WJT Rabbi Reviews: Bar Mitzvah Boy

WJT is excited to try something new this season. We are inviting Rabbis from the community to see our shows and review them to provide greater spiritual and cultural context for our audience members. We launched this new initiative by asking Rabbi Allan Finkel, of Temple Shalom, to review Bar Mitzvah Boy.

WJT Rabbi Review  


Bar Mitzvah Boy by Mark Leiren-Young

Reviewed by Rabbi Allan Finkel


“Mazel Tov!” Familiar words to those of us who have experienced a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, personally or within our families. But we also know that those words expressed at the end of that journey are usually preceded by face-palming “Oy Veys” many times along the way, as we poke and prod and fight our way through and come to grips with different ways of expressing our Judaism, before coming out with those famous last words, “Today I am a man!”

Today I saw a play! Ari Weinberg, the WJT’s bright and passionate Artistic Director approached me to write a Rabbi Review of their production of Mark Leiren-Young’s Bar Mitzvah Boy, and I found myself sitting in outright awe of the experience, somehow the best play I have seen in years -- truly a subtle and intelligent (actually exquisite) presentation of how two individuals deal with timeless and complex issues that we all deal with in some way or another – What part does faith and ritual play in me being a Jew? What roles will community and synagogue life play over the course of my life? Oy vey!


At face value, these themes are elegantly presented through the lens of an upcoming Bar Mitzvah: Joey, a secular Jew and a grandfather, approaching Rabbi Michael about having a late life Bar Mitzvah, and the dance between the two as their individual lives move forward over the course of the play. Joey (played by Nicholas Rice who grew up in Winnipeg) has the cockiness and patter of certain well-known Jewish archetypes, somewhere between Larry David and Bugs Bunny, while Rabbi Michael (brilliantly played as well by former Winnipegger Amy Lee) displays an affecting combination of youth and wisdom, as a third-generation rabbi.


This play is not about choosing sides. The beauty of Leiren-Young’s script lies in our discoveries of how Joey and Rabbi Michael’s lives and their views of Judaism have been shaped, if not defined, by past experiences and current life events, and how faith is a moving target that evolves as those characters – and we– move through life. The greatest compliments came from the audience in the Talk Back feature after the show, a universally held view that we were simply watching real life unfold before us. Every word was believable, the conversations were subtle and shifting and insightful, the sets and settings just a perfect complement, the Rabbi was really a rabbi and Joey was, well,Joey. And things happen as do crises of faith, earlier or later in life. That’s the way things are, and we cry and we challenge and we are changed.


I couldn’t take sides either. As someone who was in, then out of, then back into my own Judaism, and now as a Rabbi, I was and am both characters, as was probably everyone in the audience, truly appreciating that congregants and rabbis are all human, and that we all need each other in different ways and at different times. Judaism is complicated – that is why we are called Israel, Yisra’el, as we seem to be meant to wrestle with God. And we watched, no, experienced, a wonderful wrestling match!


Bar Mitzvah Boy plays until September 22. Go! And Mazel Tov to Ari and WJT for a truly great start to their season.