As soon as we walked into the Chanukah party a family friend was having at Sammy’s Roumanian we knew we were in for a good time, and not only because it was our first chance this holiday season to all be together — Adrienne, Sam, Matt, Emilio, David and I. Told to expect something along the lines of the cheesiest Bar Mitzvah we could imagine, we weren’t disappointed.
We’d walked through the sketchy neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and down the steps to the crowded basement dining room, graffiti scrawled across the sign above the door. The walls were plastered with photos and business cards, old news clippings and posters. The ceiling was low, and in one corner, practically on top of the tables, a man at a keyboard was enticing everyone to get up in between the tightly packed tables and dance the Horah, circling the room.
“Who’s a Jew?” he shouted and everyone cheered. “Who’s happy?” he shouted again and again everyone cheered. “You’re a bunch of liars. There aren’t any happy Jews! Okay, okay, should we sign a Christmas song for the goys?” More cheers. He started playing the keyboard and singing, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, Jesus was a Jew.” Everyone laughed. He looked at a couple sitting at the table right in front of him and nodded at the man. “I recognize you from last year. You’ve gained weight.” More laughter.
The 750 ml bottles of Ketel One vodka came to the table frozen into blocks of ice. Following large bowls of chicken liver chopped with onions and strips of turnip, the platters of food kept coming out of the kitchen piled high with meat, meat and more meat, then a few potatoes. The two long tables of our party talked and laughed and ate and shouted over the music and the talk and laughter of all the tables squeezed around us. The man at the keyboard took a break, then came back and shouted and swore and made fun of more people, and played more music.
The friend who hosted the party said he first found Sammy’s decades ago when he was in graduate school in New York City. Nothing has changed. As the night wore on, tables were taken down in the middle of the crowded room and the man at the keyboard started playing dance songs. More bottles of vodka frozen into blocks of ice came to the tables. Strangers and friends and family got up and danced. Then sang and danced some more. Emilio got passed from Adrienne to Sam to me to Matt, bobbing his head and dancing along with everyone else, long past his bedtime, his eyes frozen into wide circles of fatigue and excitement. Chanukah had already been over for more than a week, but nobody cared.
The next morning I asked Emilio if he’d enjoyed the party the night before. He nodded his head. “Yes,” he said. “Music!”