Thursday, December 21, 2006

Jews, Christmas and Plain Narishkeit

Two Jewish Christmas stories in emancipated America.

I just couldn't pass these up:-


A Christmas Eve klatch

For Jewish singles, it's the most wonderful time of the year

Rachel Davis summoned her klatch to Toscanini's in Central Square last week to help her make one of the most important decisions she will face this year -- what to wear to the Matzo Ball on Christmas Eve.

"If I wear the red cocktail dress with the spaghetti straps, I'll look hot," the 26-year-old paralegal said to her three buddies. "But I don't want to send the wrong message. It's a fine line between hot and tramp, you know?"

Davis confesses that she's feeling pressure to find just the right ensemble because Christmas Eve is perhaps the most important night of the year for the city's Jewish singles. While Boston's gentiles are tucked away with their eggnog, plastic Santas, and enough sugar cookies to feed the population of Luxembourg, something massive has happened in the clubs. Christmas Eve has evolved into Jewish Valentine's Day.

Boston can take credit for this national shift. Back in 1987, a young real estate agent named Andrew Rudnick decided he had enough of Chinese food and "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve. He got in touch with nightlife impresarios John, Patrick, and Michael Lyons to see if he could use one of their Lansdowne Street clubs for a Christmas Eve mixer for Jewish singles.

"They were expecting about 200 or 300 people," says Rudnick, who moved from Boston to Florida two years ago. "They thought it was going to be a slow night. We had 2,000 that first night. The Lyons brothers had to leave their Christmas party and work. John was in the coat room, Patrick was with me walking the floor, and Michael was behind the bar."

The Matzo Ball quickly spread to other cities, and spawned more dances, concerts, and comedy shows for Jewish singles. With a little help from the burgeoning Jewish hipster movement, Christmas Eve parties have taken off. This year in Boston, Jewish singles will be making the scene at the Matzo Ball, two parties staged by an organization called JConnection (one at the Hard Rock Cafe for those in their 20s and 30s, and another in Waltham for singles 40 and up). There's even a speed- dating party for gay and lesbian Jews.

Next year, these events will face increased competition when a New York-based group called Let My People Go brings its Christmas Eve ball to Boston. Jeff Strank , the founder of Let My People Go, claims attendance at his New York ball is bigger than the Matzo Ball. Let My People Go holds parties at several venues in Manhattan, and offers complimentary Hummer limousine service so attendees can hop from party to party in VIP style.

"It has become a phenomenon," says Strank. "Some years there are as many as 15 events for Jewish singles happening in New York on Christmas Eve. And there are big parties in Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago. It's really the one night that you have more Jewish people out looking for romance than any other night of the year."

The answer to the question "Why, on this night, do we look for romance?" is as varied as the people who are throwing and attending these mixers. Sarah Maxwell , associate publisher of New York-based Heeb magazine, says the equation of open bars and "hot Heebs" will inevitably result in multiple love connections.

"None of us have to worry about hangovers the next day, because we don't have to face a big family dinner on Christmas day," she says. "We can just sleep in late and go to the movies the next day. If you have loads of young, single Jews in a room, it's inevitably going to result in romance, or at least a few fun, drunken hookups."

Mayshe Schwartz , a Brookline-based Orthodox rabbi who wears a baseball cap embroidered with Hebrew symbol chai (which means living) and answers to the nickname Schwartzy, thinks the advent of Christmas Eve as Jewish Valentine's Day has more to do with loneliness than the consumption of large quantities of booze.

"At some point, many Jews feel isolated at Christmas," he says. "There's a whole country celebrating something, and you can only run with it so far, then at some point, you can't. You don't have a Christmas tree, stores are closed, everything you're watching is 'Miracle on 34th Street.' It was only logical that these giant singles parties would evolve from this."

Schwartz, who runs the Chabad Chai Center in Brookline , regularly hosts parties and looks for ways to make religion accessible to singles and families who are not members of a temple. This time of year, he says the talk among the single members of his organization veers toward the big Christmas Eve parties. That was certainly the case among the singles who attended Chabad Chai's Kosher Casino party in the Theater District on Monday night.

"This will be my first one," says Debi Milkes, a 25-year-old teacher, of Sunday night's Matzo Ball. "I guess I'm hoping to meet someone. I've heard that the people who show up are usually a little more serious about dating."

Not everyone is a fan of big mixers such as the Matzo Ball. Rob Tannenbaum , music editor at Blender and half of the musical comedy act Good for the Jews , confesses that he's never been to the Matzo Ball, but quickly adds that "all the wild horses in Manhattan couldn't drag me there." He has, however, spent time on the Jewish online dating site (and written a song about it), and imagines that the scene at the Matzo Ball is the off line counterpart to that.

"The idea of getting everyone on JDate piled together in a room, drunk on $13 cosmopolitans, with 20-year-old Madonna songs blasting at 120 decibels, isn't really my idea of a fun night," Tannenbaum says. "I can understand the impulse. Being a Jew on Christmas Eve is really kind of horrible."

Tannenbaum, whose band played in Boston last week, is part of a generation of younger Jews who are looking to create new traditions.

