Memories made at Jewish summer camp and at bar mitzvahs stay with us for the rest of our lives. This week I chatted with Steven Siagel, president of Siagel Productions, about his more than 30 years providing entertainment and memories for families around Boston.
I went to Camp Yavneh, and a ton of my friends are Ramahniks. It was more than 20 years ago, but I can still sing every song I learned at camp. Jewish summer camp seems to strike such a chord with people. Why do you think that is?
Our experiences at Jewish camp stay with us for so many reasons, but from my experience, it’s the spirit, or ruach, that makes camp so unique. Where else do you see hundreds of kids breaking out into song, banging on tables at mealtimes? Or belting out Hebrew songs with friends in the middle of a lake, or after a Shabbat dinner on a Friday night?
Knowing all the same songs, prayers and cheers, and sharing camp memories, bonds people forever. For the campers, they get to feel a part of something amazing while also enjoying a new level of independence away from their parents. For alumni, we only dream of escaping back to our world in the woods with friends, sans technology, where the goal is simply to have fun and celebrate Jewish culture.
When I wrote camp songs for Camp Tevya in 1979, I never expected campers would still be singing them 35 years later. But they are, and it’s incredible to see how the tradition of camp spirit lives on from generation to generation.
Your family’s business intrigues me because I’m reminded of the extravagant b’nai mitzvot of my adolescence. One rarely reads about those blowout parties today. How have things changed in the past 30 years?
Some things have remained the same and some things have changed. The rituals we’ve always had at bar/bat mitzvah receptions still occur, such as the Horah dance, candle-lighting ceremony, kids’ buffet, speeches from parents and a friendship circle. But throughout my 35 years building Siagel Productions, many things have changed, both technologically and culturally.
Technological innovations over the years have enhanced bar/bat mitzvah parties. We’ve introduced an audio/visual experience in addition to simply playing music. This includes video screens, high-tech lighting and light-up dance stages. Party favors have also evolved from Polaroid picture magnets to digital photo booths, from John Lennon sunglasses to flashing accessories, from sombreros to customized airbrushed trucker hats.
To some extent, the guests have evolved as well. Today, both adults and kids like the same music. Because of wider access to music through iTunes, Spotify and other channels, kids know a lot of adult music, and vice versa. So we have longer, more intergenerational dance sets, which is where the best memories are made.
Also, more boys are dancing now than ever before. Today, boys are taking hip-hop and breakdance classes, and are often the first to jump on the dance floor when a party begins. I think the great male dancers in pop culture, as well as shows like “America’s Best Dance Crew” has definitely contributed to making dance “cool” for boys.
Line dancing was more popular 30 years ago. We were doing the electric slide, Macarena, chicken dance, hokey pokey, etc. Today some line dances are requested, but not quite as frequently.
Your family has planned more than 8,000 parties. How on earth do you keep things original for each one?
We take a lot of time to understand each client’s vision for their party, which is unique to each family. The party experience we create reflects the personality of the bar/bat mitzvah. We offer many ways for clients to personalize their party, such as having the guest of honor perform, bringing in live entertainment, changing up party props, using different games and themes, or changing up the order of rituals. We also have a large cast of talent we match up with each family based on their style. We have about 10 emcees, 10 DJs and 15 dancers. That makes for a lot of team variety!
What’s your favorite icebreaker?
It’s a classic, but I always love doing guest-of-honor trivia with the kids during the first hour of the party while the adults are having cocktail hour. It’s a great way to engage many kids at once; it’s interactive, educational and puts the guest of honor in the spotlight right off the bat. Through any icebreaker, our goal is to learn the kids’ names and make personal connections. Developing that instant rapport with the kids during cocktail hour sets the stage for great engagement and participation for the rest of the party.