Bash Mitzvahs!

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.

The evening reception featured the Hamptons String Quartet playing “Sunshine of Your Love,” Peking duck that Chinese chefs sliced and folded into soft pancakes with hoisin sauce, a sushi bar (sushi is to baby-boomer-sponsored bar mitzvahs what chopped-liver molds were to their parents’ generation), and, hovering smack in the middle of the room like the mother ship in Independence Day, a three-tiered “Tuscan Table,” a concept Harriette claims she invented, that would surely have the good citizens of Florence scratching their heads in disbelief. The bowerlike structure spirals toward the ceiling: fried calamari, baked stuffed clams, and eggplant rollatine, buttressed by copious quantities of focaccia.

And those were just the canapés.

“We did a medieval bar mitzvah last May,” Harriette says, leading the way through a black-lighted tunnel filled with streamers and blinking strobe lights toward the pièce de résistance, the dining room itself. There, life-size figures of the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter, among others, gaze down upon exquisitely decorated tables featuring such touches as miniature porcelain bathtubs serving as olive boats.

“Medieval?” I inquire. It doesn’t sound especially festive.

“Say ‘Renaissance,’” Harriette replies. “It was my idea. I have to read the client. You have to know what her home is like and what her son is like.”

Back in the cocktail area, we run into Alexis Waxman, the bas mitzvah girl, who an hour earlier has delivered a moving speech at the synagogue about how a childhood fascination with Anne Frank sparked her own search for her Jewish identity but who now seems to be disoriented by all the glamour. Harriette shows Alexis the “sign in” board – a staple of bar and bas mitzvahs where friends can offer written congratulations – except that this one is six feet across, made of mirror and Plexiglas, and features a model of the New York City skyline.

(“I didn’t know what to say at that point,” Alexis recalls later. “I was completely amazed. It was like a dream.”)

As bas mitzvahs go these days, “Alexis in Wonderland” could be considered staid. Lee Tannen, whose Andrew Lloyd Webber-like efforts include “Mollywood,” “Jesse on Broadway,” and “Logan in the Sky With Diamonds,” recently created a bas mitzvah entitled “Absolut Erin” at the Americas Society on Park Avenue. Erin, the bas mitzvah girl, hadn’t developed a premature taste for martinis. She just loved the ads.

“The theme is the big thing,” says Tannen. “And the theme has to be different from the other 85 that you’ve gone to.”

Despite Harriette Katz’s authority on all things culinary – one of her business cards identifies her as the “Conseiller Gastronomique des États-Unis” – she is but one cog in the elaborate bar mitzvah-making machinery. And as far as the bar mitzvah boy or bas mitzvah girl and their friends are concerned – kids who wouldn’t recognize a caramelized onion pierogi with horseradish sauce if it hit them in the face – Katz is by no means the most indispensable cog.

That distinction goes to the folks who supply the laser-tag games, the wax hand-sculpture vats, the computer that morphs a boy’s image with his girlfriend’s to show you what their offspring would look like, the dog-tag-stamping equipment, the music-video studio, and the mobile photo-processing center that allows you to put a guest’s picture on everything from mouse pads to a Rice Krispies box, his face replacing Crackle’s, thus creating a bar mitzvah souvenir for the ages.

The galas seem fueled by – in no particular order – parental pride in a child’s formal admittance into the Jewish faith after years of rigorous study, a surging stock market, the impulse to celebrate Jewish success in America, one-upmanship, and, perhaps most of all, the desire to create an unforgettable experience for jaded 13-year-olds who may have been to a bar mitzvah luncheon at Tavern on the Green that afternoon and a blowout at the Rainbow Room the night before.

Greg Telleri, a former Club MTV dancer considered perhaps the hottest emcee on the bar mitzvah circuit – “The emcee is king,” Lee Tannen proclaims – received a cancellation recently because the bas mitzvah girl didn’t feel her reception could compete with those of her friends.

“She knew I was doing a friend’s bas mitzvah a month before hers where there were more games and a few more dancers,” Telleri recalls, “and she was afraid that hers would not be as good.”

