Building on his own past, the Jewish ‘Wonder Years’ writer comes of age with a televised bar mitzvah

The Jewish world was on fire for last week’s episode of popular ABC sitcom ‘The Wonder Years,’ in which Brad Hitman’s character was stressed about his upcoming bar mitzvah and juggled the fear of speaking in public with potential tantrums including his voice cracking, forgetting how to recite his Torah. portion and lay down the Torah scroll.

Among those beaming with pride as they watched that night was Los Angeles resident Yael Galena, the show’s only Jewish writer.

“I grew up in a modern Orthodox Jewish family, so TV was my connection to the outside world and I was obsessed with it,” says Galena, whose credits include docuseries on A&E, TLC and OWN. “I went to public high school and was basically an awkward Modern Orthodox kid trying to fit in – which was not a great experience and still uncomfortable.”

Set in Montgomery, Alabama in 1968, during the era of desegregation when racial prejudice was still present, the reboot of “The Wonder Years” tells the coming-of-age story of 12-year-old Dean Williams and of his middle-class African-American family. as they navigate everyday suburban life against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the societal awakening sparked by the civil rights movement. On the cusp of adolescence, Dean and his friends are more preoccupied with girls, the teenage social scene, baseball, adult magazines, and asserting their independence.

Like the original series created by Neal Marlens and Carol Black that aired from 1988 to 1993, the reboot’s story is told through the eyes of its young protagonist. At the time, the main character, Kevin Arnold, was played by Fred Savage, a teen idol to thousands of young girls, including Galena, who was a “big fan” of the show as a child in Merion Station, Pennsylvania. .

Watching the January 12 episode was both surreal and thrilling for Galena, who in her youth never imagined she would be a writer for prime-time television, let alone work alongside Savage, who is the director and co-executive producer of the new series.

Left to right: Julian Lerner as Brad Hitman, executive producer and co-director Fred Savage, and Adam Drescher on set of “The Wonder Years” reboot, filming the episode “Brad Mitzvah.” (ABC/Eliza Morse)

Galena realized while working for unscripted television in New York in her early thirties that her real dream was to write for a television show.

“I didn’t want to admit it to myself, because it was so far-fetched,” says Galena, who holds a BA in electronic media from George Washington University. “I think we’re all so afraid of failure that sometimes we don’t even want to try. I reached a point of thinking, ‘I have a life. I could either stick with what I do and wake up at 50 and regret it, or pursue my passion.

After a decade of living in New York, the prospect of starting over in the industry and moving up the ranks in Los Angeles was nerve-wracking, but she took the leap. Once there, she enrolled in a number of screenplay anatomy classes taught by former and current television writers to learn the art of writing a good pilot. The classes served as a writing community and thanks to her new contacts, Galena landed her first gig in two years as a writing assistant for TNT’s “Claws.”

“As an editorial assistant, you take notes and all your job is to listen,” says Galena. “These two seasons have been like getting my master’s degree in TV writing. I watched these amazing writers write story and crack jokes, and I knew that was exactly where I wanted to be.

In 2020, Galena became a screenwriter for the Netflix animated show “Super Giant Robot Brothers”. Around this time, her rep submitted a pilot that Galena had written for “The Wonder Years”, which caught the eye of creator Saladin K. Patterson.

Screenwriter Yael Galena on the set of ‘The Wonder Years’ reboot. (Courtesy of Galena)

“I interviewed Saladin, then two of the producers and Fred, on Zoom,” Galena recalled.

“It was terrifying, but it felt like a feat just to get the interview. I thought to myself, if that’s all there is, that’s fine. He was very daily-esque – I had an interview with Fred Savage and it was pretty good for me,” she said, referring to the Passover Seder night song about God’s gifts to the Jews.

“Getting the job was so exciting, and then my first episode on Jewish history was amazing. And then finding out that Fred was going to direct it was the culmination of everything I ever wanted. I couldn’t even dream When you get this far, you realize there are so many possibilities and opportunities that you hadn’t even thought of,” she says.

As the show’s executive producer, Savage oversees all episodes, but he only directs some. While Galena says it was natural for Savage, who was raised to reform, to take an active role in the episode “Brad Mitzvah,” she was both honored and relieved to have his hands-on collaboration.

“Fred has obviously been doing this his whole life; it’s an old hat for him. I think it was exciting for both of us to bring that Jewish element to the show. We were able to discuss specific things in shorthand, and we were almost “more Jewish” than each other. It was a real highlight for me,” she says.

