Judaism for Dummies, Or, I’m A Dumb Jew

S’sorry friends, the site was down all weekend and I couldn’t blog yesterday, so you’re getting it fast and furious before the morning hurricane of children and lunchmaking and figuring out which shoes hurt my feet the least.

On my monkey mind is David Suissa’s column in this week’s Jewish Journal, titled “Dumbing Down Judaism.” It’s definitely a rail at the watery collection of mindless rituals that American Judaism has become in many communities — you gotta love this line:

We are nurturing a generation of Jewish noshers who only want to lick the icing off the Jewish cake.

But Suissa’s directing his criticism towards Jewish philanthropy, of all things.

It’s almost as if American Judaism, in its desperate struggle to keep Jews from vanishing into the gentile mainstream, has become a marketing carnival. And Jewish philanthropy — driven by a Holocaust-level fear of losing Jews – has helped fund this carnival.

I can’t say I disagree. Suissa’s admonition that there needs to be less “outreach” to unaffiliated Jewish adults and more “inreach” to those of us already committed to the faith who are ostensibly standing around with our fingers in our noses waiting for someone to teach us a little Torah and Pirkei Avot hits a nerve. Read the article, discuss, let me know whatcha think.

I do confess that I wish the Jewish marketing carnival was a little better around here — sometimes it feels like I have no idea what any other Jews are doing unless we’re all in the JEA pool on Sunday afternoons. (Maybe I should try going to synagogue more often, fool!) I’ve recently had the honor of consulting on the serious makeover of the monthly Savannah Jewish News, which should help this denomination-obsessed community know itself a little better. I keep telling anyone who will listen that gentiles don’t care about Reform, Conservative or Orthodox divisiveness, and can’t we all just get along? But what do I know, dumb Jew…

tshirtEvery married woman needs a gay boyfriend. Sometimes a girl just needs a man who wants to go jeans shopping for four hours and gives honest opinions (“Oy, honey, yes, your tushy looks huuuuge in those Citizens!”) and who loves karaoke. I’m missin’ my bitchy San Francisco queens like crazy, and I haven’t had a chance to check out the Savannah scene. Maybe if hang out at Club One wearing this from Shalom Shirts I’ll attract a nice Jewish boy to bring home and help me clean out my closet.

The Worst of Days

In just a few minutes it will be Tisha B’av, the ninth day in the Hebrew month of Av, a day when the worst sh*t in Jewish history has gone done time after time:

The Mishnah discusses the Five Great Calamities that happened in Jerusalem on the same day years apart, including the destruction of both temples and the Bar Kochba’s failed revolt against the Romans.

And the pattern continues:
The Jews were kicked out of England on the ninth of Av in the year 1290 CE, Spain kicked us out on the same day in 1492, Germany declared war on Russia in 1914, the Nazis began deporting Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto in 1942. Sometimes there’s a time zone gaffe, but bad things still happen when it’s Tisha B’Av somewhere: The AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires took place on the 10th of Av in 1994.

Observant Jews fast on this day, and some prepare a special meal the afternoon before, consisting of only bread, water and a hard-boiled egg. According to Aish.com, “the egg is the only food which gets harder the more it is cooked � a symbol of the Jewish people’s ability to withstand persecution.”

Many rabbis interpret the awful happenings as a consequence for not heeding God’s warnings. Sara Yocheved Rigler’s highly relevant and thoughtful article “When God Moved Out” on Aish.com puts this into a perspective even the most secular among us can grasp. Even if we aren’t Orthodox, isn’t it vital as humans to examine the consequences of our actions � before we act? Shouldn’t we mourn our own collective stupidity and ignorance � and make better choices? As non-observant Jews, what are the effects if we don’t teach our children the significance of mystical connections between ancient history and this moment, right now?

Being something of a fast-and-loose Jew myself, it’s not likely that I’ll meet the Talmudic standards of mourning for this day. I’m not sure my synagogue is having any kind of service. I would take the day off, except I already have several deadline-related appointments on my schedule. But my neshama cannot let it slide completely: We’ll eat hard-boiled eggs for dinner, discuss the strange and mighty coincidence of these historical events, wonder and be grateful for the ease of our lives, and see how we might listen better to God.

