Women Want Hammers

WonderWomanHammerSo listen, Sukkot starts Friday already. I know I said THIS was the year we were going to build a sukkah in the backyard, but it turns out I’ve already started my 5771 atonement list.

It just seems like an awful lot of WORK, y’all. I just got finished with dealing with dinner for ten before Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah before that and then there’s Shalom School lessons to prepare and JUST WHY IN THE HOOTENANNY DID GOD HAVE TO PUT SO MANY DURN HOLIDAYS SO CLOSE TOGETHER? Fortunately, we do a community Sukkot celebration down at the temple so I can go hang out there (and of course, we’ll be making graham cracker versions with the kidlets, as usual.)

If I were a religious Jew instead of, well, whatever kind I am, I don’t suppose I’d balk so much at all the shopping and preparing and cleaning that each ritual requires. It’s always seemed to me that when it comes to observant Jewish practices, it’s up to the women to make sure it all gets done while the dudes just get to show up and pray and eat. And then I gotta BUILD something? That just doesn’t seem fair to this lazy, cranky lady right now.

As it turns out, the actual building is actually the man’s job. Elana Sztokman’s blog in today’s Forward, “Sukkot Customs I’d Like To Change” points out that’s pretty whack, too:

As a woman, though, I find Sukkot to be one of the most difficult holidays we’ve got. It is laden with messages about gender differences and where women truly belong, and these messages seem to intensify each year…I used to think it was just the children’s books – you know, pictures of men and boys banging the hammer and nails juxtaposed against pictures of women and girls in aprons or serving soup – which conveyed these messages.

I don’t know if Sztokman calls herself a feminist or not, but I always appreciate how observant Jewish women reconcile feminist principles:

The message of Sukkot should be an equalizing one. We are all stuck in the huts, all equally exposed to the elements. Living in the desert, no one family had a bigger house, job, or paycheck and everyone relied on God’s generosity and compassion.

I agree. But somehow, even as a loud, proud liberal feminist, I don’t feel a smidge of guilt that El Yenta Man is the one down at the synagogue hammering together a sukkah and I’m lounging in the empty expanse of grass in the backyard! Like I said, it’s only been two days and my sin list is already growing…

Kol Nidre from the Couch

imagesIt’s Thursday, which means I’ve got my regular lunch date at the JEA for some kosher eats.

I’ve been escorting my mother-in-law almost every week for over three years to the Senior Lunch Bunch, and it’s a constant source of entertainment and education for me. I absolutely adore the other regulars — like Holocaust survivor and yiddishe joker Chaim, Savannah native and trucker-mouthed Micky, the elegant and eagle-eyed Dorothy, the hilarious and sprightly Beezy, and hostesses with mostesses Thelma and Miriam (who’s 88!) Since I no longer have any grandparents with whom to steep myself in generational Jewishness, I value their interest in me and my family. (Of course, it could be that El Yenta Man loves to flirt with everyone, too.) They’re mostly in their 80s and even 90s, yet they remember our children’s names and their schools and exactly how many weeks now I’ve been unemployed.

I wish I could say the same for my mother-in-law. Her dementia has advanced considerably in the last year, and though the Yenta Lunchers always welcome us with waves and air kisses, she’s long past recalling names or recognizing faces. In fact, beyond immediate family and her dedicated and wonderful caregiver, I’m guessing all faces look the same to her. I try to be patient with folks with whom she once co-chaired a Sisterhood committee or docented at the temple who come up and say “Don’t you remember me?”, as if they’re going to be the ones who shake her out of her out of the neural tomb into which she has receded. It pains me so much to see her face draw up in confusion, because she knows she’s supposed to know this person. My mother-in-law, always such a dear, such a lovely lamb, never wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings, so she just shakes her head and gives a small, barky laugh and stutters her one rehearsed line, the longest full sentence she says anymore: “I’m sorry, but my memory situation is a mess.”

