The life of the party

Another disturbing sign of our have and have-not society, or a lavish way to show our kids we love them?

fire dancer 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy of Jovle)
fire dancer 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy of Jovle)
The noise level might befit a factory boasting heavy machinery or an airport runway where the workers wear those industrial-strength ear protectors. But what's causing me to want to curl into a fetal position is neither of those, nor a demonstration of IDF sapper techniques or a front row seat at a Linkin Park concert. It's simply the eighth birthday party for Karin and Ophir, two second-graders from Tel Aviv who are celebrating together at a Herzliya birthday facility called Tutiland. Thirty-five of the birthday girls' closest classmates are sitting around a low semicircular row of bleachers, simultaneously pounding their feet on the hollow wooden benches and screaming at the top of their lungs, so they can be heard over the din of pumped-up party music blasting from the PA system. We're sitting in the reception room of the Mivtzar (fortress), one of Tutiland's main attractions. Most parents who drop off their kids are 30-ish and well dressed, the women mostly in designer jeans, high boots and low tops, the stray father or two with hoop earrings and at least a couple of cellphones and beepers adjusted on their belts like guns in holsters. Tomer, 22, dressed in Tel Aviv black, rail thin and with a "Madonna" microphone protruding out of his ear, is handsome in an American Idol sort of way. The master of ceremonies for the event is full of nervous energy as he paces back and forth in front of the kids, waiting for Karin's and Ophir's parents to give him the sign that all the invitees have arrived. "I love this work, making kids happy," he says as he's setting up for the party. And when it's show time, he indeed rises to the occasion with the panache of a Children's Channel host - cajoling, singing along and prodding the already excitable boys and girls to the point of frenzy. It's almost like the kids are really in the studio audience on a children's TV show. It's exciting and dynamic, but to an observer, there's a noticeable lack of warmth in the atmosphere, as if the kids are reacting in a manner in which they've been conditioned. After the preliminaries, including the singing of popular kids' songs, the wheeling out of twin lavishly decorated cakes, and the birthday girls' chair-raising ceremony (eight times with one for good luck), the main attraction begins. Tomer and his assistant divide the children into six groups - each group identified by a different colored tag attached like belts around the waist. Then they're led into the next section of the Mivtzar - the game room. If you've ever been to an American beach boardwalk, or even to Eilat, you'll get the idea. There are ring toss booths, fishing games, air hockey, target shooting and mini-golf among the dozen attractions, set up in rows along both sides of the "boardwalk." The groups have a limited time in each booth, in which they attempt to collect tickets for performing well, which can later be redeemed in the kiosk at the end of the boardwalk, which carries every cheap toy, sticker and trading card that's ever rolled off a Chinese assembly line. Back in the reception room away from the main fray, I take a seat next to a young-looking woman in her 60s, who turns out to be Karin's grandmother. "They never had this kind of thing when I was raising kids," she says, licking a piece of frosting from her plate. "We had all the parties in the house, and I did everything myself." "Isn't something like this expensive, though?" I ask. "Eh, they can afford it," she answers, pointing to her daughter and son-in-law, a hi-tech executive who's busy with his camcorder, recording every ring toss and hockey goal for posterity. Ah, yes, the cost. For two hours of entertainment and guidance by its staff for an entire school class, the Mivtzar charges NIS 2,000. I walk out after the party with my ears ringing, a little disoriented, but strangely craving a Coney Island hot dog. The Mivtzar may not be the cheapest, but it's certainly not the most expensive option available to parents searching for a special way to celebrate their child's big day. Money may not be a factor to parents who can afford a super-party, but there are other issues involved which may exact a costlier price than the payment to the Mivtzar or similar facility. In essence, places like that, which are springing up around the country, are birthday factories, churning out cookie-cutter experiences for children raised on expectations formulated by TV. Are those kinds of parties the healthiest way to show our children we love them? And what price is society being forced to pay for the glaring and growing schism between the haves and the have-nots within a neighborhood or even within a single class? Whatever the answers, it's clear that throwing a birthday party isn't as simple as it used to be. 