Someone Else's Simcha / Ron Katan's 40th birthday – the school of 'on the rocks'
A tight group of friends gather to celebrate the life of a man whose love for family and the calling of education are surpassed only by his passion for partying hard.
Location: Miftan Hermon School for at-risk youth, Ashdod
Time: 8 P.M.
In the neighborhood: A quiet residential area, mixing equal parts apartment towers and gated private homes in the south side of the city of Ashdod. Small packs of teenage boys and girls walk up and down the darkened street, passing by a small park, its playground glittering in the light of the full moon. A few middle-aged men, wearing kippas, stand outside the lit doorway of a synagogue, holding their hands to their hips while having a friendly argument.
Venue: Paths crisscross a verdant yard, running to the different buildings that make up the Miftan School, with colorful drawings and signs lit by the orange streetlights. In one building on the left, the school's austere dining hall is converted into party central, with five square tables, covered by white tablecloths, complete with flower arrangements set under a draping projector's screen. A long buffet table is set up near the back, next to a small side table loaded with every kind of alcoholic beverage imaginable.
Simcha: Ron Katan's 40th birthday
Number of guests: 32
Home: Ron, a teacher and counselor for at-risk children and teens, runs a secular household in Ashdod along with his loving wife Jenny, 37, who aids kindergarten-age children with learning disabilities, and their three girls: Tamar, 2, Adi, 8, and Rotem, 11. Education, it seems, is a theme with the couple's friends, many of whom work in various instructive positions in the area, mostly with kids who didn't quite find their place in the public-school system. One such example is Yossi, who manages a center for at-risk Haredi youth in the city ("They can be trickier than seculars. They feel like they need to always prove how 'un-religious' they are to rebel against their upbringing. A lot of attitude").
A brief history of time: Ron stumbled into the field of education during his time as a university student: "A teacher friend of mine came over, gave me a basketball, and said: 'You're substituting gym class.' After that, it was 'you're substituting science class,' and so on." Eventually, after his university studies also brought about a chance encounter with future wife Jenny, Ron settled into programs for kids who dropped out of all the "formal" education systems, teaching a 9th grade class in the mornings, and counseling at the Miftan school – the party's venue – in the afternoons. "I could never be a regular teacher; I can't do that standing-in-front-of-a-class thing. Here, every day you have no idea what's going to happen next."
Alcohol: While education and a hard-day's work run as a common thread through the merry crowd, the love of alcohol and partying flows like a mighty river. Jenny: "We, and when I say 'we' I mean Ron and the gang, caught on to alcohol a little late in life. They recently graduated from vodka and Red Bull to whiskey"; Ron: "That's what grown-ups drink."
Rites: Following a short blessing ("You age like fine wine"), Jenny, who serves as the evening's official MC (at least at first), opens the festivities with a slideshow, including pictures of the birthday boy through the years: traveling around the world with friends, traveling around the world with the wife and kids, playing with the kids, eating, eating around the world, drinking, drinking some more, and a few choice shots of him falling asleep. After the friends have a good laugh, mainly over one photo depicting Ron passed out on a couch, the tear-jerking part of the evening begins.
First up is Itay, Ron's lifelong friend ("since preschool"), wearing a novelty T-shirt displaying, as it happens, the same image of Ron nodding off on the couch, with the caption: "Life begins at 40 – Until now you were only asleep." Joking aside, however, Itay is visibly moved when reading the lengthy, and laminated, card he wrote for the occasion, praising his best friend for all that he has given him in life. As an example of how much the two know about each other, they quickly recount the time when they, as a joke, signed up for a "know-your-spouse" contest in a Haifa hotel, posing as a gay couple and proceeding to win by a landslide (Itay: "They were shocked when they saw our wives the next morning").
A long line of friends then proceeds to congratulate the birthday boy, saying he taught them to enjoy life even when they've got less (Ron: "Because I don't have anything!"), with the obvious high point being Ron's longtime friend David (A.K.A. "Dato"), who hilariously tells the story of how he convinced Ron to take a shower and have a meal before he joined his wife in the delivery room ("I told him: 'My wife, damn her, takes 18 hours. At least you won't be hungry").
Next, the highlight of the night arrives, as alcohol aficionado Lital, who runs an alcohol-instruction business called "Cosmopo-Lital," sets up a makeshift bar, and proceeds to teach the merry gang how to construct their own classic cocktails. Lital, attempting to pepper the educational experience with some alcohol-themed quizzes, enters an unwitting comedy duo with "Dato," who takes pride in his Georgian heritage and its link to everything alcohol ("wine was invented in Tbilisi!"). Later, Lital tests the inebriated bunch with a few how-well-do-you-know-the-birthday-boy quizzes, the answers to all of which are, by the way, food, drink, and sex – not necessarily in that order.
After the instructional part is over, Jenny turns on a laptop, pumping dance music through large speakers, as Ron and his friends dance the night away (for about an hour). Jenny: "We're also organizing a small family get-together for the day after. We're like Arabs, we celebrate for an entire week."
Music: Music from the 1970s and 1980s, with some newer Israeli pop and dance pop.
Food: A pasta, quiche, and salad buffet prepared by Gili, another of Ron's colleagues at Miftan, who caters for small events on the side: "I would bring things to parties and people would say, 'it's good, it's good,' so I thought I'd try it out"; Jenny: "We don't keep kosher, but, out of respect to some of our friends, we decided to keep the meal dairy-based."
Drink: Sex on the beach, daiquiri, black Russian, cosmopolitan ("it tastes like candy"), and a veritable mountain of vodka, Red Bull, and whiskey (with a strong emphasis on Johnny Walker Black and Green Labels). Twice an hour, Ron can be seen rushing into the dining hall's small kitchen to replenish the ever-dwindling ice supply.
Word in the ear: Jenny on the growing 40th birthday party trend: "One friend had one, and then another. Then it's time for you to organize a party, and you can't afford to lower the bar. What are you going to do, just go to a restaurant!?"
In my spiritual doggy bag: That reaching certain milestones in one's life is neigh meaningless if one is not surrounded by loving, joking friends (preferably of Georgian descent).
Random quote: Lital: "Does anyone know what triple sec is?" Dato: "What did she say? Triple sex?"
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