Although Jack Rosenthal’s television plays are peppered with Jewish characters and passing references drawn from the writer’s Jewish roots, only three bring the subject centre stage: The Evacuees (BBC, tx. 5/3/1975), Bye, Bye, Baby (Channel 4, tx. 3/11/1992) and Bar Mitzvah Boy.
Unlike The Evacuees, Bar Mitzvah Boy is not autobiographical, and Rosenthal even played down its Jewishness in a Radio Times interview prior to its first broadcast by stressing the universality of its central theme: “When I was young and reading comics there were always men heroes, actually aged about 15, who were playing football for England or winning wars single-handed. I used to think that when I’m a man I’ll be like that, never indecisive or frightened, but there suddenly comes a point of disillusionment when you realise it is a fallacy”.
In this case the disillusionment hits 13-year-old Eliot in the run-up to and during his bar mitzvah, the traditional Jewish ceremony in which a boy formally becomes a man. Looking at (and listening to) his closest male role models – his father, grandfather, his sister’s boyfriend, all constantly kvetching about trivia – Eliot is appalled: is this what adulthood means, and why is he learning all these moral rules, when it’s so patently obvious that few bother to apply them in practice? He’s equally unimpressed to be told that the event is more for his parents than him: he’s merely the prize exhibit. His mother in particular (a classic Jewish matriarch) dominates the preparations so totally that there’s little room for anyone else except for running last-minute errands or ringing caterers with deeply unsolicited reminders.
Ironically, Eliot only finally becomes the centre of attention when he deliberately absents himself from the proceedings by running off mid-ceremony, eventually revealing his motivation via a long heart-to-heart with his sister Lesley. Hotly denying that the root of the problem was his inability to learn the Hebrew Torah, Eliot demonstrates that he can literally recite it standing on his head – and thereby transfer any guilt onto others.
Long regarded as one of Rosenthal’s best television plays, Bar Mitzvah Boy has been garlanded with awards, from a BAFTA for Best Single Play in 1977 to a place on the BFI’s poll of the hundred greatest television programmes. It was also adapted into a stage musical in 1978, and Rosenthal subsequently dramatised his mixed feelings about the experience in his satirical play Smash! (1981).
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