Digging in the (Internet) Dirt

efw-1I read about Southern Ohio’s Newark Earthworks in a recent issue of Newsweek, and I was so curious about this massive network of geometric mounds built by ancient North American inhabitants known as the Hopewell People that I went a’Googling.

It seems the Hopewell People built dozens of large-scale earthen mounds from 100 BCE to 500 CE, long before that douche Christopher Columbus decided to claim these parts. Some of the mounds correspond to celestial events like the 18.6 year lunar cycle, certainly enough to establish the scientific intelligence of these ancient folks. But how do archaeologists explain this giant chanukiah, mapped near the East Fork of the Little Miami River in 1823 by the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers? I guess you could say it’s an explainable coincidence that native Americans constructed something that resembles a ritual tool used by people halfway around the world to commemorate the miracle of oil lasting eight days, but even the shape above the menorah is clearly an oil lamp. Spooky, right?

Read on, because it gets so much weirder: Two artifacts, known as the Decalogue and Keystone, were uncovered at the Newark Earthworks in 1860. The Decalogue is a stone inscribed on four sides with condensed version of the Ten Commandments written in “a peculiar form of post-Exilic square Hebrew letters” with a figure that can easily be identified as Moses. The Keystone has the phrases “Holy of Holies,” “King of the Earth,” “The Law of God,” and “The Word of God” written in a more recognizable form of Hebrew. A few years later, two more stones were found, then lost, suggesting a trove of mysterious Judaica in the mounds — or a giant hoax.

There’s an enduring “Lost Tribe of Israel” theory that there were Jewish people in American long before the first Jewish settlers were kicked out of Spain and Portugal. The Maccabee’s revolt and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem took place in second century BCE, so it’s entirely plausible these early Ohioans were refugees of the Jewish Diaspora who knew the story of the oil and the nine-armed menorah, who laid tefillin and valued the Torah.

But such bubbeminze is generally dismissed by scholars, Jewish and not. After all, how would they have made it from Jerusalem to Ohio in 100 BCE, after all? You think international travel is a pain in the tuchus now, those Jews would’ve had it way worse than stale peanuts and a $25 charge for an extra suitcase.

But why would have some guys in the 19th-century go through the trouble of cutting stone to make elaborate forgeries, and how would they have accessed arcane information about Second Temple practices? J. Huston McCullough, a professor at Ohio State University, lays out all the evidence and comes down on the side that the Newark artifacts — including stone bowls found with the Decalogue — are more than credible – read for yourself.

Perhaps the resistance to recognizing the presence of Jews in America before Jesus was even born is too frightening, not to mention daunting — that’d be a whole HELL of a lot of history to rewrite.

Mazel Tov to the Happy Couple

1256575987_ivanka-wedding-290I’m not one to get all goobely over celebrity weddings, but I must admit I gave a twittery little sigh when I saw Ivanka Trump’s lovely dress.

The supermodel-socialite-badass businesswoman-newly minted Member of the Tribe married New York Observer owner-every Jewish mother’s dream Jared Kushner last weekend in a “lavish but tasteful” Orthodox ceremony, and according to Barbara Walters, Ivanka’s dad The Donald kept it low-key.

Naturally, halachic decorum dictates modesty for a bride, and designer Vera Wang “seized on the chance” to create a gown for a celebrity that wasn’t a white satin bikini with a train, i.e. something with sleeves. Does this mean we’ll see Carmen Electra with a high collar and lace to her wrists at her next wedding? Vera Wang adores the idea of starting a modesty trend: “Nothing would make me happier. I’ve been doing strapless dresses for 15 years. It’s tiring.”

Both bride and designer were inspired by the gown Grace Kelly wore when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco. Princess Grace’s demure style inspired my mother’s generation to wear white gloves and keep their stockings straight, and Ivanka’s influence just might set the bar a little higher for wedding day beauty.

You never thought you’d hear it from the Yenta, but I think the new Mrs. Kushner actually gives the term “Jewish Princess” a classy connotation.

Maybe We’ll Just Teach Him The Blues?

IMG0008-main_FullSo Yenta Boy’s been taking piano lessons. My grandfather, George Blumenthal, was a working musician all over Miami Beach for decades, playing the Fountainebleau Hotel when it was the fanciest place in town the first time around.

Naturally, we’re all hoping that musical talent is going to land somewhere in the gene pool, as it was apparently napping when my brother and I were dividing cells. The boy’s only started on the ivories this year because he dabbled in some violin lessons and choir stuff through school, but mainly because we don’t have a piano. So he’s been plunking out “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “I’m A Little Teapot” on a hand-me-down Kawasaki keyboard on a coffee table for now, and taking his lessons on his grandparents’ baby grand down the street. He practices almost every day without being asked, though sometimes we get hours of “Heart & Soul” since my dad jammed with him on their last visit. We’ve been waiting to see if there’s enough commitment in his fingers to justify buying our own little upright for the livingroom, a purchase that will hopefully be blessed by the Yenta Grandparent Educational Scholarship Chanukah Endowment Fund.