We’ve had to have some family discussions on whether we should take her to synagogue for Yom Kippur this year. My father-in-law is afraid that she’ll be disruptive, sighing and asking “What? What?!” anytime there’s a lull in the service. Which is probably true — last year she threw a fit when he tried to take her to the bathroom because she couldn’t communicate that she’d left her purse in the pew. But most everyone knows what’s what since this family has been part of the Jewish community for almost 40 years, and if anyone’s going to judge or get crabby because this poor confused woman makes a bit of noise has some more repenting to do, am I right?

I’ve taken the stand that she needs to go. Just for the closing service, mind you — her dear caregiver will sit with her Monday morning while the rest of us suffer — but I sense that this will be our last opportunity to share a synagogue service with her. She grew up Orthodox as a child, and as lost as she is inside her mind, I believe the memories of Jewish liturgy remain like stone pillars in the slippery liquid of unfinished thoughts and disconnected identity. I’ve seen her lips moving when we say our Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, and I know she remembers. And even if she starts eating the little pledge envelope stuck inside the prayer book, I know that when she hears the Sh’ma and the closing shofar blast, it will pierce her consciousness someway, somehow.

That leaves Kol Nidre, the opening ritual of Yom Kippur and usually a meaningful prayer for me to attend. I’ve decided to pass on it this year to spend it next to with Marcia on her old leather couch, listening to Jewish TV Network’s live broadcast at 6pm PST, 9pm EST, this Sunday night. I watched a bit of last year’s broadcast and it was somber, familiar, exactly as it always is and should be, even though it was taking place 3000 miles away. Though I’ll miss the experience of being at the temple to usher in this day of Atonement, I’m thinking watching it online with thousands of others who couldn’t go in person — for their own personal, perfectly valid reasons — could become a family tradition.

For me, for her, I have no doubt that the right way to pray Sunday night is in the living room.

Cookin’ With Clichés

BOOK2-200One of the perks of being a loudmouth Jewish blogger is that occasionally my opinions are solicited about a new product or book relating to our people. A few years back, the publicist for The Jewish Princess Cookbook contacted me to see if I’d like a review copy. I cringed immediately.

Listen, I’m not one to judge a book by its cover — or its title. But the term “Jewish Princess” stopped me cold. I don’t care how much you love Frank Zappa, it’s undeniably pejorative, attributing a superficiality and materialism to Jewish women, and I couldn’t believe that a publisher in the 21st-century would perpetuate such a negative stereotype. After checking the web site and finding sample recipes for inane things like “Grapefruit with Brown Sugar” and “Melon Balls in Champagne”, plus a lot of tired shtick springing from the old joke, “What does a Jewish princess make for dinner? Reservations!” I passed on reviewing it on my web site. Like my mother taught me; “If you can’t say anything nice…”

It turns out the bad jokes are on me. Authors Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine not only embrace the Jewish Princess cliché, they are workin‘ it. That first cookbook was a bestseller in their native United Kingdom, and the British BFFs have appeared on TV and radio, lauding themselves as the “new ambassadors for Kosher cooking.” Seems that there are plenty of Jewish women out there who identify with their lavish lifestyles and simple kitchen tips, not to mention the interpretation of the laws of kashrut as the first “Diet Bible.”

So now Tarn and Fine have written a second cookbook, and I thought it only fair to take a closer look. Their latest endeavors at the stove are featured in The Jewish Princess Feast & Festivals, a collection of recipes for the major holidays and others simchas couched in the Princesses’ familiar saccharine humor. However, once you get past the references to plastic surgery and designer handbags (“What did the Jewish Princess say to her baby? Gucci, Gucci, Gucci!”) there happen to be a few useful dishes to incorporate into your homecooked menus.

Most of the recipes don’t require more than a handful of ingredients or more than a rudimentary knowledge of basic cooking skills. According to the authors, this is because Jewish Princesses don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen in between shopping and getting their nails done, but for those who have jobs or don’t necessarily enjoy spending the entire day making one meal, this works out for us, too.

