Dec 06, 2023, 06:24AM

Videotaping Nathan Spiegel’s Bar Mitzvah

The first rule of videotaping a bar mitzvah is to learn who the parents are.

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The first rule of videotaping a bar mitzvah is to learn who the parents are. They’re the ones who’ll pay you and they expect to see themselves on video as much as possible. I learned this the hard way while taping Nathan Spiegel’s 1987 bar mitzvah reception. The event occurred at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel not long after it was featured in the film Beverly Hills Cop. The location was teeming with decked-out guests and tourists all looking like low-level gangsters. There was so much cologne in the air, I feared the place would explode if someone lit a match.

My partner for the day was Julien. We were old high school friends who taped weddings and parties for extra money. As we entered the hotel, we learned there were three bar mitzvah receptions that day. We asked the concierge about the Spiegel event. He said we needed to get security clearance first. Nathan’s father was an Israeli macher who once served in the Knesset. I got the gig because Mr. Spiegel and my grandfather belonged to the same synagogue.

A security guard took our photos, copied our driver’s licenses and gave us name tags. We entered the main ballroom foyer just as hors d’oeuvres were served. Guests hovered around the food trays trying to identify the mystery meat. I asked Julien to locate Mr. and Mrs. Spiegel so we could introduce ourselves. He dove into the crowd while I sought an outlet to charge our battery and portable light. I stashed our equipment behind a raised platform where a three-piece klezmer band played European folk tunes. Julien returned looking sheepish.

“You okay,” I asked.

He gestured to the klezmer band. “Accordion players give me the creeps.”

We moved across the foyer leaving our equipment behind. Julien pointed out a short balding man with an even shorter woman.

“That’s Mr. and Mrs. Spiegel.”

“Excellent,” I said.

“They don’t speak English. Only Hebrew.”

“That means we don’t have to chit chat.”

Once the klezmer band moved into the main ballroom, we kicked into action. I connected the battery to the VHS recorder. Julien tested the portable light and did a color balance on the camera. I unpacked the microphones and strapped a role of gaffer tape to my belt. I searched for the box of blank VHS tapes. It was missing. I looked through my equipment bag, starting to panic.

“Julien, have you seen the tape stock?”

“They’re here somewhere,” he said. “I brought them in myself.”


He searched the same spots I’d scoured.

“Maybe the musicians took them,” he said.

I entered the ballroom filled with dozens of tables and empty chairs. The musicians were setting up on stage. I approached the clarinet player who seemed to be in charge.

“Did you guys accidentally take a box of videotapes?”

He didn’t speak English.

Their equipment cases were piled just off stage. I spoke to the violinist hoping he’d understand.

“Is it okay if I check your bags to see if my stuff is there?”

He shrugged, not understanding.

I took the initiative and rummaged through their things. A loud voice yelled, “Nay!” I turned to see the accordion player marching towards me, furious. (Julien was right). He grabbed my coat and pushed me to the edge of stage, berating me in Hebrew. I explained what I was doing but he didn’t understand. I returned to the foyer.

“We have a problem,” I told Julien. “No tape.”

“Any in the car?”

“Maybe. You guard our stuff and I’ll go check.”

I grabbed my keys from the valet and hiked to the fourth level of the parking structure. I found an unmarked, previously used VHS tape beneath a pair of dirty sweat pants. I returned to the ballroom, my shirt doused in sweat.

“I found one,” I told Julien.

“Is it enough?”

“If we shoot at the EP setting, we’ll have two hours.”

“How long is the event?”

“Four hours,” I said.

“That’s not good.”

“We’ll have to be selective.”

I manned the camera while Julien carried the VHS player, battery and portable light. We were connected by three feet of cable forcing us to walk in tandem. It was awkward but we made it work. I taped Mr. Spiegel as he munched on a cracker slathered with chopped liver. Mrs. Spiegel nibbled on an asparagus spear. We circled them as they chewed, recording every moment. They feigned smiles but we were making them nervous. They waved to camera and then walked away. We followed.

For the next 15 minutes, we recorded the Spiegels as they schmoozed with guests. Mr. Spiegel’s smile turned to a grimace. He gestured for us to leave him and his wife alone. We continued recording until they disappeared into a bathroom.

