Reprinted with permission from Playwrights of Canada Press, is an excerpt from Mark Leiren-Young’s Bar Mitzvah Boy (Scenes 14-17). Before you reach the excerpt you’ll find details on the production’s history and introductory notes providing background context to help set up the scenes.
In 2017, Mark Leiren-Young won the Jewish Playwriting Contest with the Jewish Play Project for his piece Bar Mitzvah Boy. The play’s theatrical debut followed in March of 2018 at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver. Three months later the play premiered in the United States, produced by Chester Theatre Company in Chester, MA. Young’s piece has gone on to have productions at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in Toronto, the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, and at the West Coast Jewish Theatre in Los Angeles.
The cast includes Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon, who is in her mid-thirties to mid-forties, Joey “Yosef” Brant, who is in his mid-sixties, and Sheryl, the Rabbi’s secretary, who never appears on stage. The summer season marks the start of the play, and fall, its end.
Joey “Yosef” Brant needs to have a bar mitzvah before his grandson Benny does. Brant reaches out to Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon for lessons, and she unenthusiastically agrees to help him. The beginning is fraught with tension. Brant is not religious, and at one point refers to Michael as someone who could qualify as a cult leader if more people came to services. Michael and Brant are awash in complexities that at first may make you wonder if you are supposed to like either of them, but their banter turns tender once we, along with they, start to find out more about each others histories. Their relationship grows once it is revealed Michael’s daughter, Rachel, is dying from cancer. Following the shift in their relationship in consequence to events in their personal lives is reflected back into how their perspectives on religion, faith, and marriage shift, and at times, unite. Right before the following scene takes place, Michael finds out her husband, Daniel has left, and she doesn’t know what to do, she is at her breaking point. Scene Fourteen opens with Michael mourning the loss of her child, who has died a few days before she was going to have her bat mitzvah.
Three weeks later.
Michael enters. She is holding a prayer book with a cute pink book cover on it (think My Little Pony, unicorns or kitties). She looks up at the eternal light.
Michael silently mouths the words to a prayer. “Shma yisrael, adonai eloheinu adonai echad.”
She holds the prayer book. She considers the eternal light.
Michael: Three days. You couldn’t have waited three fucking days?
And she tosses the prayer book at the light and shatters it, leaving us in black. She does not move for a long time.
The intercom crackles.
Sheryl: Mr. Brant, I told you, she hasn’t come in since . . .
A week or two later.
Michael is running. She is in her running gear. Her head is not covered. And she approaches. . . Joey at a bench, waiting.
Michael keeps running. Oblivious to him.
Michael stops. Startled.
Joey: I’m so sorry.
Michael: It was good to see you at shiva. Thank you.
Joey: How are you doing?
When are you coming back to shul?
I can’t do my bar mitzvah without you.
Michael: You don’t need me.
Joey: Cantor Putin is running the services.
Michael: I’m taking time off.
Joey: You should be in shul.
Michael: For what?
Joey: For you, for G- d, for—
Michael: I don’t have anything to say to G- d right now.
Joey: I’m sure you do. Just not what’s in the books about how great He is.
Michael: So I have nothing to say to G- d in public. I’m sorry, Joey. I can’t.
Joey: You got me there.
Michael: And you got me here.
Joey: No. Daniel doesn’t get to win. He doesn’t get custody of your faith. It’s worth more than the house.
Michael: Not in this market.
Michael: This isn’t about Daniel. It’s not about Rachel. It’s about me. I can’t be there for anybody else— how do I counsel people when . . . no.
Joey: You tell them you understand their pain and they know you’re telling the truth.
Michael: Faith and me . . . Irreconcilable differences.
Joey: So you’re telling me Rachel believed she was going to a better place and you don’t?
Michael looks ready to kick him. Instead she starts to run away.
Is running away literal, or a metaphor?
Michael: Sometimes things are both.
And Michael runs away as Joey watches her go.
A few days later.
Night. Joey is singing his Torah portion, alone.
Joey: Vayiqrah eilav mala. Adonai min hashamayim, vayomer,
“Avraham, Avraham!” Vayomer—
She steps into the light. Dressed in civvies. Her head is not covered.
Here I am. And he said, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a G- d- fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me.”
Joey: G- d can be a shit.
Michael: So I’ve heard. You’re sounding good.
Joey: I’ve been skipping poker nights.
Michael: You’re not finding religion on me, are you, Yosef?
Joey: I don’t believe the Big Sky Daddy is deciding who wins baseball games or even who wins wars. There are too many shitty things that happen for me to believe someone’s keeping track of everyone everywhere— except Santa Claus. But I saw everyone at the shiva for Rachel, I saw Benny and Sandee and I thought . . . there’s something . . . something in this.
Michael: You want some help practising for next week?
Joey: You offering?
Michael: I . . . have to . . . I cashed your cheque. I’ll pay you back.
Joey: It’s okay, you earned it. You taught me a lot.
Michael: Not enough to cover tuition to Harvard. That was a big cheque.
Joey: I’m a challenging student.
Michael: It’s just . . . I’m not working right now and Daniel . . . He’s trying to take the house. He’s trying to take everything. Why would he do that?
Joey: He has to blame somebody. It’s what we do.
Michael: He’s trying to evict me.
Joey: It won’t happen.
Michael: I can’t do this.
Joey: You won’t. This is the part of the job where I get to do a mitzvah or two.
Michael: I can’t afford you.
Joey: Come to shul next week. We’ll call it even.
Michael: I can’t.
Joey: Because you don’t believe in the Sky Daddy either?
Michael: I just . . . I don’t know what I believe right now.
Joey: If you don’t tell anyone, I won’t.
Michael: It’s not right.
Joey: I’m not doing it without you.
Michael: You have to. For Benny. You’ve done so much work. You skipped poker nights.
Joey: No, I don’t need it anymore. I decided if I could tell you what I told you . . . I could tell my daughter. I told her after the last night of shiva for Rachel.
Michael: (delighted) She understood.
Joey: No, I don’t think so. It doesn’t fit the way she sees the world.
Michael: Too many shades of grey.
Joey: Some people aren’t good with pain.
Joey: She didn’t understand my reasons, but I think she understood I had reasons. That was news to her. I invited her, invited Benny.
Benny thought it was hilarious.
I invited everyone.
Michael: You don’t need me there.
Joey: Yeah, I do.
Michael exits. Joey puts on his tallis.
Header design by Orly Zebak. Bar Mitzvah Boy jacket design by Rayne E. Benu, and jacket photo © iStock.com/TinaFields