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The Swashbuckling Bar Mitzvah: ‘Zorro’ Film Unmasks Rite’s Meaning


In the new Austrian film “Zorro’s Bar Mitzvah,” Jewish party documenter Andre describes the addictive nature of his video extravaganzas.

“There are people in Israel with relatives who collect my films, not just of their family, any family,” he explains from his audio-visual studio, which looks sufficiently equipped for a Disney production.

“I know two or three women, it tends to be women, they play these films all day at home when they’re ironing, just have them playing in the background,” says Andre, a middle-aged Viennese Jew.

He philosophizes that perhaps it is his destiny to endlessly attend bar and bat mitzvah parties because he never got to have one.

Hard to imagine collecting bar mitzvah videos?

After seeing “Zorro,” you might be tempted to play it again and again like Andre’s Israeli fans, just to catch the nuance of what the four families portrayed in the film have to say about Jewishness, adulthood, identity, gender, schmaltz and, yes, Zorro the masked hero.

This masterful cinematic documentary of three recent Viennese bar mitzvahs and one bat mitzvah is the work of Austrian Jewish filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, whose documentaries about World War II and Jewish memory have earned her critical acclaim.

Zorro opened at an Austrian film festival at Lincoln Center in New York in early December and at art film houses in Vienna. The 90-minute film, in German with English subtitles, is making the round of festivals. The U.S. distributor is First Run/Icarus Films, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The film’s title is inspired by the video clip Andre is shooting for a Georgian-Viennese family. The clip will be the centerpiece of their extravagant bar mitzvah party. Sharon, the handsome bar mitzvah who looks more like 19 than 12, is to play Zorro, and Andre sets up a shoot replete with horses, stunt men, makeup artists, costumes and sword fighting in front at a Baroque Austrian estate.

Never far from the scene is Sharon’s sexy mother, whose perfect French manicured nails, showy outfits and willingness to spend vast sums on a party that resembles the Academy Awards seem to fascinate Beckermann.

The lavishness, however, is undercut by the sincerity of mother and son. Sharon’s mother is only doing what her extended family expects — they want a party appropriate for the son that her own father circumcised.

Far from being spoiled, Sharon is dutiful, respectful and performs his Torah portion with finesse.

Then in the film’s most hilarious moment, after a downcast Sharon tells Andre he only wanted to play the man in black because of a scene from “The Legend of Zorro” that “my mother won’t allow” — Antonio Banderas as Zorro startles and then embraces a half naked Catherine Zeta-Jones — the audience is treated to that scene.

When Sharon finally speaks on camera about the meaning of his bar mitzvah, it’s clear that dancers imported from Israel and a stage encircled by torches are not an inappropriate tribute for what he feels is the most important day of his life.

The greatest contrast to the cleavage and booty shaking at the Georgian party is the bar mitzvah of Moishe, whose family is from a Chasidic branch of Judaism.

Watching Moishe pray and recite Torah at such a high level surely makes this the most distilled passage into Jewish adulthood in “Zorro.”

Among the film’s most compelling scenes is the presentation of a prayer book to Moishe by young boys in traditional black-and-white Chasidic dress with side curls. They sing “Yam mama mama” with the passion of a professional choir.

Beckermann makes a point of showing how female friends and relatives, including Moishe’s mother, can only view the proceedings by peering through gaps in a row of bushes set up as a gender barrier in the party room.

The other bar/bat mitzvahs are full of family drama.

We meet the mother of young Sophie praying behind the curtain that separates women from men at an Orthodox service. She peeps out her head as Austria’s chief rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, says a prayer on her behalf: The mother, Nana, has survived the Asian tsunami while on vacation and clearly is still shaken by the experience. Going ahead with Sophie’s bat mitzvah after such a trauma is clearly not easy.

The energetic and loving Sophie, meanwhile, who mostly speaks English during the film with a strong American accent — her father is an American — is a typical 12-year-old girl focused on her dress and the seating arrangement at her party.

What might puzzle some American viewers is that Sophie’s bat mitzvah service does not include the Torah or Haftarah readings that girls often perform in Conservative or Reform ceremonies.

Instead, she descends temporarily from the women’s gallery at Vienna’s Great Synagogue, offers a short speech of thanks from the bimah, or dais, and then recites the Shema.

In Europe, most synagogues function according to Orthodox principles, even when their members are largely secular.

One of Sophie’s American relatives peevishly complains about women having to sit upstairs during the service, but the mood is lightened when Sophie’s grandfather jokes that while the women are busy talking upstairs, the men do business downstairs.

As a Hungarian Jew who came of age in the spring of 1945, Sophie’s grandfather, Hans, never had the chance for a bar mitzvah because “conditions were such that it was impossible to hold one,” he recalls.

The same is true for the Iraq-born grandfather of Tom, whose Iraqi-Israeli-Viennese mother organizes Tom’s bar mitzvah at Israel’s Western Wall.

At his farm in Israel, Tom’s grandfather relates that his family had no money when he turned 13 and bar mitzvahs were uncommon at the kibbutz where he was sent to live.

He went to the Western Wall for the first time after fighting in the Six-Day War and “that was my bar mitzvah.”

One of the more ardent bar mitzvah supporters in the film is Tom’s Christian father, named Christian.

“What it means to me is that he is becoming a man,” he says of Tom. “And for me personally it is very important because I was raised as a Christian, and confirmed, and I can’t remember it at all.”

We see Christian later at the Kotel full of pride as Tom performs his Torah portion. Tom’s down-to-earth celebration outdoors in Israel serves as another reminder of Jewish diversity.

If there is anything missing from “Zorro,” it is the translation of the Hebrew religious passages spoken in the film. It would be nice for Jews and non-Jews to get the meaning of what these new adults are saying.

Other than that omission, the film is a delightful snapshot of Jewish life within one European city where Jewish traditions thrive despite their near destruction during the Holocaust.

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