We taped several seconds of a large photo of Nathan on an easel. His acne, braces and coke-bottle glasses gave him the prototypical bar mitzvah nerd look. We grabbed requisite footage of guests. They spoke directly into camera saying “Mazel Tov.” Nathan’s young friends screamed into camera and made goofy dance moves. They said Nathan was backstage rehearsing.

“For what,” I asked.

“You’ll see,” a boy said before breaking into a giggle.

Every bar mitzvah has a theme. The theme of Nathan Spiegel’s gala was rap music. Each table had a center piece dedicated to a different rap performer. There were photos of Run D.M.C., Grandmaster Flash, LL Kool J and Ice-T. Fake gold chains and dark sunglasses were spread across each table.

The klezmer band stopped playing and the MC took stage. He was in his 40s, an Elvis-wannabe with greased-back hair, a rhinestone-covered violet suit and a tallit shawl around his shoulders. He spoke into the microphone with a deep baritone voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please enter the ballroom and take your seats.”

People found their places based on the rap performer corresponding to their table. This meant the older guests had to familiarize themselves with rappers like Kurtis Blow and Doug E. Fresh. The main table, where Nathan sat with his family, had a Beastie Boys theme.

The room lights dimmed and a spotlight filled the stage. The MC donned a pair of sunglasses. He thrust his fist into the air in a black power salute and spoke with an aura of gravitas.

“It is my great honor to introduce the man of the hour, please give a big cheer for Nathan ‘Big Daddy’ Spiegel.”

The crowd cheered and a heavy metal guitar riff came over the speakers. Nathan appeared in a powder blue suit, sunglasses, gold chains and a black fedora hat. He grabbed the microphone and started rapping.

“Your pops caught you smoking and he says no way.”

Nathan’s friends shot up from their seats and thrashed around, their yarmulkes barely staying on their heads.

“Living at home is such a drag,” Nathan rapped. “Your mom threw away your best porno mag.”

Guests watched in horror as Nathan stomped around stage. Julien and I moved closer.

“You gotta fight for your right to party,” Nathan yelled.

His friends sang with him. After several minutes, the music stopped and the guests gave a lukewarm ovation. I captured a closeup of an old woman at the DJ Jazzy Jeff table looking confused.

Nathan was mobbed by his friends then he joined his family at the main table. A rabbi gave the blessing of the Challah saying something about “the exuberance of youth.” Then dinner was served.

While people ate, we exited the ballroom to strategize. We had less than an hour of usable tape, and a new problem as well. The portable light was burning through our battery. This meant we were low on power for the camera and VHS player. We still had to cover Nathan’s dance with family, his speech and a special musical performance. We decided to abandon the portable light and rely on natural light. This meant the video would be dark, but we’d do our best to salvage it during editing.

The MC returned to stage and summoned Nathan and his family to the dance floor. The klezmers kicked into a spirited version of “Hava Nagila” and the Spiegel clan danced en masse. Nathan taught an elderly couple how to dance like a rapper while Mr. and Mrs. Spiegel waltzed on the periphery.

“How come he’s not dancing with his parents,” Julien whispered into my ear.

“I don’t know.”

The MC invited all the guests to the dance floor and soon the room resembled an Eastern European dance hall. Julien and I stood in the midst of the chaos capturing it all.

We returned to the foyer to check our status. We only had a half-hour of tape left and the “low battery” indicator was flickering. While we decided how to proceed, Nathan’s amplified voice echoed through the ballroom. We hustled toward Nathan who stood at a podium beneath the stage reading his speech.

“The words bar mitzvah mean one who is subject to the law,” Nathan said. “That makes this day a legal celebration.”

I kept my eye glued to the viewfinder as Julien guided me through the ballroom. A “low light” indicator now flickered next to the “low battery” warning.

“Shit, shit, shit,” I said.

“What now,” Julien asked.

“I can’t see a fucking thing,” I muttered a little too loud.

“Quiet,” a guest at the Kool Moe Dee table yelled.

We reached the podium. Nathan’s face was completely dark. The only thing visible were lens flares from the podium light.

“Turn that light into his face,” I whispered.

