IT’S A SUNDAY NIGHT in November, and I’m standing outside the United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I’m about to attend my first bar mitzvah. It’s for a boy named Tzvi Hersh, and I’m nervous—not only because I’ve never been to a bar mitzvah before, but also because I won’t know a soul at the party. It’s an Orthodox crowd and I’ve been advised to dress modestly. Clad in a black dress that covers my body from neck to ankle, a blazer, and black tights, I feel like an awkward teenager, and the bar mitzvah hasn’t even started yet.
My colleague, photographer Daniel Arnold, arrives. We peek through the windows of the Yeshivoth, from which a festive pink glow emanates. Boys and girls and men and women, all nicely dressed in conservative Jewish fashion, pass by on their way inside. No one pays us any notice, but then a guy comes down the block, smiling and waving. It’s Meir Kay, and he’s the reason we’ve been invited to this party. A few weeks ago, I found him on Facebook. A 27-year-old who grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Brooklyn, he’s got a full beard and tousled brown hair, hazel eyes that you could, without exaggeration, call “sparkling,” and a big, infectious grin. I reach forward to shake his hand—a gesture he accepts before telling me gently that I should avoid doing so inside at the party, because, according to traditional Jewish practice, men and women who are not married or related should not touch one another. “I’ll go in and say hello and then bring you in to meet the dad,” he says, smiling as he departs. Despite my nerves, suddenly I feel like everything is going to work out just fine.
Tzvi Hersh's bar mitzvah; Brooklyn, New York
Motivator: Meir Kay
Meir Kay is a bar mitzvah party motivator. Well, not just that. As he explains on his website, “I'm all about spreading positivity through different mediums.” Along with producing and directing and starring in videos that emphasize kindness and happiness, he’s a hype man, a dancer, a balloon animal-maker, a distributor of neon hats and glow sticks, a wrangler of both kids and adults on the dance floor. “I love entertaining people,” he tells me on a phone call during which I finagled an invite to the party. “I’m always the guy on the dance floor at weddings and parties. Two years ago, I got a call from a family friend. They said, ‘We’re doing a bar mitzvah, we love your energy, how do we get you involved?’ I was like, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ They said ‘We trust you,’ and brought me down to New Jersey to do the party.”
To prepare, Kay dug into his own bar mitzvah memories, reflecting on how he’d seen motivators take the lead to bring joy and energy to the crowd. “I thought, ‘Oh man, these guys are cool, they have dance moves—that’s something I could do.’” He then turned to videos of party motivators on YouTube, studying how they interacted with their audiences by directing dances and games, and generally building enthusiasm in whatever way they could. There are thousands of these clips, ranging from dancer demos to actual bar and bat mitzvah outtakes to stylized promotional videos from entertainment companies who employ motivators, or “dancers,” as part of their packages. Kay decided on his uniform: black pants and a black shirt with a white vest and white bowtie. It was unique and classy, allowed mobility, and wouldn’t prompt people to confuse him for a waiter. “I found out what kind of music they were playing, and I got more confident and built my own flow,” he explains. “For me, it’s about grooving with the kids, putting the focus on the boy, and having a great time.”
In the year that followed his debut as a party motivator, word of mouth spread, and Kay started getting booked regularly. “I am a Hasidic Jew, and I started off in the Orthodox world,” he says. “Then I started going to other sects of Judaism. You have a whole range, those massive extravagant parties that are super secular with Top 40 and EDM, and then I’ll go to one that’s all traditional songs, and the vibe and crowd are more conservative. I’m open to do any.” Kay estimates that, in two years, he’s motivated at more than 100 parties, with crowds of 25-60 kids and more than 200 adults each. “It’s a great source of income,” he explains. “At the end of the night the parent comes over and they’re giving you their money and they’re smiling, they’re happy to pay you. In the beginning I believed it would only be my side gig. I’m finding myself putting a lot more time in it.”
