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First Person the Search for the Better Matzo Ball Leads to a Tour of Manhattan Debauch

December 27, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through New York

Young Jews were rejoicing at their day off from work.

While Christians, at home, of sugar plums dreamed

Hebrews flocked to the clubs for parties Jew-themed.

And amid all the bashes and revelry galore

Two intrepid reporters set out on a party tour.

Yes, while much of New York resembled a ghost town on Christmas Eve, thousands of Jews took to the streets in what has become the biggest Jewish party night of the year.

Andrew Rudnick threw the first known “Matzo Ball” bash in Boston 20 years ago, simply because there was nothing for Jews to do on Christmas Eve, he told JTA. When the event, which he thought would draw a few hundred guests, ended up drawing several thousand, Rudnick realized he could quit his job and work the ball full time.

Now there are sanctioned Matzo Balls in 17 cities across North America. In New York, there are more than a dozen other groups that throw their spin on Christmas for Jews as well.

“It’s a serious Jew-fest,” said one young reveler, interviewed in one of three clubs within a block of each other in Manhattan that were catering to Jewish party-goers.

Rudnick says he doesn’t mind the competition.

“I did this to bring Jewish people together,” he said — though academics and their studies may have to determine if the once-a year Christmas Eve parties actually build Jewish community.

Two JTA reporters figured the best way to judge the parties was to go — and maybe grab a few drinks along the way. So we hit the streets and got to as many Jewish-themed parties as possible — five in five hours, from the Matzo Ball to Heeb Magazine’s “Heebonism.” Our quest: Find out who builds the best Matzo Ball.

J-Dub’s Jeweltide party. Arrival time: 9 p.m.

We almost stayed the night at Jeweltide at Brooklyn’s Southpaw club, thrown by J-Dub, the Jewish non-profit record label that found Matisyahu. As J-Dub executive director Aaron Bisman spun house music, his J-Dub partner, Jacob Harris, gave out free latkes and egg rolls.

The event, which later in the night featured performances by punk-klezmer band Golem and a klezmer-inspired, accordion-toting DJ named So-Called, felt a lot like the pre-game party for a big night out. Held in a shabby local bar with good music and a laid-back vibe, the place looked more like a basement plastered with concert posters than a sexed-out club.

“I’m not going to put on my best black shirt and designer jeans to go to pick up singles at the Matzo Ball, and I don’t need to go to hear a celebrity DJ at the Heeb party,” said Joe Gould, 32, a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Wearing a “you had me at Shalom” T-shirt, Gould described himself as “Judeo-curious:” He had pork dumplings for dinner before the J-Dub bash, but is starting to looking to his Jewish roots. At least he holds by Jewish tradition — eating Chinese food on Christmas eve.

Our drink: Red Bull and vodka: $10.

Suggested pickup line: Can I taste your latke?

The original Matzo Ball. Arrival time: 10:28 p.m.

The Matzo Ball is pretty much the Original Ray’s Pizza of Jewish Christmas parties: The name is often imitated, even replicated outright, but just as there’s only one Ray’s, there’s only one original Matzo Ball.

And there’s an original recipe, founder Rudnick says: Big, open space, music that gets progressively louder during the evening, and lots of Jews.

And yes, like Ray’s Pizza, it can be a little cheesy and greasy.

This year’s Matzo Ball was held at Capitale, under the huge vaulted ceiling of a former bank. While hundreds of people milled about in an oversized entryway, one group of young women noted that many faces in attendance were familiar from JDate, the online Jewish dating service.

In fact, the Matzo Ball felt very much like JDate transposed to real life, complete with awkward silences, halting opening lines and guys ogling those women courageous enough to dance. When we were there, the conversation hall was slightly more packed than the dance floor.

Our Matzo Ball Moment: While Aerosmith blared from the speakers, a guy in an even louder shirt sang along while busting dance moves he seemed to have picked up from Saturday Night Fever.

Easy though it is to mock, the Matzo Ball seems to work. Its organizers claim responsibility for 1,000 marriages, and even some already hitched come to enjoy the party — or perhaps just the sight of the holiday mating dance.

“The Matzo Ball is not just for singles,” said a man who identified himself as Dr. Phil, who attended with his girlfriend, Jamie.

Our drink: Vodka tonic: $12.

Suggested line: Anything not involving matzo balls and sexual innuendo.

The Havalight party. Arrival time: 11:25 p.m.