Julien sidled around me and swiveled the light upwards. This worked. I was able to make out Nathan’s features though he was lit from beneath, like a horror film. But this created a new problem. By shining the light into Nathan’s face, we’d effectively blinded him. The event came to a halt. Someone yelled, “Get that light out of his face!” Julien swiveled the light into its proper position and Nathan resumed speaking. We continued recording realizing the footage would be unusable.

The MC returned to stage. “What a lovely young man,” he said. “He gives us so much nachas. Now we have a surprise for all of you. Nathan, will you please join me up here.” Guests applauded while Nathan took the stage.

We crab-walked across the room and ascended the steps on the other end of the stage. We walked behind the curtains, out of view. Halfway across the stage, I stepped on something springy and heard a horrible groaning sound. I looked down and saw a violin beneath my foot.

I carefully lifted my foot off the violin strings. Thankfully no one had seen my faux pas. We moved towards Nathan and the MC.

“As some of you know,” the MC said. “Nathan has been playing violin for several years. Today, he will regale us with a selection from Mozart’s Concerto Number 3. But he will not be playing any ordinary violin. Thanks to Yitzhak Rosenbaum, a guest here today, Nathan will be playing a rare 1798 violin made by the master Italian craftsmen Giuseppe Gagliano. How much did you say that violin is worth, Mr. Rosenbaum?”

“More than my Rolls Royce,” a voice yelled from the darkness. Everyone laughed.

The MC retrieved the violin I’d just stepped on and handed it to Nathan.

“Don’t break this,” he said. “Or your parents will be upset. Isn’t that right, Mr. Spiegel?”

A man’s voice replied from the Beastie Boys table. “You said it.”

“I thought he didn’t speak English,” I whispered to Julien. Julien shrugged.

“Okay Nathan, the moment is yours.” The MC stepped aside.

Nathan straightened his posture and placed the violin on his left shoulder. He positioned his jaw on the chin rest and tilted the bow at an angle above the strings. He exhaled then touched the bow to the strings. The resulting tone sounded like the last breath of a dying dog.

For the next few minutes, Nathan transformed Mozart into an assault on the eardrums. Guests shifted in their seats. A female guest begged, “Someone tell him to stop.” Finally, the MC gently placed his hand on the strings to stop the bleating.

“Thank you, Nathan, wonderful,” the MC said. He removed the violin from Nathan’s hands. Nathan appeared stunned, unsure what happened.

“You know, it’s not too late for piano lessons,” the MC said. “Mr. Rosenbaum, you might want to get a refund on that violin.” The crowd laughed and then the klezmers kicked in with a version of “If I Were a Rich Man”. Nathan returned to his table scratching his head in confusion. Julien and I locked eyes. I put a finger to my lips as if to say, “Don’t say anything.”

“I’d now like to call up Mr. and Mrs. Spiegel for the recitation of the Shema,” the MC said.

We rolled tape as two people walked onto the lit stage. I’d never seen them before.

“Who the hell are they,” I whispered.

Julien’s hand squeezed my shoulder. “I think I screwed up,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

He pointed to the Beastie Boys table where the elderly couple we thought were Nathan’s parents were watching the proceedings. This meant we’d been following the wrong parents the entire evening. The real Mr. Spiegel approached the microphone.

“I want to thank everyone here for joining us for such a special…”

The camera went black. I panicked. I tried turning it on again but the battery was depleted. I locked eyes with Julien and made a throat-slitting gesture.

“No more power,” I said.

He grimaced.

We pretended to continue taping Mr. Spiegel’s speech so as to not call attention to ourselves. But I knew we were screwed. We’d messed up Nathan’s speech, ruined his musical performance, possibly destroyed a priceless violin, missed the final prayer and likely didn’t record any footage of the parents. The day was a complete fiasco.

The event soon ended. We learned the man who we thought was Nathan’s father was his uncle, another Mr. Spiegel. The real Mr. Spiegel approached us.

“We’re excited to see the video,” he said. “When do you think it will be ready?”

“Uh, it’ll take some time to edit, two weeks maybe.”

“Wonderful,” he said. “Send my best to your grandfather.”

We packed our gear, sullen and quiet. As we were leaving, the accordion player appeared with the missing box of video tapes. He apologized in Hebrew. At least that’s what I think he said. Julien was convinced he was finalizing his curse on us.