"Most Jewish traditions involve fasting, and that's no fun," says the cheeky Tannenbaum. "The new traditions involve some element of music, comedy, and sometimes even alcohol."

Molly Harris' s Christmas Eve tradition involves going to the JConnection's annual party. The 29-year-old dental hygienist has gone on dates with men whom she has met at the party, but unlike Tannenbaum, she takes a less cynical approach to looking for love on Christmas Eve.

"I'm basically there to hang out with my friends and have a good time," she says. "If you take it too seriously, it's going to be stressful. I see Christmas Eve as a bonus holiday. It's like the rest of the world is off doing their own thing, so we get this night to party, and who doesn't love that?"


At One Jewish Home, Making Room for Santa

It is fair to say that in a neighborhood largely populated with Orthodox Jews, it is rather unconventional to have a life-size Santa perched on the edge of the roof of a house, attached to a microphone and bellowing, “What is this Hanukkah you speak of?”

It is particularly noteworthy that the Santa, and the elaborate Christmas display in which he rests, sits outside the home of a Jewish family, sparking the curiosity, and occasional ire, of neighbors.

“Some people are so offended, you have no idea,” said Mary Loomis-Shrier, who has long erected the giant display on a lovely street south of Hollywood. “But some of my neighbors think it is great. Some of their kids drop their list of toys in my mailbox. I don’t care because I love it, and it is my right.”

This is not a story about a neighborhood where Jews and Christians got together and decided that the town airport needed a Christmas tree and a menorah, and then lived happily ever after in religiously tolerant bliss.

It is also not a story about how the greeter at a big chain store started greeting people with “Happy Holidays” until the town regrouped to get its Merry Christmas back.

This is a the tale of a dozen or so Orthodox Jews, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, a cranky Israeli father, a professor of English, and Ms. Loomis-Shrier, the Jewish heiress to an exotic-lingerie fortune, all living together on a single Los Angeles block of 1920s Tudor and Spanish-style homes.

There is no happy or sad ending to their tale, just the normal trials of getting through each day, tricky questions about identity, and, presumably, a very large electric bill.

Ms. Loomis-Shrier, who with her husband runs the famous Hollywood undergarments outpost Trashy Lingerie, said the tradition stemmed from her childhood, lived in the very home she now shares with her husband and son. Although her family is Jewish, holiday displays were always part of their season, she said.

There is fake snow, two giant snow globes anchored to the roof, and a couple of big Santas. There are illuminated angels and candy canes, all of it glowing in the quiet of the night.

The residents of this border neighborhood between Miracle Mile and old-money Hancock Park (or, in Los Angeles real-estate speak, “Hancock Park Adjacent”) are largely Jewish, and have regarded the spectacle with a mixture of confusion, delight and occasional derision.

“I wouldn’t say the Jewish people around here are that thrilled with it,” said Sharon Saltiel, who lives next door. “It is a little unusual for someone Jewish to put up a display for Christmas. They are just, very, well, enthusiastic people.”

Little girls in long skirts stand across the street and stare at the glittering Santas, some mothers pull their children away, others allow their children to climb about the Santas and compliment Ms. Loomis-Shrier on her creativity.

A neighbor in a duplex across the street, Oren Atias, an Israeli, has been less than supportive, Ms. Loomis-Shrier said. He has come across the street and yelled at her, and said, “ ‘What kind of Jewish girl puts a Santa in the yard?’ ” said Ms. Loomis-Shrier and several neighbors who saw the arguments.

“I told him, ‘I don’t think candy canes have anything to do with religion,’ ” Ms. Loomis-Shrier said.

Mr. Atias’s upstairs neighbor, Robert Faggen, an author and English professor who is also Jewish, said Mr. Atias tore down his Halloween decorations and pulled up the pumpkins in his yard this year, also in the name of Jewish law, and that he called the police to adjudicate the dispute.

Mr. Atias denied arguing with Ms. Loomis-Shrier about her Christmas decor — “It’s not bad,” he said — and said his fight with Mr. Faggen was longstanding and centered on his neighbor’s decorations being hazardous to his three children.

“Everyone can do what they want,” Mr. Atias said with a shrug. “It’s not a Muslim country.”

From a purely religious context, many Jewish scholars would contest Ms. Loomis-Shrier’s view that her lawn is seasonal and secular.

“Santa Claus is inherently Christian,” said Michael J. Broyde, the director of the Law and Religion Program at Emory University and an expert on Jewish law and ethics, pointing out that the character is derived from a third-century saint, Nicolas. He added, “I have never thought about candy canes.”

Pulling up pumpkins or defacing a wrought-iron angel is another matter, Professor Broyde said.

“We live in a society where fundamentally secular law governs our interpersonal relations,” he said. “When it comes to property rights, you are not allowed to violate them. That is a foregone conclusion from a Jewish perspective.”

Another resident, Marilyn Corre, a British Jew who is married to a former prisoner of war of the Japanese in World War II — both were raised in Orthodox homes — said she was happy to see the display on her block.

“I think it is just wonderful,” she said. “I don’t know why the Jewish people don’t decorate more.”

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