Israeli Manners: An Oxymoron?

It’s no secret that residents of the Holy Land are some of the rudest around, a real accomplishment in a part of the world where a girl gets stoned to death for showing a little ankle. The “ugly Israeli tourist” has apparently become a global archetype – though still behind cheap Germans and obnoxious Americans. While sabras (those born in Israel) and those who love them might find their famous contentiousness and arrogance endearing, it’s not helping Israel’s reputation in the global community. Even Israelis can’t stand each other. (Yes, you know where this is going; bad for the Jews.

So businessman/philanthropist Ronny Maman is putting up $60K for a contest seeking ideas on how to temper Israeli chutzpah into something more friendly, or least a way to stand in line at the shuk without getting socked in the crotch by a little old woman in a babuschka.

“The intention is to create awareness, which in turn will create action, and then everything will change,” says Mamon.

Or, he will wake up to have his yard toilet-papered and his car keyed.

The web site is in Hebrew, but here’s the submission info, should you have any ideas:

Deadline: January 22, 2008, Tu B’shvat
Email ideas to:
Send to: Rehov Achuza 96, POBox 26, Ranaana
Fax to: 09-7409592
Winners will be announced: June 6, 2008

I would enter, but I can’t even figure out how to get my own children to stop interrupting me.

Snippets From the Stage, Part 2

…and yes, back to a play-by-play account of Hallelu Atlanta. Sorry it wasn’t sooner, but y’know, I have a JOB, people. When being a Yenta pays a salary and benefits, I will be happy to be at your full-time Hebonic service. In the meantime, Mr. Morris owns me from 9-5, the Yenta family gets 5-9 and once in a great while I get from 10:03-10:14 to hang out with El Yenta Man before he starts snoring.

Also, I lost my voice the minute I left Atlanta – literally, we pulled onto I-75 and it whooshed away in the middle of a sentence. I still have not quite found it, which is making it hard to interview people and organize this huge booksigning for the publisher of the magazine tomorrow, not to mention motivate two children into school clothes at 7am. I sound like a cross between your phlegmy great aunt who smokes a pack of Benson & Hedges a day and a hyperactive phone sex worker.

But back to the show. Before we continue, I have to give props to the fabulous Rachel Leah Cohen, who not only worked backstage and dealt with all the talent and coordinated all the difficult people who wanted extra hotel rooms for their children (ahem, ahem) but delivered a darling monologue in between Neshama and Mare (or was is between Mare and Joshua Nelson? What can I say, I was starstruck) about what a gift it was to come home to her original ‘hood of Atlanta and witness this communion. Rachel might be Craig Taubman’s organizational elf for now, but mark my words, that girl’s got the moxie to bring her L.A. dreams to life.

Also love to Michael from CraigNCo and Hallelu’s very patient and inspiring director Stuart Robinson.

So, I left off at Joshua Nelson’s awe-inspiring performance, right? I am adding “kosher gospel back-up singer” to my list of things I want to be when I grow up. While we were all catching our breath, a dozen or so dancers from the Atlanta Jazz Theater clad in Israeli blue graced the stage and silenced the room. Their interpretation of “Eliahu Hanavi” gave me (the good kind of) chills and I could Little Yenta Girl in the audience swaying her shoulders, mesmerized.

The hypnotic soundtrack was Craig Taubman’s, natch, and it began with a Midrash interpretation of Elijah’s presence in our present: That the prophet is in the world, “waiting for a person to turn to him in compassion. He could be a child waiting for a hug…He could be the person sitting beside you, waiting for a word of welcome. And when we turn to him in compassion – in kindness and love – he will bring Redemption and make the world whole. But then again, if we act with compassion, kindness and love – the world will be redeemed anyway.”

I love this idea that we are active in humanity’s redemption; that every good deed, extra tzedakeh and smile for a stranger counts, and that ultimately, the way we treat each other supersedes how kosher our kitchens are, how much Hebrew we can quote and whether we light our Sabbath candles on time. I believe that what God wants from us most is our love – for creation, for life itself – and this is why Hallelu was such a valuable experience: It was an authentic spiritual event rather than the kind of mindless ritual most of us witness in shul (as opposed to participate in.) At least that’s how it seemed from my vantage point; Abbie reports that there were some grumpy haters in her section, but they probably just had gas.

