Duddy Kravitz - played by a young Richard Dreyfuss in the film - is a young man desperate to make some money quickly. He decides that making films of Bar Mitzvahs would be easy money: after all, there’s an endless supply of ceremonies and everyone would want a record of the special day. The only problem is he doesn’t actually know how to make a film. Of course these days it wouldn’t be a problem because anyone can buy a hand-held digital camera and be their own Steven Spielberg. But this is 1974. So our hero recruits an elderly, eccentric English film-maker, who is permanently drunk, and asks him to make a film of the Bar Mitzvah of a distant relative. What Duddy hasn’t realised is just how eccentric this Englishman is - not just in his life but in his style of filmmaking. He’s what used to be called avant-garde.
So, the film is made and it’s eventually screened in front of an excited audience of the whole Bar Mitzvah family, their friends and invited guests. The Englishman’s film begins conventionally enough – inside the synagogue, Torah scrolls, ark, bimah – but the music is odd, it’s Beethoven’s Fifth, and that’s a prelude to what’s to come. The film cuts to a circumcision ceremony, blood splatters the screen, then Zulu warriors appear in full tribal regalia and scenes of Zulu ceremonial rites are intercut with scenes from the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.
Watching this, the Bar Mitzvah boy’s father, cigar hanging out of his increasingly incredulous mouth, turns to the rabbi, who’s also been invited to the screening, and mutters: ‘That’s not what I saw in shul, [in the synagogue]’. And the Bar Mitzvah film comes to a dramatic climax with scenes of guests greedily stuffing their faces with food at the Bar Mitzvah party intercut with an Indian fakir in a loincloth swallowing down razor blades. The credits come up and there’s a stunned, embarrassed silence. Eventually the rabbi saves the day: ‘A most edifying experience’, he says hesitantly, ‘a work of art’. The boy’s father beams with delight. ‘See how nice you looked’, he says to the rabbi. And acknowledging the gathering applause of the guests he adds: ‘It costs plenty...don’t worry...it’s all paid for...’
Of course - I hasten to add - Mordecai Richler’s wickedly funny parody of North American Jewish life 40 and more years ago bears no resemblance to the integrity and down-to-earth modesty with which our own Bar and Bat Mitzvah families celebrate these occasions. And yet, on another level, ‘Duddy Kravitz’ does have something interesting to say about the power adhering to the Bar Mitzvah rite of passage.
Because what Richler is acknowledging in his sly and provocative book, and what the film also points towards, is the tribal nature of Jewishness and Jewish identity; and the way in which these ceremonies are about young people taking their place as young adults inside the tribe, the culture, the traditions. Our youngsters say, by having some kind of ceremony in the synagogue to mark this transition into their teenage years, ‘I want to be part of something bigger than me called Jewish life, Jewish community, Jewish tradition. I want to acknowledge that I am one link in a chain, a chain that stretches back many generations, one more link in a chain that actually stretches back more than 2000 years. That chain has never broken, it’s never been broken – however hard sometimes the world has tried to break it – and today, as I move into my teenage years, I want to add my link to this chain: for another generation, for my generation, I am part of this tribe’.
That’s what having a Bar Mitzvah symbolises. Our youngsters think of it as a ‘coming of age’ ceremony - but it isn’t only about growing up, it’s about taking responsibility as one grows up for what one believes in, what one is committed to. And part of that commitment is a commitment to continuity...
Jews historically have paid a lot of attention to the story of where they have come from, and what has happened to them. The history and memory of what the tribe has been through, and what the customs and traditions of the tribe have been, runs like a golden thread through the tapestry of each Jewish person’s identity. For Jews the past is always woven into the present. That’s why we always go back to the original stories and texts of the tradition – it’s what the Torah is: a great fund of stories and myths and memories and images and symbols and rituals and laws which have kept the tribe going for two and a half thousand years. That’s why the Torah, in one form or another, is the symbolic centre of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.
Jewish tradition developed an elegant metaphorical image for the Torah: it was called the ‘Tree of Life’ – because its roots go very deep, back in time, and because its branches spread out and blossom generation after generation. And each child who becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah is like a new blossom on the Tree of Life.
But Judaism isn’t only about the history and memory of the tribe. The Torah is also called the Tree of Life because it’s about what promotes life, the sanctity of life, the dignity of human beings - including the dignity of other human beings who are not like us, who might belong to different tribes, different cultures. Over and over again it promotes certain values, moral values, regarding the importance of care and concern and compassion for the outsiders in society, for the strangers, for the dispossessed, for the marginalised. Judaism’s horizon of care stretches beyond ‘us’ to embrace ‘them’.
