Jews just want to have fun

By JACQUELINE HOUTON  |  December 8, 2009

At the Ball's very first event, Strank transformed the VIP room into a comedy club, showcasing performances from the likes of Susie Essman, who's since gained fame on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Jeff Ross, now Roastmaster General of the New York Friars' Club. (Strank still cringes when he recalls a less-prescient booking decision a couple years later, when he lined up and then cancelled a performance by Jon Stewart after asking around and finding that "nobody had heard of him.")

In more recent years, the Ball has sprawled across five or six venues within NYC, with complimentary limousine service shuttling attendees from one soirûe to the next. At last year's event, one site featured a live band, another a cozier lounge feel, and three others offered dancing for various musical tastes — at one, the dancers got down to the accompaniment of high-flying aerialists, who contorted and cavorted above the crowd's heads. This year promises to be an even bigger, as Strank is attempting to expand by staging the event in 22 cities, including Boston.

Besides such multi-city megafests, there are a host of homegrown events operating on an exclusively local basis, like LA's Schmooz-a-Palooza, the Eve Party in Miami Beach, and Boston's own JBall. That annual shindig is hosted by The JConnection, a social organization for young Jewish professionals and students that sponsors several trips each year, as well as monthly events at bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. In recent years it has begun events for the 40-plus set, too.

Now in its ninth year, the JBall offers a more intimate experience than some of its counterparts, with about 500 attendees annually, but founder Jeff Popkin thinks his slightly smaller ball brings a bigger payoff.

"A lot of people go to other events once and realize that the music is so loud that they can't talk to people and it's just not a fun social atmosphere, [but] that's what we really focus on and work to achieve," he says. This year's JBall is presented in partnership with online-dating giant JDate, and though Popkin notes, "With the Internet and all the online-dating opportunities, there are lots of options out there," he stresses that "still, nothing beats people-meeting in person."

Popkin should know — he met his wife at the 2005 JBall. Rudnick similarly counts his marriage among the more than 1000 that the Matzo Ball claims to its credit. Indeed, some events have a reputation for being kosher meat markets, and more than one well-meaning mom has bought advance tickets for her unsuspecting single offspring. Today, you no longer see many mothers sitting shiva for a child who has fallen for a goy, but subtle encouragement to find a Jewish partner isn't entirely uncommon. Almost half of American Jews marrying today wed gentiles, and only one-third of the children produced in these interfaith marriages are raised Jewish — though the Boston area bucks that trend a bit; a 2005 study by Brandeis's Steinhardt Social Research Institute found that 60 percent of such children in Greater Boston are brought up Jewish. So new traditions have arisen to take over the role of the shadchan, from sites like JDate, to speed dating (first conceived by a rabbi back in 1998), to the Christmas Eve balls.

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