Inside Brad’s Bar Mitzvah on ‘The Wonder Years’

Julian Lerner as Brad in The Wonder Years
Spoiler Alert
ABC/Eliza Morse

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for The Wonder Years Episode 11 “Brad Mitzvah.”]

As the episode title of the latest Wonder Years reveals, the comedy tackles that oh-so-important moment where a kid takes a step towards becoming an adult. Specifically for Brad (Julian Lerner), it’s his bar mitzvah, while for Dean (Elisha “EJ” Williams), it’s being torn between a friend and his girlfriend.

As Brad shares early on, he’s nervous about his speech, and he hopes that his best friend can help him with it. But Dean becomes a bit too busy with his girlfriend Charlene (Milan Marsh) insisting he end his friendship with Keisa (Milan Ray). Still, in the end, Dean offers advice — to be himself — and Brad comes up with just the right speech, explaining he hadn’t chosen his “third name,” the one “you give yourself” yet. Being Jewish in Montgomery has made him feel different, but he’s planning to stand up for himself, his people, and what he believes is right. “I may not know what my third name is yet, but I do know who I am: a proud Jew from Alabama.”

That speech “needed to serve two purposes,” showrunner and executive producer Saladin K. Patterson tells TV Insider. “It needed to have a lesson at its core that also applied to what our main character Dean was dealing with, and it needed to speak to Brad coming to terms with his position of ‘other’ in the racial landscape of the south, in a way that a 13-year-old would be able to articulate. The writer of the episode, Yael Galena, pulled from her own bat mitzvah speech (and similar speeches given by rabbis) to give the cultural foundation for the speech that we then tweaked it to apply to our characters.”

For Brad, “part of [his] struggle with the speech is worrying about what other people will think and not trusting himself,” Lerner says. “Fitting in is a primary concern for everyone in junior high. Then add in something that makes a kid feel different and anxiety sneaks right in.” Because he “trusts his best friend,” Brad was “able to hear Dean’s advice and apply it.”

Julian Lerner, Fred Savage on The Wonder Years set

ABC/Eliza Morse

Lerner admits he was nervous the day that scene was filmed, but received support from the cast, crew, and writing team. “Most of the time we film scenes together with other actors so we can support each other in the moment during the shot. It is different to stand in front of everyone and film a speech,” he explains. “I felt completely supported by Saladin and [executive producer and director] Fred [Savage]. Fred even connected me with his kid’s Hebrew teacher to help with the torah portions. Hearing Saladin and Fred tell me how proud they were is a feeling I will never forget.”

But in the end, it’s with that experience that “Brad finds his voice,” the actor says. “In the beginning Brad shakes off kids making fun of him for being Jewish even though it is clearly hurting him. Brad confidently speaks out about being proud of who is during his speech which is a big change. This change will shape who Brad becomes as he grows up. Celebrating our differences fosters respect and open-mindedness for other cultures which helps unite and educate us.”

While he does try to come across as more mature after his speech when he tries to offer Dean advice — which he’ll continue to “not always successfully” do — Lerner notes that “there is a goofiness and naivety to Brad that I don’t think we will lose.”

Elisha Williams as Dean in The Wonder Years

ABC/Eliza Morse

Adds Patterson, “it is very important for us to always portray our characters as real kids. The truth is, you can say to a 13 year old ‘Now, you are a man,’ but they really have NO idea what that means. They feel like they are supposed to suddenly feel like a man, without realizing that it means you are now old enough to start ‘learning’ what it means to be a man. Our character of Brad is a prankster and silly by nature, but we have now set the table for an upcoming episode where he will be forced to come out of that comfort zone in order to mature and reach his potential.”

Meanwhile, Dean at first did as Charlene asked before trying to get the girls to be friends then standing up to his girlfriend … only for her to go crying to Keisa. In the end, he’d lost both girls, though he did fix things with his best friend. In this episode, “we wanted Dean to gain the awareness that the “outsider” feeling is as much a product of being an adolescent as it is a product of being a minority. His Jewish friend even has similar challenges,” Patterson says. “Because racism is so in-your-face, it’s easier to know the ‘right’ thing to do when faced with it. But that same strength is useful when you are faced with the various other challenges adolescents face that all boil down to caring less about what other people think of you and focusing on how you see yourself.”

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As for what else is ahead, Brad will be “academically challenged by a new teacher,” Lerner teases. Plus, “Brad is hopeful for some romance….maybe at the Valentine’s Day dance?!”

The Wonder Years, Wednesdays, 8:30/7:30c, ABC