More than 2000 years ago, the tribe of Israel, who grew into the Jewish people, developed a way of thinking about what values in life are important, what values are life-giving, what values are worth promoting and speaking about and living out day by day; and they wrote these values down in this unique document we call the Torah, and they said (as it were) ‘we haven’t just invented this way of thinking about living and what’s important if societies are to function well and people thrive in them, we have not just made this up out of our own heads, we have been guided to this, we have been given this wisdom, this knowledge, this understanding - we think there is some universal energy, some force, which has let us understand how to be human, fully human, and how people should live and treat each other. We call this energy, this force, God – Adonai, in Hebrew – which means the Eternal. Because we realise that certain values – justice and compassion and kindness and generosity - are eternal. They are good for all time and for all people’.
Judaism developed this original vision and of course it was then passed on into Christianity and Islam and adopted and adapted by these other great religions...
I wouldn’t want to be 13 again (there’s no chance of that, I know, but still...): our Bar and Bar Mitzvah youngsters are part of a generation in this country who are facing really difficult things in their lives as they are growing into adulthood. They are facing huge stresses at school, sometimes at home, stresses to achieve, and to look good; stresses in relation to bullying, stresses that lead to self-harming, and depression, stresses that have placed UK teenagers almost at the bottom of the World Health Organisation’s survey published this week about the happiness levels of youngsters in the 40 most economically well-off countries round the world. And that’s not all.
Our young people are being subjected in this country to a whole range of attacks on their future well-being. They are facing huge debts if they go to university. Youth services are being decimated around the country. There’s a discriminatory minimum wage if they get a part-time job. There are cuts to social security. They are concerned about whether they will ever be able to get a secure, well-paid job. They don’t know if they will they ever be able to afford their own home.
And they may well think – and even if they are generous enough not to think it, I think it – that my generation and their parents’ generation have really screwed things up for their generation: economically, socially, environmentally, collectively as a society we have failed, and we continue to fail, to put the well-being of everybody before the well-being of a few. That’s what used to be called a ‘sin’ – but of course nobody calls it that anymore.
They see that we are faced as a society with a huge choice: it’s a political choice, and a moral choice, and a spiritual choice. Do you retreat from the world, or do you stay open to the wider world? Do you withdraw into your own tribe, or nation, and just try and look after your own – or do you stay connected with others in different tribes, cultures, countries? Do you try to look out for the interests of people like yourself – your class, your background, your education, your ethnic culture – or do you look out for the interests of others not like you? Do you build a wall to try and keep others out, and think you can manage on your own and live securely by turning inwards? Or do you recognise that we are all inter-connected and so work to ensure that your generosity and care and sense of justice reaches out to embrace others?
There are plenty of voices around, in this country – you can see it every day in the popular press – and in the rest of Europe, in Israel, in America, that are appealing to, arguing for, a narrowing down of our humane values, appealing to the tribal, the nationalistic, the fearful parts of ourselves. It’s not surprising that so many youngsters are cynical about what the so-called ‘adult’ world is doing. It’s not surprising that more than 80% of 18 year olds have a negative view of politics and politicians, and 66% feel that the government in this country isn’t trustworthy. When you are faced by a barrage of attacks on aspects of your well-being in life, and your generosity and idealism is derided as naive or unrealistic, it’s not surprising if you begin to think that injustice is inevitable, it’s easy to become resigned to feeling that you can’t make much difference...
But what impresses me about so many of the young people who have a Bar or Bar Mitzvah in this community is their belief that on a personal level acts of kindness and generosity do make a difference, they change how people feel. And they are more than aware that on a collective level you can learn from your history that the values lived out in a society are hugely significant: that great good can be promoted, that make societies function well and the people in them thrive; and great evil can be enacted that leads to hardship or persecution, and sometimes to death.
None of this is very new, none of this is revelatory, but what our Jewish tradition does is it keeps on reminding us about what matters. It keeps on reminding us through its texts and stories and traditions - because we can lose sight of what matters, it’s easy to do in the busy-ness and business of the world - Jewish teaching keeps on reminding us: kindness, concern for others, care for the environment, a passion for justice, generosity of the heart and the spirit -this is what matters. The world depends on it. Each of us depends on it.
What our youngsters commit themselves to, as they go through the tribal rite of passage called Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah, is to keep that ancient vision alive, as best they can...
[Extracted and adapted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, March 19th, 2016]