Shabbat, Not Stress, For The Modern Jewish Mom

mjmI don’t know what Friday afternoon looks like at your house, but let me share a glimpse of what Yenta Central looks like: I am, of course, sitting at the tiny table masquerading as a home office in the middle of the livingroom. One child is reading The Adventures of Captain Underpants out loud at the top of his lungs; the other has brought all of her shoes and stuffed animals out of the bedroom and is lining them up in the hallway: “Look, Mommy, boats! Lots and lots of boats!” El Yenta Man went down to the garage hours ago to see about the fifteen loads of laundry that mysteriously can’t seem to fold themselves; it’s unlikely that his long absence means he’s taught the socks to find their mates, but rather that he has mastered the high score on the old Defender game that I keep hiding.

Suddenly I realize it is less than an hour until sundown. My adrenal gland flushes my body with a once-a-week stress hormone: It’s the Shabbat-specific panic attack, unlike the daily low-grade buzz that simply repeats the same old neurotic gossip like one of those electronic marquees with the red scrolling letters: “Is anyone reading my silly blog? I am too told to be coloring my hair blue? Is this mole precancerous? Why are there still Jews who support George Bush?”.

I hit the “Shut Down” bar on my Mac and clap. “All right everyone! Clean it up! Now!” Resembling a cross between the Tasmanian Devil and Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest, I spin through the house tossing toys and shoes and grabbing collars, hissing orders like “wash your face!” “put Mr. Monkeypants and Baby Garbage back in the basket!” “for God’s sake stop whining!” and get responses like “Just one more chapter, puh-leeez!” and “Hey! You’re stepping in my ocean!” El Yenta Man surfaces from the garage, fresh and relaxed from his video game session, miraculously carrying a basket of clean towels, napkins and tablecloths. I thought ahead to defrost an organic chicken last night, there’s fresh kale to steam and a challah baked by the anonymous employees of Publix this morning. I say a silent prayer of gratitude for instant brown rice.

Fifty-five minutes later, I am panting with the aftereffects of hysteria, but the Shabbat table has come together: the candles have been lit on the bottom so they will stick in their holders, the napkins stand like crooked swans per El Yenta Boy’s trademark folding technique, and Little Yenta Girl’s snarly wild hair has been tamed on top of her head. Our family breathes three collective breaths together; the first one just to get to the moment, the second to look at each other and wonder at each other’s presence, and the final one that cracks open a deeper sense of being. In that moment of silence — the only one my extremely loud and active family experiences all week — I strike the match and usher in Shabbat: Baruch ata adonai… Peace descends like blanket crocheted with the softest wool by your bubbie — for about thirty seconds. Then the kids start bickering over who got a bigger piece of challah and someone spills the kiddush cup on the freshly washed tablecloth.

It’s not always that hectic, though never perfect by halachic or probably even Child Protective Services’ standards. But I know Meredith Jacobs doesn’t judge me for our messy traditions. Better known as Modern Jewish Mom, a Maryland maven who knows what to wear to synagogue and how to bake a honeycake, Ms. Jacobs understands that every family does Shabbat dinner differently, and the most important thing is that you do it — even if it’s pizza.

“It’s not the meal, it’s the mood,” she admonishes in her new book, The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat. It’s the perfect tonic for families who want to bring more of a Shabbesdik feeling into the home, without any of that sanctimonious bullhockey that makes us less-than-perfect mamas feel guilty. In fact, her very point seems to be that Shabbat is a gift to decrease a family’s stress, not make more:

“I don’t believe there is a “right” way to do Shabbat…Start with what speaks to you and build from there…It doesn’t mean you do everything. It means taking the time to figure out what feels comfortable and what works for you and your family.”

Part siddur, part cookbook, with generous dashes of sass and style, the Guide bridges the ancient traditions with real life in a way that will remind you of gabbing with your best friend. Each chapter includes adorable illustrations (showcasing MJM’s apparent predilection for strappy high heels, God love her) and helpful tips (add a little water to the bottom of glass candleholders to prevent a mess), yet the history and essential aspects of Jewish life are explored much more deeply than the fun, glossy layout might belie.

MJM is very clear to remind her readers that she’s “just a mom,” but don’t let her self-effacing humility fool you: Girlfriend knows her Torah. Every relevant prayer is included here in Hebrew and English, including the Eishet Chayel — “Woman of Valor” — that every husband might consider memorizing. There’s a dip into kabbalah to put the Shabbat ritual into perspective, and never before has this Yenta found such a lovely, easy Havdalah service to end Shabbat once the three stars of Saturday make their appearance. And get this: MJM has interpreted each of the weekly parshas (Torah portion) in family-friendly terms, which instead of being intimidating, will surely inspire enlightened conversation between all generations.

