A state-of-the-art New York bar mitzvah owes more than a little to theater, and like all theater, it requires props. That's where Pat James comes in. An event planner with the soul of a Broadway fanatic, James doesn't just throw a party -- the guy puts on a show.
"We had a kid who was really into 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' " James recalls, "so we had a purple suit made for him, and we hired these people to be Oompa Loompas and they came out and danced. We had these trees with candy all over them, with signs that said 'Do not eat.' It was fantastic."
For a girl named Lexy, James devised what he called a "Lex and the City" theme, for which he rented a pink couch that was an actual prop in the similarly named HBO show. For a lad nicknamed Bull -- yes, a Jewish kid called Bull -- he rented a mechanical bull and built a saloon around it.
On a recent Saturday night, James is padding around the top floor of a loft in Long Island City, which he and 50 employees have turned into a sort of dinner theater fun house. The theme tonight is guitars because the star of the evening, the just-bar-mitzvahed Russell Efros, is a budding guitarist. Secondhand six-strings are perched on the centerpieces of each table. An ice sculpture of a guitar is melting in a corner.
"Five minutes to showtime!" James shouts in a way that suggests that he's looking forward to the show.
James has hired, as he always does, a group of men from a modeling agency, whom he calls "butlers" and whose job it is to greet guests and fetch drinks. He's also brought along a group of women in tight black bodysuits. One of them is now stationed by something called a "vodka slide," a massive block of ice with a groove carved down the middle -- for the adults, of course.
"It's one of the things we're known for, hiring gorgeous staff," James says as he helps a bartender prepare martini glasses right before the start of festivities.
A few minutes after 7, the doors to a large elevator open and a few dozen well-dressed preteens scatter like it's recess. Adults are not far behind. A mob surrounds a sushi bar, where two Japanese chefs roll and slice as fast as they can. Waiters with trays of Peking duck in mini cones slalom through the hordes. A guy hurriedly hands out packets of play money for games of Texas Hold 'Em poker about to start in the back.
"That's really popular these days with the kids," says James, shouting over the music, which a DJ has suddenly turned up. "Casino stuff."
This, by local standards, is a modest affair. Hundreds of New York bar mitzvahs cost $100,000 or more. Many top the quarter-million-dollar mark. If you're ready to spend that sort of money on a five-hour shindig for an eighth-grader, Pat James is the man to see.
By general consensus, this whole bar mitzvah thing started to supersize about 25 years ago. Before that, it was possible to celebrate this rite of passage with a modest affair, perhaps a cocktail party followed by dinner. Maybe a band. There were plenty of expensive spectacles, of course, but they were the exception.
Not anymore -- especially in New York, the bar mitzvah capital of the world. Nobody seems to have ever done a study of the economic impact of local bar mitzvahs, but it keeps legions of people employed here -- caterers, event planners, celebrity impersonators, acrobats, videographers, musicians, floral designers, photographers, games people, bus drivers and so on.
This is the height of the fall bar mitzvah season, the months after the Jewish high holidays in September and before schools break for winter vacation. A few weeks ago, David H. Brooks, the CEO of a body-armor maker, reportedly spent millions on his daughter's bat mitzvah, renting out the Rainbow Room, which sits atop Rockefeller Plaza, and flying in the rapper 50 Cent, as well as Aerosmith, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. Brooks, by all accounts, set a new standard of excess, but he, as statisticians say, is an outlier. What's every bit as striking around here is the norm.
For 16 years, James has been throwing parties that make Rio's Carnival seem dreary. There are scores of event planners working in New York, many staging the extravaganzas of drama, kiddie games and three-course feasts now in vogue among the Jewish elites of Manhattan and nearby suburbs. James is arguably the most sought-after in the bunch. Hire him and you'll get a noisy, colorful and -- here's the key part -- custom-made affair. In a typical year, New York City kids in the thirteen-ish age range, and their parents, will attend dozens of bar and bat mitzvahs. (Bat mitzvahs are for girls.) It's understood in this rarefied stratum that each event should be not merely lavish but unique. No copying allowed. Nothing generic, either.
"It can get pretty competitive among the parents," says James, who always speaks in the rushed tones of a man late for a meeting. "I've had fathers say, 'I'll hire you, but only if you put on my son's bar mitzvah first' " -- meaning early in the season, ahead of the crowd.
There have been bar mitzvahs at Yankee Stadium and Radio City Music Hall. James has a client who plans to rent out the entire Museum of Natural History on a Saturday night. No matter the venue, James will engineer a gaudy entrance for the 13-year-old guest of honor, one that invariably gets a standing ovation. His go-to move is something called a "fantasy video," which plays on TV screens right before The Moment arrives. Most of them are filmed and edited weeks in advance, by professionals whom James hires.
"We had this one kid who was really into the Yankees and we sent him to Tampa, where the Yankees were in spring training," he says. "And we filmed him in a Yankees uniform, around the park, pretending to play with the team. We even had a couple Yankees say, 'Happy bar mitzvah,' I think. Then you saw him waking up in his bed, realizing it was all a dream. And he looks at his clock and sees that he's late for his bar mitzvah party."
The origins of the bar mitzvah are something of a mystery. There's nothing about it in the Bible, or the Talmud. It probably first cropped up in 5th century Europe, according to Mark Oppenheimer, author of "Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America." Not until the 15th century, though, does it become a celebration that bears any resemblance to the bacchanalias of today, and even then it was the province of the small fraction of very wealthy Jews.