For dairy ideas on Shavout, the “Vegetable Risotto” and “Spinach and Ricotta Tart” are quick, tasty main courses, and I’m looking forward to trying out the “Lemon-Chile Lamb Chops” on the grill during Sukkot. And though “Hosting a Designer Dinner Party” may not be anywhere close to the top of your agenda, the collection of canapés might prove useful at your next book club meeting.

So though I still find their concept offensive, I’m not one to turn down a decent kugel recipe. But that doesn’t mean I condone the Jewish Princess stereotype, nor do I plan to follow the Princesses into their quest for fame. Yes, it turns out the Princesses have penned a third book out this fall, The Jewish Princess Guide to Fabulosity, exploring topics like hairdressers and mother-in-laws.

Frankly, I don’t even want to know.

Champagne Salmon
Serves 4
(from the Jewish Princess Feasts & Festivals by Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine)
For the fish:
2 ¼ pounds fresh salmon
¼ teaspoon dried dillweed
2 onions, sliced
1 ¾ cups sparkling wine (your choice)
salt and pepper to taste

For the crème fraîche sauce
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
¼ cup water
½ cup crème fraîche
2 squeezes of fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon of dried dillweed

Preheat the oven the 350˚F.

Wash the salmon well and place on a sheet of foil on a baking sheet.

Add the rest of the fish ingredients, then make a loose parcel with the foil to seal the fish. (Mine resembles a clutch bag, of course!)

Bake for 10-15 minutes.

Unwrap your parcel and remove the fish with a slotted spoon. Strain the stock and reserve for the sauce.

To make the sauce, mix the flour and water together in a bowl until smooth. Reserve.

In a saucepan over low to medium heat, slowly heat the crème fraiche. Add the 4 tablespoons of the strained stock, the lemon juice, dill and seasoning.

As the sauce begins to simmer, add the flour past, then turn down the heat and cook, stirring, for at least 1 minute.

Remove from heat, and serve the sauce with the fish.

The dish can be served hot or cold.

Don’t forget to serve with a glass of Princess Pink Champagne. Lechayim!”

Little Lady of the Dance

links_image_2As a parent, you come to expect that your kids are going to have cultural interests that you might not choose for them.

You may recall Yenta Boy’s interest in downloading the entire German language a couple of years ago, which made me realize just how patient my own parents were when I insisted on driving Volkswagens throughout my 20s. Fortunately, the boy’s fascination with German has been replaced with an obsession with Portuguese — though I can’t resist throwing in a little Spanish Inquisition history whenever he’ll listen.

So now it’s Little Yenta Girl’s turn. Ever since we moved to Savannah, a city of proud Irish heritage that has a St. Patrick’s Day parade four hours long filled with legions of girls clogging away with straight arms and curly, curly wigs, the child has been asking to be schooled in the art of Irish dance.

For years, she’s been putting on a skirt and kicking her little feet around and crying “Look, Mommy, I’m doing it!” I’d ask her how her ballet lesson were, and she’d say “Fine,” and then wistfully add, “But what I really want is to do Irish dancing.”

I’d managed to blow off her requests thus far; she was already in ballet, we didn’t know anyone else we could carpool with, blahblahblah. It wasn’t that I have anything against Irish dance, but personally, I just don’t see the point. I mean, no matter how you slice it, it’s tradition that doesn’t have a thing to do with us — why should I pay for lessons and costumes and shlep her to study a heritage that’s not ours? Better she should stick to ballet and tap; at least those are general enough that she can get her ya-yas out and not complicate things, for heep’s sake.

Then I started thinking about my own enthusiasm for African dance and how patently ridiculous it is to be a suburban Jewish girl who knows the choreography of the circumcision celebration of the Susu people of Guinea. Although I’m sure it mystified her, my own mother always encouraged me — though I started dancing long after I was of the age that someone else paid for my extracurricular activities — and proudly introduced me as her “Jewish African Cowgirl.”

(The “cowgirl” in there is the part of my that grew up in Arizona and identifies with outlaw desert culture – another element I decided to embrace that probably confounded my parents since we lived next to a golf course, thirty miles from the nearest horse stable.)