Though Kay runs his own small business, occasionally hiring an assistant motivator or two to help out at bigger parties, numerous event companies around the country specialize in bar and bat mitzvahs, including Total Entertainment, NYX Entertainment & Events, Untouchable Events, Washington Talent Agency, and Tom Kaufman Productions. These full-service companies work with clients to plan their events and provide them with DJs, emcees, and at least two motivators per party, though depending on size and budget, clients can hire as many as six or even eight motivators, along with a standard sound package and other support staff. The companies and their staff also provide the extras, like custom-made props, photo booths, decor, photography, videography, and even world-class entertainers like Ariana Grande.
Party motivators are technically dancers at events, but often work under the same company umbrella as emcees and DJs, and their exact roles can fluctuate depending on party size and client needs. Some companies, like Total Entertainment, have training programs that bring promising motivators up through the ranks and into an emcee position—a job that’s not quite so hard on the joints, and pays even better. Since Kay does the work on his own, he’s both emcee and motivator tonight, introducing speakers and leading games and dancing, working with the hired-out DJ to run the party. As with the parties themselves, there’s a wide range of motivator options, and depending on what you’re willing to pay, you can probably get whatever you want.
After meeting Tzvi Hersh’s dad, Daniel and I head to our separate sides of the room, which is divided by a mechitza, a partition made up of a series of wooden screens. It’s opaque and tall enough to ensure that women and men remain out of sight of one another, though one can peek through the gaps where the screens meet. (At times, mixed-gender groups and married couples cluster at the back of the room, past where the mechitza ends.) Kay has informed me that men and women typically sit, eat, and dance separately at Orthodox occasions. I hover near the kitchen until a woman comes over to introduce herself. She’s Tzvi Hersh’s mom, and after I get out some words about how I’m here to “observe” for, um, “journalism,” she brings me to the family’s table and sits me next to her daughter, Devorah, who is 19 and tall and very pretty and wearing amazing floral booties she tells me she got on sale at Nordstrom Rack. Devorah has attended a lot of bar mitzvahs, but, she says, “they’re not like weddings,” which are the really huge parties. Devorah is particularly excited about dancing. She’s created a playlist featuring some of her favorite Jewish music artists. The DJ spinning the tunes is named Levyticus.
“At the end of the night the parent comes over and they’re giving you their money and they’re smiling, they’re happy to pay you,”
In the middle of each table are bottles of soda, seltzer, and wine. Some women chat, asking about one another’s families; others rock babies or quietly enjoy the chicken soup served in small white tureens. I peek through the mechitza to see what Kay is doing on the men’s side. The women don’t have a party motivator, though he tells me that at a bat mitzvah—the parallel celebration for girls—they would.
Tzvi Hersh is seated at a long table with his father, his grandparents, and his rabbi. Men sit in circular tables around the room, eating and chatting and listening as the boy reads a Hasidic discourse, explains it, and then thanks his family, teacher, and guests. The rabbi then gives a short speech. On the women’s side, Devorah and other family members peer around the mechitza to watch. Kay sits at the kids’ table, getting the young ones to stay quiet. He blows balloon animals and hands them out. Throughout the party, some of the youngest boys and girls run back and forth between the women’s and men’s sections of the room; for them, the rules don’t yet apply.
Then, the music starts. On the women’s side of the mechitza, they get up to dance in a circle, holding hands. They circle one way, then circle the other way, and repeat, shifting their hips in a way that is both magnetic and modest. Most of them have on luxuriant, impossibly shiny wigs, or sheitls. (Once married, most Orthodox women cover their hair with scarves, hats, or wigs as a show of modesty, or tzniut.)
I’m pulled into the circle and dance with them, my hair in my face, feeling sweaty and slightly silly but also exuberant and welcomed by the crowd of strangers. On the other side of the mechitza, Kay has fashioned a jump rope with black napkins and is using it as a dance prop. Leaving the circle, I hang out at the back of the room to watch him cycle through a range of moves, his feet in black Nike high tops, tirelessly moving to the beat as he makes his way around the men’s side of the party. He leads line dances and games like Coke and Pepsi, a bar mitzvah staple that involves running back and forth across the room depending on whether “Coke” or “Pepsi” is called. He passes out hats and sunglasses and glow sticks in neon colors, items he’s brought along to the event in a large box. Tzvi Hersh’s dad has put on a pair of hot pink sunglasses and is grooving to the music, a huge smile on his face. Men are being lifted onto other men’s shoulders; boys pose with Kay for photos to post on Instagram and ask for his autograph. He is a celebrity, the most popular person at the party—at least, if you don’t count the bar mitzvah boy. And maybe even if you do.
