My grandmother thought I was the worst Jew. I didn't know a word of Yiddish. I didn't go to synagogue or wear a Star of David, and I didn't care about the religion of the women I dated. Other non-Jewish things I do would include: picking up the check when I'm out with friends, thinking the cross should stay on Mount Soledad, and not even knowing how to spell Hanukkah (my editor fixed it when I turned in the story). I love Christmas decorations and lights and think it's ridiculous that Balboa Park now calls their Christmas event "December Nights" so they don't offend any other religions. The night December Nights started, I was going to go with my friend Anne. But I was invited to a Hanukkah party. I figured, if my grandmother is looking down on me, this would be the one decision I've made that will make her proud. I headed up to Encinitas to party with some Jews.
The party was in a gated community and it took me ten minutes to figure out how to get buzzed in. Actually, I never did figure it out. The guy in the car behind me got out and was surprisingly nice as he said, "Here, I'll do it."
As I pulled in looking for a parking space, I got a kick out of watching an SUV-style limo trying to get out. It took the driver about ten minutes also.
I walked into this gorgeous house and talked with Kori Clark, who was throwing the party with her husband Steve. She was eight and a half months pregnant. I told her I'd never had anyone go into labor at a party I was writing about, and it would make for an interesting story. She didn't go into labor, but several other women at the party were also pregnant.
There was lots of food. I wanted to head to the dessert table right away. It had cookies, brownies, German chocolate cake, and ingredients to make s'mores at the fire pit outside. Then I saw the table with all the Jewish food. Like a typical Jewish mother, Kori's mom immediately put a bowl of matzo ball soup in my hands. It was good, but just like when my grandmother made it, I couldn't figure out why anyone bothered with these big balls that have no flavor at all. It would be so much easier just to fix noodles and chicken and call it chicken soup. (Wait a second, did I write "big balls" a few sentences ago?)
I asked Kori about the food and she said, "We have brisket, gefilte fish, salad, cheeses, and potato latkes." I thought that was an Andy Kaufman character. But those sounded like the safest bet. I tried a few and they were delicious. A woman named Lynn said, "Those are delicious. They taste like the hash browns at McDonald's." Kori said, "They taste better than those!" I don't think she realized it was a compliment. They tasted just like McDonald's, and I ate a bunch. I laughed when, near the end of the party, Lynn asked "Kori, can you make more of those McHash Browns?" Kori rolled her eyes and put another batch in the oven.
I left the matzo ball in my bowl of soup, wondering how many carbs it had. It's not that I'm concerned about my weight. But I would feel less guilty when I attacked the dessert table.
This was the most Jewish food I had ever eaten. My previous Jewish meal consisted of a corned beef on rye at D.Z. Akin's a year ago.
As I walked around, I saw a kids' book called Sammy Spider's First Hanukkah. The Clarks have a son who looked to be about four, the perfect age for such a book.
I noticed a lot of the presents for the gift exchange had Star of David wrapping paper. I didn't know there were so many different styles. For Christmas, you can have trees, Santa Claus, snow, stockings, and so many other things. The Hanukkah wrapping paper either has a star or a menorah. But there were lots of different colors of paper.
I asked Steve Clark, who resembled Rick Moranis, about the gift exchange. He said, "When we started this nine years ago, nobody had money. The gifts weren't as nice, and sometimes people would bring the gifts back the following year. We had a brain once. Someone called it Spock's brain, because of an episode of Star Trek. It was tradition for that to come back each year. We also got a James Brown that sang and danced. That made a few return visits." I thought that if I got the James Brown, I'd keep it. Maybe a singing fish I'd throw back, but never the hardest working man in show business. He'd always be welcome on my desk.
Lynn's husband Tim was talking about Sony PlayStation with some people. He works for Sony, and she told me people are always asking him questions. He doesn't like to talk about it all the time. That reminded me of my friend Dan Roos, who's a sheriff in Vista. When we see him at parties, we complain about the tickets cops have given us. And we gripe about traffic laws that should be changed.
Lynn said, "But with him working at PlayStation, sometimes we can get video games for a gift. People usually like those, and it's inexpensive for us."
When Lynn invited me to this party, she told me she'd bring an extra gift for me so I could participate in the gift exchange. It was two DVDs: the Adam Sandler movie Eight Crazy Nights, which is about a Jewish boy, and a documentary on Jesus. We both thought that would be good for a few laughs.
One guy had lost his voice, but he told a lot of funny stories about the previous parties. Half the time I had to say "Excuse me?" and lean in close to him.