So when my daughter’s best friend’s mom told me she’d found a beginning Irish dance class for the girls, I relented. The first class was this past Monday, and I can’t tell you how much my little Jewish darling stuck out amongst all the Irish Catholic girls there to follow in the clickety footsteps of their ancestors — almost as much as I did, crowding around the two-way mirror in the tiny lobby with fifteen Irish Catholic mothers.

I had already made up my mind that this wasn’t going to work: The lessons are expensive and require new shoes and a sparkly new costume and yes, one of those crazy curly wigs. The women in the stuffy lobby were already on my nerves with their talk of competitions and so-and-so’s older sister who went to nationals. And did I mention how EXPENSIVE it is?

But then I saw my girl in there, snapping her feet and skipping to the rhythm, her cheeks pink, eyes shining with joy. She obviously loved it, more so than some of the little girls who were brought there because this is the expected activity for them to join. She hung on every word the teacher spoke and mimicked the teenage assistant like she had the Emerald Isle running through her veins.

Just like I felt like I was channeling Senegal the first time I stumbled into an African dance class – it was like those rhythms were already in me, and I was simply waking up to them.

Heritage is a funny thing. If you feel an affinity for a culture and its traditions that you have no genetic right to feel, does it make those feelings any less valid? Depends on who you’re trying to dance with, I guess. Trying to keep up my African dance chops has been hard here in Savannah, where the “you ain’t African” vibe is much more tangible than it was in California. Maybe when my my daughter realizes that she doesn’t share the familial connection with the dance that the Irish-descended kids do, she’ll begin to feel that “otherness,” and she’ll be less inspired.

For now, though, I’m guess I’m gonna eat the hundreds of dollars it’s going to take to make little Jewish Celtic Sweetheart happy.

Love Dem Basterds

imagesFor someone who’s trying to swallow the injustice, slings and arrows of real life, I have to say a late-night viewing of Inglourious Basterds was worth like, ten therapy sessions. (BTW, a warning: this post contains plot spoilers. But really, it won’t ruin the movie for you.)

It’s a violent, gory mess starring Brad Pitt as the head of an all-Jewish brigade on a mission to kill “Natz-ees” that imagines a very different end to WWII, and there’s something redeeming — empowering even — to see the tables turned on a history that’s already been written. We already know how WWII turned out; six million Jews and four million others were sent to gas chambers and shot in front of firing squads. And while the good guys eventually “won” the war, justice was never really served: The world never got the satisfaction of seeing Adolph Hitler strung up by his balls; he got off easy by committing suicide in the comfort of his bunker.

But to Quentin Tarantino, those are just details. He’s based a career on bloody vengeance (doesn’t the very word “vengeance” make you think of a Bible-booming Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction?) and because that’s his particular genius, he recognized that a film about badass Jews who go after Nazis with all the intelligence and calculation the Nazis hunted Jews would be brilliant: I can totally imagine Harvey Weinstein salivating all over his cigar when QT pitched it.

Sure, there have been movies that have delivered a little bit of Jewish avengement like The Boys from Brazil, and more recently Defiance, where Liev Shreiber and Daniel Craig demonstrate some major toughness chops by creating a safe haven out in the Polish forest, but there are plenty of disappointments, like Valkyrie — I mean, who gives a crap about how Tom Cruise almost assassinates Hitler?

But at last, Quentin Tarantino has delivered the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy: Trapping the top Nazi brass in a theater, then burning it down, blowing it up and pumping the Fuhrer full of machine gun holes all at the same time.

Now, some reviewers have said that turning Jews into “sickening perpetrators” is a mistake – that this rewriting of history allows the facts of the matter to be lost. Instead we must stick to the facts, constantly and without straying, in order to rise above and heal from the atrocities:

“An alternative, and morally superior, form of “revenge” for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended: that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future.”

