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The year I slept through Christmas (formerly known as the best Christmas ever), my friend Roger went to a swank black-tie benefit in New York, the Matzo Ball.
Roger and I lived in different worlds. His was more fun.
So I was very excited this year to attend my first Matzo Ball. More than a thousand Jewish singles slammed into Spy on Christmas Eve to get drunk, dance, fall in love or just forget about Christmas.
"It's like the high holy days," said one of the organizers, Rex Solomon. "People you never see come out."
Houston's Matzo Ball is the biggest fund-raiser for the Jewish Community Center's singles program. It was started six years ago after rabbis realized that Jews were marrying gentiles in record numbers and not raising their kids Jewish. They wanted to create another place for Jewish singles to meet. It has been a huge success, mostly because there really isn't anything else for Jews to do Christmas Eve. Hell, the third Matzo Ball at benjy's was shut down by the fire marshal, Rex said. He sounds pretty proud about that. (Rumors were that some skinheads tipped off the cops 'cause they were pissed off that Jews were having a good time.)
I went with my neighbor Lara Naaman, who wore a tight black velvet minidress with sparkly red flames on it, a red feather boa and three-inch heels.
She tried to talk me into a glittery red dress, but I was set on wearing black. Most everyone else did.
"What is this?" Lara asked. "Jew depression?"
When we got there only four people were on the dance floor upstairs groovin' to "Wild Wild West." Downstairs was supposedly for the 35-and-up crowd -- the music was meant to be older and softer, more conducive to conversation.
We sat down and talked to a guy who asked us if we were Jewish and said he was looking for a Jewish wife. (People apparently have met their mates at the Matzo Ball. I tried to find out who had gotten hitched, but no one could name names.) We told him to take the desperation down a notch.
His buddy, Bill Brookstein (he wanted me to write his name down), said he had come 'cause the other guy told him there'd be lots of horny Jewish women.
Bill leaned over and whispered to me, "I'm conducting my own Miss Houston contest -- so far you're in the top five."
They asked us to dance. Lara told them she had a wooden leg.
Back upstairs, "Mambo No. 5" was blaring. It turned out to be the song of the evening. They played it upstairs, they played it downstairs, they played it upstairs again. It was like dancing to the radio. But we like "Mambo No. 5," so we danced and talked to foreign guys who said they had come to talk to and touch Jewish women. Then we asked some girl where she had bought her furry, milk cow-patterned skirt.
Wherever we went, I noticed a guy in a black suit was always a few feet away. This started to worry me because I've watched way too many mobster movies.
He walked over, stuck out his hand and said: "You're Wendy."
He recognized me from the matchmaker's book. (You may recall I wrote about my failed attempt to find anything close to love at the JCC's Jewish dating service. See "The Yenta," October 14, 1999.) Turns out he's the doctor the matchmaker wanted to hook me up with -- after I told her I never wanted to date anyone ever again. I got his card.
Next to me Lara was talking to two Christian guys who didn't realize they had stumbled onto a Jew festival.
Lara asked if they were circumcised.
Mike Doyle, a bail bondsman, said he had been circumcised by a Jewish doctor -- so everything was kosher.
Troy Kosub said he didn't know if the turtle had a shell or not.
Lara tried illustrating with her hands, but he still seemed confused. We offered to take a look. Instead, Mike pulled out his cell phone and called Troy's mom.
He handed the phone to Lara, who handed the phone back to Mike, who handed the phone to me.
"Hi," I said. "Your son ended up at a Jew party, and we're wondering if he's circumcised?"
Yes, she said. She sounded horrified.
"Thank you," I told her. "Merry Christmas."
Troy looked more shocked than his mom sounded. He just stood there repeating that he had to see her tomorrow for Christmas dinner.
We kissed him on the cheek, gave him a hug and told him it would be okay.
A few minutes later I realized that my mother was not going to be happy that I was at a Jewish singles party talking to two goys. Lara said her mother wouldn't care, her mother married a Greek Orthodox.
"I don't date Jewish guys," Lara said. "This is like going to a gay bar."
The place was getting packed. It was more crowded than the malls' after-Christmas sales. I kept running into people I had met at other young-single-professional-Jewish events or from the matchmaker dating service. Then I talked to the shy, Star Trek-obsessed girl I had met during the Yenta story. She looked great.
"Everyone says that," she told me.
She has lost weight, she was wearing a really pretty sheer black top, and she was smiling and dancing on a stage. She said the matchmaker service worked out really well for her: She has met a lot of people.
Downstairs looked like a mosh pit. It was packed wall-to-wall, body-to-body with people. You couldn't talk to anyone without being moved along or mashed and thrown into the stranger in front of you. I went back upstairs where some annoying blond was programming my friend Josh Danart's number into her cell phone.
Somewhere around midnight the music stopped. People shouted to be quiet. I told the blond to be quiet, but she kept talking about how much more she enjoys smoking since she started yoga because it helps her inhale deeper.
I didn't know what was going on. But then they started playing "Israelism," which sounds like a club mix of "Aleinu Shalom," and the party resumed.
I'm told that downstairs they lit the Shabbat candles, broke out the challah and said the blessing over the bread.
They did this because there was a little controversy since Christmas Eve fell on Friday night. Jews technically aren't supposed to go out and party from sunset Friday until sundown Saturday. On the Sabbath, Jews are supposed to go to religious services, pray and then be good Jews and go home. That's why the JCC, which usually sponsors the event, didn't; instead it was hosted by Kit Katz, a private Jewish party-planning group (Rex Solomon, owner of Houston Jewelry, says Kit Katz is basically him).
"Anytime you get three Jewish people together, there's going to be two arguments," Rex said. "We got a lot of flak."
By lighting the Sabbath candles and saying a few prayers, organizers turned the party into a big oneg shabbat (after Friday-evening services, Jews usually stick around the synagogue eating cookies and cake and talking to their friends). On the Kit Katz Web site, Rex argued that the party was "critical to Jewish survival." Jewish people have to meet other Jews, he wrote, and "preserve the life of the Jewish people." The way Rex viewed the situation, it would be a bigger mitzvah (good deed) to gather people together than to celebrate the Sabbath at home, alone. (Besides, he couldn't find a club to book Saturday night.)
Some Jews weren't too keen on saying blessings in a bar. They were drunk at a party, and they didn't think it was the right place for religion. (And technically candles are supposed to be lit at sundown.) Some thought it was beautiful. And other people, like me, didn't even notice.
I found Lara. We danced, drank and talked to more strangers. Around 1 a.m. a lot of Chinese people showed up. Then some black guy asked us to "enjoy" his girlfriend while he watched.
"We're outta here," Lara said.
Lara tucked one last business card into her purse, and we went home. The next day I went to a movie with some new Jewish friends I met at the Matzo Ball (and my Jewish friend who refused to go to the Matzo Ball). At The Talented Mr. Ripley, we ran into more people who had been at the Matzo Ball. Then we went to eat Chinese, but we couldn't find a place that was open before 5 p.m.
"This is blatant anti-Semitism," Josh joked, at the third closed restaurant.
So we ate Thai food, made jokes and watched a Woody Allen movie. It was the best Christmas ever.
God bless us, every one.
E-mail Wendy Grossman at firstname.lastname@example.org.