A techno hora remixed with "Jingle Bells," and sampled with the refrain, "I can't dance, I'm too Jewish," blared over a mass of revelers at Public House in Center City -- an aptly cheeky sound byte for an annual Jewish party on Christmas Eve.
Happily jammed in the thick of the crowd, 53-year-old Will Parker scanned for women as his friend battled to the front of the bar to get drinks. It's his fifth year at the "To Life" party, and, Parker admits sheepishly, he's not even Jewish.
"I am tonight!" he roared. "Mazel Tov!"
So far, he said, he has yet to meet anyone special but it can't hurt to keep trying. "Half of our friends are Jewish, so yeah, why not?" said Parker, a real estate developer from Newtown Square. Plus, he added, "Jewish girls are the hottest and they're more intelligent."
While Parker wasn't exactly the target demographic, his quest for the singles scene is perhaps the universal theme that originally catapulted Christmas Eve into a major Jewish party night.
This year, Chanukah happened to coincide with the Christian holiday, giving Jewish social groups even greater cause for celebration. Over the holiday weekend, at least four events targeted the young adult community, from the 13th annual "To Life" bash to a new Collaborative Chanukah party in the suburbs.
Before "To Life" even opened its doors, 300 mostly young professionals poured into the balcony of the Theatre of Living Arts on an otherwise eerily quiet South Street for the Chevra's annual Chanukah party. Like last year, the event was held in conjunction with Matisyahu's Festival of Light tour.
Women in tank tops joined men in kipot and even a few families with children in a long line for Chinese food. Local musicians performed in the background, pausing as volunteer organizers lit the candles for the fourth night of Chanukah.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of Center City a lone greeter stood behind barricades presumably intended to cue the masses of "To Life" partygoers. Inside, women in tight dresses and men in sweaters and suits huddled with their friends by the bar, a few awkward guys lurking off to the side while dozens of booths with "reserved" signs remained empty.
There was no Chinese food, no candle lighting, no musical main act. For roughly the same price as the Chevra's $30 Matisyahu ticket, the entrance fee (which supposedly increased to $40 at the door) gave partyers the privilege of entering the bar and a gift bag, though nobody seemed to be handing them out.
The main attraction: Booze and booty. The drinks, of course, cost extra. But despite gripes about the steep admission, organizer Andrew Spivack has managed to maintain what he calls the largest and longest-running local event for Jews on Christmas Eve.
Before he and his partners came on the scene, Philly had a Matzo Ball, a concept that started in Boston in 1987 and spread to New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, Las Vegas and other cities. A few still run today, but Spivack said he can't remember Philly having one since he attended the party in law school and found, to his disappointment, an older crowd.
"At 25, I was like, 'I'm not hanging out with my parents,' " remembered Spivack, who also began running a Passover party five years ago. Now 38 and married with two young children in Jamison, he joked, "I'm pretty much the people I didn't want to hang out with."
On the other hand, he said, some of his friends, like 39-year-old Wendy Brookstein, still look forward to reconnecting over the holiday weekend.
"It's a mini-reunion and it beats staying home and watching a movie," said Brookstein, who does marketing for a technology company. She's been to eight "To Life" parties, and even met a guy who became a close friend after a year of dating didn't work out.
Wouldn't it be nice to meet the perfect man, she said, but "I'm not that lucky. I'm a tall Jewish girl." Read: intimidating for the vast majority of the men in the room who wouldn't even approach a woman who could easily notice their bald spots.
"I'm a J-date slut," a friend interrupted Brookstein, pulling out his phone to show a picture of a bikini-clad Yemeni-Israeli woman in Barcelona that he met through the online dating service. Apparently, he'd exhausted all the local girls, so video-chatting with Ms. Barcelona was the obvious next choice.
Behind him, Dan Horowitz's gaudy blue menorah hat bobbed above the crowd. Over seven or eight years, he and his sister have earned a reputation for showing up with some kind of schtick. A Santa suit offended people, Horowitz said, so lately he's stuck to a Chanukah bush or his current hat, paired with an ultramarine blue sequined shirt from Ebay and seersucker pants that he'd bought in the wrong color for a wedding. This year, he's adopted the nickname "The Seventh Night," since a drunk partygoer decided to bite off one of his candle flames last year.
"We just like to have fun," said his sister, Ilene Fink, sporting a Santa hat as she decorated passersby with Chanukah stickers. For all their extroverted capers, Fink said they have yet to meet hot dates. But, she said, "you never know what kind of miracle could happen. Maybe I could meet my beshert."
Though the party picked up after 11 p.m., turnout paled in comparison to past years, which drew more than 600 people to Cuba Libre, Kokopelli and other venues. Spivack said he pre-sold about half as many tickets, despite an ambush of pre-party Facebook invites and combined forces with a competing party that Larry Kaplan started four years ago to raise money for Alex's Lemonade Stand. Spivack declined to disclose how much of the ticket sales would even go to the charity. Kaplan didn't know either, saying that organizers had promised a minimum of $1,500 but so far all he had was $392 from raffle tickets sold during the party. Spivack was equally vague about a last minute email to ticket holders announcing that a second party location around the block would no longer be part of the event.
As for the low attendance, Kaplan blamed the weather, the conflicting Matisyahu concert and the back-to-back holiday weekends that probably allowed more people to leave town for long vacations.
Adam Twersky, of Huntington Valley, said that, compared to the huge ballroom where the New York Matzo Ball was held two years ago, it was kind of nice to have a more compact venue. It makes it less intimidating to meet women, said the 29-year-old, though he admitted that he had yet to leave his group of friends.
"I like to sit back and strategize," he said.
While Twersky resumed people-watching, a more outgoing group created a dance floor in a small room to the side of the DJ booth, somehow managing to continue grinding even when the music abruptly switched from pop to hard-hitting rap. By the looks of it, at least three couples were on their way to a Chanukah hook-up.
For those who weren't too hungover, the Jewish festivities continued on Christmas. After the Museum of American Jewish History's annual day of family activities, the young friends group joined forces with the Collaborative and Moishe House to host an inaugural "Being Jewish on Christmas" event for 20s and 30s. More than 40 people gathered to screen Mel Brook's History of the World: Part 1. Appropriately, about half of their hands went up when the museum CEO asked who wasn't born when the 1981 film came out.
Forget about flirting, after the film everyone made a beeline to load up on dumplings, sushi and lo-mein.
As Dan Levy explained when asked why he came from Cherry Hill, N.J., to attend the event: "I was hungry."
"At home, I just get Chinese food," continued Levy, a 28-year-old attorney who also owns a car dealership. Here, he said, there was sushi, too -- plus, you know, people other than the 10 coworkers he sees every week.
Ross Brodsky, a videographer, said he was glad that Jewish organizations gave him a reason to get out of the house. Last year, he said, he stayed home watching Footloose and Ghost over the break.
"Now," he said, "I am part of this beautiful Jewish community."