Pity the children with the May and June birthdays. “At the beginning of the season, there’s a lot of enthusiasm about going,” says a mother who, like many others interviewed for this story, wouldn’t speak on the record for fear of alienating fellow parents. “But as the season goes on, there’s this frenzy to produce the unique experience.”

“Toward the end of the season, kids have been to so many parties, it’s harder to hold their attention spans for four or five hours,” says Allen Dalton, whose company, Eventertainment, provides the fun and games for what he and his partner Tom Kaufman describe as some of the more “low-key” and tasteful bar mitzvahs in town.

“We try to structure a party so there are no real lulls,” says Kaufman, though he hastens to add, “We almost always shut the games down during the candlelighting ceremony and the blessing of the bread.” The candlelighting is a ritual in which honored guests are called up to light a candle on the bar mitzvah boy’s or bas mitzvah girl’s birthday cake. Harriette Katz, for example, was extremely moved when she was called up to light candles at bas mitzvahs two weekends in a row – at the Waxman affair and at another the previous Saturday evening at the Rainbow Room. “I became so involved with the child,” she says. “It was totally the kid’s idea.”

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.

And sometimes the games they play – not those at the reception but the ones on the long bus rides to and from bar mitzvahs at some of the families’ weekend homes and country clubs in the Hamptons or Connecticut – help pass the time a little too fast.

“We all get bored, so we play Truth or Dare,” confides one boy. “Most of the dares are, like, kissing.”

“French kissing,” says a female classmate. “I sit in front.”

For all the time, effort, and money parents pour into the parties, the mark of the best ones, say the kids – though the bashes all pretty much blur together after a while – isn’t the special effects or the free mouse pads but whether their friends are there and everybody’s behaving. They seem to have developed their own unwritten code of bar mitzvah conduct.

“Even though if it’s really extravagant it’s better, it really doesn’t matter, if everybody’s into it, if everybody’s doing what they were meant to do,” says a seventh-grader, describing kids with attitude problems (lingering in the game room when they’re wanted on the dance floor constitutes such a problem) as the primary deterrent to having a good time.

Says a girl at Horace Mann: “If at school someone is flirting too much with somebody else’s boyfriend, I won’t look forward to the party because you’ll think something” – meaning an argument – “is going to happen.”

And at one reception, a bas mitzvah girl says, she “begged” some of her more amorous classmates “to take it outside.” She perceives such behavior as a personal slight. “If it’s a good friend, you pay attention to the party,” she says.

Rabbi Levine thinks bar mitzvahs are mellowing out. “I have sensed a reining in of some of the excesses,” he remarks, sitting in his wood-paneled study off Central Park West on a recent afternoon. “I stand up in front of all family bar mitzvah classes and say to them, ‘This is an opportunity for parents to stand up in front of children and teach them what’s really important about this experience.’”

Many children now earmark a portion of their bar mitzvah gifts, up to 10 percent, for charity. One Rodeph Sholom bar mitzvah boy decided to give away all his money, asking his guests to contribute either to Project Ezra, which helps the Jewish elderly on the Lower East Side, or to the City Lights Youth Theatre rather than slipping his dad a check. That was an act of considerable self-denial, since children routinely get tens of thousands of dollars in gifts.

“I have everything I need,” the boy stated simply.

“We have become affluent and in the process of this affluence have made our lives less meaningful,” observes Misha Avramoff, the high-school coordinator at Park Avenue Synagogue and Project Ezra’s co-director. “The incongruities are beginning now to seep in.”

When a slightly gawky, bespectacled 13-year-old girl stood a few weeks ago at Rodeph Sholom’s bema, the platform where the service is conducted, and chanted her Torah portion in a voice that was strong and confident, if occasionally off-key, she did seem to be part of something larger – and not just her family, one of New York’s richest and most socially prominent. And when she used her speech to tell how Jacob’s cruel words to his son Reuben on Jacob’s deathbed – “You shall excel no longer” – had taught her how words can wound, one sensed that she’d actually given the matter a lot of thought.

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.”

Bash Mitzvahs!