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Bash Mitzvahs!

Never have so many 13-year-olds had so much to dress up for. Some say the low-key bar mitzvah is ocming back -- but not until the stock market crashes. Meanwhile, how does a quarter-million-dollar, mulitmedia, themed extravaganza sound? And will that be with or without the Grucci fireworks?

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One Dalton School mother counts her blessings every day that her son survived seventh grade and made it into eighth. His problem wasn’t his school’s strenuous academic curriculum, or a learning disability, or an advanced case of head lice. It was bar mitzvahs. Not his -- the boy isn’t Jewish -- but those of his classmates. From September through June of his 13th year, the average seventh-grader at Dalton gets invited to dozens of them, sometimes three or four in a single weekend, perhaps a hundred over the course of the school year, counting those of friends from Hebrew school and summer camp.

“My child was totally sleep-deprived,” says the boy’s mother. “It was a lost year, in many ways, academically.”

It wouldn’t be precisely accurate to call party planner Harriette Rose Katz, a tall, blonde woman of regal bearing, the queen of bar mitzvah planners, because bar mitzvahs are big business and lots of people have a piece of the action. But it’s safe to say that if money is no object -- as appears to be the case for many of her clients these days -- Harriette will find ways to spend it that will leave your friends and relatives gasping at your good taste. (And probably holding a buttered roll and a cup of hot coffee: Harriette’s latest brainstorm is a food truck serving al fresco breakfast at 1:30 in the morning as bar mitzvahs are letting out and people are waiting for their cars or cabs.)

Long gone are the days when baby-boomers, including members of my own family, had bar mitzvahs where, “you’d get invitations, a caterer, a band that the caterer had an in with, and that was it,” says one father who had his at Leonard’s of Great Neck.

These days, many bar mitzvahs are grander than weddings -- weddings often end in divorce, but bar mitzvahs last forever, as one prosperous party planner rhapsodizes -- and they’re held in theatrical splendor at places ranging from the Plaza, the Pierre, and the Rainbow Room to Tavern on the Green, Windows on the World, Ellis Island, various trendy discotheques, and, in one recent instance, Radio City Music Hall.

“It’s reached a level of excess that’s shocking,” says a mother who would speak only from her office because she didn’t want her daughter, who attends bar and bas mitzvahs every weekend, to know about her misgivings. Robert Levine, the senior rabbi at Rodeph Sholom synagogue, openly shared his own misgivings on the subject with his congregation: “While I certainly endorse a social aspect to this wonderful rite of passage, I do believe that some of these affairs have gotten out of hand,” he wrote in the synagogue newsletter. “I often wonder what we are teaching our children when materialistic concerns seem to overwhelm the spiritual at the precise moment when we very much wish to teach otherwise.”

Perhaps this is why there’s a counter-trend of families who are consciously rejecting the high-end parties -- not because they can’t afford them but on principle. They’re forsaking the Waldorf for the Western Wall, traveling to Israel for their child’s bar mitzvah with only immediate family members, or they’re holding quiet synagogue luncheons followed by some form of community service, such as distributing food to the homeless.

If the parties have not quite surpassed the overabundance of the eighties -- when real-estate tycoon Gerald Guterman rented the QE2 for his son Jason’s bar mitzvah and Ivan Boesky dropped by in his helicopter on the way to jail -- they’re getting there. The $250,000 bar mitzvah for boys and bas mitzvah for girls (the girls’ parties are often more lavish than the boys’) isn’t out of the ordinary. According to bar mitzvah planner Lee Tannen, “We get apologetic phone calls -- ‘Hi, we’re not like your other clients, we only have $50,000 to spend; we live in a rent-stabilized apartment on Central Park West.’”

These costly celebrations boast game rooms for the kids that rival carnival midways, emcees, Broadway dancers, the occasional drag queen, slickly produced video tributes to the birthday boy or girl, even Las Vegas headliners. Natalie Cole did a bar mitzvah on the aircraft carrier Intrepid in October. Her fee: $150,000 for 30 minutes.

Harriette Katz thinks of herself as a sort of Balanchine of the buffet table, a Picasso of passed hors d’oeuvre. Some clients don’t see what they’ve bought until they get off the elevator with their guests. “I’m the voice of my client -- even though they didn’t realize this is what they wanted,” says Harriette, the owner of Gourmet Advisory Services, as she stands in the middle of a throng of guests at Bridgewaters, a somewhat antiseptic restaurant at the South Street Seaport that Harriette has magically transformed into Wonderland for the bas mitzvah of Alexis Waxman (“Alexis in Wonderland”), whose family divides its time among homes in the Berkshires and Aspen and a spectacular art-laden loft in Soho.


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