We’re going to coin a phrase here: Jewro-Trash. It’s a term of endearment for this members-only social group for well-heeled European Jews. They were haughty, but they made us smile.

And the Jewro-club’s Jewro-party at the posh Room Service club was certainly a notch above the others in terms of accessories: Raffle gifts included a three night stay in a Miami villa, and a Gucci bag.

“This is not a Matzo Ball,” organizer Georges Benoliel warned in a thick French accent. “Wear a jacket. And nice shoes,” he implored before the event.

Havalight’s dandily-dressed revelers danced to European club music as a live percussionist played along on timbale drums.

“We want to attract the good people,” said Benoliel, wearing a dapper pinstripe suit at the party, as he pulled a European Marlboro light from its box.

“It helps if you are not from New Jersey or Brooklyn,” he told us, unaware that the two of us do indeed have roots in New Jersey and Brooklyn.

We’ll forgive his snobbiness, though: Benoliel doled out 12 bottles of top-shelf vodka and 18 bottles of champaign to those guests he considered VIPs.

Benoliel tries to attract a diverse crowd made up equally of European, American and other Jews — because, he said, “If it was just French, it would not be so good, and if it was just Israeli it would not be so good, and if it was just Persian, it would suck.”

Yet Havalight also doesn’t veer far from the original Matzo Ball theme — making Jewish couples.

“Here, if you go home with someone, at least you know you are going home with a Jew,” Benoliel said, smiling as he took a drag from his cigarette. “So you wake up in bed with a nice Jewish boy, and he will make you breakfast.”

Drink: Gray Goose and tonic. $15.

Suggested line: Will you buy me a drink… please?

“The Ball,” by Let My People Go. Arrival time: 12:13 a.m.

There was nothing subtle about this party’s desire to get Jews in bed with each other. The Ball, which included simultaneous parties at four clubs around the city, began at a club named Duvet. Instead of chairs and a large dance floor, the club has rows of oversized beds in which patrons dance, lie down and chat, and, well, make the precursor for that breakfast that Benoliel mentioned.

It was one of four venues for The Ball, the upstart competition for the Matzo Ball, now in its 12th year. Let My People Go, the promoters who operate The Ball, also host parties in 18 other cities.

While Rudnick calls the notion of four separate venues “stupid, because people spend more time traveling between venues than they do talking,” it was hard to argue with the results: Couples at Duvet were in various states of repose, bathed in the glow of black lights and the thunderous pulse of the sound system.

A fleet of limousines was supposed to shuttle party-goers between the sites, but at 1 a.m., there were no limos in evidence outside the club. Instead, there were hordes of revelers in various states of inebriation, stumbling among three clubs hosting Jewish-oriented parties on one particularly festive block of W. 21st Street.

At Duvet, it could have been any other night at the club. And the high percentage of Jews in attendance did little to increase the intellectual heft of the gyrating bodies and vodka-slurping wallflowers.

Drink: Whatever vodka tonic is cheapest. $12… D’oh!

Pickup line: Hey. I work for JTA.

Heebonism. Arrival Time: Sometime after 1 a.m.

Though it was called “Heebonism,” Heeb magazine’s party at a mammoth, two-story loft called Bed in the Meatpacking District was more high-brow than it was lowest common denominator — selling sex.

If Havalight was trying to get the “good people,” Heeb aimed at the young Jewish literati and artist set and those in search of something a little different.

The shindig featured a rooftop covered garden that was furnished only with beds, and drew the operators of Manhattan’s downtown Jewish scene.

Among them was Alyssa Abramsohn, a self-described “professional Jew by day and Jewish burlesque dancer by night.”

The director of arts and culture at Manhattan’s 14th Street Y, Abramsohn is part of the Schlepp Sisters, whose signature piece is a performance set to Hava Nagilah that involves two women getting married to each other and ends with an on-stage kiss. In another piece, Abramsohn dances to Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” with her love — bacon.

Abramsohn spent much of the Chanukah week moonlighting as a “latke go-go dancer.” Think latke-inspired dress, apple sauce and Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.”

Perhaps Heeb, which was on the cusp of a new movement to attract a young Jewish audience by focusing on cultural Judaism, is ahead of another trend as well: This party attracted a large Asian contingent.

Here’s an idea: From now on we go to the Asians’ restaurants on Christmas, and they can come to our parties. Does that sound fair?

Drink: Two beers and a burlesque dancer some Jewish boy could take home to Mama: priceless.

Pickup line: Did you hear that JTA is starting a blog?

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