Monday, March 03, 2014

Fill Up My Cup... Mazel Tov!: Bar Mitzvahs on Television

During a recent Shabbat dinner conversation with my friend Emily (@Stagemaven on Twitter), the topic of the best bar mitzvah episodes of television shows came up. She mentioned that someone should write a blog post about that and I kept it in the back of my mind. But then I heard about the January 18 episode of Saturday Night Live in which Drake's monologue had him talking about his bar mitzvah (he's Jewish!). And then I watched the February 11 episode of New Girl, in which Schmidt tries to pick up a Hebrew school teacher at a bar mitzvah, and the February 27 episode of The Crazy Ones about the ad agency having to throw a bar mitzvah for a client's son. So these all seemed like signs that I should go ahead and write that blog post. Thanks for the idea, Emily.
Why wasn't James Wolk the MC at my bat mitzvah?
Bar mitzvahs on television date back to the '60s. I haven't done research on this other than my own extensive television watching, but my guess is that after Chanukah (which usually gets a shout-out in Christmas episodes), bar mitzvahs are the aspect of Judaism most frequently referenced on television. This makes sense because parties are a good way to get a bunch of characters in a room together and on sitcoms, an obvious place for funny things to happen.

I won't go too much into that episode of New Girl, titled "Sister," because it wasn't a great bar mitzvah episode. Although, "Baruch Atah Ado-nice dress," is my new favorite pick-up line. But the bar mitzvah was mostly used for some easy Jewish jokes. Modern Family did this same setup better, in the episode "Mistery Date" (November 14, 2012), when Manny and Luke crash three bar mitzvahs so Manny can find his crush. Perhaps it worked better because it's sweeter when little boys crash a party than a douchey grown man. (I do still have love for Schmidt, but he's gotten pretty terrible this season, though that's a topic for another time.)

The Crazy Ones episode, "Zach Mitzvah," also falls under using a bar mitzvah party for crazy/funny situations. Unlike New Girl, it was one of the best episodes of that show and a great bar mitzvah episode. Mostly because James Wolk's charm goes a long way. Wolk's character Zach used to be bar mitzvah MC named Dr. Z. The theme of this bar mitzvah is "Noah Loves Chicago," so Simon Roberts (Robin Williams) has the idea to hold the bar mitzvah in the office building overlooking Chicago. Turns out, Noah meant the musical Chicago, but all is well when Zach and Noah lead a song and dance number. It's also the first time where we see the character of Zach hurt by a woman and there's a fun subplot between Sydney and a waiter/possible love interest. My only complaint is that Hamish Linklater, who plays Andrew, wasn't given enough to do, but that's more of a problem with the show in general.

The best bar mitzvah episode of all time has to be The Dick Van Dyke Show's "Buddy Sorrell Man and Boy," which aired on March 2, 1966. Buddy Sorrell never had a bar mitzvah as a child because he had to work, so he wanted to finally have one as a surprise for his mother. Because he is sneaking out for his lessons, Rob and Sally think he is having an affair. That creates for a hilarious episode, but also quite a moving one. According to my DVD, this episode was based on actor Morey Amsterdam's own experiences, which makes it all the more meaningful. The episode also showed the actual service of a bar mitzvah as opposed to the party, a rarity on television.

Almost five decades later, Raising Hope broke the bar mitzvah episode mold by combining it with a musical episode for the March 28, 2013 season 3 finale, Burt Mitzvah: The Musical. In the episode, Burt's mother finds out she's Jewish, therefore Burt is Jewish, so he should a bar mitzvah. Spoiler alert: turns out his parents were lying just to get gift money. Even if he turned out not to be Jewish, Burt (played winningly by Garret Dillahunt) is still a mensch and one of my favorite characters currently on television. (Yes, it's still on television, on Friday nights. Everyone watch it so it doesn't get canceled.) It's so rare to see a character who gets his girlfriend pregnant as a teenager and ends up being a sweet and attentive husband and father. So any episode that focuses on Burt and has a production number in a deli called "What Makes a Jew a Jew" gets my approval.

