Culture, Global, Religion

The bar mitzvah episode

I was watching The Simpsons on Sunday night, and it was one of the best episodes of the season (admittedly, a lower standard than 10 years ago). Mr. Burns moves Springfield Nuclear Power Plant to India for the cheap labor, and the rest of the episode provides a cogent satire of outsourcing. Richard Dean Anderson stars in a subplot as Patty and Selma kidnap MacGyver. Immediately after the closing credits conclude, The War at Home begins, with nary a commercial in between, or even an opening credits sequence. This is a sneaky trick to keep people like me from turning off the TV. If you’ve never seen The War at Home, you haven’t missed anything. For almost 17 seasons, many shows have occupied the coveted slot right after The Simpsons, including successes like King of the Hill and Malcolm in the Middle, as well as duds like Drexel’s Class. The War at Home is one of the duds. It’s an entirely uninspired sitcom about a father, mother, and 3 kids who live in a house in the suburbs. I didn’t realize that laughtracks were even still around, but The Simpsons is the only show I watch regularly, so I’m out of touch.
Anyway, in the few seconds that it took for me to get up from my seat and walk over to the TV to turn it off (this is an ancient TV we found on the curb, so there’s no remote), the son said “Dad, I want to have a bar mitzvah.” My curiosity got the better of me, and I ended up watching the whole episode.
Lots of shows have done bar mitzvah episodes before — we all remember Paul’s bar mitzvah on The Wonder Years, and more recently, Krusty the Clown’s adult bar mitzvah. I’m sure Kyle would have had a bar mitzvah if the South Park kids aged. But this may be somewhat of a milestone, that Jews are mainstream enough that even a show as inane and lowbrow (and not even ironically lowbrow) as The War at Home can have a Jewish-themed episode. This may also be the first time that hatafat dam berit is a major plot point in a prime-time show.
The plot (and please don’t tell me you care about spoilers):
The son decides he wants to have a bar mitzvah, initially motivated by the cash and the big party. The father is Jewish, the mother is Catholic, and neither is actively practicing. They had decided way back that they’d let the kids choose which religion they wanted, so now the father gloats to the mother that he “wins”. However, he’s not actually so thrilled that the son wants a bar mitzvah, because of the cost and because he’s uncomfortable with the Jew thing. The son comes back from a “New Age” synagogue and says that he can do the whole thing in English. The father responds no way, if you’re going to do this, you have to learn Hebrew and suffer through it just like I did. Meanwhile, the mother feels rejected, so she talks the daughter into going to church to be confirmed.
The son brings home “Eli Schwartz”, a Hebrew tutor who works for free (“Teaching is a blessing”). The daughter thinks that Eli is cute and decides that she, too, wants to get in touch with her Judaism, and spends the rest of the episode saying things like “Oy vey!“.
The son practices what sound like the haftarah blessings — it was in actual haftarah trope, and started with “Baruch atah Adonai“, but then devolved into gibberish. I couldn’t tell whether this was on purpose (to indicate to the audience members in the know that he was struggling with the material) or whether they just got sloppy. I don’t understand why TV shows bother with fake Hebrew (cf. South Park) when they could get real Hebrew without so much difficulty. Krusty the Clown says a real hamotzi when he reveals his Jewish identity, and reads a real verse from the Torah at his bar mitzvah. (Bonus points to anyone who can name the verse without looking! I’ll post the answer after yom tov.) He goes into the kitchen to light Shabbat candles. Meanwhile, the father and mother discuss the fact that their son is going off the deep end, and decide that they’ll put a stop to it.
The father goes into the kitchen to confront the son, and says the whole thing is off, and blows out the Shabbat candles. But the son, though he was initially motivated by the money, has decided that he really wants the bar mitzvah, party or no party, because his father did it, and his father before him, and so forth, and he doesn’t want to be the one where it all stops. The father is convinced, and decides he’s going to throw his son the biggest party there is, and leaves it to the (still Catholic) mother to plan the party. They discuss themes and hors d’oeuvres, and the father gets his (otherwise estranged, but thrilled that their grandson is having a bar mitzvah) parents to fund it.
The final scene is with the son and his parents in the rabbi’s office. The rabbi is a walking Borscht Belt stereotype. Well, not entirely, there’s no beard. But the suit and the Yiddish accent are there. It comes out that the son was medically circumcised, but never had a proper bris. The rabbi describes hatafat dam berit, and says that it’s required if he wants to have a bar mitzvah (“We’re old school”). Penis jokes ensue. The son freaks out and leaves. The father said “I don’t understand. I wasn’t happy when he wanted to have a bar mitzvah, and now I’m not happy that he doesn’t want to have a bar mitzvah. Maybe I’ll never be happy. Maybe that’s what being Jewish is all about.” The rabbi nods, like God in Berachot 7a, and that’s where it ends.
I have to hand it to them. This is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of the shallow way in which the bar mitzvah, and Judaism in general, is viewed by a huge number of American Jews. (See this post.) It’s about the money, it’s about the party, it’s about the hors d’oeuvres. The parents aren’t knowledgeable about or interested in Judaism themselves, but to the extent that they want their children to do anything Jewish, they want their children to suffer just like they did. Even in the episode’s token touching moment when the son discovers the real meaning of Christmas or whatever, the meaning he discovers is that he’s passing on a chain letter from generation to generation, with zero attention paid to the content of that letter. The only important thing is that he’s passing it on, unopened.
On an entirely different note, have a happy and liberating Pesach!

4 thoughts on “The bar mitzvah episode

  1. I was so revolted by this episode I wrote FOX. I NEVER watch this terrible show, but like you was intrigued by the Simpsons commercial. I watched it with hubby and two boys, both boys are fairly recent Bar Mitzvahs.
    Asside from being horrible parents in general, their treatment of our faith was revolting. When the father asked the kid about all the “Hebrew Crap” I about gagged.
    Was this show, who looks to be written/produced by Jews a statement on their miserable upbringing? My sons kept asking if we could turn it off. I said no, I wanted to see how low this would go.
    Please give me Krusty the Clowns dip as a BT for a minute episode over this garbage.
    Why are Jews always portrayed as mocking their faith, unreligious, comedians…..
    At least the 10 Commandments was very good…portrayed Moses as a real man,a reluctant prophet…not Heston!

  2. ok folks, yu’ve seen the problem encapsualted in pop culture’s basest terms. we now have judaism as seen by the world, including approxmately 85% of the “Jews” in America, the 85% everyone is screaming about–we lost 1,000,000 Jews in America in the last decade because parents are assholes and don’t know squat about the price of tea in China–meaning the parents are more clueless than the kids.
    this episode, digusting, horrendous, and terrible and awful as it is, needs to be seen by every single Jewish educator in America. And then they have to be asked: Why and how did you create such monstrous ideas about Judaism?
    then, you need to have the discussion on how you will fix it, because it’s as bad as global warming and just as likely to get worse.
    solutions, please. easy to bitch. now we need to fix it.

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