Anyway. After the dancers came the Silver Fox himself, singing and clapping and revving up the house. And then he did what every Jewish mother wants for her gorgeous daughter – he grabbed my little moochkele up and danced around with her, getting a big “awwww” from the audience and earning our family’s undying worship for life. But wait, it gets better: Backstage, after the show, she pointed at Craig and said “I want to marry him.” Adorable.

So then it was back to me, sitting on the stage. I typed some notes and observations down during the show, but I found it impossible to compose a snappy little paragraph suitable for immediate delivery. My writing process doesn’t necessarily require complete silence, but I found 4500 pairs of eyes on me kind of distracting. So I don’t actually remember what I said, but I tried to just match the energy coming from the performers. I came to see myself as kind of a liaison between the audience and the talent, since I was neither or both, depending if you’re related to me.

The second half of the show brought out the legendary Theo Bikel, who just looks so much like Tevye that I wanted to get up on the roof with him, who in turn called out Our Lady of Perpetual Song Debbie Friedman for a duet blessing the hungry and sweet. Forgive me for being sacreligious (or don’t, I don’t care) but I felt like I was standing at the foot of Sinai when the Word first came down. When Debbie broke into “Miriam’s song,” all heaven broke loose – every woman in the Fox theater including me was up and shaking her groove thang with her invisible timbrel like we were on the safe side of the Red Sea for real.

Then Syngagogue 3000’s president, the wonderful Ron Wolfson, came out to honor the moment with the Shehechianu and talk a little about the work that had gone into this year of programs and planning that culminated in all 20 of ATL’s synagogues gathering on this day. “Baruchim ha-ba-im!” he cried. “Bless us all who have come together!” (For more about how Ron has found unlikely inspiration from the evangelicals and the Christian megachurch concept, check out this NYT article; it makes sense, people!)

Ron’s speech led right into a righteous performance by a choir composed of folks from all the congregations, and by this point I was in such a state of bliss that I hardly noticed the flashing red light on my computer. As choir crescendoed through its closing harmonies, I watched the little battery icon get smaller and smaller until finally, my screen went black. Whereas I had been winging it before, now I was literarily (not literally, thank God) naked. My first impulse was to panic, but I looked down at my family’s and everyone else shining faces and figured So what? Yah tov – it’ll be fine.

This joyous day shared a date with a tragic one, and all the artists returned to the stage to pay tribute to Yitzak Rabin, who was assasinated 12 years before. But even this important remembrance couldn’t dampen the elevated mood. I was beckoned to join everyone for the finale and it must have been quite a spectacle seeing all of us jumping up and down.

This is was what synagogue is supposed to be, I thought as I do-si-doed with Rachel. Praising equals joy, worship means love. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve found what I’ve felt has been missing in Judaism my whole life except for summer camp. Hallelu-JAH!

Now the question remains: How do we re-create it in our daily lives? How do we bring the joy back to shul for real? This was so much more than just a “performance,” yet how to marry it to the rigidity of halachic life? I’ve got lots more to say and think and wonder about it all, but right now I’ve got to get back to the work I get paid for.

For now, at the very least, I’ve got a whole new set of dance party tunes for this Sunday’s Shalom School lesson.

Couldn’t She Have Just Gained 15 lbs. Like Everyone Else?

Yeah, this is weird: For some reason, George Washington University freshman Sarah Marshak thought the best way to galvanize school officials to action regarding a rash of anti-Semitic graffiti was to paint swastikas on her own door. Another student has been detained for some of the vandalism, but Sarah was caught on tape marking up her dorm room door at least three times.

“I wasn’t looking to create this sort of insanity. I wasn’t looking to become a media darling. I was just looking for acknowledgment from the university that someone drew a swastika on the door.”

I suppose I can kinda sorta understand the twisted logic of this obviously disturbed girl, but really, honey, call the ADL next time. They’re there for you.

Snippets From the Stage

Whew, what a whirlwind! We’re back in Savannah after yesterday’s Hallelu extravaganza in Atlanta and I’ve already made breakfasts and lunches for the small people I’m charge of, been to a fancy fashion show, gotten yelled at by a homeless person on Broughton Street, uploaded a dozen photos for my day job and bought a super cool pair of red tuxedo pants from Goodwill for three dollars. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I know you all want to know how the show went, so here goes…

Two hours before showtime: After engaging in a losing battle with a three year old about why she can’t wear her pajamas to the show, I shlep across the street to the Fox Theatre. I’m sharing a dressing room with musical director Merri Arian, who doesn’t mind that I’m taking up three spaces at the counter framed in lights: One for my make-up, one for my laptop and one for my neuroses.

