“If you’re Jewish and you love it, make some noise in this mothafucking house” roared the DJ at Tao Downtown at around 1:30 a.m. Christmas Day.
A New York nightclub frequented by Leonard DiCaprio and Derek Jeter was filled with Jews grinding to Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” making out in black leather chairs along the walls, and nervously scanning the mass for options.
While DiCaprio, Jeter, and pretty much every other Christian in America gathered with family and friends on Christmas Eve, members of the tribe ditched (or at least delayed) the traditional Chinese beef and broccoli for the Jewish meat market that is The Ball.
Much as trimming the tree, drinking eggnog, and decorating one’s lawn with light-up reindeers have become holiday standards, The Ball has become a modern Christmas ritual for young (and not so young) Jews.
The Ball is often confused with the more established, gold-standard Matzo Ball, another Jewish singles party on Christmas Eve that was started in 1987.
Both have different venues in cities across the country on Christmas Eve (and in some cases, Christmas night, too). 2014 marked the 19th year of The Ball, so it’s not tremendously younger. I have never been to the Matzo Ball, but I gather the vibes are different. If the Matzo Ball is your cousin who is heading to Columbia for med school, The Ball is his little brother who just rushed ZBT: a little more partying, a little less mature, and a lot sloppier.
A night at The Ball includes encountering a guy you’ve never met before bragging about making out with a girl who looks like his sister that he “apparently was an asshole to on Tinder,” before pointing out “you have ink on your tit” (I had a leaking pen, and he was actually right).
I made the mistake of promising one group of guys they could ask me anything if they answered my questions. Without missing a beat, one of them goes “How often do you masturbate?” It was neither the best nor worst pickup line I encountered that evening.
More than bawdy, though, The Ball adds a familiar unpretentiousness to trendy locales like Tao, Lavo, The Park, and Dream Hotel. It is what I (sometimes) find endearing about the whole affair. You may meet someone who wears a rhinestone-encrusted Star of David with a thick Jersey accent, or a guy from Syosset who jokes he’s only here because his mom made him.
In the midst of the clubbiness, there is a heimishe (Yiddish for familiar, old school) quality. You need that to balance out the times when a drunk Jersey Shore reject puts his hand too close to your ass when he passes you your pen, or you have an existential crisis about how you’ll die a lonely Jewish spinster still sharing the Upper West Side apartment you questionably converted from a two to three bedroom.
That latter fear crossed my mind more than once during the evening. It was my third trip to The Ball. My first was in 2010 when I was still a senior in college and my main goal for the night was to enjoy my newly minted ID and make out with strangers (check and check).
In fact, I publicly vowed to abstain from The Ball in 2012, but professional responsibilities and curiosity got the better of me.
This year, with slightly more worldliness and way fewer drinks consumed, I could see the emotionally fraught underbelly. Horniness packs side-by-side by with a deeper loneliness along the walls of The Park. For every couple sucking the last drops of Bud off each other’s lips, there’s a girl nervously checking her cellphone or a guy scanning the crowd. In both of these latter cases, their eyes show more focus than fun, like tonight is a job.
People come to The Ball with many different goals in mind, depending on what they are looking for that evening. Do you want a spouse? Do you want to get laid? Or, do you simply want to do something other than watch Netflix when most of New York City has shut down, despite containing nearly 1.1 million Jews, 13 percent of all tribe members in the U.S.
I got a variety of answers to these questions. “Nothing else to do” was the most common response for why people chose to go to The Ball, though that rang a little false to me. More than a few were willing to be open about their sexual, if not romantic, aspirations.
“Either this or stay home and jerk off,” said one guy when I asked why he came tonight. “I’d probably be staying home and watching TV where the odds of having sex are zero. If I come here, I have a 10 percent chance of getting sex,” said another.
Sometimes, they had a backup aim if their main goal fell through as the night dragged on. When I asked a 26-year-old woman named Rachel around 1:45 a.m. why she came to The Ball, she answered: “In the hopes of finding a husband… And if not, someone to have sex with.”
Occasionally, guys and girls admitted outright they were looking for a potential significant other. They wouldn’t be the first. I was a bridesmaid this summer for a couple that met at The Ball in 2011. Whether it is openly stated or not, I think everyone is wondering if they could find “the one.”
In our heads, we all know the event is a bit cheesy. Hell, you’re given a “Jewniversal” pass made of sticky paper emblazoned with “VIP” when you step into The Ball. But because we are a group of Jews from similar backgrounds (most tend to be college-educated—specifically Syracuse, Boston University, Michigan, and Emory—and come from Long Island, Westchester, or New Jersey) and we have all chosen to spend this Christmas together in outsider solidarity, maybe there’s something there?
Of course, the thought of finding a mate is what makes The Ball feel much more like a meat market than an orgy—and it’s what adds to the social pressure, too.
A friendly twenty-something woman originally from Toronto said it best. “It’s a nice feeling to be in a room full of Jewish people because it’s easier to meet people of the same faith,” she said, but added, “It takes you out of your comfort zone. You’re more vulnerable than you are in a usual bar. Everyone here wants to be with someone. You know you’re being watched. They look you up and down.”
I was more than happy to play the wallflower at The Ball this year because the sense of a certain competitiveness, or of being scouted, can be palpable. That’s not unique to The Ball, but a more general attribute of most Jewish singles events.
Going to The Ball, signing up for JDate, downloading JSwipe are all modern-day rites of passage. Judaism may recognize you as an adult when you have a bar or bat mitzvah, but I am not sure if you recognize yourself as a modern, American Jewish adult until you’re side by side with members of the tribe realizing you’re supposed to marry and mate with someone in this room.
Most people I asked an admittedly self-selecting event said no, they don’t need to marry a Jew, but would they prefer to? Hell yeah.
Marriage, or rather intermarriage, is one of the thorniest issues within modern American Judaism at the moment. According to Pew Research Center, six in 10 Jews who got married after 2000 have a non-Jewish spouse compared to two in 10 before 1970.
In turn, 96 percent of Jewish couples in America raise their kids Jewish, while only 20 percent of Jewish people who marry non-Jewish spouses do. The hard numbers suggest that if you want the Jewish population to keep existing in America, you’re probably going to want them to get married and have sex with each other.
This is where Jewish summer camps, bacchanal Birthright trips to Israel, and events like The Ball may play their own religiously questionable but effective way in reinforcing Jewish identity.
There aren’t hard numbers on The Ball. However, people who attend Jewish sleepaway camps (which have their own raucous reputation) and Birthright are significantly more likely to marry within the faith. Partying and hooking up may be the best hope for the people of the book.
But this approach can be troublesome for a variety of reasons. I am not sure it’s realistic to expect Jews to remain connected to the faith through Torah study and ancient rituals, but I am also not sure it’s great when millennial Jews associate their faith with debauched spouse-hunting.
Ironically, it’s the more observant members of the community who end up sidelined with this approach. One of the last people I spoke to at The Ball was a gray-haired man in a vest with a yarmulke standing along the dance floor at Tao but never stepping onto it. At an event attended by thousands of Jewish men, according to the organizers, I counted only five men wearing yarmulkes, a marker of strict religious observance.
I asked this man why he came, “I’m hoping to hear good music, dance—and maybe to hook up,” he said. I asked him what kind of girl he’s looking for, and he said a girl who keeps kosher and is shomer shabbat, which means ones strictly honors the Jewish sabbath.
Three feet from us, a girl in a short black dress sucked the face off a guy in a black leather chair, while his hand climbed up towards her rear. “Do you think you’re going to find her here?” I asked the gray-haired man. He shrugged and said he was happy to listen to good music.