The Canceled Bat Mitzvah Is a New TV Trope

Recently, I was watching the FX on HULU series “Fleishman is in Trouble,” an adaptation of the eponymous novel, chronicling the journey of Toby Fleishman, a newly divorced Jewish father of two on the Upper East Side. In a scene added just for the TV series, Toby’s pre-teen daughter Hannah sits in the rabbi’s office in preparation for her bat mitzvah. 

The kid is ready. Despite a summer of family turmoil and upheaval, Hannah knows her Haftorah and everyone couldn’t be prouder. The rabbi tells her she is taking up the torch for her people. And that the world is a broken place that needs smart young girls to fix it. Suddenly Hannah’s eyes widen. She looks straight ahead and says, “I think I’m not gonna do this… I’m gonna go. Thank you, Rabbi. And I’m sorry it didn’t work out.” Her rabbi and father are stunned. 

And there it is, a strange and recently ubiquitous TV trope: the kids who cancel their b’nei mitzvah on the turn of a dime.

For instance, on “Transparent”, 13-year-old Ali tells her parents she does not believe in God and she too cancels her bat mitzvah. It’s later revealed that while she knew her Haftorah portion she was just anxious she couldn’t do it. 

It happens in the “Sex and the City” reboot “And Just Like That.” And in both “Weeds” and “Orange is the New Black,” pre-teens essentially go off-script and blow up their b’nei mitzvah mid-service. In all of these examples the decision is presented as swift—a dramatic turning point.

There is no family conversation first. Just the same move over and over again: children apparently show they are independent thinkers by rejecting the sway of their family, their heritage, or their religion. In “Fleishman,” for instance, Hannah’s father Toby follows her into the sanctuary after she quits and begs her to explain herself. She says, “You always tell me to think for myself and not to be corrupted by the people around me, but I want my own traditions. I want my own life and I wanna make my own decisions.” 

Cut to a voice over narration as father and daughter embrace: “And if a bat mitzvah is also a coming of age, then [Toby] had to agree that Hannah did not need a ceremony to do that. She’d grown up right in front of him, slowly and then all at once.”  Whether or not the parents support or reject their child’s decision, the message to the audience is clear. The Jewish child has matured, not because they were b’nei mitzvahed – but because they weren’t.

First of all, let’s name that for the most part this is a fantasy. Most kids don’t get to cancel their b’nei mitzvah hours before. And it’s a compelling fantasy – whether simply because it’s a dramatic scene or because we see a kid apparently showing their bravery and independence by rejecting a tradition that doesn’t mean anything to them or that doesn’t serve them. As a queer Jew, as a leftist, I understand this impulse. It’s an indictment on so many Jewish institutions that do not offer relevant, accessible, and meaningful Jewish life. I understand the imagined empowerment of rejecting something that keeps rejecting you—or parts of you. And I acknowledge that canceling the whole shebang is the best many people in Hollywood can imagine.

But as a rabbi who has done over 130 b’nei mitzvahs at this point, I’ve seen many kids imagine something more interesting and complicated; they take their alienation and disaffection and transform the ceremony into something deeply relevant and alive. The key is to talk about it. In the right community, where a sense of openness and adaptation have been cultivated, you can do this. You can welcome kids’ criticisms as a serious contribution.

A b’nei mitzvah ceremony is the culmination of so much work. It’s hard to learn a new language and new ritual skills. It’s even harder to use those new skills in public. For some children (and adults) doing anything in public can feel almost impossible. Maybe speaking about one’s true doubts and criticisims can actually help a child feel seen and celebrated enough that the work feels worthwhile.

I’ve seen children celebrated for their feminist instincts, their queerness, and their gender and racial identities. I’ve seen so many children publicly speak about not believing, about their rejection of all forms of nationalism, about their hope and uncertainty and convictions. I’ve seen the process teach these young people that their voices matter as do those who came before them. And, in the end, queerness, feminism, religious criticism, racial and political consciousness, all help the tradition adapt and become relevant for a new generation. 

In short I’ve seen this acheived in four ways.

  1. Children’s real talents and interests are incorporated. In my congregation, Kolot Chayeinu, children are invited to get creative for their Haftorah reading. They can chant, but they can also write a song, share a piece of art they have made, put on a play, or lead a discussion. This innovative idea was first brought to Kolot by my predecessor, Rabbi Ellen Lippman, and by Kolot’s Cantor Lisa B. Segal. 
  1. In their divrei torah (sermons), children are encouraged to say what they actually think. This includes their political values, their philosophical doubts, their concerns and criticism. They learn that debate, disagreement, and criticism are all allowed in shul, especially in shul, as long as they’re respectful.
  1. Children hear their family, their teachers, and their clergy celebrate them for who they are. In our services the children get a blessing from their parents, another one from their tutor, and another one from me. We talk about them in ways that matter to them. We use a child’s preferred name and pronouns and affirm their identity. Parents celebrate their child’s interests, qualities, and growth in all areas of their life. 
  1. At multiple points in the process, children and parents get the chance to talk with teachers and clergy about what this process is bringing up for them. If a child becomes very anxious you do have to talk about the experience that is bringing up for them, or at least foster an environment where they know such conversations are possible when they are ready. If the service setup does not support neurodiverse students, you make changes and accommodations. You figure out what is core and what can be adapted or altered to really support a child’s full self. 

It’s complicated. But it’s possible. B’nei mitzvah can be a vehicle for young people to find a balance of self and community, tradition and innovation. And ultimately, Jewish people deserve something other than pot shots and whole-cloth rejection of ancient rituals. They also deserve something other than staid empty ceremonies that are a burden at best and can, at worst, be traumatizing. 

Let’s be honest: not everyone has access to the kinds of communities that would be open to the ceremony and process I describe above. But the vast majority of these shows take place in NY and LA, where opportunities abound. And it’s TV! If these dramatic scenes are so easily imagined, then why can’t we imagine something new. Something a little closer to what’s working.

The spontaneously canceled b’nei mitzvah trope offers a fantasy of freedom that comes from abandoning tradition. For all those who want to turn and face the tradition instead, may we evolve and sustain the tradition. May we follow a different kind of fantasy. One we make together. And may we let ourselves be surprised by what we choose to hold onto—and not just what we chose to discard.