Walking down a dark hallway, I hear a telling “where they at, where they at” pumping through speakers. I have not heard Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” in full since I was 13 and making the rounds of the bar/bat mitzvah circuit, that six-month time period in middle school when everyone celebrated their coming-of-age as young Jews. I try not to laugh at the song, at myself. I am at the MatzoBall, called “the nation’s leading Jewish singles event," on Christmas Eve. Held for the first time in Boston in 1987, the event has since expanded to locations around the country, including Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and now my hometown, Fort Lauderdale.
The MatzoBall was started by Andy Rudnick, who in a 2014 Tablet Magazine interview said, “‘I was desperately seeking a hot Jewish girl and I figured, ‘Why not bring them all together in one room for one night?’” Rudnick ultimately met his wife Catherine at a MatzoBall in 1997, so I’m glad it worked in his favor.
But I am, and have always been, skeptical of Jewish singles’ events. In fact, much like my mother, I have been known to avoid them like the plague.
“Did you ever go to an event like this?” I asked my mother a few hours before the party began.
“No,” she chuckled. “My mother told me not to.”
While taking a photo of my MatzoBall outfit, my mother directed, "OK, now pretend someone at the club just touched your boob." Oy!
I suddenly wished I could stay home in my bathrobe and do the New York Times crossword puzzle. There is so much pressure from the community to meet another nice Jewish person, have a nice Jewish family, a nice Jewish life, and I hate being put in a box like this. In fact, I have been known to set on fire most boxes into which people try putting me. I have dated people from all walks of life. Finding a person to be happy with is difficult enough, and I don’t know if I ever believed limiting my romantic experiences because of religion would ever truly lead to my own happiness. But I was offered an assignment by my editor and, curious to test my own opinions, I decided to go. After all, I am single and Jewish, and thereby available on Christmas Eve, the night the MatzoBall is always held.
As “Ride Wit Me” continues to play over the speakers, my only memories of the song play back in real time, awkward boys in suits standing along the edges of the dance floor looking at the equally awkward girls trying to dance and catch their attention; 17 years later, not much has changed.
The boys are taller now, men with greater authority than just a bar mitzvah can bestow. They have facial hair, groomed and shaped. They don’t wear suits, but rather button-down shirts or T-shirts with jeans and slacks. They are still leaning on the sidelines of the dance floor, fingers rhythmically pointing upward as Nelly spits, “Watch the candy paint change, every time I switch lanes,” possibly remembering their own hip-hop aspirations of yore, when they were also nervous young men of a different age. The women adorn themselves with makeup and hair that’s artfully constructed, their skirts short and cleavage conspicuous. But they are still dancing in hopes of catching an eye or two.
It occurs to me I haven’t been in a true pickup scene since my early 20s, when I used to go out to bars with my friend Alissa specifically to meet men. We would often successfully wingwoman the crap out of each other. But now I am by myself. Alissa is 3,000 miles away from me, married in California, and I am nervous. I quickly make my way to the bar to suck down some liquid courage in the form of a tequila and soda. I walk through the space looking for a place to stand. It’s still fairly empty and it seems like all of the non-awkward standing spots have been taken. But then I see two women dancing and, really just needing something to do with my body other than clutch my purse and jacket near the wall, I decide to join them. “Men just come over and talk to you,” a friend had said of the event. “Everyone likes to mingle.”
The first man who attempts to approach me is a gentleman who has tried to mask his age by dyeing his hair platinum blonde and covering his torso in a loud shirt, but I skillfully avert my eyes and move locations. Another gentleman, an attractive bald fellow in his 40s, whom I realize too slowly is speaking more quietly than he should so I’ll lean in to him. He puts his hand on my waist to repeat himself. I end our conversation shortly after and head to the bar again. On my way, I brush past a man who looks like Clark Kent, in thick-framed glasses, a dark curl of hair falling onto his forehead and a strong jaw onto which a day’s growth of beard has quietly crept. Me-ow. “I like your glasses,” I say. “Thanks,” he says. “I’m Alex.*”
Alex, it turns out, is a surgeon. My brain laughs uproariously when he tells me this because surely meeting a nice, single Jewish doctor is the fantasy of some other Jewish girl in the room. It is totally wasted on me because I’ve never cared what people do for a living. If they’re honest, hardworking and, hopefully, happy in their careers, that’s enough for me. What I really do care about, as a jumping-off point, anyway, is if I can have a conversation with someone, if they can make me laugh, and if they’re intelligent — all of which, I will soon find out, Alex can do/is.
We have a lovely conversation, and then my drink is empty again. I move away to the bar for a glass of water, not because I want to stop talking to him, but because I read an interview with Rudnick from last year in which he suggests not talking to one person all night: “Try to network as much as possible. It’s just one night, so you don’t need to meet just one person,” he told the Forward. “Try to meet a bunch of people, exchange numbers, and then use the MatzoBall as leverage for the coming months.”
After I walk away, I keep seeing Alex from across the bar. “This is very stupid,” I think to myself. I head to the bar to get another water, resolving to say hello again. But I feel a tap on my shoulder, and there he is (the tap was actually made by his cousin, ever the wingman). We start talking again, and keep talking for the rest of the night, with and without his cousin, with and without drinks, with and without pizza that we leave to get then come back to the party. We laugh and ask questions and smile and high five, leaving once the party has ended and heading to another bar with his cousin. At the end of the night, Alex asks for my number then puts me in a cab, texting me once I’m inside.
I was never much for rules anyway. Even my own.