Like it or not, “You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah” not only exists but is soaring in popularity in both Jewish and secular circles. As Jews, whether we personally like the movie or not has very little impact on the extent to which the broader American public will connect to it. We have a responsibility to not only watch, but also consider how we do and do not connect to it, and how we might talk about it in secular spaces.
I walked away with very mixed feelings. There were many part-truths about the Jewish community that illuminate aspects of American Jewish culture that we don’t want to admit exist in Jewish spaces, when, in fact they do. Some parts of the movie were completely off base and should have been corrected. There were other things that were simply painful to watch. And then, there were also some aspects that were reflective, aspirational, and maybe even, dare I say, inspiring.
As a rabbi, it’s hard for me to not focus on the rabbi character. Big picture: I found Rabbi Rebecca entirely exaggerated but also relatable. I have to say that I’d rather be represented by Sarah Sherman any day than a boring old man with a long beard, as rabbis are typically portrayed in the media. Representation matters and the broader non-Jewish world needs to start seeing more rabbis on the Sarah Sherman end of the spectrum than the spectrum that rabbi characters have dominated for many years.
That said, not everything about Rabbi Rebecca was flattering of rabbis. Rabbi Rebecca tried way too hard to be relatable and, frankly, it was too extreme, even if light, fun, and hip. The interaction with the student Aaron when she jokes about him being a snake like King David and then comments on his arm hair and mustache coming in was horrible to watch. This was a total boundary violation and an inappropriate interaction between a rabbi and a young person that would not be tolerated in any Jewish setting today. That scene shouldn’t have happened and was a bad look for the vast majority of rabbis who are genuinely trying to relate to young people and break down barriers that prevent others from being able to connect to us. These types of interactions give the wrong impression about what it looks like for real rabbis who are out there meaningfully and appropriately connecting with young people.
There were a number of minor details that could have easily been corrected without taking away from the entertainment value of the movie. Stacy’s Torah reading is a great example of this, though it must first be stated that seeing a female character chant Torah accurately while following along in the scroll was awesome and can not be understated in its significance, even in 2023. But no gabbai? No aliyah blessing after chanting? These are minor details but could have so easily have been corrected for greater accuracy. Additionally, the decision to sing Bim Bam with 7th graders was unnecessarily ridiculous. No respectable clergy team would lead bim bam for anyone over 3rd grade. Why couldn’t they give us a good hinei mah tov or oseh shalom? There are so many recognizable Jewish tunes beyond Bim Bam!
These details aside, there were many things I appreciated and connected to. I loved that Stacy talked to God throughout the movie and found this to be a great addition to a character that was surprising and refreshing. The topic of God is often ignored or deemphasized in Judaism. We typically only get to see Christian characters’ personal God relationships so it was great to see the integration of age-appropriate Jewish theology in mainstream media.
The thing I loved the most about the movie was that Rabbi Rebecca was the religious school teacher for the 7th-grade class! Dr. Rabbi Lenny Kravitz (one of my professors from rabbinical school, not the singer) told us almost every single class that we should teach b’nai mitzvah students when we become rabbis. It stuck because of how often he said it and it was one of the first things I thought of when I saw Rabbi Rebecca as the classroom teacher. Very few synagogues have a rabbi as the 7th-grade classroom teacher (many rabbis teach Confirmation or are involved in the operations of the school). Sure, many synagogues have clergy actively involved with 7th graders, as I was in my pulpit position, but nothing compares to the experience of being a regular classroom teacher. I loved this role for Rabbi Rebecca. It was great to see a portrayal of the rabbi-student relationship that was as close as the relationship Rabbi Rebecca had with the students of what was clearly a huge synagogue. Unfortunately it is logistically difficult for rabbis to teach 7th grade due to larger issues of rabbinic capacity in synagogue settings, but it is aspirational and it was powerful to see it modeled in this movie. I love that broader American culture might be walking away thinking that rabbis and 7th graders have this close of a relationship. It was inspiring and something I’d love to have as part of my rabbinate someday.
All this said, I’m walking away feeling deeply worried about a number of things. I hated that this movie was yet another portrayal of Jewish culture as exclusively wealthy with elaborate B’ Mitzvah parties and an obsession with materialism. Though it was clear efforts were made to portray a more racially diverse Jewish community, there was absolutely zero effort made to portray any level of socio-economic diversity in the Jewish community, and this is cause for concern. It perpetuates an inaccurate and harmful view about Jews that can lead to increased negative stereotypes and antisemitism. I hate that this film didn’t make an effort to more accurately portray the socio-economic diversity of Jewish communities across America. This is something that needs to change in mainstream representations of Jewish communal life.
So where do we go from here? Overall, I’m glad this movie exists despite all the concerning elements. It opened doors for different, more contemporary ways to think about many aspects of Jewish life, including: the role of rabbis, racial diversity of the Jewish community, our relationship with God, the concept of teshuvah (repentance), and how we can better support teens as they deal with the difficulties of middle school. It also provides an opportunity for some self-examination in the Jewish community about B’ Mitzvah culture. And perhaps most importantly, it is an opportunity to be in conversation with our secular friends and acquaintances about what Judaism and B’ Mitzvah means to us. I hope Jews of all ages will see the movie and consider how they want to talk about it with the people in their lives.