In the Jewish faith, one becomes an adult at the worst possible moment: when one turns 13 years old. Surely you are mature enough in the eyes of God and your Hebrew school to read the Torah and accept the responsibilities of adult life. But in reality, you’re probably an anxious child who, despite all those nasty hormones, is still a long way off from true maturity.
That was the case when I came to the bat mitzvah in 2003 – embarrassingly (but also with a touch of pride) – when I got my first period just before the event – and it’s also in the new Netflix movie You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, based on the 2005 young adult novel by Fiona Rosenbloom.
Directed by Sammi Cohen, the film is about Stacy Friedman, played by Sunny Sandler. (Sunny is the daughter of Adam Sandler, who plays her father in the film. Her real-life sister, Sadie, was cast to play her film sibling, Ronnie. Her mother, Jackie Sandler, also in the cast, plays the role of another girl’s mom — the role of Stacy’s mother went to Idina Menzel, who played Adam’s wife in “Uncut Gems. Do you get all that?)
Stacy has long dreamed of having an amazing bat mitzvah with her best friend, Lydia Rodriguez Katz (Samantha Lorraine), but the chaotic realities of middle school interfere with her party plans. There are rash crushes, moments of awkward flirting, and the kind of humiliating cruelty only a 13-year-old with a grudge could muster. Finally, at her bat mitzvah, Stacy takes the bimah to read her portion of the Torah and learns the kind of life lessons that come from emerging from the navel-staring cocoon of youth.
“You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” like other films and shows before it, proves that the on-screen depiction of a bar or bat mitzvah can often be a skillful vehicle for exploring the funny, weird, or even traumatic transition from childhood until the teenage years.
“Finding out who I am, who I want to be — such a Jewish experience,” Cohen, who uses the pronouns they/them, told me in an interview, adding that it was “just a human experience too.”
“We don’t all have bat mitzvahs,” they continued, “but we all feel uncomfortable performing in front of our friends and family and trying not to make a mistake.”
At the same time, Hollywood can sometimes get too caught up in the elaborate spectacle of these affairs, with depictions that strip them of their cultural or emotional meaning and instead quip about the superficiality of the post-service party. The spoiled bar or bat mitzvah boy or girl is an image that keeps coming up. In a 2000 episode of Sex and the City, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) takes on a rich brat (Kat Dennings) who hires a publicist for her bat mitzvah party. “I want it all, I want it now and I want you to get it for me,” says the girl.
During a 2012 episode of “30 Rock,” Tracy (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna (Jane Krakowski) humble themselves at a bar mitzvah by playing Transformer robots for their accountant’s demanding son. In the films Starsky & Hutch (2004) and Safe Men (1998), gags were found in criminals attending bat and bar mitzvahs.
The b’nai mitzvah party gone wild, celebrating a bat or bar mitzvah, is another classic of the genre. Keeping Up With the Steins (2006), directed by Scott Marshall, opens in a place of absurdity with an offbeat Titanic-themed soirée attended by the Fiedler family. The father, an Entourage-era Jeremy Piven who essentially plays a variant of Ari Gold, does whatever it takes to achieve the grandiosity of the event for his son. In the process, he reconnects with his own father (Garry Marshall), a reunion made possible by his child (Daryl Sabara). It’s a thin narrative that uses the hook of the over-the-top bar mitzvah to a hackneyed family history.
Financial fears are a feature of similar narratives, and it’s possible to find nuances in the odd mix of faith and capitalism that drives b’nai mitzvah in Jewish-American culture — especially when the writers, directors, and performers meet engaging in the confusing times of this era is intended for the teenagers for whom these ceremonies are supposedly intended.
The Hulu series Pen15 is a masterpiece of uneasiness — compounded by the fact that its creators and stars, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, are actresses in their mid-thirties playing 13-year-olds in middle school. Their characters aren’t Jewish, but the awkward uneasiness they cultivate comes across clearly in the episode about the bat mitzvah of a popular girl named Becca (Sami Rappoport), a moment that coincides with the time her class is doing something learns about the Holocaust. The lesson about genocide makes Anna (Konkle) think about the existence of God. The occasion triggers a different kind of uneasiness in Maya (Erskine), who is desperate to impress Becca with a fancy gift, even though it’s a challenge for her parents. Set in the early 2000s, “Pen15” encapsulates the terrifying elements of bat mitzvah-going, whether Becca arrives at her party with a song from “Damn Yankees” or a mechanically slow dance. At the same time, however, it is also examined how problematic tradition can be when it comes to social class.
Still, the episode focuses on the experience of an outsider having a bat mitzvah, not that of a true Jew. The same goes for Cooper Raiff’s 2022 directorial work, in which he also stars, Cha Cha Real Smooth. It’s a bar mitzvah film that pays little heed to Jewish tradition. Raiff’s aimless college grad Andrew — who isn’t Jewish — gets a job as a party starter for b’nai mitzvah receptions. It’s a good backdrop to Andrew’s own insecurities; He knows just as little about life as the much younger people around him. But it’s just that: a backdrop.
For a film that incorporates a bar mitzvah into the fabric of his Jewish nature, check out the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” (2009), a chronicle by Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor in the Minnesota It’s 1967. Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff) gets extremely stoned before his bar mitzvah. That’s the sort of stupid thing a little sucker would do, but the confusing way the Coens film this sequence — with blurry images and skewed angles — feels like an introduction to a belief in questioning that’s itself confusing Old Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) begins reciting Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” as a prayer.
For an even darker portrayal, there’s Todd Solondz’s Life While Wartime (2010), where Timmy’s (Dylan Riley Snyder) bar mitzvah coincides with horrifying realizations about his father. Timmy’s perception of becoming a man, as he describes it in a speech he is writing for the occasion, is to stand up for yourself, even if that means being “just plain tortured.” Solondz’s view is clear: growing up is pain. There’s less engagement with the nature of Judaism here than in A Serious Man, but Solondz sets sequences to music with Avinu Malkeinu, a Jewish prayer of repentance usually said on high holidays and serving as a reminder of the human failure that the director points to is fixed.
It’s hard to get darker than what Solondz delivers, but even some of the lightest b’nai mitzvah stories can have a touch of somberness. In You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, Stacy approaches Lydia about a boy, spreads gossip about her, and makes an embarrassing video that ends up playing on Lydia’s big night. Your petulant actions may seem insignificant, but they carry real risks, as anyone who has been betrayed by a friend knows. “Real kids are complicated and messy,” Cohen told me.
And it’s true. I have warm nostalgic memories of my own bat mitzvah mixed with more complicated feelings. I think of a connection to faith that I lost and of loved ones who are no longer alive. I think of the friends I’ve lost touch with. I remember the world in front of me and it was exciting but also so scary. That’s the thematic potential of a b’nai mitzvah, and it’s nice to see filmmakers get it right on occasion.