The year: 2000. The place: a suburb north of New York City. The event: A tween named Jessica gets up in front of friends, family and strangers to squeak out passages in Hebrew she has memorized and an accompanying speech in English she has half-memorized — all with the singular purpose of declaring to the world that she is now a woman in the eyes of the Jewish people. She’s unenthused about the whole shebang, filled with nerves and hormones and insecure about her appearance (specifically, her braces). Later on, she will hate being lifted in the chair during the hora. Though she doesn’t know it yet (maybe they don’t even know it yet), by the same time next year, her parents will be divorced.
Spoiler: that tween was me.
My bat mitzvah reality was eerily similar to Jessica Glaser’s fictional bat mitzvah on “Big Mouth,” as depicted in the first season’s penultimate episode, “I Survived Jessi’s Bat Mitzvah.” Jessi’s bat mitzvah exemplifies the show’s ability to blend the real and the unreal. Five seasons in, the episode remains one of its standouts.
Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” which premiered in 2017, is an animated coming-of-age comedy about puberty for adults. The show is set in the present day, though it often feels like it exists out of time — the plot is loosely based on the childhoods of co-creators Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg in the early ‘90s in Westchester.
As an animated show, “Big Mouth” can (and does) take leaps of imagination and logic — main characters in the show are literally called Hormone Monsters — that the audience can either go with or not. But in addition to its well-populated fantastical realm, the comedy also has an ability to pivot from the absurd to the achingly real, and that ability is on full display during “I Survived Jessi’s Bat Mitzvah.”
My own spine tingle of recognition when it comes to “I Survived Jessi’s Bat Mitzvah” isn’t necessarily universal. Though they’re older than me, Kroll and Goldberg grew up in Westchester, the same suburban New York county that I did; Jessi and I literally have the same first name and our moms even call us by the same nickname (“Jessi(e)-bear!”); though my parents did not fight at my bat mitzvah, they did separate relatively soon after, as Jessi’s do. These coincidental, quite personal links to the episode are just my foot in the door when it comes to the resonance of “Big Mouth.” A foot in the door that leads to a feeling of connection and then a strong gut punch of coming-of-age emotions.
But there’s more specificity in “I Survived Jessi’s Bat Mitzvah”: There’s the bat mitzvah girl’s hormone-fueled rage over her “boxy dress,” a character struggling to break away from his parents’ cloying babying of him, two characters whose parents tell them they’re too young to date sneaking around to be together anyway (in the coat closet, no less, which was always a prime meet-up spot during services at my synagogue), a performance of an acrostic poem using the bat mitzvah girl’s name during the bat mitzvah party (classic), a cantor with an acoustic guitar, an elderly Jewish man handing out kippahs, a party theme complete with cardboard cut-out centerpieces (“Jessi’s Great Women in HERstory”) and, of course, the hora. The episode blends specific bat mitzvah occurrences and puberty details, as well as its trademark fantasy elements — like the Hormone Monster Maury’s talking, disembodied penis wearing a tiny yarmulke and feasting on scallops that had earlier attempted to seduce Andrew’s father — to tell its story, and it uses those elements to convey emotional realities of both puberty and a high-pressure event like one’s bat mitzvah (all heightened and escalated by the omnipresent Hormone Monsters).
When Connie the Hormone Monstress whispers in Jessi’s ear, I feel like she’s whispering to me and stirring up my hormonal rage, even though I’m no longer a 13-year-old bat mitzvah girl. When Andrew, sans Maury by his side for just a moment, confesses his love for Missy, I feel the pain of muddling through a first relationship, never sure about how vulnerable you should be, confused by the mixed messages your own hormones (or Hormone Monster) are sending your way. When Missy gets scared off by the intensity of Andrew’s feelings, I’m transported to the middle school crush push-and-pull, the feeling of wanting to take steps forward but also… not wanting to. When Jessi pouts about her “boxy dress” (Connie tells her they “look like a couple of Fig Newtons!”), I instantly recall too many hours spent staring in the mirror, hating what I was wearing or how I looked or just everything. When the entire party breaks into a song and dance number, I’m reminded that, yeah, sometimes life does feel like “a fucked-up mess,” especially when the hormones are flooding in, bodies and social dynamics are changing, and you’re simultaneously rejecting and craving parental comfort. And when Jessi takes a trip down memory lane in the hora chair, reliving key moments in her parents’ crumbling marriage, and starts crying, I can’t help but tear up myself.
The coming-of-age emotions of the show’s story — the moments that reach into the chest and give the heart a squeeze — are what resonate as most real and relatable. The show’s ability to combine elements of so-real-you-want-to-cry-or-laugh-or-hide-from-secondhand-embarrassment-and-recognition with absurd, fantastical bits to draw out an emotional response — even if you don’t relate to the exact specifics — is one of its strengths. The result: laughs, cringes and maybe a tear or two.
“I Survived Jessi’s Bat Mitzvah” has got real-feeling details, it’s got Jewish humor, it’s got the weird (must I mention the seductive talking scallops again?), it’s got the silly, it’s got the small jokes (Temple Beth Amphetamine), it’s got plot movement and it’s got emotional heft. It makes me, personally, shudder — but also laugh and process as I relive my own bat mitzvah experience vicariously through it. A bat mitzvah episode for the ages, and classic “Big Mouth.”
Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “Late Take” in the subject line.