he is planning to rectify the omission from his youth.

4. Archie Bunker’s Place, 1981. Stephanie, the young Jewish girl whom Archie and Edith adopted after her mother’s death, wants to celebrate a bat mitzvah on this successor to All in the Family. Stephanie’s biological grandmother gets involved in the planning and insists on a big, lavish affair, but Stephanie will have none of it. After a synagogue service in which she chants in Hebrew alongside a rabbi and a female cantor, Stephanie has her party back at Archie’s house. It’s the one time Archie Bunker wears a yarmulke, and Rob “Meathead” Reiner isn’t even around to see it.

5. Diff’rent Strokes, 1984. Arnold, the young, black adopted son of “Mr. D,” attends a friend’s bar mitzvah and is attracted to a religion that gives a 13-year-old boy cash and premature adult privileges, which, he thinks, include getting into X-rated movies. Arnold consults a rabbi about converting, but when he hears about some of the challenges of Judaism—learning Hebrew, fasting on Yom Kippur—his interest cools. At the end of the episode, he goes to church with his father.

6. The Wonder Years, 1989. Kevin, played by Fred Savage, is jealous of his friend Paul, who is about to become a bar mitzvah. Kevin is moved when, having dinner at Paul’s house, he sees Paul’s grandfather give him, in anticipation of the big day, not a TV or watch but a prayer book that his father had given him. Kevin goes home and asks his parents, “What are we?” His parents fumble about, come up with a few bland European ancestries. Since it happens to fall on his birthday, Kevin, overcome by a jealousy he can’t quite name, refuses to attend Paul’s bar mitzvah. Paul is understandably wounded. In the end, Kevin relents, showing up at the synagogue in time to see Paul read from Torah. The episode ends with the two boys dancing a rousing hora.

7. Seinfeld, 1997. “The Serenity Now” episode features this fine exchange among Elaine, a bar mitzvah boy, and his father:

Elaine: Congratulations, Mr. Lippman.

Lippman: Oh, Elaine. My boy’s a man today. Can you believe it? He’s a man.

Elaine: Oh, congratulations, Adam.

[Adam zealously French-kisses Elaine.]

Adam: I’m a man!

Later, both Mr. Lippman and the rabbi hit on Elaine.

8. Sex and the City, 2000. Publicist Samantha Jones, played by Kim Cattrall, is hired to help plan the party of Jenny Brier, a precocious, young New Yorker. “My father has invited over 300 of his most powerful friends to this event,” Jenny tells a skeptical Samantha. “They’re not all coming. The Clintons can’t make it, of course. But like I told Daddy, we’ll be lucky if we can swing this for under a mil. But what do I know? I’m just a kid.”

9. Frasier, 2002. Eager to put in a fine performance at the bar mitzvah of his son (who is being raised by his ex-wife, Lilith), Frasier wants to deliver a brief blessing in Hebrew. When he accidentally infuriates his Hebrew tutor, a Star Trek fan, Frasier is deceived into memorizing the blessing in Klingon. At the big event, Frasier chants, “Pookh lod wih le koo…” then concludes, “Shabbat shalom.”

'Today, I Am a Clown,' <i>The Simpsons</i>
“Today, I Am a Clown,” The Simpsons

10. The Simpsons, 2003. Krusty the Klown, the prodigal son of Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, is moved to celebrate an adult bar mitzvah when he discovers that he cannot get a star on the Jewish Walk of Fame without having passed that milestone. In a nod to reality TV, Krusty’s bar mitzvah becomes a television special, a big spectacle that infuriates his rabbi father, voiced by Jackie Mason. But at the end, to reconcile with his father, Krusty celebrates a low-key affair at the synagogue.

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From Saccharine to Satire

A brief history of the television bar mitzvah

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