'You want the frosting, but you just bought the cake' - Paul Westerberg Tutiland isn't easy to find. Near the Glilot junction in Herzliya, it's hidden from the side road, behind a wedding hall. You need to take a dirt road behind the hall, past a couple of factories, until a small sign next to a nondescript warehouse-type building notifies you that you're in the right place. But apparently, the out-of-the-way location doesn't deter parents, including some of Tel Aviv's A-list celebrities, from patronizing the establishment. In fact, explains Moshe, Tutiland's owner and manager, it's a benefit. Moshe enthusiastically takes a visitor around the giant facility which is divided into four halls - the Mivtzar being the primary birthday option. He proudly points to a wall of photos featuring a slew of famous entertainers. "You can see all the celebrities from Tel Aviv hold their kids' parties here. You just missed Rami and Rita," he says, pointing to photos of the split up singers who reunited long enough for a family party at the Mivtzar. "They had a birthday party here last week. We're very sensitive to celebrities wanting to have a normal party for their children and not turning it into a media event. [Eli] Yatzpan was here, and so was Zvika Hadar," he adds, pointing to other photographs on the wall. Moshe, 60, who runs the business with his daughter Sharon, defines Tutiland as a birthday solution for all ages. "We have everything - programs, performances, clowns, DJs. And we supply everything - food, drinks, running the event and - it goes without saying - careful supervision of the children." He leads the way into the cavernous Action room - a fully equipped club complete with hanging mirror balls and a full non-alcoholic bar in the corner, which can be rented out for birthdays, bar mitzvas or other events, and can be supplied with DJs, magicians, clowns or whatever the family desires. "There was nothing like this in Israel 15 years ago. We opened our original building about 11 years ago in the Tel Aviv Port, and we were the first in Tel Aviv, probably in the whole country. People would hear about us, come in and say, 'What a great idea this is,'" says Moshe. When asked if he thought that establishments like his promote competition among classmates and among their parents to attempt to "one better" the previous party with something more lavish, Moshe responds from a strictly business point of view. "Competition between the kids only helps us. The more classmates and friends hold parties here, the more the other kids want to come here, too. It's great for us," he says, adding that holding a party at the Mivtzar is actually an affordable option to parents on a budget. "Someone who wants to save money can do two kids together, like Karin and Ophir. And when they do it that way, then it's really no more expensive than having the party at home and inviting a magician or a clown. When you add in the candy and the refreshments and paper goods, then you're already getting to NIS 1,000. "Here you can relax; there's no danger of damage to your home, and the parents can enjoy themselves instead of running around supervising the entire class. The parents just need to bring the birthday cake, sit and relax." That sentiment is echoed by Karin's and Ophir's parents, who seem the epitome of laid back amid the tumult of their children's frenetic activities. "For me it's worth any extra cost - you're not in the house, there's no tumult. The party's over and you go home to a clean home," says Haggai, Ophir's father. "Kids like big extravaganzas like this, this is the age for it. And anyway, what are you going to do in the house?" Karin's mother, Yael, was the impetus behind holding the joint party at the Mivtzar, and she says it's challenging to find a unique party idea every year. "I'm always looking for something to do for her birthday that is different, that's never been done before by one of her classmates. Last year it was the Florentine Circus," she says. "The kids don't expect something bigger and better each year, but they do expect something different. They get tired of having the same kind of parties all the time - 30 of them a year. It's boring." Both parents deny that super-parties are indicative of any kind of social climbing within the class by the kids or the parents. "Look, we're doing this together with Karin's family, there's a community feeling involved. Maybe the kids have some kind of race with each other, but not that I'm aware of," says Haggai. "I don't see anything wrong with spending money on parties like this. I don't think it's shifting Israeli society into a more commercial society or teaching kids that bigger is better. It's not like they hired a famous singer for NIS 25,000," says Karin's grandmother, helping herself to second piece of cake. But Yael looks somewhat wistfully upon the parties her mother threw for her when she was young. "It was totally different then. We'd always have the party at home, it was much more modest," she says. And the bottom line? "Back then it was a lot nicer. But there's no going back to those days. The cat is out of the bag." It's your birthday (we could spend time together) - Destiny's Child A decade ago, if you lived in the Jerusalem area and wanted to do something special for your child's birthday, there were only two words you needed to know - Yuval Hamevulbal. For a modest price, Yuval Shemtov would turn parties into events and leave both parents and children beaming. Shemtov has long since graduated from parties into DVDs and TV to the extent that his manager refused to allow him to be interviewed for a story about birthday parties lest readers think that he was once again available for party appearances. But the single entertainer type of birthday party perfected by Yuval is still hugely popular with parents who want to provide something beyond the norm for their child's party without having to break the bank. Magician Nurit Sheffer from Moshav Ben-Shemen evidently has magic in her blood. She's been performing at birthday parties since she was five years old, as an assistant to her magician father. "I try to make the birthday kid the star. I dress him up like a magician and make him my assistant, and he actually does magic tricks and realizes a little about the power of magic," she says. For an amount in the NIS 700 to NIS 800 range, the 34-year-old Sheffer provides an "all-in-one" service of a magic show and running the party afterward with dancing and music and cake. "During the magic part of the show, they're sitting