It’s not often that the title of a book comes before the idea. Especially a ‘bonkers’ one. But that’s what happened with Ivor Baddiel’s latest children’s book, Ben’s Bonkers Bar Mitzvah.
Baddiel, who has clocked up 23 books, was in a meeting with publisher Scholastic – when Miriam Farbey, director of Global Publishing Strategies who, incidentally commissioned Ivor’s first book, mentioned the lack of fun Jewish-themed kids’ books.
“I don’t know what happened but I just blurted out, ‘How about a book called ‘Ben’s Bonkers Bar Mitzvah?’”
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Those in the meeting liked the sound of it. Ivor now had to come up with a story. “Sure, I could write all these crazy things that happen around a bar mitzvah, but if there’s no reason for them or no story, it’s a bit soulless.”
Cue Ben Jacobs, who has made a list of everything that could possibly go wrong at his impending bar mitzvah, but even he didn’t foresee that the shul might disappear just days before the celebration. Ben discovers that aliens are heading to Earth and going to take over the congregation and then the world. Yet no one believes him, apart from Grandpa.
Together, Ben and Grandpa hatch a plan to save the world – and Ben’s bar mitzvah. Combine this with the fact that Ben doesn’t really want to be a grown-up – “he looks around at the grown-up world and sees his dad weighed down by work, his brother struggling with exams and his uncle having some marital difficulties, and doesn’t fancy it much at all,” and Ivor had his story – a fun and zany tale that also works on a deeper level about gaining confidence and growing up.
We won’t spoil it but in doing his best to save the world (and also learn his bar mitzvah portion) Ben proves himself more than ready to enter the grown-up world.
Is Ben based on Ivor? “Not completely but I have never wanted to be a grown-up, or indeed felt like one. I think that inside us all, the child is still there, wanting to be silly and not have responsibilities. I’m a responsible person. I have two children so I kind of have to be, but I have a deep yearning inside to return to a simpler, freer time – the long summer holidays where I could spend hours kicking a ball around and imagining I was scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final.”
So much so that a little later in life, Ivor even went to see Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, who bar mitzvah’d him. “I said: ‘You performed a ceremony to convert me from a child to an adult, could you now perform one to convert me back to a child?’ It’s a long story but suffice to say, he said no.”
Grandpa in the story is based on Ivor’s late father, Colin. The book’s illustrator, award-winning cartoonist Zoom Rockman, created his drawings using a picture of him.
Ivor, the older brother of fellow writer David and New York-based Dan, remembers being very nervous in the run up to his own bar mitzvah, which took place at New London Synagogue. “It was probably the first time in my life that I had stood up in front of people and performed. I was very self-conscious at that age, particularly about my voice. I remember at school (North London Jewish Day School) they made a record ‘Time to Sing’ and I was more or less the only child who had such a bad voice that I wasn’t part of it. Thankfully I didn’t clear the shul.”
There was nothing “fancy or shprauncy” about it. “My grandparents came back to us for lunch and in the evening, we had a party at our house. My parents invited a load of their friends round. Calculators were the main present! The following day I had a dozen friends over and we watched a film about the 1966 World Cup final.”
The other notable thing about Baddiel bar mitzvahs, reflects Ivor, was that their father (a research scientist) would borrow a load of pure alcohol from the laboratory he worked in and use it to make the punch. “His justification was that the reason you have hangovers is to do with the impurities rather than the actual alcohol. I can tell you he’s wrong!”
Ivor says they were “an odd family in terms of (their) Judaism” – something he has spoken about quite a lot. “I went to a religious primary school but would occasionally have bacon for breakfast. When it came to shul we didn’t really know when to stand up and sit down. We just followed my mother’s father. He was the most religious in our family, but also got it wrong sometimes!”
Back to Ben’s Bonkers Bar Mitzvah, which is also available in the United States, through PJ Library. In fact, and it’s a fun one, Ivor’s original title for the book was ‘Ben’s Barmy Bar Mitzvah’ (we see what he did there) but apparently in America, they don’t have the word ‘barmy’.
Ivor discloses that there is talk of a sequel, based on Ben’s younger sister Carla. “Watch this space. The aliens may well return.” He also has another Jewish book coming out – a picture one for younger kids about Chanukah.
In the meantime, Ivor hopes that Ben’s Bonkers Bar Mitzvah will help children aged 8-12 – and those approaching bar mitzvah – feel good about it, particularly if they might be nervous. “I’m really very proud of it,” he says. “And if Spielberg is interested, I’d say let’s talk.”
Ben’s Bonkers Bar Mitzvah, illustrated by Zoom Rockman, is out now, published by Green Bean Books £9.99