Becky Wahlstrom isn't a Jew, but she plays one on TV. As Grace Polk on CBS's "Joan of Arcadia," the blond Chicagoan looks refreshingly unlike your stereotypical Jewish character. Of course, Grace's character wasn't supposed to seem Jewish from the start. The contrary, politically outspoken, rebellious teenager in black has been packed with surprises since her character debuted in last year's first season. Recently, it came to light that her mother is an alcoholic. Toward the end of last year, it was revealed that her father was a rabbi and that, at age 16, she was finally giving in to his pleadings that she have a bat mitzvah. Tonight, then, is the big night. Grace will become a woman in the eyes of the Jewish community at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 26.
"Joan of Arcadia," is a one-hour teen/family drama, that centers around the titular Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn), an average teenage girl who just happens to hear from God on a regular basis. Although an ongoing plot point this season involves Joan's mother (Mary Steenburgen) returning to Catholicism, the God on this show is supposed to be nondenominational, embracing people of all faiths.
Coinciding with the bat mitzvah storyline in this episode titled, "The Book of Questions," is one in which Joan must cope with the death of a close friend, priming a discussion on one of the heaviest questions religion tackles: mortality. As the show rarely brings in the viewpoint of any one religion, it's noteworthy that they chose a Jewish perspective to tackle such a weighty issue.
"I think the amalgamation of this rite of passage and Jewish theology had a certainly important part to play in [the characters] finding meaning and comfort," said Cantor Chayim Frenkel of Kehillat Israel, who, in addition to teaching Wahlstrom how to chant her Torah reading for the episode, also served as a technical adviser and has a cameo appearance.
Grace and Joan's inner conflicts in this episode made the idea of questions a logical theme, according to the episode's writer, Ellie Herman. Grace's conflict is that while part of her wishes to appease her parents by going through with the bat mitzvah, there's another part that both fears her mother's alcoholism will be revealed to the public and questions whether this ritual even holds any meaning for her. Meanwhile, Joan is grieving and angry with God for showing himself but refusing to give her any answers about why her friend had to die.
In Judaism, Herman noted, it's all about questioning, and this is what Grace eventually realizes. She is handed the Torah, which Herman described as the true "book of questions." Grace, a rebel with a mind of her own, realizes "she's not being handed a bunch of answers. She's being handed all the questions of life," Herman said.
For Herman, a seasoned writer of shows like "Chicago Hope" and "Party of Five," this subject matter was particularly close to her heart, having undergone an adult bat mitzvah herself two and a half years ago.
"It is an event that I feel is profound, one of people publicly claiming their spirituality," Herman said.
The bat mitzvah service and reception scenes were filmed at North Hollywood's Temple Adat Ari El. Wahlstrom also understood the importance of her role, and took seriously the particular challenge of chanting Torah. She worked with Frenkel for two to three weeks on learning the melody and words phonetically from a transliteration Frenkel wrote out for her.
"Everything I've learned for this episode had to be researched. I'd never been to a bat mitzvah and had never even been to a temple before," Wahlstrom said. Frenkel also invited Wahlstrom to attend a bat mitzvah service at Kehillat Israel to help her prepare for the role.
She said that at least in one respect, it was easy for her to play the part of a rabbi's daughter.
"I have one parent who is extremely religious, so it wasn't uncomfortable for me to imagine one parent being extremely religious. It just happened to be Jewish instead of Catholic," Wahlstrom said.
As for his student's level of success, Frenkel proudly said. "She was amazing. She was like any of my great bat mitzvah kids at K.I."
For more information about the show, visit www.cbs.com/primetime/joan_of_arcadia.
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