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Club Bar Mitzvah: Coming of Age in a Disco Inferno

February 23, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lights in the Woodland Hills Hilton banquet hall dim, and neon strobes flash across the ceiling to the throbbing beat of teen rock fave Smash Mouth. A team of dancers above the crowd on risers thrusts and gyrates in identical form-fitting black and red costumes.

"Are we ready to bring in Zack?" shouts emcee Billy Ruic into his detachable mike, strutting across the miniature stage like a rock star before a crowd of thousands. "Let's make some noise. Put your hands together to the beat!"

A spotlight zooms to the rear of the room, and the doors swing open. A shy, 13-year-old boy with spiky, blond hair walks in, a pretty female dancer draped on each arm.

The strobe lights spin crazily. The song "Allstar" cranks up. The dancers get down. Under Ruic's masterful, choreographed encouragement, the crowd of grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and friends goes wild.

Zack Gerson, the man of the hour, is surrounded by frenzied party-goers. "There is only one place to go from here," yells Ruic. "And that is a celebrational horaaaaaaaa. . . ."

This is 13-year-old Zack Gerson's bar mitzvah party. Zack, an eighth-grader at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, was bar mitzvahed a few miles away at Temple Judea. The elaborate theatrical production/aerobics workout/rock concert underway on the dance floor is a package of interactive entertainment available from Hart to Hart, one of this city's hottest bar mitzvah party companies. Lots of people love the group. Some people don't. But no one can deny the New York-based Hart to Hart is making its mark on the West Coast bar mitzvah landscape. The group does seven to eight parties a weekend--75% of them bar mitzvahs. Packed into vans, or onto airplanes, the group crisscrosses Los Angeles and the West to perform, traveling from Denver to San Diego to Vegas to San Francisco to help young Jews celebrate their initiation into religious adulthood.

Some of the more than 75 teenagers at Zack's party project a certain ennui. At 13, they are already worn out by the endless cycle of fancy parties--with their parade of comics, magicians and glass blowers--which they attend almost weekly in this affluent Jewish community.

But most of Zack's young guests said Hart to Hart is the only entertainment company they would even consider for their own parties.

"My sister had 'em. My brother had had'em. And every single party I've been to except two had 'em," said Jeremy Mendelsohn, 12. Added Katie Bronow, 13: "They've done every single one I've been to except one, and that one was really boring."

Glitzy Update for a Solemn Tradition

In Jewish tradition, a bar mitzvah marks a boy's passage to adulthood, with respect to Jewish observances. Until a few decades ago, a bar mitzvah was a modest ceremony at the local synagogue. "We have come a long way from there," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the board of rabbis of Southern California.

Starting a few decades ago, more liberal Jewish movements in this country also began to celebrate girls' religious initiation into adulthood, with a bat mitzvah ceremony.

Today, rabbis worry that some bar mitzvah parties have become so lavish they overshadow the meaning of the event.

"There is no official law saying you can't have skydivers jump out of the sky, or dancers," said Eric Kimmel, author of several Jewish-themed books, including one on bar mitzvahs. "But the important thing to remember is, this is a religious ceremony. There should be some dignity involved. You go to some of these parties, and they are break-dancing. What's Jewish about that? After a while, these things begin to become a joke. They are so lavish, it's funny."

Bar mitzvah planners and rabbis say it is not unusual for a family to spend $20,000 to $30,000. Hart to Hart and its competitors charge between $1,800 and $6,000 for entertainment alone.

Hart to Hart, based on Long Island, was founded 21 years ago by Richie Hart, who conceived the business after helping his father, an orchestra leader, get people onto dance floors at parties. The West Coast branch in Woodland Hills was established nine years ago by Marsha Bliss, a former elementary school teacher, after she attended a Hart to Hart bar mitzvah party in New Jersey. She was so inspired, she flew the group to Los Angeles for her daughter's bat mitzvah.

"There were deejays and bands, but there was nothing in between that captured both adults and children," said Bliss, who manages a staff of about 50. Most of the dancers are college or graduate students or aspiring Hollywood types.

Today Hart to Hart is one of the leading bar mitzvah entertainment companies in Southern California, constantly raising the bar mitzvah party standard with its trained dancers, amped-up energy and in-your-face style.

Bliss said most clients book the company a year in advance, but a few eager families have already reserved as far ahead as 2003.

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