An hour and half before showtime: Soundcheck. Joshua Nelson literally blows me out of my chair! I see a chair and ottoman at stage left; that’s my spot. Just like home, except no dog hair.

An hour before the show: Neshama Carlebach and I discuss the wonders of breastfeeding in the green room. She’s just left her 1 year-old son for the first time; I try to convince her that eventually, like when he’s three, he will drive her crazy and she will do anything to get a break, even if it means shopping at Wal-Mart at 10pm. She’s a fabulous, funny woman – wish I was in her mommy’s group. I eat a tunafish sandwich provided by the caterer.

Twenty minutes before showtime: I’m freaking out over this whole “spontaneous” blogging thing. I try to explain to Craig Taubman that I have control issues and this is making me a little sick, but he’s busy putting on a show. I am on my own.

Five minutues before the show: I refresh my lipstick and froof my hair. I realize I can smell the sandwich I ate on my hands, which disturbs me, but not as much as the realization that I have not fully charged my laptop. This will become important later, I think, but it’s too late to think. The stage director points to the chair onstage and I sit down.

Showtime! The lights come up, on me, I can’t see a thing. I start speaking into my tiny mike hooked to my ear (just like Janet Jackson!) but I realize my voice is not booming off the starry ceiling like it should. Someone hands me a regular mike and I start over, only a little farblongent.

Hi…my name is Jessica Leigh Lebos, also known as the Head Yenta at my blog, Yo, Now normally I do this from the privacy of my own home in my underpants and one of my husband’s tattered Grateful Dead t-shirts, but since it’s a special occasion, being here at the awesome Fox Theatre in front of four thousand fabulous Jews, I thought I’d make my mother proud and, y’know, wear pants.

That got some laughs. I hadn’t been so close to my audience since my bat mitzvah, but everyone was so nice. I finished up the opening with a bit about how all the factions were representing in the ATL today and why we were there:

The wise people of Synagogue 3000 understand that we all have our differences, but that ultimately, all of us meet at the deep, quiet intersection of our one and only God.

I have to say, I’m shepping my own nachas for that line. Don’t know if I had the stage presence to pull it off, but by then it was time for me to shecket b’vakashah and get on with the show.

First up was Alberto Mizrahi, such a tenor on that man! His shtetl song was so moving, so lovely. With the lights no longer on me, I realized that El Yenta Man and the kids had found seats in the front row right next to me and Little Yenta Girl was waving wildly.

Then Josh Nelson was up (okay, let’s get clear here: There are two Josh Nelsons in this story. This one is a Jewish white guy with fabulously crazy hair and a penchant for kickass guitar riffs and Torah quotes. The other one, heretofore known as Joshua Nelson, is a Jewish black guy who shares a wardrobe with the artist formerly known as Prince and has a penchant for kickass piano riffs and Torah gospel. Got it? Good. Back to the first Josh Nelson.) He started with a choir of what seemed like hundreds of adorable Jewish children sending up a prayer that had to have the angels dancing on high – the Jews of Atlanta are raising a generation of mensches! Then Josh launched into a full-blown shredding solo, backed by the members of the Hallelu house Bayit band. Smokin’.

Neshama was next and dedicated a soulful original song to her late father, Shlomo Carlebach, and her son, who I know she was missing. Neshama has a deep, almost purring voice, so hypnotic and spiritual. I remember thinking that one or two songs per artist at this shindig was way too little – next time it’s got to be full sets. C’mon, we’ll rent out a farm and have Jewstock! Oh wait, that’s right, Jews don’t camp. Anyway, my point is that I’d like to hang out with Neshama at the playground and watch her whole show.

My girl Mare Winningham came on after that, in full Jewish Cowgirl regalia, singing her sweet “Convert Jig.” I loved her opening greeting of “Great to see y’all again,” since all Jewish souls were present at Mount Sinai, even “Jews by choice.” She is just so lovely in person, tiny – I felt like a giant drooling sychophantic nerd every time I passed by her backstage.

And then the Joshua Nelson brought down the house with his kosher gospel crew! Seriously, people, if we had a dose of that on Simchat Torah they’d still be peeling people off the roof at dawn.