The episode everyone is talking about

Galena is especially proud of the considerable thought and meticulous detail that went into writing and producing the episode.

“Almost all [the character] Brad Hitman going through ‘The Wonder Years’ comes from my own experiences, in a larger sense,” says Galena. “As a student, I often wrote my name in essays. Outside of the Jewish community, my name is confusing to everyone…often I was even embarrassed to have a name that stood out; as a child, you just want to fit in.

“Of course, what was embarrassing in your youth becomes your greatest strength as an adult,” she says. “My name is what makes me stand out, especially in my work. And Yael’s story is so amazing and empowering. Now I love my name and cringe when I think of how many times I tried to downplay my Jewishness to fit in. So when I had to write Brad’s speech, I felt like all those times of saying and re-saying my name led me to that moment – ​​to the speech. I knew I wanted to talk about Brad’s name and identity.

Bar Mitzvah boy Brad Hitman, played by Julian Lerner, in a still from the episode “Brad Mitzvah” during the reboot of “The Wonder Years.” (ABC/Eliza Morse)

She consulted Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal, who shared a midrash on the three names in Judaism that every person has: the name given by their parents, the name given by their peers, and the name one acquires for oneself. -same.

“When Rabbi Poupko relayed dwar Torah, I said to myself: ‘This is it! This is the one,” Galena says, using the Hebrew term for a short Bible lesson ending with a moral. “Everything fell into place. It was fortuitous. And so the name motif was such a big part of the episode just like it was part of my own story.

But it was the incorporation of symbolism and other minor details that brought out the depth of Galena’s Jewish knowledge and pride, and made the episode so realistic. Thanks to Galena’s knowledge of the Bible, the episode included such details as Brad’s weekly Torah portion of bar mitzvah, which is “not one of those cool portions, about locusts or boils”, but about “a father giving advice to his sons on his deathbed”. .”

Additionally, Brad’s great-aunt was portrayed as a Holocaust survivor who had a tattoo with the number 613 – a symbolic number in Judaism that Galena expressly chose because she imagined it could “bring the slightest comfort to Aunt Ruth” during such a dehumanizing time.

For Galena, adding a Holocaust survivor to the episode was key.

“Brad’s bar mitzvah took place during a time in history when Jews were marching right next to Martin Luther King; The Jews showed up for the cause. I wanted to highlight that alliance and that honor, that part of our shared history,” Galena said.

“One way to show that was through a Holocaust survivor character. We wanted to show that surviving the injustices and hatred of the past gives you this compassionate perspective for the injustices of the present. So, at Brad’s bar mitzvah, we showed this racist guy staring at black guests. And then immediately we showed Aunt Ruth, a compassionate person who understands what it’s like to be altered and hated,” she says.

Dean Williams, protagonist of ‘The Wonder Years’, played by Elisha Williams, in a still from the episode ‘Brad Mitzvah’. (ABC/Eliza Morse)

From the Pentateuch-shaped bar mitzvah cake and matching yarmulkes to the dancing hora, floral centerpieces and realistic synagogue plaques and posters, the show nailed bar mitzvah props, rituals and food at a T-shirt. Galena recalls the art, props, and wardrobe departments constantly checking in with her and Savage to make sure they were on point.

“Every time you put something in a script, everyone [on set] reads it like it’s the Bible,” says Galena. “So I made sure to put all the food I wanted to see at the bar mitzvah. I wrote ‘kugel, knishes, gefilte fish, brisket’. And the crew nailed it all. They got them all. And then, of course, I pocketed 90% of the business for myself.

The funniest experience for Galena was having to explain that many Jewish married women cover their hair in the synagogue with doilies.

“It probably sounded crazy [to the crew] that women would doll themselves up for the shul and then put a dollar store doily over their heads,” she says. “They wanted to use some really fancy ones and I was like, ‘No, just use a disposable! When we got to Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta where we shot the episode, there were actually a bunch of place mats, which I was happy about, because I understand that from an outsider’s perspective, what I said didn’t make sense.

As for her future plans, Galena has a number of projects in the works, including another pilot and a feature that are “doing the rounds”. An episode of “Kings of Napa” that she co-wrote will also air in a few weeks on OWN. And those keen to see more of Galena’s influence in “The Wonder Years” will be pleased to hear that she’s written another episode that she’ll start filming in two weeks.

“I hope the show will continue for many seasons to come,” she says. “I’m still working on my own stuff, but really, I’m just down to roll with ‘The Wonder Years’ for as long as they have me.”