It's no surprise that most of the shows I could think of to depict bar mitzvahs are aimed at children, since those tend to have 13-year-old characters. And there is usually the token Jewish best friend, such as on Lizzie McGuire. In "Gordo's Bar Mitzvah" (January 18, 2002) Gordo didn't have his bar mitzvah because his psychiatrist parents left the decision up to him. But when Ethan Craft gets a dirt bike and Larry Tudgeman starts shaving, Gordo feels like everyone is growing up and leaving him behind, so he decides to he's ready to have his bar mitzvah at age 14. This episode, like "Buddy Sorrell Man and Boy" has some great bits of comedy--thanks to a video in which some of the fathers tell Gordo about the moments they became men--and shows the actual service of a bar mitzvah as opposed to the party. They don't make Disney Channel shows like that any more.

Kim Possible, another Disney Channel show, didn't have a bar mitzvah because they were already older, but in "Ron the Man" (April 25, 2003), Ron Stoppable realizes his bar mitzvah certificate was never signed by Rabbi Katz and starts questioning whether or not he is a man. Thanks to the voice talents of Will Friedle as Ron and Patrick Warburton as Mr. Barkin, it's a very entertaining episode, and like Lizzie McGuire, shows that there is no magic formula to becoming a man.

Ron's father on Kim Possible was voiced by Elliott Gould, who also voiced Rabbi Goldberg in another one of my favorites, the Hey Arnold episode "Harold's Bar Mitzvah" (December 21, 1997). Harold, the bully with a heart of gold, is only interested in presents, but Rabbi Goldberg explains to him that a bar mitzvah is about growing up and being responsible. Harold runs away and finds himself in situations where he has to be charitable and responsible, which convinces him to have his bar mitzvah. This episode also shows Harold praying in Hebrew.

It was harder to think of examples from dramas, but then I remembered in my dearly departed Smash, Karen was hired to sing at a bar mitzvah in the March 12, 2012 episode "Chemistry." Not a great bar mitzvah episode, because it came off on the unrealistic side on the reality index, but at least they had caricatures and a "mazel tov" cake.

Better drama episodes could be found on HBO. Remember when a young Kat Dennings as Jenny Brier hired Samantha to plan her bat mitzvah in the Sex and the City in the episode "Hot Child in the City" (September 24, 2000)? And of course Entourage, which also had a Yom Kippur episode (my favorite episode of the show ever), found Ari Gold's daughter getting her bat mitzvah back in season 2 (when the show was still good) in the August 7, 2005 episode appropriately titled "Bat Mitzvah." Some highlights include Drama telling Turtle not to eat before the bat mitzvah (as my mom used to tell us to do because there would plenty of food at the party and we didn't want to ruin our appetites) and Drama and Turtle discovered the kiddie buffet (which always has better food than the adult buffet).

It seems that television does a pretty good job of depicting one part of bar mitzvahs accurately (either the party or the ceremony), so maybe one day we'll get an episode that does both. I know a lot of shows I don't/didn't watch have had bar mitzvah episodes. What did I leave out? What are some of your favorites? I'd love to hear about them in the comments or on Twitter.


dlevy said...

No favorites list would be complete without 30 Rock's Werewolf Bar Mitzvah bit.

Emily said...

I'm so glad you did this! One of my favorites was the Happy Endings episode: Boys II Menorah:

Fun fact, the first TV show that showed a bar mitzvah was Car 54, Where are You?

Linda said...

I love "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah," but I didn't include it because it's not an actual bar mitzvah.

Anonymous said...

A great bat mitzvah episode that came out the week after this was posted is the Bob's Burgers episode "Mazel Tina". Tammy's Bat Mitzvah, while over the top, was a showed how over the top b'nei mitzvot can be. Additionally, the episode has a lot of great bar/bat mitzvah and general jewish references--like the band, The Klezbians. And Tina does a KILLER Motzi.