Unlike so many other “Jewish 101″-type tomes, MJM’s Guide to Shabbat covers the ground only a mother can appreciate. The how-to chapter for creating shalom bayit (peace in the home), called “Wine, Not Whine” (heheheh, hear that kids?), includes essential direction for preparing your home for Shabbat, as well advice on how to remind little ones of their manners: “Pretend God is at the table. How would you act?” MJM also demystifies the challenge of DIY challah (bake for the whole month and freeze — brilliant!) and she isn’t stingy with the kosher recipes, either. There’s even an entire chapter devoted to projects with the kids — what home doesn’t need a glittery spice box made from a milk carton?

As MJM gets down with the practical and generates giggles with the frivolous, she’s never far away from the spiritual: The overreaching theme of this guide is to create peace — for yourself and your family one day a week. Religious or no, observing your particular kind of Sabbath facilitates the kind of close family connections we all need more of, as most of us spend the rest of week scattered all over creation in carpools, school, work and extracurriculars. What a relief to find a Jewish how-to book that lets you know it’s all right to do it your way! This is one to give every Jewish mother you know, whether they think they need it or not.

A Joke For Your Seder

You know I love the corny, clean ones that can be told in front of bubbies and babies. From this week’s j., edited just a bit:

jetA Passover Miracle

Bernie decided he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer and build airplanes. He studied hard, went to the best schools, and finally got his degree. It didn’t take long before he gained a reputation as the finest aeronautical engineer in all the land, so he decided to start his own company to build jets. His company was such a hit that Israel’s defense minister called Bernie into his office, saying, “I want to commission your company to build an advanced Israeli jet fighter.“

Needless to say, Bernie was tremendously excited at this prospect. Everything looked terrific on paper, but when they held the first test flight of the new jet, disaster struck. The wings couldn’t take the strain — they broke clean off of the fuselage.

Bernie was devastated; his company redesigned the jet fighter, but the same thing happened at the next test flight — the wings broke off. Very worried, Bernie went to his shul to ask God where he had gone wrong. The rabbi saw Bernie’s sadness and asked him what was wrong. Bernie decided to pour his heart out to the rabbi.

After hearing the problem, the rabbi put his hand on Bernie’s shoulder and told him, “Listen, I know how to solve your problem. All you have to do is drill a row of holes directly above and below where the wing meets the fuselage. If you do this, I absolutely guarantee the wings won’t fall off.”

So Bernie did exactly what the rabbi told him to do. On the next design of the jet fighter, they drilled a row of holes directly above and below where the wings met the fuselage. And it worked! The next test flight went perfectly.

Brimming with joy, Bernie went to tell the rabbi that his advice had worked. “But rabbi,” Bernie asked, “how did you know that drilling the holes would prevent the wings from falling off?”

“Bernie,” the rabbi intoned, “I’m an old man. I’ve lived for many, many years and I’ve celebrated Passover many, many times. And in all those years, not once has the matzah broken on the perforation!”

Four Questions In ASL

Mah Nishtana Sign Language
El Yenta Boy thinks he’s pretty hot stuff ’cause he’s had the Ma Nishtana down since he was three, so I thought I’d up the challenge and make him learn it in sign language this year. Just kidding. (Hat tip: Bangitout.) But I have a question for those parents of multiple kids out there: When is time to pass the baton to the next youngest child? Little Yenta Girl isn’t ready to take over yet, but I foresee heartbreak next year when I tell my son he’s being passed over for a younger chanter. He has such a Jewish neshama (soul), though; he’ll probably be leading the seder by the time he’s nine.

Like many of you this week, I’m up to my ears in chametz and shmutz (crumbs and dirt), though I’ll never live up to Chabad’s Chametz Wizard. Add in switching over the winter wardrobe for the summer clothes and simultaneously packing for a family visit to Arizona in a few days, as well as preparing to move out of the in-laws’ beach house to a home of our own next month, you’ve got one frazzled Yenta here. Looking forward to taking next week off — you know you’ve left the last vestige of your punk rock lifestyle behind when visiting your parents sounds like the epitome of rest and relaxation.

Which brings me to what could be perhaps the fifth question: If we’re not actually going to be inhabiting our (not) home during Passover, can I leave this bag of pita in the freezer and just give my born-again neighbor a dollar?

Apples to Apples, J-Style

applesThis time of year when someone says “apples,” we start thinking about chopping up piles of ‘em with walnuts and cinnamon for a little charoset action, right? (Eeeps, that’s very Ashkenazi-centric of me. Lots of recipes for the Passover seder’s symbolic mortar don’t include apples, such as these delectable-sounding Moroccan Charoset Balls, but I’m going somewhere with this. Forgive me, Sephardic friends.)

So anyway, for us Jews of Eastern European descent, it’s apples, apples everywhere (and plenty of wine to drink), but you can really spice up any Pesach afterparty (if anyone’s still awake) with a few more: Out of the Box has just released Apples to Apples: The Jewish Edition, a superfun family board game that even the drunkest uncle can figure out.