When we leave at around 10:30, Kay is still dancing wildly. “I hope I could always do this, even if I’m a bazillionaire,” he’d told me on the phone. “After every night I’m sweaty and exhausted. Once you get to the later years, can you keep up with the kids? I’m gonna ride the wave as long as I can.”
The first thing you learn when embarking on a story about bar and bat mitzvah party motivating is that no one really wants to talk about the money. As it turns out, it’s a lucrative gig, one that comes with its own set of rules, expectations, and culture. Seasons go from the weekend after Labor Day through the middle of December, and then pick up again in January and February, gaining speed and running until June, when everyone gets the summer off—the kids go to camp, and, like school teachers, the motivators get a break.
One New York City performer (who wishes to remain anonymous) says that when she began five years ago, she charged $200 per event. “Now I’m at $375 per event. You’re pretty much guaranteed a tip between $50 and $100.” During her busiest times, she might take on two or three parties over a single weekend in which, she tells me, “You can make your rent.” Noam Harary, a 31-year-old retired party motivator, told me that before he hung up his black Nikes in 2015, “I ended up charging over $400 a party.”
“I think the reason is it’s such good money is it’s kind of a specialty,” says the New York City performer, who is a top-level “A” dancer at her company. “It’s pretty aggressive. It’s very different than waitressing or bartending. The hours are way better! It’s literally PG-13—you’re not at a nightclub, you’re with kids.”
In 2003, Elissa Gootman wrote in the New York Times that motivators harken back to the late 1970s and early 1980s “as heavily made-up performers in ornate costumes who were focused more on entertaining than on interacting.” Her characterization jibes with the memories of Dan Fischer, a 35-year-old emcee who’s been in the business since he was 18. He started out as a party motivator with Total Entertainment after moving to New York from Michigan, where he worked for a smaller company, Joe Cornell Entertainment. Total, which was originally named Marc Jason Productions, was founded by Marc Jason out of his garage in Rockland County, New York; the company was instrumental in bringing together DJs and emcees and dancers in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Now, Fischer says, comprising office staff and performers, it employs as many as 200 people.
“Bar mitzvah,” which literally means “son of the commandment,” was originally created by fathers to celebrate their sons’ 13th birthdays, a passage into adulthood that meant the boys were old enough to observe, and be subject to, the commandments of Jewish law. The ceremony and party are often held within a week of the birthday, though this can vary. The bat mitzvah occurs on 12th birthdays in Orthodox communities and for others, on the 13th.
“Bar and bat mitzvah are more popular today than they ever have been,” proclaims Rabbi Michael Hilton in his 2014 book Bar Mitzvah: A History. But throughout history, he explains, religious authorities have been concerned that elaborate bar and bat mitzvahs might incite anger and jealousy from people in the non-Jewish world. Centuries ago, community officials frequently set rules to curb what they considered excessive expenditures: For instance, in 1767 in Prague, authorities banned music at parties, perhaps to keep the ceremony from rising to the status of a wedding. In Krakow in 1595, and in Berlin in 1730, Jewish authorities set the maximum number of guests at bar mitzvah parties to 10. All were men. These “sumptuary laws” to curb lavish spending “most commonly limited the number of guests at the parties, the clothes that could be worn, the food that could be served, or the permitted gifts,” explains Hilton. Though such laws may have been attempts to prevent people from spending beyond their means, wealthy members of the community could have more guests if they paid a tax, indicating to cynics that such regulations may have been more a matter of revenue raising than anything else.