there and don't move much, so I like to get them active after," she explains. Sheffer doesn't understand the trend toward grand, birthday factory parties, and even gets annoyed when families who hire her embellish her act with other accoutrements. "There are people who spend so much money. They don't just bring me, but they hire those jumpy things, cotton candy machines, the whole works. I feel like it's become more stressful for the parents. They make the event bigger than the kid's birthday," she says. "All a kid really needs for his birthday is for his mother and father to be with him. But the parents blow it out of proportion and they become crazy. It becomes a case of the parents putting on the birthday to show off - there's bad energy at these shows." In addition to clowns and magicians, there are still a plethora of options available to parents and kids looking for the "it" party experience. Renting out a movie theater will set you back close to NIS 3,000 depending on the time and the day; an hour and a half activity tour to the Tnuva store at Cinema City in Herzliya is more affordable at NIS 22 per kid, but according to one mother amounts to "an hour and a half commercial for Tnuva." And we're not even going to talk about options like the ubiquitous gymboree jumping activity setups at virtually every mall in the country. There, for a ballpark figure of NIS 800, these enclosed activity centers offer "low rent" version of the Mivtzar, with an hour of bashing about the jumping stations and an hour of games, music and refreshments led by a young staff. Ronit, a mother of three from Ra'anana, thinks that even in her upscale neighborhood, there's less a feeling of keeping up with the Cohens than a desire to look for unique ways to celebrate. "I think parents are looking for more a novelty factor than a show-off factor," she says. "Kids don't want to see the same magician for the 10th time, they want something new." However, there seems to be a happy medium between the in-your-face, scream-till-you-drop parties at places like the Mivtzar, Ra'anana's Pinchy Club or a host of similar establishments around the country, and the lone-ranger clown or magician whom kids have seen countless times. But it will cost you. A glance at on-line resource sites like Parties Bank ( reveals a whole cottage industry of custom-theme birthday parties that has developed in recent years and demonstrates it's possible to be extravagant but tasteful, and even educational, when celebrating a child's birthday. Bow down to her on Sunday, Salute her when her birthday comes. - Bob Dylan Hila Vidor and her partner Amir Schreiger devised the idea behind their business, Jovle, four years ago. "I come from a theater background, and Amir has a background in children's curriculum. We came up with the idea to mix theater and fantasy for birthday parties. We're really a concept house and a traveling theater," she explains. For a sum comparable to what the Mivtzar charges (but without the food), Vidor, Schreiger and their team will come to your home, or an outdoor area nearby, and create a fantasy world of knights and fairies for the birthday child and his or her friends. "We usually travel with three people - two actors, a knight and a princess, and a sound man, who also does the set. It can be done either inside or outside, but best in a garden or a forest," says Vidor. "The 'Journey to the Forest' program is geared to four- to seven-year-olds and it takes the children on a magical journey filled with tasks they need to perform. The kids feel that they are the heroes of the fables and they're the stars of the story. It's intelligent, quiet magic. "We're changing the landscape of birthdays. It doesn't have to be with noise and yelling. But a birthday party can also be held on an educational level, where you talk about friendship, tolerance, imagination, and they receive something that stays with them," she says. According to Vidor, parents are looking for something special they can do for their kids, and she feels that she has the answer. Based in Tel Aviv, Vidor says she travels all over the country and claims she's not just appealing to an "elite" audience, but people from all kinds of socioeconomic levels. "Sometimes people will call afterward and say that something in their family has changed, something in their hearts opened up. Is it good to spend so much money on your kid's birthday? I think it's good to invest in something that leaves you with a full heart. If the heart is full, then it's worth it. I've seen parties that are very expensive, but they're filled with only color and noise. We offer something simple," she says. Tel Aviv resident Lani Banai employed Jovle for her daughter Nina's fifth birthday party earlier this year. Married to Uri Banai from the musical Banai family, Lani says that the Jovle experience is indeed "magical" and worth every agora. "It was as if the kids and parents had stepped into a fairy tale, a fantasy world Hila had succeeded in creating in the middle of Tel Aviv - not an easy thing to do. At the end of the presentation, I cried. They asked us - the parents and the kids - to make a wish. And it was so overwhelming and real and nice," says Banai. "All you usually get in Tel Aviv are clowns - they're just no comparison to what she's doing. The whole kindergarten and parents still talk about it. There's just no comparison to... anything else in the market. She honors and respects the children and treats them like people. The usual birthday industry is bullshit, and they underestimate the kids." Banai, who lives in the Kochav Tzafon section of North Tel Aviv, admits that there is a tendency among her social group to get caught up in lavish parties. "Last week, parents hired Cinema City and screened a movie for the class. There