"It was considered an event worthy of celebration, but that might mean you have your first glass of schnapps," Oppenheimer says.
The grandiose bar mitzvah -- here's a shocker -- seems to be an American invention. It isn't hard to find rabbis who worry about this arms race to ever-flashier fetes, who think parents are driven by the need to publicly demonstrate their affluence, who wonder what poker and popcorn have to do with Judaism.
"I think these events miss the point," says Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven, Conn. "A bar mitzvah is about connection to community and connection to God, it's about accepting responsibility, it's the moment that parents accept that their children are growing up."
Parents who bankroll these events tend to think of them as separate from the religious component of the day, and don't think one impinges on the other. And of course, pricey coming-of-age rituals are not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon. They cut across any number of cultures, and in some cases their scale provokes plenty of intramural hand-wringing. Consider quinceanera , the Latino celebration of a 15-year-old girl's transition into womanhood, a day that is marked by a special Catholic Mass and, in the United States, parties that keep getting glitzier.
"With quinceanera and bar mitzvahs, you see the exact same tug of war between religious authorities and party planners," says Elizabeth Pleck, a professor of history at University of Illinois and author of "Celebrating the Family."
Planning starts early
In New York, it's safe to say that the party planners currently have the upper hand.
James got his start in the '80s, working as a "motivator" for a party-planning company, a job which required him to dragoon guests onto dance floors. (Odd as that gig might sound, there are sometimes five or six "motivators" at bar mitzvahs these days.) Other times, James would don a costume and perform.
"I'd dress up like a steam train from the [Andrew Lloyd Webber] musical 'Starlight Express,' " says James. "I played the Phantom from the 'Phantom of the Opera' a few times."
James was constantly pitching his bosses elaborate ideas for the next event, and after a while he thought he deserved to get paid for his innovations. They offered him a raise of $100 per party. He quit and started Parties by Pat James in 1991. The company plans about 80 bar mitzvahs a year.
Most start with a field trip around the city, or suburbia, to find the right venue. A few weeks ago, James was taxiing around midtown Manhattan on one of those venue-hunting expeditions with a woman named Aimee Stoopler. Stoopler, who speaks with a slight Long Island accent and looks to be in her late twenties, is planning her second bat mitzvah.
"It's not till 2008," Stoopler says, "but you've got to make a reservation early, or you could get shut out."
Her first daughter, Amanda, was bat mitzvahed a few weeks ago, and during the cab ride she and James leafed through a scrapbook with photos of the event. The room, you can see, was festooned with poster-size, glamorous photos of Amanda, who looks like a model. You can't tell from the photos, but Stoopler says a performer from Cirque du Soleil was there all night, hanging and twisting from a silk rope attached to the ceiling.
"She was a big hit," says Stoopler, smiling. "My husband liked that."
One of the stops is at Cipriani, a cavernous former bank that is one of the city's poshest rentable party spots. A saleswoman is going over the particulars. (Dinner, for example, is $400 per adult.) Stoopler doesn't blink at the price, but she'd like to know if they could set up a huge, floor-to-ceiling drape so that when guests first arrive and grab a cocktail, they won't be able to see the tables.
"We call it 'the reveal,' " James explains to a baffled reporter. "It's a moment when we pull back the curtain and people get their first look at the room. Usually there's a lot of oohs and ahhs."
Sure, the saleswoman, says, the curtain is doable. She says yes to just about everything, actually. Even a woman from Cirque du Soleil, hanging from the ceiling.
'The coolest family ever'
A couple Saturday nights ago, James orchestrates the bar mitzvah of Stephen Serota, an affair held in ornate Garden City Hotel on Long Island. He describes the event as one of the glitzier of his recent confections. Sure enough, at 8:30 p.m. the place is buzzing.
Stephen is a fan of spy flicks, so the theme here is espionage. An Austin Powers impersonator works the room. Two performers stand frozen atop a table in the cocktail room, covered in gold paint, like victims in the Bond movie "Goldfinger." There are round magnifying glasses at each place setting -- vaguely spy-like -- and a few tables have Tiffany-style jewel cases in the middle, filled with fake diamonds.
Spies, jewel thieves, whatever. Stephen makes his entrance, which happens in the hotel's huge rococo-style grand dining room. An MC who looks a bit like Kid Rock, only much taller and far raspier, introduces the Serotas, while a 13-piece band vamps to the theme from "The Pink Panther."
"This is the coolest family ever," the MC shouts into a microphone. Stephen's parents are introduced. A round dining table, covered by a white cloth, is then wheeled into the middle of the dance floor.
"Did somebody order room service?" yells the MC. An actor playing a cat burglar suddenly runs into the room and pretends to snatch someone's purse.
"That man is a thief!" howls the MC. "Don't let him get away! Somebody stop him!"
That somebody is "Special Agent Stephen," who emerges from under the table and, after pantomiming some act of derring-do, collars the villain. The MC promptly hoists him on top of his shoulders, as if he had just won some flyweight boxing title. Everyone claps, the band turns up the volume. Strobe lights flicker.
Stephen is later seen walking around during the dinner course, pretend-puffing on the wrong end of a candy cigarette.