The War at Home: Bar Mitzvah Battleground

Not a very nice title for a popular TV series, but those who have children, especially burgeoning adolescents (mine are much older) understand the position taken by the producers of this engaging series called “The War at Home.” In a twist of unexpected plot turns, a recent episode focused on the desire of the young protagonist in the series to celebrate a bar mitzvah. After all, this is what his friends are doing. But - and here comes the rub - his family doesn’t belong to a synagogue. This is no surprise, since his interfaith parents (really practitioners more of American civil religion than any one religion, be it Judaism or Christianity) are like the majority of interfaith families in North America in that they don’t belong to a synagogue.

So they take him to the local rabbi and lo and behold the rabbi is happy to accommodate - as long as the kid is willing to submit himself to the three-year requirement of study and preparation. That would make him about 16. And the last thing that a 16 year old wants is a bar mitzvah, especially when everyone else is 13. So the storyline ends with a predictable ending. There will be no bar mitzvah.

While this is not a reality series, it does view like one: A growing interfaith population; an interest expressed in bar mitzvah - brought on by the attendance of b’nai mitzvah celebrations; a trip to the local synagogue where one is met with a barrier that the family and child are unwilling to overcome, especially since no one seems to want to help build a ramp to make it any easier to traverse.

Wonder what would have happened had the rabbi in the story found a way to support the child’s interest and figured out how to “fast-track” him without compromising his synagogue or causing resentment among those who had paid their dues, literally and figuratively. If we are to help people find portals into the community, especially as we have learned that b’nai mitzvah are important identification-building ceremonies for children who live in so-called interfaith families, then we have to be willing to develop new approaches and not force old paradigms onto people.


  1. Thsi site is interestig in that it recognises the challenges of interfaith marraiges to become a part of the Jeiwsh community. We find it difficult to reach out since interfaith families are not readily identifiable and we on the other hand do not want to be too in your face either. We are from Canada, Ottawa to be specific where the Jewish community is still relatively small in comparison to Toronto in Canada and many American cities.

    Comment by Shelley Rivier — April 20, 2006 @ 7:15 pm

  2. We are delighted that you find our site helpful. You may be interested to note that we are currently doing work in Ottawa and will be making a community presentation in June. Feel free to contact us for details or you can get them at the local Jewish Federation as well.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — April 20, 2006 @ 7:27 pm

  3. I was wondering if JOI would comment on this show, but I’m quite confused by your commentary, because the reason you give above is NOT the reason the kid doesn’t get bar mitzvahed, as attested by this section of the recaplet you link to:
    Dave, Vicky and Mike meet with a rabbi and discover that he canít perform a bar mitzvah unless Mikeís had a bris. Well, itís a little late for that, canít cut the ribbon twice. Apparently you can. Mike suddenly loses his religious fervor and heads out the door.
    Yes, the deal-breaker is the halachic one of hatafat dam brit (drawing of the “blood of the covenant” symbolically from one who has already been circumcised). This raises a whole different sent of interesting issues from the ones you’ve blogged on above–also well worth discussing, but quite different! (Just wondering: where did you get the 3-year preparation requirement from?)

    Comment by Becca — April 22, 2006 @ 10:32 pm

  4. The 3 year requirement, though not fixed in stone, is fairly typical and reflects the requirements of most North American synagogues. And even if the number is not precise, I still feel that the issue invites discussion. As for the issue of hatafat dam brit, that becomes a more sensitive issue that may make for great television but is much more challenging in reality. Of course, there are some liberal rabbis who dont require it. Others make it less of an issue than appears on the show. But I believe in the right environment, it can be dealt with and families can be persuaded. But you are right, in the case of the show, it isnt just about the bar mitzvah. But in the case of many families, it really is just about the bar mitzvah.

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — April 22, 2006 @ 11:37 pm

  5. I saw this program a couple of weeks ago and I thought it was really balanced in its approach and still funny at the same time. I am not sure how realistic some of the scenes were but I would be interested to hear from interfaith marriages if the bar mitzvah issue really is a huge struggle especially with the various “rules” surrounding it and to what extend families attempt to find compromises among these rules by searching out more liberal Rabbis or synagogues or do they just stop all together as in this show. cheers, Jackie in Ottawa

    Comment by Jackie Luffman — April 30, 2006 @ 7:16 pm

  6. there was an episode of ‘Frasier’ that also dealt with intermarriage and Bar Mitzvahs.
    Frasier and his ex-wife Lilith are coming together for their son Freddie’s Bar Mitzvah (Lilith’s religious affiliation was never mentioned on the show, so i had no idea she was Jewish). Frasier wants to deliver his portion of the speech in Hebrew, so he hires a Jewish guy from his radio station to teach it to him. there’s one catch: the guy is a huge Star Trek fan and asks Frasier to go to a Star Trek convention for him (for legal reasons, he cannot attend) to obtain certain cast members’ autographs in exchange for Hebrew lessons. the good doctor goes through with the deal, though he’d rather not be seen among Trekkies.
    the big day arrives and the parents approach the bimah to deliver their speeches. Lilith reminisces about when young Freddie ran naked during a performance of the Boston Symphony and also reveals Freddie’s middle name, which draws a lot of chuckles from the congregation and the studio audience (hint: it’s the full first name of Ben Stiller’s character in Meet The Parents). Frasier is next and after he finishes his speech, the Rabbi looks puzzled because he had no idea what Frasier said. it turns out his speech wasn’t in Hebrew, but in Klingon. oops. but even so, as the Rabbi said in the episode “it is better to end a Bar Mitzvah with laughter than with tears.”

    Comment by heather — August 7, 2006 @ 3:55 pm

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