January 27, 2000
The crowd's a little less dense toward the back of the social hall at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, which was transformed into "Cafe Olam," a makeshift coffeehouse designed as a meeting ground for young, Jewish singles of all affiliations. This was the first of what planners hope will become a regular Monday night event.
As a guy rushes by me speaking French into a cell phone, I notice the back corner of the temple social hall has become some sort of Moroccan den, featuring cozy couches and billowy pillows in bold animal prints. Chunky, stand-up candles are everywhere. People are sipping frothy frozen drinks provided by Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
It's evident that Cafe Olam wasn't expecting such a well-attended first night, with about 300 singles crammed into half of a room, the other half cordoned off with potted plants. I look longingly at that unused pasture of space and hope they might consider opening it up for the next meeting.
Still, despite the crowds, a wide range of people seem to be mingling just fine, clutching jackets and making shy conversation. And that's just about when things take a turn for the worse. A voice announces that "the Ringo Starr of Israel" will be taking the stage. Before I know it, six musicians are stuffed onto a playing area the size of a postage stamp.
There's no other way to say it: This is simply the loudest music I have ever heard. It is like listening to a Walkman that's running out of batteries on the loudest setting. It is warbled, overwhelming and disrupted by intermittent screeches of feedback and the frightening boom of the singer dropping his microphone.
According to the synagogue's rabbi, Daniel Bouskila, the idea of Cafe Olam is to "create an environment that's different than a synagogue or lecture series, a place where people intimidated by religion will feel comfortable. We want this to be a cool place to hang out." But as the deafening music puts a stop to all conversation, I wonder if recreating crowds and noise, the worst aspects of the bar scene, is such a good idea. Isn't that why people come to these things, to avoid bar scenes? I know it's difficult for single Jews to meet out there in the secular world and I also acknowledge that making a Jewish singles event "hip" is a tall order. Very tall. If someone is turned off by the world of Jewish singles events, funky pillows and good coffee aren't necessarily going to lure them in. For those already sold on the idea, just turn down the volume and let them meet.
The din, I realize, just makes a hard thing harder. Now, not only do you have to approach a stranger, but you have to do so yelling. In my case, this almost always coincides with a song ending, so that I'm screaming something asinine into a solitary moment of silence. At a cluster of tables by the stage, I see a man sitting alone, the back of his balding head slightly bowed. He's sitting under a huge glass chandelier munching a cookie and his silhouette makes me so sad I have to look away. I have the codependent urge to find him someone nice with whom to share his cookies and his table, but there would no use anyway with all this noise. According to Rabbi Bouskila, future Monday nights at Cafe Olam will benefit from some fine-tuning and adjustments, which I'm assuming will tackle this volume problem. Given the organizers' good intentions, this may turn out to be the kind of Jewish singles event that gets it right. I used to think it odd and maybe a tad patronizing to find settled, older adults consumed with matching up Jewish singles. Now, though, I'm touched that anyone would go to all that trouble. To them, every single person must look like that balding man sitting alone, and every event an opportunity to find him someone so he won't be cutting such a lonely figure in the crowd.