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Bash Mitzvahs!


The most memorable moment of Alexis Waxman’s bas mitzvah wasn’t the unveiling of the sign-in board at Bridgewaters. It came earlier that evening at Metropolitan Synagogue when, wearing a prayer shawl that had survived the death camps, she spoke of how her interest in Anne Frank had compelled her to visit Auschwitz with her mother while the rest of her family summered at Lake Como.

“I always wondered what Anne Frank felt like when she walked through the immensely large gate,” she told her guests, adding that the experience of following Frank’s footsteps across Europe to her final destination had forced her to ponder the question “What is a Jew?” A Jew, she concluded, the answer providing her solace through her parents’ divorce, “is able to find the courage to deal with pain.”

The solemnity and ritual of the bar mitzvahs themselves make the blowouts that may come afterward all the harder to understand. For example, the family of a girl who had her bas mitzvah at Park Avenue synagogue, who supplied the kiddush -- the luncheon afterward -- with centerpieces of canned matzoh balls and tuna for the homeless, threw their daughter a $150,000 black-tie reception at Tavern on the Green that same evening. It included a commissioned 60-foot-long mural depicting not the lives of the prophets but those of the Beatles, the bas mitzvah girl’s favorite band.

The escort cards were gimmicks, like chattering teeth on the “When I’m 64” table. Guests who were seated at the “Yellow Submarine” table, on the other hand, were greeted with a tank full of live fish as the centerpiece. The “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” table was literally suspended from the ceiling by strands of rhinestone-encrusted rope. The bas mitzvah girl sang Beatles songs a cappella to the honorees at her candlelighting, and the evening culminated with a fireworks display that exploded from the center of each table.

“I’m very detail-driven,” explains the girl’s mother, the CEO of a large company. “I spoke to the planners every day for four months. When it was over, it was like, ‘What am I going to do now?’”

She insisted that the splendor of the evening was simply a desire to celebrate life, not to impress her friends. “My mother is a Holocaust survivor,” she says. “Our celebration was the fact that she had survived and that we had a daughter to bas mitzvah. We made a donation for every guest who was there to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.”

Sometimes, the more observant the family, the more baroque the reception. It was an orthodox family, for example, that rented Radio City Music Hall last November for the bar mitzvah of their son, who attended a Brooklyn yeshiva.

“It took a very long time to get them to commit to giving it to me,” said the boy’s father, referring to the powers that be at Radio City, who were more comfortable dealing with concert promoters than with a guy throwing his kid a birthday party. “I didn’t want a place where you’d been to twenty times over.”

When the guests pulled up, they could have been forgiven for thinking they’d mistakenly arrived on the night of the Grammy Awards. There was a red carpet, revolving klieg lights, and the words RECEPTION FOR LOUIS wrapped around Radio City’s landmark marquee. Tourists gathered behind the velvet ropes with their cameras poised.

The dad admits he tried to book the Rockettes, but they had a previous engagement. “The Christmas show,” he reports.

He sees no contradiction between his son’s orthodox religious service that morning and the evening extravaganza said to have cost between a quarter- and a half-million dollars.

“If you’re able to have the means to make something different, I believe you should do it,” he says. “It’s a once-in-a- lifetime experience.”

Harriette Katz’s big December bar mitzvah at the Garden City Hotel -- “We call this the Long Island Pierre and Plaza,” says Joseph Borbély, the hotel’s director of catering -- is actually a b’nai mitzvah (the plural of bar mitzvah) for a family’s son and daughter. Still, there’s a limit to how much one can economize, and each offspring has a separate game room tailored to gender. The boy’s lair boasts, among a half-dozen other diversions, a Wave Runner interactive video game where, standing on an actual jet ski and staring at a giant screen, one can fly through the Grand Canal in Venice, even taking a death-defying leap off a ramp near the Rialto.

The daughter’s lounge, on the other hand, has beauticians in white smocks helping the young ladies create their own “Heavenly Scents,” and a “Hot Rock” TV studio where little girls writhe suggestively to “Barbie Girl” by Aqua while a bored-looking technician tapes them for their souvenir music videos.

