The fictional television town of Everwood, Colo., has no synagogue and no rabbi, not even a fictional one. Its leading citizen is played by the palpably WASPy Treat Williams, and its network — The WB — gave birth to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Beauty and the Geek.” So it might be the last place, even on television, that you would expect to find one of the more meaningful and tastefully portrayed bat mitzvahs in recent memory.
For those not among the show’s 4 million weekly viewers, “Everwood” tells the story of New York brain surgeon Andy Brown (Williams), who, with his two children, Ephram (Gregory Smith) and Delia (Vivien Cardone), relocated to this tiny mountain community after the tragic death of his wife. Julia Brown, the family’s late matriarch, happened to be Jewish, a fact mentioned in the pilot and revisited every so often in the four seasons since — usually by Delia, who makes a point of noting often how she and her brother are the only Jews in town. Going on 13, Delia wants what’s coming to her. Not the party, the rite of passage.
In the routinely heartrending “Everwood,” every episode is packed with life-cycle events, and as the series ends June 5, something as clearcut as the town’s first major Jewish occasion pales amid other characters’ plotlines dealing with life and (literally) death. How will Edna handle the tragic loss of her beloved Irv? Will Andy propose to Nina? Will Harold and Rose adopt their newfound baby? And will Ephram and Amy finally, finally get back together? Oy!
Delia’s get-together, on the other hand, is just a pleasing backdrop, perfect for a touching musical montage as the entire town gathers on the parade grounds for the big event. (Bonus points for the director and props master: In the brief shot of Delia reading from the Torah, we see her accurately scanning the opening lines of Parshat Kedoshim — the portion she had been assigned several episodes earlier.) The camera pans across the congregation and catches her proud papa with misty eyes. Andy Brown may not realize it, but he’s kvelling.
To be sure, this is a milchig affair, with a healthy serving of cheese. There are a few too many plays on the phrase “Today I am a woman,” along with a fair share of eye-rollers, such as when one character gets a little tipsy (“Oh, goodness, you’re drinking kosher wine?”), or when Ephram asks his date to join the hora (“What did you call me?” she snaps back).
But there is dramatic weight here, because, like a bat mitzvah is meant to be, this is a culmination and a reaffirmation, and not just because it takes place in the series’s finale. Too often on television — from “The Wonder Years” to “Sex and the City” — the bar/bat mitzvah episode is only that: either “a very special edition” in which the Jewish best friend or neighbor gets to step into the limelight for one installment, or a one-time chance for a few easy jokes at the excessive extravagance lavished on a 13-year-old. Regular “Everwood” viewers, however, will see this bat mitzvah as the natural realization of a character, set in motion years before.
Delia’s theological quest had its genesis early in Season One, when she convinced a family friend to drive her 80 miles to find the nearest rabbi — an army chaplain — to answer her questions about God. (Another bonus point: In that episode, one of Delia’s classmates is named Arnie — a tribute to an unofficial “Everwood” consultant, Professor Arnold Eisen, who this year was appointed Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor.) In another story line, she insisted on being the only Maccabee in her school’s otherwise Christmas-dominated holiday play.
When Delia officially asked her father for a bat mitzvah, early on this season, he offered a party, since tracking down a rabbi for a ceremony might prove tough. Delia explained that the ceremony is the whole point. Andy realized that this rite is “her right,” and he promised to find a rabbi and a tutor (a comically clumsy rabbinical student named Josh Stein, who turns out to have adult attention-deficit disorder — but that’s for another discussion). In fact, Delia’s father has always been supportive of his daughter’s Jewish identity, being proud of her for having such a strong sense of self in the first place, and because the Jewishness comes from the wife he loved very much.
At the candle-lighting ceremony in the June 5 finale, Delia speaks about how she and her mother used to talk about what Delia’s bat mitzvah day would be like. A little obvious, it’s still a nice nod to continuity, and a bit of closure: The show is literally ending with Delia finally taking her official place as a Jewish girl (though whether she would have ever wound up with a nice Jewish boy in a place like this will remain an open question).
There’s something charming, too, in the fact that the modest affair is one of the biggest bashes the town has seen. “Those Jews really know how to party,” one character remarks at the end of the episode. “Although technically, I think there were only about four there.”
Like all bar/bat mitzvah episodes past, this one, too, will soon disappear into the ether (or syndication). But in its moment, it’s a refreshing break from a TV tradition that usually makes too little or way too much of this uniquely evocative ritual — an authentic bit of Jewish spirit in an improbable place.
Victor Wishna is a writer living in New York.