Laws or no laws, it’s clear, hundreds of years later, that people will always feel pressure to keep up, outdo, and consume. Bar Mitzvah Disco, a 2005 book by Roger Bennett, Jules Shell, and Nick Kroll, compiles experiences and photographs from bar and bat mitzvah celebrants from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s, a time when each party “was like a peewee Studio 54.” It’s only gotten bigger since then. As the money spent on the parties increases, so do the expectations. “People spend hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions,” Fischer told me. “It’s a bar or bat mitzvah but it would rival an Oscar party. The tent alone could cost $50,000 before decor. People bring in Maroon 5, Flo Rida, All-American Rejects, Lil Uzi Vert, Fetty Wop. We have foosball, ping pong, but also elaborate things—virtual reality roller coasters, hang gliders.” Fischer recently worked a party where his company, Total Entertainment, brought in a Mini Cooper they’d cut in half and put back together in the room so kids could sit in it and record themselves doing “Carpool Karaoke.” He mentions Total’s warehouse in New Jersey, where workers are constantly creating the types of goodies that clients desire, like LED ping pong tables or customized booths—like a backdrop that looks like a New York City newsstand, with actual magazines and newspapers and bottles of water. “Anything you want, we’ll build,” he says.
“You find this family that you maybe needed that you didn’t think you did. It sounds sappy but it’s kind of beautiful.”
It’s worth pointing out that other coming-of-age events, like Sweet 16 parties and quinceañeras, also arrive with huge price tags for those with the means. But the cost of bar and bat mitzvah parties have continued to give pause to some members of the religious community, including the late Rabbi Harold Saperstein of Temple Emanu-El in Lynbrook, New York. As Hilton writes, Saperstein originated the phrase “more bar than mitzvah” in the late ‘50s, to criticize ceremonies in which the party overpowered the sense of religious commitment. To combat the trend, in 1957, instead of a Saturday night with dancing, Saperstein threw his son Marc “a much more modest luncheon following the service.”
Still, today, “it gets out of hand and you lose focus,” Kay tells me. “Parents will bring up that concern when they book me; I take pride in finding that balance where there’s fun and enjoyment but at the same time it’s done in a proper fashion.”
In his book, Hilton makes clear that celebration has always been a part of the ritual of the bar mitzvah: Even the first synagogue bar mitzvah ceremony, recorded in the 13th century, comes with mention that a father “should make a party” for his 13-year-old son. (As Hilton writes, what “party” meant, exactly, is impossible to know. It may have been simply been a meal.) Yet as Kay points out, “Happiness is a mitzvah. We say that simcha—joy—breaks all boundaries. So in its own way, dancing and celebrating is in itself a ceremony of us connecting with the One Above.”
Indeed, there is a kind of magic that happens when everybody, young and old, gets on the dance floor and moves, a kind of symbiosis set to Pitbull’s “Timber.” Michelle Murad, who’s motivated at bar mitzvahs for 15 years, has written a comedy series, Jewish by Association, about her experiences on the circuit. She and co-writer Ryan Chanatry (who’s employed by First Look), are currently shopping the pilot. Growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she went to an all-girls Catholic school, Murad says she didn’t experience a strong, shared culture until she started going to bar mitzvahs. “You find this family that you maybe needed that you didn’t think you did. It sounds sappy but it’s kind of beautiful.”
Julia & Co.; Bethesda, Maryland
Emcee: Chad Ricardo, “The Mitzvah Maestro”
It’s a 4-hour drive from Brooklyn to Bethesda, Maryland, where our next party is taking place. The emcee is Chad Ricardo, “the Mitzvah Maestro,” of D.C. area–based So Fresh Entertainment, part of Washington Talent Agency. Ricardo has informed us via email that it’s going to be “a BIG ONE with ALL the glitz, glamour, bells and whistles (trust me when I say ALL).” This means both male and female dancers—four in total—two plasma screens, two projector screens, “potentially upgraded staging if the client can find it,” a fog machine, and more than 200 guests.