We rushed home to check the video. The only footage captured of Nathan’s parents were a few blurry seconds of them dancing. The camera lingered on them a moment then panned away to Nathan’s uncle and aunt.

Another issue arose. The VHS tape I’d found in my trunk was initially used to record a punk rock documentary called Urgh! A Music War. This yielded an unusual tape effect. Frames of old footage interspersed with the new footage. The “Hava Nagila” dance footage included snippets of Lux Interior from The Cramps grunt singing “Tear It Up.” Footage of guests nibbling hors d’oeuvres featured moments of the Dead Kennedys performing “Bleed For Me.”

Nathan’s speech was worse than we thought. Not only was he in the dark, the main audio captured was Julien and I bickering. I heard myself say, “Shit, shit, shit,” and “I can’t see a fucking thing.” At one point in the speech Nathan said, “Being Jewish is not just about corned beef and bagels,” whereupon Julien said, “Yes it is” while a guest told us to “shut up!”

We were both demoralized. Normally I was paid 50 percent up front for gigs, but since Mr. Spiegel was a friend of my grandfather’s I let this slide. This meant we likely wouldn’t get paid at all.

We brainstormed ways to salvage the video. Julien suggested selling the tape to Nathan’s uncle since we had so much footage of him and his wife. I considered relinquishing the master tape to the Spiegel’s free of charge. The only high-quality footage we had was Nathan rapping and dancing at the start of the reception.

“Too bad we’re not making a rap video,” Julien said.

“You’re a genius,” I yelled.

Julien was confused.

“Instead of making this tape for Mr. Spiegel, we’ll make it for Nathan. It’ll be one long rap video.”

We recorded rap music videos off MTV from the likes of Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys. We edited these clips between shots of Nathan, his family and guests. For segments with unusable audio, we overdubbed Jam Master Jay explaining the essence of rap. For the dancing sequence, we inter cut actual dancing footage with rap stars popping, locking and breaking. We even left in some of the Urgh! A Music War clips as it served the overall tone.

The final video was edited to 45 minutes. I phoned Mr. Spiegel and made plans to deliver the tape. I asked him to please have a check ready for $1500. My hope was to put the tape in his hand, grab the check and leave before he went ballistic. I knew my grandfather would receive the brunt of his rage, but I didn’t know how else to proceed.

I drove to Mr. Spiegel’s home in Beverly Hills. He led me into the living room where dozens of people from the bar mitzvah sat on couches eager to watch the video. I said I couldn’t stay, but Mr. Spiegel insisted. He’d pay me as soon the video was over.

Nathan and his friends sat off to the side. I sat with them. As Mr. Spiegel turned on the television, I whispered to Nathan, “We made this tape for you, not your parents. I hope you like it.”

Mr. Spiegel dimmed the room lights and inserted the tape into the player. The opening frames were black. Slowly, the Sugarhill Gang song “Rapper’s Delight” faded up.

I said-a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie
To the hip hip hop-a you don’t stop the rock
It to the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie
To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.

The opening images were Nathan dancing and rapping around stage. We interspersed clips from rap videos. When the lyrics “the beat don’t stop until the break of dawn” played, we cut to guests romping on the dance floor. I glanced at Mr. Spiegel. His arms were crossed in front of his chest, his face scrunched like he’d bitten into something sour. Mrs. Spiegel had her hand over her mouth. The adults in the room fidgeted, unsure what they were watching. But Nathan and his friends were ecstatic. They laughed and rapped along with their favorite lyrics. Their energy was infectious and soon the guests were watching them instead of the footage. When the video mercifully ended, I nervously turned to Nathan.

“What’d you think?”

“It was awesome,” he said. He walked to his father and gave him a hug.

Mr. Spiegel’s frown morphed into a smile. Everyone took their cue from the patriarch and the atmosphere lightened. Mr. Spiegel motioned to me to follow him out of the room. He escorted me to the front door.

“I disapprove of the way you depicted my son’s bar mitzvah. But Nathan is happy and that’s what matters.”

He shook my hand and gave me a check. That was the last bar mitzvah I ever taped.


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