“I’m just a Jew, a lonely Jew on Christmas,” sang Kyle, the Jewish character in “South Park,” and for the last 30 years, thousands of young American Jews have searched for love at Matzoball, the glitzy singles party line that takes place in cities across the U.S. on Christmas Eve.
From a single event in Boston in 1987, the “Matzoball” phenomena has spread across the United States, with the biggest parties held in New York and Miami. The organizers boast that with 50,000 Jews attending this year, there isn’t a better place for single Jews looking to marry inside the community.
Days before Christmas, preparations are in full swing. “Every year, the events just get bigger,” Jaime Blanke, national event director for Matzoball, told Haaretz. “People reach out to us to say thank you, because of you I’m married to a really nice girl or guy. We are responsible for thousands of matches. It gives people the opportunity to meet nice a Jewish person so that they can get married and raise nice Jewish kids, a lot of them come because their parents push them to go. This year I even helped grandparents buy tickets for their grandchildren.”
However, in recent weeks, Matzoball is under fire from young Jews who are objecting the event’s marketing, calling it misogynistic and racist. The marketing, geared toward a young crowd on social media, consists mainly of memes with references to Jewish American culture. Some are pictures of celebrities with the proverbial matzo balls and harmless puns, but many are enticing male party-goers with offers of “kosher” hook ups with Jewish women; a photograph of a women in a dress that reveals some cleavage is captioned “It’s not just her brisket that keeps boys coming back for more.”
A porn-like close up of Miley Cyrus licking a hammer promises that “any sexual relations you have after attending matzo ball are directly because of said event.” Another post reveals an inner dialog of an American Jew contemplating the event: “me: go to matzoball to meet a nice Jewish girl your mom will like. Also me: never call her again.” And while the traditional hora dance is left to Jewish wedding and barmitzvas, matzoball offers men a “dance with horas” in lieu of the traditional movie and Chinese takeout on Christmas Eve.
“We have been aware of Matzoball for a few years,” says Jenn Pollan, spokesperson for the Jewish movement IfNotNow, who are leading the protest about Matzoball’s ads. “Their memes are just steeped in rape culture and jokes about hunting for Jewish women like lions hunt for prey.” She adds that when IfNotNow started posting about the matzo ball memes, survivors of sexual assault in the Jewish community reached out to thank her for raising the issue.
“There is this conception of Jewish manliness in the Jewish community, of the nebbish, vulnerable, and not manly Jewish man. So I guess going to Matzoball and praying on women is making you manly,” she says, mentioning another ad, one that promises “parting hard” to “increase manliness by 3.6X.” “This is not creating a safe space for women,” warns Pollan.
Equally offensive to some of the protesters are the digs at non Jewish women and the promises of an all Jewish event where “100% of the meat is kosher.” An ad with a women in a pink bikini floating in a pool reassures: “Her best quality? She is not goyim.”
“It’s catering to some of our worse instincts as a Jewish community. Some of our more base fears about intermarriage,” says Emily Strauss, a community organizer from Pennsylvania, who has criticized the ads on social media.
Coming from an interfaith family, with a mother that has Mennonite roots and a father from a secular Jewish family, Strauss is aware of the sometimes callus prejudice toward interfaith families in the Jewish community, where they word shiksa is still thrown around. “I am against shaming of interfaith families, I firmly believe intermarriage is not a threat. The real threat is kicking interfaith families out of the community by refusing to accept them.”
Like the leaders of IfNotNow, Strauss is offended by the meme, and sees them as a crude marketing strategy that highlights problematic politics in many other similar singles events by mainstream Jewish organization concerned about intermarriage. “It’s an attitude I’ve seen that’s common in the Jewish community,” says Strauss. “I’ve seen it at my university’s Hillel in the way that the only program they promote for women is one about marriage and finding a husband. As if we have no other value. My university’s Hillel planned a speed dating event only open to heterosexual Jews. Which is not only discouraging of interfaith relationships but non-heterosexual Jewish relationships and families too. It tells us what kind of Jewish families are wanted in their idea of the Jewish future. I stopped attending my university’s Hillel that day.”
Matthew E. Berger, spokesman for Hillel International responded: “Hillel takes very seriously its work engaging every Jewish student on campus, and we partner with groups like Keshet and InterFaithFamily to ensure our programs are inclusive of children from interfaith families, those in interfaith relationships, and the LGBTQ community, among others. We are also active in the fight against sexual assault on campus, partnering with the White House for the It’s On Us campaign.”
The organizers of Matzoball, meanwhile, are standing by their controversial marketing strategy. “It’s a fun event, we try not to take it to seriously,” says Blake, reacting to the criticism. “A lot of companies use jokes, the marketing we do catches the eye of people, something its funny, some think it isn’t, it’s just marketing. If we offended anybody we are very sorry, It wasn’t meant to offend.” She also adds that while the event is marketed toward single Jews, it welcomes people of all faiths.
For those not convinced by the explanation, IfNotNow are organizing their own alternative events on the same night, “Gelty pleasures” in New York and “jewish resisDANCE” in Washington D.C., which they advertise as alternative Hanukkah parties for Mizrahi, Sephardi and Jews of color, interfaith couples, LGBTQ+ Jews, and non-Jewish friends, family and allies. In the weeks after the election, IfNotNow has attracted hundreds of young Americans to their protests against the nomination of Steve Bannon, who they accuse of white nationalism and anti-semitism. While the IfNotNow protest against Matzoball is unlikely to seriously hurt their events this year, it is drawing the attention of young American Jews who usually steer clear of Jewish centered events, but are now planning to attend the protest Hanukkah party.
One of those new to the Jewish single scene is Jamie Pagirsky, a grad student from New York, who first heard about Matzoball from the IfNotNow protest on social media. “It may be a joke to them,” he says of Matzoball organizers, “but to other people it’s very offensive and insulting. I’m all about finding Jewish partners, but the way they go about it is well, frankly, uncool.” Jamie is unsure if finding a Jewish partner is paramount to him and says that other considerations, like political views, are more important in choosing a future partner. He has never attended Jewish events, but is now looking forward to give the alternative IfNotNow party a chance. “I’m excited about meeting like-minded people who have similar values,” he says.