His teacher, a cute-as-button 20-something young mother getting her Masters’ in Music, seems to think he’s got a little something. Enough that she’s invited him to be part of her winter recital. After his lesson at the Yenta-In-Laws’ house last week, she warned me that the piece he’d need to learn would be a little more challenging, but she thought with focus and discipline, he’d make it sound lovely. Then she handed me the sheet music for “Come All Ye Faithful.”

“Ahem,” I said, eyeballing the words “Christ Our Lord” at the bottom of the page. “Is there maybe something else he could play? We’re Jewish, and we’re trying to get his grandparents to help buy him a piano, and I’m pretty sure this ain’t gonna fly.”

Poor thing looked really embarrassed, though honestly, I don’t understand how she missed the giant mezzuzah on the front doorjamb in the seven Tuesdays in a row that she’s been meeting us. Or the glass menorah on the table next to the piano. Or the 4×4 watercolor mural of Jerusalem with “Shalom” on the wall behind it. This obviously took her by surprise and she started thumbing through her recital book for another option. “How about ‘Jingle Bells’?”

I suppose it could be worse. It’s a religiously neutral tune, and it was composed by James Pierpoint right here in Savannah at the Unitarian church on Troupe Square (well, according some, anyway.) But I think my Grandpa George would want us to do better.

Anyone with a background in children’s musical education have a suggestion for a beginner’s Chanukah song?

Food for the Southern Jewish Soul

IMG_2401Show of hands – who’s coming out to the Shalom Y’all Food Festival in Forsyth Park tomorrow? 11am-4pm and every bite benefits historic Congregation Mickve Israel — say it with me, now — the third oldest congregation in America.

What? You don’t live in Savannah? I am SO SORRY because it’s gonna be awesome! There may be only three synagogues to like, thirty thousand churches here, but whole city turns out to taste kugel, strudel, pastrami, hummus, bagels, Rabbi Belzer’s Ah Mein Lo Mein (which is really Chinese but since it’s made by ordained Jewish clergy, it’s on the menu) and egg creams…it’s always a good idea to get there early because once church gets out and the goyim start lining up for latkes, things are gonna get MESHUGGAH.

What? You’re not hungry? Come for the Carolina Klezmer Project – we’ll have a little shtetl right there in front of the fountain! There’s bubbie bling for sale, too — but beware, the Yenta plans to descend upon this table the minute Shalom School lets out to score some giant brooches and hood ornament-sized mogen davids, yo.

See you there! I’ll be the lady in the Manschewitz baby doll t-shirt.

A Gleek And Proud of It

Being cable-deprived by choice, I don’t much keep up with the Gossip Children or the Kartrashians or whatever the kids are watching these days. But I came upon the pilot of “Glee” a few weeks ago on Hulu after mowing through every current episode of “The Daily Show” and OMG. Holy hilarity — high school angst plus show tunes? YES.

Since then I’ve caught up to the broadcasts on FOX, loving all the little threads of Jewishness (thanks, EstherK!) poking through the melodrama and Mariah Carey covers. I don’t even care how unlikely it is that there are actually three Jewish kids in a podunk Ohio high school; producer Ryan Murphy is bringing the tribe back to prime time.

Last night’s new episode killed it, starting with macho mohawk man Puck’s recounting of his family’s annual Simchas Torah tradition of watching “Schindler’s List” while eating TV dinners. Puck – short for Noah Puckerman — has been the quasi-villain up ’til now, tormenting the Glee Clubbers for their social outcastitude even while reaping the sexy rewards of membership. The sudden activation of his Jewish identity carves out a whole new valence shell to his character, and he’s almost adorable as he comes to the conclusion that the way to become a better Jew is to date the only other Jew he knows: Rachel, Glee Club diva and the object of his constant ridicule.

While she’s hardly a Nice Jewish Girl, Rachel ain’t that easy. She makes Puck prove himself a prince worthy of her talents. The result impresses everyone:

So glad they chose Neil Diamond over Barry Manilow. But something by David Lee Roth might’ve been more in keeping with the character. No matter – even though their parents’ might’ve approved, Puck and Rachel’s relationship was doomed by the end of the hour.

Who You Callin’ Nebbish?

1255985087muscle_04Loved this article in the always-thoughtful Tablet by Eddy Portnoy about the silliness of the stereotype that our kind are weaklings.