The venue is a sprawling event space. Just inside is a decorated foyer complete with a large Tiffany-blue cart holding flowers and candles and what looks like an actual Tiffany’s box. Nearby, there’s a large photo of the guest of honor, Julia, dressed in Audrey Hepburn garb. The theme of the event is “Julia & Co.,” a message that merges Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Tiffany & Co., the jewelry retailer; Audrey Hepburn; and 13-year-old Julia herself. In the bathroom, Julia’s mom is wearing a white, silky, off-the-shoulder gown. She’s tan, brunette, and looks fantastic. At the sinks, the three female party motivators are doing their hair and makeup. Julia’s mom asks, “Are you my dancers?” They tell her how amazing she looks and scoff in disbelief when she says she’s in her 40s.
Further inside, there’s a separate cocktail area for the parents next to an enormous room where dinner and dancing will take place. (There’s no mechitza here.) The dance floor has a raised stage made of lit blocks— Julia’s parents got the upgrade, Ricardo tells me later—and in one corner of the room, there’s a photo booth. Audrey Hepburn quotes are featured on signs positioned throughout the venue; one mirror reads, ”Happy girls are the prettiest girls,” while a screen visible from the dance floor says, “On a bad day there’s always lipstick.” Breakfast at Tiffany’s-themed food stations serve omelets and breakfast pizzas and waffles and pancakes. There are more life-size photos of Julia modeling as if she’s Audrey Hepburn. The dance floor is flanked on one side by a seating area full of white couches where the kids will later hang out, and a section with tables where the adults will eventually dine. On the ceiling are several huge, sparkly chandeliers. The whole scene outdoes most of the weddings I’ve been to.
Chad Ricardo is a dapper, handsome guy in an impeccable suit. The 36-year-old smoothly shakes my hand and tells us he hopes we’ll get whatever we want from the experience, treating us more like clients than the interlopers we actually are. His blue tie and blue floral shirt topped with a black vest coordinate perfectly with the event’s Tiffany-blue color scheme. The women dancers have on open-back, black T-shirts that read “Julia & Co.” on the front. One of them has on a pair of terrifyingly high heels. The male dancer has on sneakers with black pants and a black vest over a collared white shirt and a tie.
Kids start to file in; the girls take off their shoes and slip on socks provided by the host: They’re purposely mismatched, one black-and-white-striped; one black-and-white-polka dotted. Pretty much all of the boys have on pastel plaid shirts and khaki pants. The girls are mostly in form-fitting black dresses, though Julia wears a Tiffany-blue strapless gown with a full, tulle skirt.
As emcee, Ricardo is in charge; he might dance a little, but his primary job is directing. First, he urges the kids to hit the dance floor and asks over a microphone, “Did you come here to have a good time tonight, do you wanna be lit tonight?” Some sashay tentatively while others retreat to the couches nearby. After a warmup of a few songs, while the adults are still drinking in the cocktail area, Ricardo segues into the “presentations,” in which Julia’s friends display handmade posters—think the photo-laden jokey collages you did for friends in high school—and give short speeches to Julia as she sits on a chair on stage. They call her “stunning” and talk about their “inside jokes” and how long they’ve known each other. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re a woman,” says one girl, and everyone laughs. Ricardo instructs another friend to take her gum out while she delivers her presentation. “You’ll thank me later,” he says.
At 8:13 p.m., Julia’s parents make their entrance to music, followed by her brother, a 10th grader who swaggers through the crowd to the R&B song ”The Man,” by Aloe Blacc. Finally, it’s Julia’s turn. Her guests chant her name and there she is in the middle of the room, surrounded by wispy clouds of manufactured fog, everyone cheering for her on her day.
It’s moving. I can’t help it. I become even mistier-eyed while watching the photo montage that chronicles Julia’s life from infancy to the present, realizing how weird it is that I’m getting emotional while looking at pictures (set to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack) of a person I don’t even know. During the montage, three girls come up to a group of boys to inform one of the boys that their friend likes him. I feel another pang as the chosen one shrugs noncommittally.
For the hora, Julia is lifted into the air on a chair and the crowd gathers to clap and cheer. She bounces up and down giddily, holding on for dear life, thrilled and terrified at the same time. I head out at around 11 p.m., while the adults go wild to “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” The dancers have come alive next to the guests, and everyone’s shouting the words. I almost wish we could stay.
