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Bash Mitzvahs!


Ironically, in this overheated climate, it’s the caterers who have come to think of themselves as the arbiters of good taste. “We try to say to people, ‘You have enough, they’re still 13 years old,’” Dalton says. “It’s sort of our responsibility.”

Ronnie Davis, of Washington Street Caterers, who has been catering bar mitzvahs since the sixties and is the primary caterer for events on Ellis Island, has even turned down clients whose taste he regards as questionable. “You cannot take a national monument and degrade it the way you would a hotel ballroom,” he says. Davis prefers more decorous affairs, like a 1995 bar mitzvah he still fondly remembers. “Everything was done with a certain level of style and taste,” Davis recalls. “We didn’t do games. We dressed up some old-world tarot-card readers and had a genealogy computer there to look up the origin of names.”

There were fireworks too: a six-minute display, orchestrated by the Gruccis, at a cost of approximately $20,000. “Twenty thousand is the minimum because of barge rentals and coast guard costs,” explains Philip Butler, a Grucci producer.

At schools such as dalton, Riverdale, Ramaz, and Horace Mann, there’s a parent who volunteers for the important job of bar mitzvah registrar, a sort of air-traffic controller who makes certain that several kids don’t schedule their receptions for the same day, creating an uncomfortable situation in which children must choose among competing bar mitzvahs, thereby turning them into popularity contests (which they often become anyway).

Franni Franken, wife of the comedian Al Franken and mother of a Dalton seventh-grader, explains how the system works: “Let’s say you’re at Park Avenue and I’m at Rodeph,” she says, referring to two of the city’s tonier synagogues. “If our children’s bar mitzvahs are on the same day, you’d say, ‘We’ll be out of the synagogue at noon and we’ll have lunch at Main Street’” -- a popular restaurant for bar mitzvah receptions on the Upper West Side. “I’d say, ‘Great, because I’m having an evening service at Park Avenue at six o’clock and a party following.’ You have an opportunity for the kids to shower and change.”

Personal grooming is an important element of the bar mitzvah experience, especially for the girls. The relentless parties virtually require parents to go out and purchase new wardrobes for their daughters. The standard is a half-dozen little black or navy dresses, the tighter the better, with matching shoes from either Kenneth Cole or Steve Madden.

Some mothers double as fashion consultants. One requested that no carbonated beverages be served at her daughter’s bas mitzvah “because it could make the girls look a little bloated in their dresses,” says the catering manager at one party destination.

The mother of a sixth-grader, still in the embryonic stages of planning her daughter’s bas mitzvah, was chagrined when her 12-year-old came home from school one afternoon and reported that a girl on the bus had announced that she was designing her own dress for her gala. The mom was encouraged when her daughter declared that extravagant and said she’d be willing to buy off the rack. But the poor woman was thrown into turmoil anew a few days later when another mother offered to introduce her to a couturier who could create dresses for both the mother and the daughter.

Some families, such as the Frankens, say they amortize the costs by having their kids swap clothes with classmates. They also carpool with other parents (though Franni Franken concedes she sometimes uses a car service), taking turns picking up one another’s children when the bar mitzvahs get out, often not until one or two in the morning. “It’s a school on the East Side,” Franni Franken says cheerfully of Dalton. “But I’m having a very West Side experience.”

Young ladies have also been known to leave afternoon bar mitzvahs early and en masse to get their hair and nails done for evening events. “Most boys think it’s disgusting,” a young gent weighs in. “All the boys are pro-au naturel. Most of us don’t think they look that different. They look a little bit more 42nd Street.”

In comparison, he says proudly, the boys “just make ourselves look a little bit nicer and slap a suit on.”

Some question whether all this fabulousness comes a little early in life. “The problem is the kids get so jaded,” says one mother. “It should happen when they’re 17, not 12 or 13. They’re not interested in dancing. They’re interested in the pinball machines.”

Another difficulty is getting antsy adolescents to sit through the actual synagogue service -- since the patriarchs didn’t have the foresight to incorporate interactive video games into the ceremony. The behavior of the kids from one school was so unfortunate that Rodeph Sholom’s Rabbi Levine was asked to speak to its seventh grade.

“They’d come in, not interested in the service, and they were really boisterous,” the rabbi says. “They’d pick up in packs of twenty and thirty and walk out. One kid said to me, ‘Sometimes we go to three or four bar mitzvahs a weekend, and it’s very hard to maintain respect for what goes on.’”

Even though some of the young ladies look almost ready to chair the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s annual gala -- they’re frequently a full head taller than the boys, and a number of them are already rather well developed -- appearances can be deceiving. They still sound like children, their voices high and squeaky and their speech, not to mention their smiles, often impeded by a full set of braces.

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