Buyer’s Kvetch

ipodI ordered this cute iPod dock from Amazon.com so I could share all my fabulous music with my new coworkers, but it’s been over three weeks and I still haven’t received it. So I checked back with the Amazonians, who in spite of being a huge conglomerate that sucks the life out of independent bookstores usually manages to be very efficient; my pre-ordered copy of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows was on my doorstep yesterday morning before I’d even brushed my teeth.

Turns out this is one of those instances when Amazon partners up with other businesses to sell shtuff; my stereo’s fate was actually in the hands of a company called Adorama Camera, so I sent off a polite email to their customer service department at the beginning of last week. I received an impersonal, unapologetic response three days later with a UPS a tracking number. I figured that due to the lame hourly wage, not everyone who works in customer service actually understands the concept, so I checked with UPS myself. I found out my little iPod dock had traveled more than I have this summer: Starting out in New York, it flew all the way to San Carlos, CA, then stopped in Oklahoma, then found its way into the correct state to Atlanta, then, inexplicably, was sent back to New York. Poor thing. Two more emails to Adorama later I received the news, delivered by someone who couldn’t be bothered to write my name at the top of the note, that they had the wrong address. Did I send the correct one immediately and ask kindly that they now overnight the package? You know I did. Did they comply? I wouldn’t be writing this if they had, nu? And this does have a Jewish twist, so bear with me.

Pissy and very tired of listening to the same freakin’ Three Doors Down CD while on deadline, I decide it’s time to take it to the next level: I pick up the phone, which I only do when the written word ain’t workin’ its charms. (You may or may not be surprised to know that I am not such the balabusta in person.) A phone call placed at 3:47pm on Thursday EST informed me that Adorama’s offices were closed for the day; another call first thing Friday morning let me know that they were closed Fridays and Saturdays.

So then the little yiddishe bell in my head starts to ring: Adorama is owned and run by frum Jews. I remember reading about them in this NY Times article about religious Jews and the Internet awhile back, and how they close up shop early Friday afternoons and reopen on Sundays.

This is no problem, but when did the Sabbath begin drawing its veil on Thursday after lunch? Tisha B’Av isn’t until Monday night and while I understand we are in the midst of the semi-mourning period of the Three Weeks, is there some other level of observance I’m not aware of that is preventing this company from doing its business and delivering me from trying to work to Beyoncé? And what part of the Torah admonishes merchants to be total schmucks when dealing with customers?

I’m not trying to commit any lashon hora here, and I’m sure the people at Adorama are fine people and pious Jews, but my experience with this company has really crawled under my skin. I’ve canceled my order and am heading out to Best Buy, where some courteous, pimply teenager will fall all over himself to get my business.

Update: Great. In my research for this post, I find out that “buying items that will bring us joy” is forbidden during the fist Nine Days of Av. So, fine, I’ll wait until Wednesday, because sometimes even a bad Jew has to be respectful of the traditions. But there’s no way I’m putting off bathing or doing laundry.

South Carolina Sojourn

bethisraelMy new job’s editorial territory extends past the state line, so last week I found myself touring the tiny coastal town of Beaufort, SC with local writer/arts maven/breadmaker’s wife Lisa Rentz. She was walking me through the halcyon streets past the arsenal when we came face-to-face with a small, white clapboard house with a mogen david plaque out front. Even with the South’s established Jewish history, it was still a surprise to find a synagogue among the Baptist churches, and I had to take a peek, even if it wasn’t official skirt! business.

Congregation Beth Israel has a sweet little ruby-carpeted sanctuary and knotty pine social hall and looks like it can accomodate a couple hundred worshippers. The core can’t be more than 100 or so families, though the lone volunteer unloading Chanukah chozzerai (in July?) says the numbers vary depending on recruits from the nearby Marine training center on Parris Island, who have been attending Beth Israel since 1918. (I know! Jewish Marines! It was an afternoon of anomalies, what can I say?)

The most interesting tidbit gleaned from my six-minute detour in to Beaufort’s Jewish nexus is that the Torah housed in Beth Israel’s ark is the very one carried over from Lithuania by the Lipsitz family. “Is that the same Lipsitz of Lipsitz Shoes?” I ask Lisa, looking over my contact list for the day (part of my job is scouting products from local businesses for the magazine; yes, I’m getting paid to shop, don’t be jealous.)