Later that week, I follow up with Ricardo to get his thoughts on the event. “I like to grade my parties, and I’d say it was about a 95,” he says. “I say that with two caveats: We ended up going until midnight, and the adults were rockin’.” Ricardo deducts some points for the hour or so when the kids fled the dance floor: “The ideal party for me is when we’re having one party for everyone.” He points out that the size of the room was a challenge, with too many “spill zones,” places off the dance floor where kids might congregate. And then there were the presentations, which “prevented us from being able to play enough kid music to have won them over.”
Ricardo’s no newbie; he’s been in the business for 10 years, starting as a dancer. Back then, he would feel bad if he couldn’t give the party at least a score of 97. By now, he’s learned it takes a village to get to that number; everyone has to be on their game. “In this case, we would have needed to win the kids over a little more, but they wanted to be in the lounge area. Ultimately, I was thrilled—everyone had a good time.” I ask how many parties he’s had that he’d score a perfect 100. “Maybe two in the history of my career,” he admits. “It’s a goal, not a reality.”
What to do? In a crisis, play “Don’t Stop Believin’” which he claims is “the greatest mitzvah song of all time.” I believe him.
Ten years ago, Ricardo says, parties were easier. “The industry is going through an interesting moment because 13-year-old kids love hip-hop more than any other style of music, but you don’t dance to it; it’s just not a dancing genre, unless it’s a song that has a dance to it.” Instead, the kids want to stand on the floor in clumps and rap the verses. Five, ten years ago, it was all about Lady Gaga-style anthems. “You sang the chorus and jumped in the air and fist-pumped and it was party-oriented. The songs now aren’t party-oriented,” he says. The solution is to stagger the songs, so hip-hop plays during “the cocktail hour” and you get them on the dance floor later. “It’s quid pro quo.”
Aside from the phones and the dancing styles, there’s also the dizzying speed of onset maturity you read about in panic-inducing magazine cover stories. “Typically with the more high-end parties, they’re not your typical 13 year olds,” he says. “Kids were more kids back then.”
What to do? In a crisis, play “Don’t Stop Believin’” which, he claims, is “the greatest mitzvah song of all time.” I believe him.
Most of the motivators I spoke to came to the work almost by accident, responding to casting calls that turned out to be for event companies that planned bar and bat mitzvahs. At their auditions, they danced and performed and ad-libbed and most of all, exuded personality, which is probably the number one key to the job. (Tiffany Haddish and Paul Rudd both worked in the business before they were household names, if that gives a hint as to the charisma required.) Along the way, the motivators got hooked—to the rush, the partying, the strange but lovely experience of being part of someone else’s family for the day, and helping to make that day better. “I don’t think anyone gets into this thinking it will be my career, but you get into it and love it,” says Fischer, who’s booked through 2020. Or, as Harary told me, “You hear a crowd roar, and that will pulsate through you… that thud of unison, everyone clapping on beat. That experience when the bar mitzvah boy feels like he’s the rock star. It’s really special when you realize you’ve done this for a family.”
The coffee table book Bar Mitzvah Disco describes itself as “a journey from a more innocent age to a time of unabashed materialism, all lived with an insufficient dose of irony.” This lack of irony was evident from my experiences of talking to motivators and watching them work. Partying is done in earnest, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, not when the role is highly likely to combine the duties of camp counselor/babysitter/model/athlete/event planner/guest wrangler/dance professional/circus performer, and who knows what else.
Of course, the dancing part is important. Lance Smith, the founder of Claysmile Entertainment, a Maryland company that trains party motivators, says his employees must know all forms of line dancing, from the Cupid Shuffle to YMCA. Then, there’s more recent dance trends, like Lean and Dab (“that’s kind of fading”), Whip/Nae Nae, and Juju on That Beat. But there’s more to it than that. “You have to read body language, you have to be able to understand how teenagers are and somehow make it work,” says Murad. “I usually find someone who’s not on their phone. First I’ll go for the 13 year olds. Then I’ll go to the adults. Then I go to the youngest in the room, then I go to the oldest. They have to cave in eventually!”
