Religion & Jewish Life

Jewish sparklers light up the Fourth

Bruce Zoldan standing in the Youngstown, Ohio, retail showroom of his fireworks company. (B. J. Alan company of Youngstown)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Millions of Fourth of July fuses waiting to be lit are a good sign for Bruce Zoldan and his family business, the B.J. Alan Company, the second largest importer and wholesaler of consumer fireworks in the United States.

But it’s already been a pretty hectic year thanks to their unwanted role in the failed Times Square bombing: The consumer-grade firecrackers that were used in the car bomb were purchased from a B.J. Alan distributor in Pennsylvania. “The M88 he used wouldn’t damage a watermelon,” Zoldan was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story. “Thank goodness he used that.”

Using video from the store, the company was able to help the FBI identify the suspect, according to one of B.J. Alan’s vice presidents, Bill Weimer. “Bruce and I were talking about it recently,” Weimer told JTA. “Here we are, trying to help celebrate freedom, and idiots like this were trying to use the products to do harm.”

The company, based in Youngstown, Ohio, imports and markets cleverly packaged fireworks that spark, boom or whistle under its two main trade names, Phantom and Wolf Pack. And it turns out there is a very Jewish tint to the “the rocket’s red glare” – namely all five of the company’s principals: Zoldan and his wife, Rori, a sabra who runs the advertising and public relations; his brother Alan and first cousin Jerry Bostocky, who both serve as vice presidents, and Weimer. “I’m the only one who is not part of the family,” Weimer says.

Established in 1977 by Bruce Zoldan, the company has retail stores and showrooms in 13 states, and up to 1,250 additional seasonal sales outlets in 17 others. In 2009, the American Pyrotechnics Association reported revenues for the fireworks business at $945 million. That same year, gross sales for B.J. Alan totaled approximately $100 million.

Phantom sells aerials, rockets and missiles with names like Flying Aerial Circus and Shagadellic Mojo Blue, and fountains and cones with names like Moondance, described in catalogue prose as emitting “purple pearls and glittering crackling chrysanthemums.” Additionally they sell wheels, firecrackers and sparklers — everything you might need to light up a Fourth of July night.

The company also owns Diamond Sparkler, which according to Weimer is “the last continually producing sparkler factory left in the U.S.”  On the company website, Zoldan says that “I just can’t envision something as American as sparklers, with its association with the 4th of July, not being made in this country.”

“We employ 400 people year round,” Weimer said. “We are a small company that around the Fourth of July expands itself to 2,500.”

How did the family get into the business? Weimer tells the story: “Bruce, along with his uncle, was in the rack goods business, keeping stores supplied with various items, and one of their customers asked for sparklers. Bruce filled the order. For the next six or seven years he expanded from that until he met a broker from Hong Kong and bought his first container of fireworks.”

On occasion, the company leaders have integrated their love of sparks into Jewish life. No, they have yet to market a spark emitting Havdalah candle. But at family Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and even at a wedding rehearsal dinner, the folks who run the company have had “outdoor and indoor pyrotechnic displays,” Weimer says. They also have put on fireworks shows for the local American Cancer Society’s fundraiser, “Relay for Life.”

“We feel it’s important for Jews to be out in the community,” Weimer says.

On its website, Phantom fireworks invites recognized religious groups and 501(c)(3) charitable organizations to sign up and sell the company’s product line as a way to “earn significant amounts of money.”

“We get a lot churches and Little League groups,” Weimer says.

Though fireworks, both aerial and ground based, are legal in many states, some states and cities have either severely regulated or banned them, often citing safety concerns. In response, the company has been heavily involved with consumer safety.

“We are one of the founders of the American Standards and Fireworks Laboratory,” Weimer notes, adding that this month, the company is organizing its first fireworks safety classes, in Florida and Ohio.

In a bid to expand their product line, the Zoldans and company have made a connection with the Gruccis, a renowned fireworks family that has been in the business for six generations. Part of the Gruccis’ fame comes from running the Fourth of July New York Harbor fireworks show. Phantom now licenses and produces consumer versions of some of the Grucci family’s pyrotechnics.

Considering Bruce and Alan Zoldan’s parents came to the United States from Russia and Austria-Hungary, one of their Grucci collaborations, the “New York Harbor Fountain,” might best illustrate the “coming to America” spirit illuminated by the family stories behind both companies.

Pictured on the label is the first thing many immigrants saw upon entering New York Harbor: the Statue of Liberty — in this rendering, showered with red, white, blue and golden sparks. Burst by burst the fountain, a popular item, illuminates the night and the journeys of the millions who have come to the United States through New York Harbor in a spectacularly American way.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.