So much talent going on, and I haven’t even broken down the first half of the show for you! You’re going to have to wait until tomorrow, ’cause I got’s to get back to work. Rachel Leah Cohen has promised a photo link, too…

How-dee From Hallelu…

Psst…I’m supposed to be working on my opening monologue but I couldn’t resist checking in to let you know what’s up. First, off: Fancy shmancy digs. The nautilus-themed Hotel Indigo is right across the street from the Fox Theater, where Tricia Yearwood played last night and Aretha F’n Franklin is playing next week and where later this afternoon I’ll be making a huge ass out of myself if I don’t get to work. Did I mention the show is sold out? Oy, oy, oy….

Last night after El Yenta Man and I ensconced the children in front of the Disney Channel in their room, we hung out in the lobby bar with the whole mishpotech: Rachel and Michael (the worker bees who implement the vision of Craig n Co,) Mr. Craig himself (and yes, as I’m sure you’re dying to know, he is as much of a silver fox in person), Josh Nelson (the other one) and his adorable wife Debbie (yo! Abe Foxman and the people at the ADL! Y’all are nuts if you don’t hire her!), Rabbi Jessica, Synagogue 3000 president Ron Wolfson and his lovely wife, Susan, as well as various and sundry musicians, one who shares the same quit-smoking date as me (Rosh Hashanah, 5765.) There was scotch involved and let’s just say what happens at the Indigo stays at the Indigo, but I will tell you the highlight of the evening was hearing superstar Theo Bikel harmonize a rock opera version of “Lcha Dodi” with Craig and Alberto Mizrahi (who it not be inappropriate to characterize as “The Jewish Pavarotti.”) Good times, peeps.

All right, time to figure out just what the hallelu I’m doing here. But I keep getting distracted that I get to share a dressing room with Mare Winningham. Poor woman.

Debbie Friedman Made Me A Better Jew

debbiefriedmanLook, it’s no secret that I don’t know my Midrash from a matzoh ball. I know we’re People of the Book and all, and while I love a good Pentateuch drama, I find it hard to get that touchy-feely-faithful feeling from words alone. But put it to a good tune – a bit of soul, so to speak – and I’m gonna daven like the Messiah’s on his way in a Rolls Royce limo and bringing beer.

But so much of the music us Ashekenazim (and what, pray tell, is the linguistic f*ck-up that caused that word to contain such a distasteful four letter word?) have inherited from the Old Country is just … so … sad ; those mournful minor keys of the traditional liturgy can really suck the joy out of synagogue worship, ya feel me? I’ve already atoned for how much I love gospel music and I have a good reason: It’s got a good beat and I can pray to it. Thank God the Jewish people have Joshua Nelson now (who is not to be confused with this Josh Nelson, who is so adorable with his guitar and will also be playing at Hallelu.)

This is why Debbie Friedman rocks. The woman brought the groove back into American Jewish music more than 35 years ago; many of the tunes Reform Jews know in their bones as “tradition” are actually her compositions. Every summer at camp, I’d belt out “Not By Might, Not By Power” until my throat scratched, and I’d never even heard of the Moshiach until I learned the harmonies of “Ani Ma’Amin.” I still get all teary every time I sing Mi Sheberach. And I get to meet her this weekend. Gheeeeifff (sound of the dissolution into complete dorkiness.) Wonder if she’ll let me hang out the limo and drink a brewskie?

In other Hallelu news, I got a call from the stage director this week, who attempted to, um, direct me all the way from L.A. However, when it is 4:30pm on the West Coast and the day is closing nicely towards a leisurely drive down Mulholland and a quiet dinner at Nobu or whatever it is people in L.A. do after work, it is 7:30pm at the Yenta Household, otherwise known as The Evil Hour of Discontent and A Lot of Yelling. I was trying to grasp the concept that not only am I going to be opening this show with 4000 people in the audience but that there is no script to follow while Yenta Girl climbed on my head and El Yenta Boy pestered me for a guinea pig with the peculiar tenacity of an almost eight year-old who has sneaked a few too many sips of his father’s Coca-Cola when I realized there was something stinky next to my chair. So I had to interrupt this very professional phone meeting to clean up a pile of dog poo almost as large as the animal it came from as well as expose this poor guy in California to the fact that my children know how to use the “s-word” in its literal context. Am I the best Jewish mother ever, or what?

He wasn’t kidding about the no script thing either. Either these people are completely crazy or it’s all going to work out great. I guess I’ll be okay as long as I don’t poop on the floor.