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Tales of a ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’

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Saga Magazine – the publication much beloved by middle-class British oldies – has just released an e-newsletter interview with actress, Maureen Lipman.

The piece is to publicise a new box set DVD release of five of the best-regarded plays by her late husband, Jack Rosenthal.Jack Rosenthal and Maureen Lipman

The set spans Rosenthal’s career with the BBC and includes The Evacuees, Bar Mitzvah Boy, Spend Spend Spend, Eskimo Da,y and its sequel Cold Enough For Snow.

A Jewish girl from Hull, it’s no surprise that Lipman says:

Bar Mitzvah Boy was a real breakthrough. I don’t think anyone thought or considered what a bar mitzvah was, so in a way – in much the same way the Muslims are now, where we’re fascinated by East Is East and Slumdog Millionaire because it’s another world – I think Jack opened the doors.

“It wasn’t entirely what they wanted the world to see but it was done with such affection. Even in The Evacuees, the foster parents who wanted to break the children of their smothering Jewish traditions and their mother love, Jack gives them a reason, he’s gentle and understanding with their motives.”

While audiences may see many of the plays as autobiographical, Maureen points out that this is largely untrue.

The Evacuees is autobiographical, but the passage of boyhood to manhood in Bar Mitzvah Boy was a way of showing that boys and children need role models, and that the role models he saw he had no admiration for. People are flawed and that was his passage to manhood. It was to do with understanding. These people have not been trained in the art of parenting, they were just doing the best they can. That was in a way Jack’s passage to becoming a father, a grown up, himself. It had a profundity about it – plus the fact that it’s screamingly funny with wonderful performances from everyone in it … and I can say that because I’m not in it.”

Now I’ll add another poignantly funny story – a true one which Lipman may have long since forgotten – but it may stir her memory.

It comes from a mutual family friend, Rabbi Norman Zalud, a Liverpudlian who is the minister of the North Manchester Reform Synagogue.

He recalls that Jack sought his professional advice when he was writing Bar Mitzvah Boy. They were acquainted, as Rabbi Zalud and his wife, Barbara often stayed at a guesthouse in Blackpool owned by Jack’s mother, ‘Lakey’.

Rabbi Zalud says he and Rosenthal met at the Queens Hotel, Blackpool, then owned by Leslie Firth who was also president of Blackpool Reform Synagogue. Harry Perkins, another senior Blackpool congregation member was also there.

“Suddenly Jack asked, ‘Can a barmitzvah boy be barmitzvah in the park?’

“‘Of course’ I said and quoted the Hebrew expression ‘Hamakom yenachaim etchem, betuch, shaar availai tsiyon biyrushalyim’ – which translates as: ‘May the Almighty comfort you, amongst the gates of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem’ – a phrase of comfort to mourners.

“I emphasised the word ‘hamakom’ which is the translation of the word ‘place’ but is another term for God meaning that God is in every place – everywhere. So the famous scene was conceived!”

In later years when Jack’s brother died in Blackpool, Rabbi Zalud officiated at the funeral and headstone unveiling and there was more time for the old friends to reminisce.

Lipman says that more recently she showed “The Evacuees to my great niece and nephew … and they were completely rapt. It was thrilling. And it was interesting to see myself as well. I was playing my mother-in-law, and I’d just had a child, and it was a me I didn’t know existed really. It was really wonderful.”

The Evacuees, Bar Mitzvah Boy, Spend Spend Spend, Eskimo Day, and Cold Enough For Snow are released on DVD as a part of five-disc boxed set, Jack Rosenthal at the BBC, on 4 April 2011.

Note: Wikipedia cites Bar Mitzvah Boy as “unavailable on DVD or VHS.” That entry is now out-of-date!

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About Natalie Wood

Born in Birmingham, England, U.K., I began working in journalism a month before the 1973 Yom Kippur War began. I emigrated from Manchester to Israel in March 2010 and live in Karmiel, Galilee where I concentrate on creative writing, running several blogs and composing micro-fiction. I feature in Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoirs On Jewish Life and contribute to Technorati, Blogcritics and Live Encounters magazine.