“That’s the younger Lipsitz,” Lisa informs me. “His dad still runs the department store across the street.” So she takes me back down Bay Street to Lipsitz’s Department Store, Beaufort’s oldest mercantile establishment, where the son of Max and Bertha Lipsitz, the first couple to be married inside Beth Israel, has spent almost all of his 87 years selling anything you could possibly need.

It’s Mrs. Lucille Lipsitz who greets us when we walk in; even though she’s probably said the same “Hello, y’all, may I help you?” greeting a million times in her life, her voice still rings with sincere Southern charm. Business appears to be rather slow, the store is sparsely stocked with the pink pastel beachwear, straw hats and vinyl suitcases. There’s a circular rack of vintage dresses, and I can’t decide whether they’re there to fulfill Beaufort’s demand for retro polyester or if they’ve actually been there since 1967.

There’s the tinny drone of a daytime game show in the background, and I ask if Mr. Lipsitz might be able to speak with me. From a recliner in the back of the store a crackly drawl pipes up. “I’m him, whatcha y’all need?” Joseph Lipsitz is simply the most adorable old man I’ve ever seen, with thick plastic glasses and pants up to his armpits, and is delighted to tell me all about his family’s role in Beaufort since the 1870’s. Much like the Jews of Savannah, these folks assimilated into Southern life by becoming outstanding citizens and opening successful businesses. Joe grew up in an apartment above the store, and a walk across two lanes introduced me to two more generations of Lipsitz, Joe’s son Neil and Neil’s bar-mitzvahed age son Adam, training for the family business during his summer vacation.

Thankfully, Lipsitz’s Shoes had a much more modern inventory than its parent store, and I was able to find a fabulous pair of moss green Clarks for September’s sneaker layout. So I got what I came for in Beaufort — as well an an unexpected addition to my never-ending historical education of Southern Jewish life.

For more morsels, check out this online museum of Southern Jewish artifacts
and A Jewish Tour of the Carolinas.

Ron Jeremy: Porn’s Not for Kids

ron jeremyIn a feat of irony so stupendous even Pat Robertson must be snickering in the privacy of a bathroom stall somewhere, Jewish smut legend Ron Jeremy has collaborated with a Christian web site to dissuade children from the evils of … porn.

Anti-porn site XXXChurch.com has posted a “public service announcement” featuring a character called “Pete the Porno Puppet” receiving a stern warning from the long-schlonged shlub who himself has starred in over 1800 blue films.

Commentators on the site call the video “sickening” and utter “hypocrisy” and are praying for the redemption of Ron’s filthy soul.

Watch it here, pervs … before you go wandering into the, um, Badlands.

Sunday School Wish List

rugSo now that I’ll be corrupting enriching the young Jewish minds of Savannah next year as the Shalom School’s kindergarten teacher, I get to submit a list of materials I’d like to use in the classroom.

Thanks to the last teacher, I’m already equipped with plenty of beginning Hebrew workbooks, chag-related coloring sheets and a fat Ziploc bag of crayons. I’ve got plenty of J-tunes ready on the iPod, including Debbie Friedman, Beth Schafer, Oy Baby, Rick Recht, and of course, the majority of the Craig Taubman library. And the extremely cool school director already OK’d this terrific holiday-themed rug for my charges to plant their tushies on during circle time. (At this age, I believe children should spend as much time on the floor as possible. Nothing wrong with incorporating a little yoga into the aleph-bet, nu?)

Tell me, dear and wise readers, what else do I need?

Any suggestions, especially for interesting, age appropriate picture books, are deeply appreciated.

More From The Mouths of (My) Babes

Dinner at the Yenta house, always loud, sometimes interesting:

El Yenta Boy:
I remember my bris.

Me, his mother: Really.

Boy: Yup. I remember the rabbi with the big beard and grandpa giving me wine. Then I felt my wiener sting and I fainted.

Me, to El Yenta Man: Did you hear that? He remembers his circumcision! Amazing!

El Yenta Man: That’s because I just showed him the video.

Little Yenta Girl, who believes she should have everything her older brother has:
I wanna circumcision!

Me: Sorry, babes, not in this lifetime.

Oh. Well, maybe tomorrow.