NEW YORK (JTA) — An hour before the start of what has become one of the biggest Jewish party nights of the year, the sidewalks of Chinatown filled with their usual hustle.
Shops and restaurants were open and a bus was idling on the Bowery, waiting to take a shipment of gamblers to Connecticut to burn away their Christmas bonuses at Foxwoods casino.
Outside Capitale, the savings bank-turned-nightclub that plays host to the annual Matzo Ball, only one reveler milled about — and he said he wasn’t even interested in the party that claims to be about premiere clubs, great grooves and hot Jewish singles.
“I’m just here for the food, really, to be frank,” said Paul, 58, who walked the few blocks from his Lower East Side apartment and was dressed to suppress, in faded blue jeans, black sneakers and a jacket with a Graceland logo. Paul heard about the party from the New York Post, which noted that the promoters were promising free food and drink to the first 75 people to show up. Paul was No. 1.
It was an inauspicious beginning to the night on which many a Jewish parent hangs hopes for a nice Jewish shidduch, or match, for their little darlings. Capitalizing on that kind of angst, promoters have spun off various niche parties from the original Matzo Ball, started more than 20 years ago to give Jews something to do while the rest of the country hangs tinsel and quaffs eggnog on Christmas Eve.
This year, there were parties for the pro-Israel crowd, Jewish gays and lesbians, and downtown Jewish hipsters, in addition to the mega dance parties at Capitale and its most direct competitor: Let My People Go, which hosted parties at five venues simultaneously in Manhattan — up from four last year — and in more than a dozen other cities across the country.
At the Matzo Ball at Capitale, things were still getting rolling more than an hour after Paul had planted himself on the sidewalk. Well into the party’s first hour, various members of the under-30 set were looking around in dismay at the pickings on offer.
“If I were a good-looking girl, I wouldn’t come this early,” Danny, a recent college graduate living in Manhattan, said as he evaluated his options. “For a guy, it’s socially acceptable.”
Apparently, it’s also socially acceptable for men to dress like they just stepped out of a U2 video. Or at least if not, no one told Alan, a 50-something Brooklyn-born public school teacher who sauntered in around 9:30 P.M. in a ski cap and shades. Alan made straight for the hors d’oeuvres.
“You know, life’s short,” Alan mused while scarfing down some cheese and a strange blue concoction the bartenders were handing out for free. “My mother, may she rest in peace, would always say, ‘Alan, you’re never gonna meet anyone in front of a television set. Get your ass outta the house.’ My mother was very brilliant — not only brilliant, but beautiful — and more than anything one of the nicest people you’d ever meet.”
While Alan might have been looking to meet his mother, most of the youngsters were looking to please their mothers and bring home a nice Jewish mate.
“My father danced a jig,” exclaimed Morgan, a 21-year-old “Reformative” Jew from the Five Towns area of Long Island, describing her father’s reaction to hearing about her Christmas plans.
Spotlight, a four-story Times Square venue, was the place to be for those who rank “political compatibility” high on their list of desired attributes in a mate. Co-hosted by Fuel For Truth, a pro-Israel group whose modus operandi is organizing alcohol-fueled parties with a subtle political theme, the bash drew a healthy mix of Israelis and their admirers.
But despite the Fuel For Truth banner hanging over the DJ booth and a brief recruitment message from the organization’s executive director, Joe Richards, the party was pretty much like any other.
A few blocks away, in Hell’s Kitchen, the popular gay lounge Vlada was bursting as bartenders struggled to keep up with demand for “Jew-tinis” — a mix of “vodka and Jewce” — at what is believed to be the first gay Jewish Christmas Eve party. But to some, it was more of a reunion for gay Brandeis alumni.
“It’s like Brandeis, but everybody’s attractive,” said Glen, a 2006 Brandeis grad who now works in advertising. “At Brandeis all the gay men are activists. If you’re gay and went to Brandeis, you’re here.”
Organizer Jayson Littman, who works for an investment bank, threw the party together in just three weeks to fill what he says is a much-needed gap in the Jewish Christmas party scene. Judging from the size of the crowd, he was right.
By 11:30 P.M., the two-story lounge was packed to capacity with gay men and a handful of women and transgender Jews — the crowd polka-dotted by a number of yarmulke-adorned heads. Walking through Vlada was nearly impossible given the crowds, but unlike the other parties of the evening, it was not showered in overbearing music and conversation was actually audible.
“Every year on Christmas Eve I’m always bored and lonely. I don’t like Chinese and I don’t really care for the movies and I’m not straight, so I used to always go to the Matzo Balls,” Littman said. “Christmas Eve is such a huge party night but there is nothing for the gay Jews.”
Littman estimated that 350 people were in attendance and that 95 percent of them were Jewish.
Surveying the sea of gay Jewish men on the second floor of the lounge, Littman said, “This is the reason that so many Jewish girls are not married.”