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33 years after classic bar mitzvah episode, revamped ‘Wonder Years’ revisits ritual

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JTA — Paul Pfeiffer’s bar mitzvah made Jewish television history when “The Wonder Years” devoted an episode to it in 1989.

Pfeiffer, played by a Jewish actor named Josh Saviano, was the best friend of the show’s main character, Kevin Arnold, also played by a Jewish actor — Fred Savage — but who was not Jewish on the show. The episode focused on Kevin’s jealousy as Paul’s big day crowds out his own birthday, but for Jewish viewers, the bar mitzvah offered a dose of meaningful representation, including a realistic depiction of a Shabbat service.

Now, 33 years later, a revamped version of “The Wonder Years” that showcases the contemporaneous experience of a different tween as he comes of age in 1968 Montgomery, Alabama, has served up a new on-screen depiction of Judaism’s coming-of-age ritual.

The main character of the reboot, Dean Williams, is Black, and much of the show focuses on his experience as one of just a few Black students at his junior high school at a time of great turmoil over integration in the United States. That gives him insight into the psyche of his best friend, a Jewish boy named Brad.

“Even though he looked white, people saw him differently, too,” Williams says early in the episode that aired Wednesday night, as a classmate throws a penny at Brad in an antisemitic gesture.

Above: A Bar Mitzvah scene from the original “Wonder Years” released in 1989.

“At 12 I didn’t understand the complexity and hate behind the joke,” Williams continues. “I just knew they were targeting Brad because he was Jewish.”

Later that day, Brad demurs when Dean and their friend invited him to a comic book store: He has to go to Hebrew school, because his bar mitzvah is coming up.

Brad isn’t excited. “I’ve got to learn to sing my whole bar mitzvah parasha, and then write a whole speech about it. And it’s not one of those cool portions about locusts or boils either. It’s about a father giving his son advice from his........

© The Times of Israel

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