At several points during this weekend’s Party Like a Jew event in Brussels, I was asked whether we have anything similar in the U.S. I’m not sure I know. Sure, we have singles weekends which, though I’ve never been, I imagine follow the same general formula: a decent hotel, some Shabbat spirit, a lecture or two, and a Saturday evening social event. We have Jewish nights at the club meant to bring young members of the tribe together (Jacob Berkman and I sampled these wares once. Okay fine, twice.) And there are organizations that do all sorts of things to raise Jewish pride, awareness, and education among young professionals and students.
But still something felt distinct about PLAJ, an annual shindig organized by the European Center for Jewish Students — and it wasn’t only the intense concentration of impossibly high heels and rectangular eyeglasses in shades that would make Tom Daschle blush.
For one, the event was transnational, drawing participants from dozens of countries (though the U.K. and France, not surprisingly, seemed to have the strongest contingent. Represent.) ECJS seems, intentionally or not, to have created a sort of pan-European Jewish social network. Several people told me they were there mostly to see friends, a number dwarfed only by those who said they were looking for a significant other. In New York, one gets the feeling that everyone has been there before. The faces look familiar, the interactions scripted by the writers of The Office, and I often leave feeling mildly depressed.
In Brussels, everyone — or most everyone — seemed genuinely happy, if not relieved, to be in a comfortable Jewish space. In the States, the opposite is often the case: being in a Jewish space is a necessary evil, to be endured only in the quest — antiquated, ill-understood, and yet enduringly strong — to find a Jewish mate. But here people were unabashed about their desire to socialize, and more, with other Jews. On the bus to Saturday night’s annual ball, held in the cavernous and awfully named Event Lounge, the boys on the bus, many already well on their way to hammered, broke into spontaneous choruses of "Am Yisrael Chai" and other hasidic melodies. That would neeeeeeevvver happen back home.
Some of this is probably due to cultural differences between American and European Jews I’m only vaguely beginning to understand. And some of this is probably due to persistent European anti-Semitism, which, to my horror, I’m fast discovering may be the best predictor of the intensity of Jewish identification in a given country. Again I heard stories about the fear of openly wearing Jewish symbols in supposedly liberal, democratic Europe, and the security over the weekend was modest but palpable. I swear, the only physical human contact I experienced amid the lip-locked couples on the dance floor Saturday was the near strip search performed on me and my video equipment by the security guys at the door.