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Jewish Journal

Expert Tips for the Phony Bar Mitzvah Boy

by Lawrence Levi

March 18, 2009 | 2:54 am

A few months ago, an e-mail message began circulating among religious scholars: “Film studio looking for someone to teach non-Jewish 13-year-old actor a haftarah portion for Todd Solondz movie bar mitzvah scene.”

Since few details about this movie have been made public, it’s hard to know what Solondz — the indie auteur whose films have gotten progressively weirder and bleaker since his 1996 debut, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — has in mind. How might a young actor achieve authenticity in such a scene?

For advice, I asked Marlene Brostoff, a special-education teacher from West Hills who has worked part time as a b’nai mitzvah tutor for 38 years and has trained actors to become a son of the commandment.

Struggle with pronunciation.

“Probably the most difficult sound to master, because we do not have it in the English language, is the ‘ch’ sound,” Brostoff says. “So I always tell kids, ‘Pretend you’re at the dentist’s office, and he’s asking you to spit into a spittoon, and you kind of are clearing your throat and you kind of have that ‘ch’ sound.’ And somehow a lot of kids can do it. Some cannot do it. It’s very, very difficult for them to make that sound. It’s the same sound you have in German in the composer Bach’s name.”

Go too fast.

“One of my mantras to them is, ‘Loud, slow and clear,’ because they do tend to want to rush. Most students, if they know their portions well, want to go way too fast. I often tell them just to say their names in their heads whenever they get to a period.”

Pretend you’re on “American Idol.”

“A big thing that I would want to emphasize — something I emphasize with my actual bar mitzvah students — is that it’s not a show. It’s a time to be embraced by the community. It’s not that they’re standing up there waiting for their cue. At different points in the service, when there are congregational readings in English, or even in Hebrew if they know it, they need to partake in that. It’s not just standing and waiting for a little line and going up to recite. You’re a part of the congregation when you’re doing your specific solos. I also tell them, because it’s not a show, not to be waving to their friends — you almost have to ‘stay in character’ as a bar mitzvah person. You can smile, you can be natural, but you’re there to do something of a serious nature, and since you are leading the congregation, you’re expected to be acting in a way that is very adult-like.”

Imagine the world is not like a Todd Solondz movie.

“I would want the actor, and the actual bar mitzvah student, to look at this as almost a day of hope, more so in terms of their interpretation — when they’re writing their speech — their interpretation of their Torah or haftarah portion. Often this can be a way to motivate kids to say something to this audience out there that hopefully encourages them to do something better with their lives — a pretty awesome responsibility for a 13-year-old.”

Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.

Lawrence Levi, a co-author of “The Film Snob’s Dictionary,” is a senior editor at Nextbook.org.

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