Murad’s most memorable night involved a party at the American Museum of Natural History in 2010; she wore roller skates and an orange wig and there was a band and dancing cavemen. “These are the parties you wish you were invited to normally,” she told me. “The Ritz, having a party on a yacht. You want the 13 year olds to think you’re cool. Your 13-year-old self wishes you were invited, and the grownup version does, too.”
Noam Harary recalls a 2015 event for which the family hired Nicki Minaj for $300,000 to perform at New York City’s Pierre Hotel, where rooms run around $890 a night. (There’s a much-discussed Instagram of Minaj standing with a group of boys at the event). “They didn’t want her security guards on stage so they had me and this other dancer get on stage to make sure the kids didn’t come up there.” But Harary’s biggest professional moment was when he came back from retirement in 2016 to do one epic last bar mitzvah—for Jerry Seinfeld’s older son, Julian Kal. “I was standing there in a small dance circle of me, Seinfeld and Sarah Jessica Parker. I was putting my hands in the air and the two of them were following me and my ‘90s self was like OMG.”
That the career of a bar mitzvah party motivator has an expiration date may make it all the more precious. For those who age out of dancing, there are, of course, the emcee programs, as well as DJing or starting your own event company, or, like Lance Smith, running an organization that trains dancers. Perhaps the irony in these rites of passage is that party motivators must stay forever young to celebrate kids growing up. Like professional athletes, they all speak of that day when they simply can’t do it anymore. “I’m in my late twenties,” one motivator told me, “and when I started I was 22 turning 23. There’s a point at which you’re like, I feel too much of a gap between me and the 13 year olds.” Murad and I talk after a weekend in which she did two back-to-back events. “By the time I got home, I was like, I have to heat my ankle,” she said. She’s 34.
Ava’s Open; Montclair, New Jersey
Emcee/Motivator: DJ Zap
We drive back from Bethesda that same night, fueled by rest-stop coffee and the remnants of classic-rock riffs. The next day brings another party—a tennis-themed bash for a 13-year-old girl named Ava that’s been dubbed “Ava’s Open.” The drive to New Jersey takes much longer than it should. Then Daniel and I can’t find the event space. After stopping at a Greek restaurant to ask for directions, we realize we’ve walked right past the party. We’ve got a dose of party hangover, much like the teens who go to bar and bat mitzvahs every weekend in the fall and spring. “One of the challenges is that the kids are just mitzvahed out,” Smith tells me at one point. “It’s not new to them. It takes more creativity to engage them.”
They’re also, like so many kids nowadays (and the rest of us, too) addicted to their phones. To combat the ubiquity of screens, Heather Mirabella from Events by Joni, the company that did the design and decor for Ava’s event, explains that “a whole different level” is required. “Everything lights up, everything has logos, it’s all on social media.” This particular party took a year and a half of planning, and involved creating a floor that looks just like a tennis court—it, too, says “Ava’s Open,” as do the plasma screens where a 9-minute photo montage culled from Ava’s young life will eventually play. “They couldn’t have the party at an actual tennis court because of the food,” Heather explains. Here, there are passed appetizers as well as bleachers where partygoers can sit in front of a blow-up photo of people actually watching tennis in bleachers. A surprisingly lifelike cut-out of Ava stands on the actual bleachers, surveying her crowd. Giant tennis balls rest inside clear tables, on which kids inevitably spill their drinks. There’s a photo booth, drink stirrers that look like tennis racquets, and even candles that have tennis balls as their base.
Ava’s party motivator is Jason Zaplin, aka, DJ Zap, a 25-year-old New Jersey native who got into the business as a sports-loving, entrepreneurial 9-year-old, dancing at parties for kids in his neighborhood. “I had a buddy who lived next door, and we started a DJ business, J&J Entertainment,” he says. “I got contracted with other companies, dancing and doing my own thing. By 21 or 22, I’d started my own business, and at 23 or 24, it was like, let’s take Zap to the next level.” Zaplin got a culinary arts degree but didn’t go to college, instead choosing to put his energy into his company. (He has a lot of energy.) “My goal for when I’m 40 is to have a stable of young emcees like me,” he tells me.
