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Festival Of Light...Beer

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.

He was carrying around his baby, and his wife had another one on the way. A few times he has built things for the gift exchange. I was told by others that he's great at making crafts. He told me about building a five-foot-high Jenga game. As I was taking his picture, he said, "Don't get my bald spot." I told him I didn't notice a bald spot. But later, during the gift exchange, I told him I noticed it when he grabbed a gift. I said, "In a few more years, it will look like you're wearing a yarmulke."

I talked to Steve's mom a lot about games. She mentioned knowing somebody who plays backgammon professionally. I didn't know there was such a thing. I mentioned meeting Richard Lederer at a party in Scripps Ranch, and she knew his two kids. They are always on ESPN in professional poker tournaments. His daughter Annie Duke recently won two million dollars in the World Series of Poker and appeared the next day on Letterman. We ended up discussing various poker and blackjack strategies.

A little after 9:00 p.m. Steve made everyone go into the room with the presents. Everyone was given a number and that was the order for picking presents. I was surprised at all the strategies. I overheard one couple going into great detail about how to get the best present. They were saying, "Grab the biggest one -- it will always have good stuff." Another woman said she always gets the ones with Jewish wrapping paper, because those gifts always seem to be the best. I said, "If this was a real Jewish party, the receipt would be given along with the gift."

Steve explained the rules. Basically, when it was your turn to pick a gift, you could do that, or you could steal a previous gift someone had opened. He said, "One year we had a bunch of lottery tickets, and everyone kept stealing those." I said, "If someone tried to steal those from me, I'd scratch them off first." He replied, "You wouldn't be invited back."

The gifts started off slow. There was a stuffed Elmo from Sesame Street. There was a Sewing Genie. A few people laughed, because that was a gift from the previous year. There was a Darth Vader mask that said different things when you pressed different buttons. Steve reminded everyone, "If you bring a gift that requires batteries, have batteries in it, so we can see exactly what it does." There was a box with lingerie, and one of the pregnant women at the party got this gift. Early on, there was a boom box. That gift ended up being stolen at least 18 times. Another popular gift was a big red bowl that had silver around the edges. An older guy brought that and said, "I didn't know it would be so popular. I saw it when I was walking down the aisle at Costco." One box contained a tequila-making kit. That made the rounds a few times.

There was an anatomically correct torso that looked like something you would see at a Jeffrey Dahmer party. I jokingly said, "Can I borrow that for the weekend?" Nobody laughed. I later heard a woman say to her husband, "Get your hands off my torso." That got a laugh.

In the middle of the gift exchange, Tim and I went into the kitchen to get some chocolate chip cookies. We both agreed the dessert table was a better place to be than the crowded living room.

Of course, we made it back in time to pick our gifts. He got a giant stuffed Shrek with a Shrek 2 DVD.

When it was my turn to pick, I stole the stereo. It was pointless, because I knew it would soon be taken from me. I said, "Look, I am going to donate this stereo to the Toys for Tots program. So if any of you steal this gift from me, you're really stealing it from a child." Nobody bought it. I was hit in the head with wrapping paper thrown by at least five different people.

The next person took my stereo. I picked another gift and got a crème brûlée set. Lynn wanted that, so we made a trade. I got her husband's stuffed Shrek with the DVD.

Didi was a cute Asian girl who showed up late. She had a big bag that contained different lotions. That gift was stolen a few times. When she stole the stereo, one woman came up to her next and said, "Didi, it's so great to see you!" Didi was saying, "Thanks, great to see you too." The woman continued, with her arms out, "It's so nice to see you." Didi looked at her, confused. The gal said, "I'm taking your stereo." Everyone laughed.

With all the numbers involved, it reminded me of my fantasy-football draft. But with a good pick there, you only get a Marshall Faulk. You don't get a stereo!

One of the gifts was a remote-control truck. The guy who got that seemed stoked. There was also a volcano kit. It looked like fun. One guy said, "Part of me thinks this will be educational for my kids. Another part of me wonders if my garage will blow up." I looked on the box to see if it came with lava. As people walked around looking at gifts to steal, this guy would say, "You can take this and make volcanoes in your living room." Nobody stole it.

The last gift chosen was the funniest. The person who picked it was the person who'd brought it. It was a Bar Master. I'm not sure what that even is.

After the gifts were given out, people vigorously made trades with each other. It was fun listening to the negotations.

Steve and Kori gave out prizes to the people who brought the top three presents. One of the things they gave was a case of Jewish beer. It was called He Brew. The guy who won that said, "I'm not even a drinker." Someone else said, "It's time to start. Or you can break those out now and we can try some."

People were starting to leave. I heard one guy say, "Shalom, dude." I heard another say he was so happy to get the remote-control truck.

I found out it was Steve and Kori who provided the stereo. I thought that was nice, considering they probably spent so much on the party to begin with.

One guy asked me if I knew any good Jewish jokes. I told him the first two that popped into my mind. "A Jew walks into a bar. And buys it." The other one was "Why do Jews get circumcised? They like 30 percent off everything." He laughed. And as I walked to my car, with the rain soaking my Shrek doll, I wondered how many complaints I'd get if I ended this column with those jokes.

Crash your party? Call 619-235-3000 x421 and leave an invitation for Josh Board.

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