aren't any normal birthday parties where we live," she says. Yet, she doesn't think that her daughter is being spoiled at an early age, and explains that party extravaganzas are part and parcel with the times which parents have to accept. "I'm sure Nina won't mind having a 'regular' birthday party. But a regular birthday is going to cost NIS 1,000 to NIS 1,500 anyway, and this cost NIS 2,000. The bottom line, unfortunately, is that it has everything to do with money. We live in a capitalistic society and you can go along with it or not," says Banai. FOR A more "mature" clientele who feel that knights and fair maidens may be slightly childish, Robert Levin offers something a bit more exciting - challenge birthdays. "I've always been involved in challenge sports going back to my combat experience in the army. I've done lots of skydiving and rappelling. I began to concentrate on free-falling and I represented Israel in an international competition in South Africa in 2002 and came in third place," says the 37-year-old outdoor enthusiast from Rehovot. Levin opened Robert Adventures in 1993, developing many challenge activities for company and group events, but eventually focused on work with children through community centers with youth groups and youth in danger. "From there, it wasn't a big jump to planning challenges for children's birthday parties, which we started doing a few years ago," he explains. "We do things like omega, rappelling, paint ball, bow-and-arrow challenges. It's geared for children from first grade on up." The first thing Levin attempts to do when meeting with potential birthday customers is to develop an atmosphere of trust, not a bad idea since he's soon going to be having the parents' offspring attached by ropes balancing on a tree 10 meters up. "I build the program with the parents and the child and give them an educated estimate based on what they want. I go to meet the child so I can learn more about him and he can also learn about me and gain his trust. Then we go out into the area - a forest or park near their home - and I show them what I intend to do," says Levin. With prices beginning at NIS 2,150 for approximately two hours of activity, Levin's challenge is also for the parents' pocketbooks, but he professes a long line of satisfied customers like Dr. Arik Siton from Ramat Aviv, who feel that the uniqueness of the program makes up for the added expense. "We're very middle class, not bourgeois at all despite what you might think," says Siton, who hired Levin for his daughter Eden's eighth birthday party. "We went in together with another family, so all in all, it wasn't more than a regular party with a hired entertainer. When I saw what they take for a regular party, then this wasn't so bad. "We were thinking along the lines of a magician but when she saw what Robert was offering, she decided on something more challenging. She got very excited, and we sat with Robert and he suggested a program. And it's exactly as advertised. "We had something like an omega that shot them up in the air, and then there were three stations - with ropes and bows and arrows. The kids wanted more and more. It's so much better than sitting in a closed place, and it gave them a taste of something different. My fear was safety - after all, you have more than 30 kids there and I'm responsible for them. But I was very impressed by the professionalism," says Siton. "It was amazing, and something they'll remember forever." EDEN'S "CHALLENGE" eighth birthday party may stay with her a long time, but, according to Sylvia Hareven, a Jerusalem-based early childhood consultant who supervises graduate students at Hebrew University, the trend toward super birthdays is part of a troubling phenomenon she calls the "professionalization" of child rearing. "Parents have lost confidence in their own abilities to do things for their kids, whether it be cooking schnitzel, baking a cake or putting on a party. We're now farming out traditional parenting roles to outside specialists," she says. "It's the same way with people getting homework coaches, because they don't think they can help their kids with their homework, or they don't or can't spend the time on it. Parents expect their kids' judo coach to teach them self-discipline and how to take care of themselves. "And regarding birthdays, when people, especially kids, get used to something, it's hard to go back. With birthdays, if kids in kindergarten have a cake with computer images of Dora the Explorer or a silk-screen photo of themselves, it's not easy to go back to a normal birthday cake." Hareven says that another factor at play is the "hurried child" phenomenon, coined by psychologist David Elkins more than 20 years ago, describing a youngster whose parents' relentless pushing - sometimes for their own ego gratification - makes his childhood as stressful as adulthood. "Often the kids' achievements are reflecting the parents' ego needs. And while the kids get lost in the birthday-factory process, it's often the parents who are pushing them. They might say, 'I don't want it, but my kids insist,' but it's as much for them," says Hareven. "There's always been peer pressure - 'All the kids have it, can I have one too?' But now it's become normative to give in - parents have lost the ability to put their foot down and say no." Hareven suggests that just like the feminist movement in the '70s had the slogan "take back the night," maybe it's time for parents to say "take back your family and your life." "Look at your child's birthday as a celebration of the child - making the kid the star of the day. A kid can't compete with Yuval Hamevulbal - the performer is always going to be bigger and get the attention. If this is their day, it should be a celebration of them, their uniqueness, their