The rules are as simple as the original Apples to Apples game, where players make comparisons using one set of cards with descriptive words like “brilliant” or “inspiring,” and one set of cards with people or things. Only in the J-version, the cards hold references to “My Rabbi,” “Gefilte Fish,” and yes, even “Paula Abdul.” Someone gets to judge which thing or person best fits the adjective on the table, mixing up subjectivity, hilarity and Jewish trivia all at once. Good times. And it’s shomer Shabbos, too, since there’s no writing or creating involved. A much nicer reward for finding the afikomen that the same ol’, tired five-dollar bill, nu?

This Jewish version of Apples to Apples (and you will never, ever refer to it as “Japples to Japples,” understand?) sprung from the fertile mind of Cleveland Jewish mama Alice Langholt, who compiled the game in the oodles of spare time she has in between raising four (four!) children, working at her synagogue’s religious school full-time, writing a midrashic novel, and publishing greeting cards. Oh, and baking her own challah every Friday. She developed the game after the kids were asleep, in the hours when her husband should have been rubbing her feet while she watched Grey’s Anatomy. Obviously, Alice is trying to make the rest of us slacker Jewish mothers look bad.

Since even the smartest kids under 12 probably can’t keep up with the Bette Midler and Woody Allen references, Alice is currently at work on a junior version of the game, which will surely become a staple in Sunday schools everywhere. After that, hopefully Alice will reveal where she’s hiding those six or seven extra hours a day the rest of us don’t know about.

There’s still time to buy Apples to Apples – The Jewish Edition in time for your seder — Look, it’s even on sale!

fakejewAww, the anonymous, snarkalicious goy of Not Chosen, Just Posin’ has hung up his (yes, he was a “him” all along) phony tefillin after less than a year of writing undercover about the dysfunctional workings of a promininent New York Jewish magazine:

I’m retiring this blog and this job. I’ve accepted a position with another company and I’m here only until the end of the week. Giving a two-week notice is for pushovers.

Well, he did get an agent out of it, and is still working on a novel about his experiences. I’ll miss NCJP’s spot-on stereotypes and Manwhore Mondays, but I was really hoping someone would out him and there’d be drama. Mazel tov on the new gig, shaygetz.

Jewsin’ for A Bruisin’?

Salita Those of you following Dmitriy Salita‘s rising reputation as a nice Jewish boy with lethal fists already know he beat the pants off his opponent Grover Wiley last week at the Hammerstein Ballroom.

Actually, Grover got to keep his pants, but his dignity was smeared all over the ring after our boy Dmitriy busted out with a barrage of body punches in the seventh round, impelling the judges to levy a unanimous decision in his favor. Dmitriy would have liked to gone for the big K.O., but Grover got a few minutes to recover after his mouthpiece fell out, preventing total consciouness annihilation.

“The knockout was what I wanted, but I have to be satisfied that I got the win and remain in contention for a title shot.”

Here he is aprés-fight (kinda like aprés ski, only the hot tub smells like old guys and Ben-Gay) with the two people to whom he credits his success: his trainer Jimmy O’Phrarret (who apparently just looooves his beanie cap) and his rabbi. Dunno who the guy on the left is — the official water shprizter?

See more action shots here!

Wastin’ Away in Manischewitzville

Passover’s still a week and a half a way, but I just get giddy when the parodies start showing up like so much chametz in the cupboards.

The video’s kinda “eh,” not the fabulous Flash animation to which we’ve been becomed so spoiled, but the lyrics make up for it.

Now, pay attention, because this is only the first verse of prolific punster Billy Ray Sheet’s ode to the drink of the season: You must go here to experience the whole thing. Do it; it generates revenue for BRS’ synagogue and it will have you humming all week long.

77% Of Us Say No To Iraq

outof iraqAccording to a new Gallup poll, 77 % of American Jews oppose the war in Iraq, compared to 52% of the general public. Time to organize, nu?

Aryeh Cohen and Shaul Magid have launched Jews Against The War (JAW), a nationwide coalition of rabbis, Jewish leaders and shmos like you and me who just can’t stand around and kvetch anymore, or worse, keep silent for fear of being shouted down by idiots still holding up this “you’re not a patriot” nonsense.

“I know that many pulpit rabbis, myself included, have shied away from speaking out publicly against the war, in my case because it is safer to not talk about it, for fear of being divisive within the congregation,” said Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater. “But, like the prophets of Israel, I can no longer take the ‘safe’ road. This war is wrong and it needs to end. Our country’s moral voice in the world has vanished under the weight of torture, secret tribunals and occupation; our beloved Israel is in greater danger now, with Iran emboldened; and our nation’s budget has been sacked, in large part to fund this war.

More info here.