Growing Up Jewish review – wildly inappropriately lightweight for our times

<span>Rite of passage … Dylan and Ayala in Growing Up Jewish.</span><span>Photograph: Rosemary Baker/BBC/True Vision East</span>
Rite of passage … Dylan and Ayala in Growing Up Jewish.Photograph: Rosemary Baker/BBC/True Vision East

In itself, the hour-long documentary Growing Up Jewish is … fine. Gentle and uplifting, it follows three British girls and a boy as they prepare for their bat and barmitzvahs, the Jewish rite of passage that will mark their transition at 13 into adulthood. Dylan, whose parents were raised Orthodox but attend a Reform synagogue, is thoughtful and increasingly nervous as the day approaches. “I wouldn’t describe myself as a confident person,” he says, eyes wide in his tiny, beautiful face. As with all bar and batmitzvahs, the story of the flight of the Israelites from Egypt will be central. But he worries about the deaths of the Egyptians as the sea Moses parted closes over and drowns them. He doesn’t think this should be celebrated. His rabbi, Miriam, talks him through other texts and commentaries on the story that give it depth and context, and suggest it is an illustration of God’s acknowledgment of human imperfection and the need to strive for better. He incorporates all this into his speech and if there is a dry eye in the house, I’d be surprised. There wasn’t in mine.

Talia has a more robust approach. Her batmitzvah is about becoming a woman (“Finding love! Doing things on your own!”), then having a party. A party that must go with a swing after the traditional service her Orthodox family want. She practises her entrance (to Europe’s The Final Countdown). Lovely, says the Jewish DJ, who has obviously had much experience in these matters. “But let’s remember this is about everyone who’s been part of your life for the last 13 years.” Talia takes the point without letting it lessen her ebullience one iota. It is impossible not to want more of her. “My parents think I’m funny,” she says, puzzled. “When I haven’t a clue what I’ve said.” If she doesn’t make you laugh at least three times in the hour, I would advise you to see a doctor.

Eve is from a far more secular family – her mother is Jewish but “there’s no one more atheist than Dad” – and has chosen to have a batmitzvah as a way of connecting to her Jewish heritage. And having a party – she is very clear on that. There is something in the air when she talks to her gentile grandparents about it, but whether they are worried, disapproving or simply don’t understand why she is interested is not clear. But she applies herself diligently over seven months, learning the necessary Hebrew from a standing start having never been to lessons or a Jewish school like most of her peers at the batmitzvah prep classes.

Ayala is the daughter of a senior rabbi and her batmitzvah will be fully within orthodox tradition. Because she is female she will not read directly from the Torah but will summarise the part her father will read. She feels the pressure of being a rabbi’s daughter – “It means a lot to make my parents proud” – and works hard at all parts of the service. Meanwhile, Talia has her own way of coping. “Push on! Get through it! But if the worst comes to the worst, storm out of the room, go to the toilet and cry!”

We see nothing of the ceremonies themselves because cameras aren’t allowed to film beyond the beginning of the sabbath on which they occur, though we are allowed to watch part of the livestream of Eve’s batmitzvah, which the synagogue provides as an inclusive measure for members.

It’s lovely, but it’s thistledown. As I watch, I assume it is a late-teatime programme aimed at children, maybe as a prophylactic against the rising antisemitism the conflict in Gaza is causing. It has a Newsround tone and level of detail to its explanations of different parts of Jewish culture and religion, and touches only glancingly – albeit movingly – on the conflict itself. It in no way appears to be a programme for grownups, yet it is on late at night, on the premier BBC channel, and presented without any suggestion that it is not for adults. If it was intended as a straightforward documentary for adults, it is wildly inappropriately lightweight for the times. I would expect such a show to acknowledge many more issues and experiences that children – if not these particular ones, then others should have been found – are negotiating in these increasingly volatile times. To give us this bland offering isn’t “wrong” as such. But it is bizarre.

• Growing Up Jewish aired on BBC One and is on iPlayer now.