achievements and their sense of belonging - to their class, their community and their family. Once you look at it that way, you see that it's not fair to put them up against Yuval Hamevulbal. "Look, not everybody enjoys baking or making costumes or is good at it. But you have to ask yourself, how much of what you're doing is authentically your kid and how much you're being swayed by brand name expectations. If you look at it as a 'take back the night' initiative, and focus on the uniqueness of the kid, then you won't get confused with celebrities and instead celebrate your child. Give them a role, let them create. It's flowing against the current but it will be worth it." According to Dr. Bradley Ruffle, a behavioral and experimental economist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the phenomenon of bigger and better birthday parties is an easy one to start and a difficult one to break. "A child or his parents gets this idea of a fancy party, and it in turn puts pressure on other parents and creates a feeling of obligation to reciprocate. This gets the cycle going. There's the risk of being socially ostracized or outcast, or being labeled as cheap, so parents willingly reciprocate," he says, citing two main reasons. "In these days, with people so busy, and parents both often working full-time, it's easier to spend money on kids than spend time with them. And parents think that it's a way to curry favor with their kids - see what a great parent I am? I went to all this effort for you." It's my party and I'll cry if I want to - Lesley Gore Both Hareven and Ruffle admit that some parents are simply not cut out to plan and conduct birthday parties for 35 screaming seven-year-olds in their home, and for them, outsourcing may work best. But the problem for mothers like Maya from Mevaseret Zion and Ronit from Ra'anana, both mothers of three, is the sheer quantity of kids involved. "If you're inviting the whole class - which means upward of 30 kids - then what are you going to do in your house, especially if it's in the winter and you can't use a yard if you have one?" asks Maya. "I don't think parents can keep the attention of 35 five-year-olds. Paying the money to rent Keftzuba or Tim Tam is worth it just to not be in your house." But she admits that home parties can be the best, if the parents are suited to being the ones in charge. "When my seven-year-old son went to his first party in first grade, the parents played games with them, and he had a better time than if there had been an entertainer. There was a lot of interaction, and it was a really good chance for the kids to get to know each other. I was so impressed that I called the parents afterward to thank them. But, not every parent can do that." Ronit agrees that home parties may ultimately be more heimish, but the economics of it don't add up. "It's nice to do a wholesome party, make your own food and decorations and organize kids' games. But if you look at the pure dollars and cents, it's not necessarily cheaper. If you need to take time off from work to do all that planning, it might be more economical to plunk down NIS 1,000 and have someone do the party," she says. "I know parents that don't do any outsourcing and the kids make their own cake. If you're that type of parent, you're going to have to work hard, buy materials, invest time. Look, not every party has to be a show. You can watch a DVD - they'd be happy with that once in a while." One option that most parents utilize is the shared birthday, like Karin and Ophir's at the Mivtzar, an idea Ronit enthusiastically endorses. "The nice thing about Israeli society is the teamwork. If it's an expensive place, two or three parents will do the party together. Yes, there might be some competition, but because Israeli society is somewhat sympathetic and we're from mixed socioeconomic backgrounds, there's sensitivity involved. My son is 11 and has seen it all - he's jaded and not much will impress him anymore. For his last birthday though, five parents pooled our resources and took the kids to Shefayim and the climbing walls and mechanical bulls. If it had been a single kid, it would have been a crazy, extravagant party, but because we split it, it was affordable." Mali from Modi'in doesn't believe in that path, however, claiming that while it may provide joy to the child in the short run, it may cause him harm in the long run. "I know some parents share the parties with another family to save money. But my shrink said it's better not to share," says the mother of two elementary-school boys. "It makes the day more important for the birthday boy, so if a magician is going to cost NIS 800, it's worth the NIS 400 extra not to share in order to make him think he's really special." Can a birthday party psychologically scar your child for life? Likewise, if only half the class is invited to a party, will the other half bear grudges and turn out to be the kind of people you shy away from on city buses? Luckily, all parents agreed that by the age of nine or 10, the demand for loud, colorful super birthdays begins to wane, and children start focusing on a handful of friends instead of the full class for sleepovers, or a night out bowling or at the movies. "Things are changing. For my daughter's last party for her seventh birthday, she had two friends come and sleep over. They're getting older, I'm getting older," says Maya. "Now, often people will invite you at the last moment out of obligation, but in the hope that you don't come." But don't worry. Just when you thought you were out of the woods, it's almost going to be time to plan the bar or bat mitzva party, events which make the super birthday party seem like a pleasant knight-and-fairy fantasy. I hear Dana International is available for only NIS 25,000...