If Meir Kay is embodied exuberance connecting boyhood to manhood and Chad Ricardo is the seamless, stylish professional, DJ Zap is in it for the dance. He’s there to make a difference with his moves, and he’s as serious about the business as if he were auditioning for Shark Tank. On a phone call, he tells me repeatedly that you’re only as good as your last party. “It’s a very competitive market,” he says. “What separates me is I get back to my clients 110 percent. We can’t win every party. We do the best we can to make sure our clients are happy.”
Today, his crew includes one male and one female dancer (she’s a senior in high school), a couple of set-up guys, and the DJ. They’re all wearing white T-shirts with blue “Ava’s Open” logos. Though many of the kids prefer to hang out on the bleachers (the girls, looking at their phones, wearing the tennis-themed socks provided by the host) or in a lounge area in front of the dance floor (the boys, looking at their phones, in the same plaid shirts we’d seen at Julia’s party), DJ Zap is indefatigable. “I got started because of dance [and] music,” he says. “I had a natural gift.”
He’s also aware of the challenges of this particular party—possible bat mitzvah fatigue, it being a lazy Sunday afternoon rather than a pumped-up Saturday night, and the competing demands of Snapchat and Instagram. He comes prepared with an array of sparkly, light-up paraphernalia, as well as Ava-branded stocking caps to get people moving and excited. I snag a purple bracelet that makes me feel almost like a real guest, even though I’m mostly lurking in corners and taking notes. “You can’t be Superman,” he says. “You’re dealing with so many different personalities. You’re kind of like a psychologist. We do the best we can to engage. But I’ll tell clients, it’s not my place to tell your kid to put their phone away.” Later, when we have a call to recap the party, DJ Zap tells me that Ava hadn’t wanted any games, which means there were fewer ways to keep the kids occupied. Eventually, they had a dance-off to get people back on the floor. It worked; by the time we left, at around 3 p.m., much of the crowd was in a circle cheering around a break-dancing kid as DJ Zap conducted the competition.
Before the dance-off, though, comes the hora, during which I get weepy as an exuberant Ava is lifted into the air, her glittery high tops on display. I am struck by another irony of the mitzvah: So many of Julia and Ava’s friends, during the course of giving their presentations, exhorted the girls to “Never change.” Their moms had a similar message. “Stay you,” Ava’s mother said in a sweet speech to her daughter. “Never lose your wonder or stop asking questions, even when I tell you you’ve hit your limit for the day.” (Everyone laughed.)
As we drive away from the party, I reflect on these sentiments. Why do we tell young women not to change at a ceremony that’s all about them growing up? Why are girls and boys hurtled so speedily into adulthood, not just at these events—where they slump on bleachers and stare at their phones and glance furtively at each other—but in all of life? Of course, it’s not the bar or bat mitzvahs that are causing this increasingly frenetic trajectory into grownup life, it’s the world around us.
In fact, bar and bat mitzvahs provide a chance to be, at least metaphorically, still for a moment, to celebrate the honoree’s liminal state. There’s something painfully sweet about giggling girls and rambunctious boys on the edge of adulthood, something eager and true and expectant and real. They’re all potential. They’re also a reminder that we each have a part of ourselves that should never change—our sense of wonder, our joy, some earnest essence of our 13-year-old selves—no matter how old we grow, what religion we believe in, or what sort of bar or bat mitzvah we may have had (or maybe have never had at all).
This rather transcendent connection between youth and adulthood is what motivators help provide, I realize, just as they, in turn, are bolstered by the youthful energy of the parties they help faciliate. “Dancing keeps you young and vibrant, your body is in great shape,” Michelle Murad tells me. “But I think the job is almost a testament to show younger people that age really is just a number. Don’t be afraid to grow up. See, we’re OK. Everything ends up OK, and we’re going to have an awesome time.”