Gosh, I don’t even disagree. Except that being morally superior never really protected anyone — and it certainly doesn’t deliver the visceral satisfaction of watching a fictional character hitting a really bad person with a baseball bat. Of course we must carry on as we have — educating our children and neighbors about the Holocaust, stand up where we see injustice, keep saying “Never Again.”

But we also have to cheer when someone makes a movie about Hitler finally getting the ass-kicking he always deserved.


top100-125x125Well, this is a lovely surprise:

The Daily Reviewer has named Yo, Yenta! one of the top Jewish Blogs!

Of course, I’d never heard of the Daily Reviewer before, but according to their site, it “selects only the world’s top blogs (and RSS feeds). We sift through thousands of blogs daily to present you the world’s best writers. The blogs that we include are authoritative on their respective niche topics and are widely read. To be included in The Daily Reviewer is a mark of excellence.”

It’s nice to be recognized. Shabbat Shalom, y’all!

A Jewel A Day

web-header-2009dSo the magazine that I used to work for came out with its new issue this week, the first without my name in the masthead in two years.

I haven’t looked at it and probably won’t, but I know that all the interviews and photo shoots and profiles I created are there, as they will likely be for the next issue, since I was such an organized little editorial monkey and worked far ahead. A friend lamented my absence from its pages, observing “man, they really just wiped you off the map.”

Yup, like Ahmadinejad with a sponge and a little Windex. And how I wish I still weren’t pissed about it. I’m angry that I no longer have a regular income or not really-affordable health insurance, that an “independent feminist” magazine is run by stupid old rich white men, that someone else is receiving credit for my work, that I’m no longer able to serve my community in a way that brought me a lot of joy and occasionally, free meals.

It’s been exactly two weeks since I came in after my lunch hour and was told I needed to pack up my personal belongings. I keep waiting for the resentment to abate, though quite honestly, I’ve been so busy getting the children back to school and figuring out how to use my new iPhone that I barely miss the time spent answering asinine emails and updating a Twitter account. I sure as hell don’t miss pretending to be loyal to people I believe to be unbelievable hypocrites, and I am thrilled to have the time to exercise, read to the kids and write poetry again.

But I’m still mad. Obviously, I have some internal work to do, as my old therapist would say. Actually, he’d say, “What’s needed here is a radical acceptance of the NOW.” And for me to get to the NOW, I have to let go of the past. And letting go of the past involves forgiveness.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that therapist in 15 years and I forgotten just HOW that works.

Fortunately, it’s the month of Elul, the winding down of the lunar cycle when us Jews are directed to take stock of our souls to prepare ourselves for the reckoning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I sure as sh*t don’t want to bring this negativity into the New Year, and there’s plenty of spiritual support to aid me while I untether myself from it.

My favorite way is the Jewels of Elul, a daily nugget of inspiration and wisdom on a particular theme (you may remember the Yenta contributed a small piece on “Hope and Healing” a couple of years back. To find it, click the link, find “Previous Jewels” 2007/5767 and scroll to the bottom. )

It also helps that the Jewel’s theme this year is — yes, you are so smart! — forgiveness. Sometimes it’s about forgiving others, sometimes ourselves, sometimes even our Creator for the circumstances presented before us. As I struggle with pettiness and the urge to make obscene prank calls to my former employer, I also keep seeking a way to find compassion for smarmy corporate drones and for my own wounded self, and I was particularly moved by this line in Raphael Cushnir’s “The Sublime Paradox”:

Letting go isn’t about closing doors, but opening them. With each door that opens within, we become more vulnerable. And the more vulnerable we become, in a sublime paradox, the more God graces us with spiritual power.

I’ll take spiritual power over an expense account any day. “Radical acceptance of the Now” isn’t just some Buddhist bullsh*t made up by a hippie therapist who’s tired of hearing his clients kvetch; it’s the bottleneck where all prayers are answered and all souls are set free.

So even though I’m toying with the idea of raiding the rack in front of the drugstore near my house and setting fire to a whole bundle of magazines in my front yard, I still have a two and half weeks before the end of the year to neutralize any remaining pissiness. That’s perfect — I love deadlines.