“You’re booked,” a female guest, swept away by the opulence and elegance, tells Harriette after accosting her by the wax- hand-sculpture table. “We’ll talk later, but you’re booked. I’m having a bar mitzvah in Miami in February.”

Inside the ballroom -- a fantasia of silver lanterns wreathed in white roses and hanging from birch branches -- the candlelighting ceremony is under way.

“You guys are great; whenever you come over, we get to stay up late,” the boy and girl recite as a couple of beloved relatives step forward and the band plays a flourish. Guests who may have trouble following the action through the flora and fauna -- such as former EMI-Capitol Records chairman Charles Koppelman, seated in the back of the room -- can watch on strategically placed video monitors.

The candlelighting is still going on without any sign of letup a half-hour later, as the kosher rack of lamb with a mélange of baby vegetables cools its heels in the kitchen.

“What number are they up to?” Harriette asks one of her assistants nervously. “This is the candlelighting that will not end.”

Finally, it does. The way you can tell is that the ballroom doors burst open and all the kids fly back to their respective game rooms.

“Business is incredible because of the stock market,” says Diane Bienstock Setchen, a party planner who styles herself the “Queen of Tchotchkes” and who teams up with Harriette for killer bar mitzvahs like this one, which cost around $250,000. Diane supplied this party with the silver envelopes to hide the pink Sweet’n Low packets so that they wouldn’t clash with the décor; the $30-apiece invitations; the sunglasses with sequential blinking lights worn by the kids while dancing. “When the market crashes,” she says, “so will we.”

It isn’t even Diane’s most lavish affair. Last spring, she and her company, Fancy That, did a bar mitzvah for the nephew of Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone in Boston -- a party rumored to have cost close to a million dollars. It included a casino, a custom-made dance floor painted with a giant r, monogrammed linens, and a birthday cake featuring a mythological (or perhaps not) Redstone City with a Redstone Bank and a Redstone Medical Center.

“But I didn’t do another party that month,” Diane says.

“The host and hostess are requesting all the children,” the master of ceremonies announces over the sound system back at the Garden City Hotel. The kids dutifully return to the ballroom, where the screening of the video tribute is about to begin.

Charles Koppelman has already left.

“They don’t stay,” confides a student of the bar mitzvah scene, referring to Koppelman’s observed bar mitzvah-going habits.

Some guests are more engaged. In May, Revlon president Ronald O. Perelman sat in on drums with Kool and the Gang at a Pierre Hotel bas mitzvah for the daughter of his vice-chairman Donald Drapkin.

(“He’s fabulous,” reports an eyewitness, who’s not even an employee of MacAndrews & Forbes, Perelman’s holding company. The band, however, apparently wasn’t thrilled to share their gig with him. “They didn’t really want it to happen,” says a member of the entertainment team. “When they introduced him, they didn’t call him Ron Perelman. They called him Ron Friedman.”)

As video tributes go, the one for the brother and sister is relatively prosaic. (At the Drapkin gala, cover girl Claudia Schiffer blew kisses to the bas mitzvah girl. And for one young man’s homage, Andy Marcus, the Jewish Establishment’s photographer and videographer, ventured into the New York Knicks locker room, where the players offered the bar mitzvah boy congratulations. This isn’t something the Knicks do for all their fans -- the kid’s dad had an in with the team.) The soundtrack on this tribute features Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World” while pictures of the sibs and their appealing mom and dad -- skiing out west, strolling on their private beach, sharing a moment with President Clinton -- flash across the screen. The room is so full of heavy hitters that the commander-in-chief’s cameo raises hardly a murmur.

After the video ends, the kids rush back to the game room, the grown-ups finally settle down to dine and dance, and Harriette and Diane retire to another ballroom, one that’s being used as a staging area, for a well-deserved bite to eat.

But Harriette isn’t content to rest on her laurels.

“We should have done an egg-cream setup,” she says.

Diane consoles her: “We’ll do it in Florida.”


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