Portnoy points out that as a people, Jewish bodies aren’t any less athletic or strong than any other group when taken as a whole, yet the image of the big-brained, spaghetti-armed nebbish endures, “forcing Jews who hope to counter such stereotypes to create odd publications such as encyclopedias of Jews in sports and other books and pamphlets designed to salve the wounds of a people allegedly doomed to physical ineptitude.”

The reality is that history contains a terrific showcase of Jewish asskickers. Maybe Portnoy consider the slideshow he put together to accompany his own piece as odd, but I found it fabulous. Read this anecdote of Polish-born, 5’3″, 200-lb. wrestler Abie Coleman (posing as the “Hebrew Hercules” above), reported to have invented the dropkick after watching kangaroos maul each other in Australia:

n 1985, at the age of 80, Abie was walking home from the Torat Emet Jewish Center in Queens when he was mugged by two youths. This was a poor choice in victims. Abie beat the two of them badly and left them bleeding on the sidewalk. Abie Coleman died in 2007 at the age of 101.

May I also offer the very current example of Orthodox boxer Dmitriy Salita, who reigns undefeated in the WBA’s junior welterweight division.

And of course, there is my favorite manifestation of Jewish athleticism and speed: The JEA Fire Ants, who took the win over St. James last night and are coached by the one and only El Yenta Man. Now, I ain’t sayin’ that we beat Jesus or anything, but the other teams in the 12 and Under Celtic League had better think twice about messing with the tzitzit, ‘aight?

Long Live My Crush On Spock

The Yenta’s got a sick kid and mother-in-law duties this week, so in the meantime, please enjoy Leonard Nimoy’s charming and informative talk on the Jewish origins of his Star Trek character.

I’ve always had a thing for Leonard since I saw that weird movie Baffled as a kid, and my crush continues to deepen as I follow his photographic work exploring the shekinah, the Judaism’s representation of the Divine Feminine. (Though I have to say, his nudie pictures of ladies wrapped in tefillin were a teensy bit shocking. But that’s what makes him an artist.)

T-Shirt of the Week: Taking A Cue From Kanye

300-1Yo, Challah Clothing, I’m real happy for you and your new Jewish t-shirt company, and I’ma let you finish, but my kid rocks the best Jewish bling of ALL TIME.

Heheheheh. I was inspired (and distracted by) Imaletyoufinish.com for HOURS last night.

But for reals, I love this shirt, tho’ – it totally matches the chest thump “Shalom OUT” move I taught the Sunday Schoolers.

What Could Be More Meshuggah Than Anne Frank’s YouTube Channel?

1389.4 Holocaust BAn Auschwitz Facebook page.

From the Huffington Post:

WARSAW, Poland — The memorial museum at Auschwitz has launched a Facebook page, hoping that the popular social networking site will help it reach young people around the globe and engage them in discussions about the former Nazi death camp and the Holocaust. The site, which opened earlier this week, already has more than 1,800 “fans” who have subscribed, with the number growing by the hour – some 500 signed up Thursday morning alone. Many have left messages in English, Hebrew and Polish, the majority expressing the sentiment: “Never again.”

Maybe it looks weird to have a concentration camp listed right next to a photo of your old college roommate licking salt of some guys’s bare chest in Mazatlan on your Friends list, but we need to accept the awesomeness that the Auschwitz museums directors (as well as the administrators of the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation and other Holocaust memorials) realize the power and potential of social networking as a means to meme.

Defined as “a postulated unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena,” I first heard the term “meme” waaaay back in the mid-90s when I interviewed genius/writer Douglas Rushkoff. This was when the Internet was basically email and crappy three link Web sites, and this guy was talking about how information was quickly going to become analogous to genetic material, replicating and spreading throughout culture and responding to selective forces. I didn’t really get it until the phrase “viral” started applying to videos of crazy breakdancing moves and lonely girls.

It took a few more years, but now units of information — whether those units contain hate propaganda or a video of a giggling baby — have found the perfect “imitable phenomenon” in the instantaneous sharing of social networking (Facebook and Twitter and YouTube whatever other new platforms the amazogeeks have in store for us.) As absurd as the Facebooking of the Holocaust seems, it is necessary — the very survival of the information depends on it. So go ahead, “friend” Auschwitz, subscribe to Anne’s YouTube Channel, follow the Simon Wiesethal Center’s tweets.

We live in a collective brain where only the strongest memes survive, and if future generations are to know the truth about the past, history had best stay two or three toes ahead of the present.

And it should probably consider getting an iPhone.

From the Attic, So to Speak

imagesYou know we’re living in wackadoodle times when Anne Frank has her own YouTube Channel.

Last week the Anne Frank Museum released the only known film footage of the 13 year-old scribe whose diary has been read throughout the world. Her newfound Internet celebrity is certainly incongruous and disturbing, even as it educates the Twitter generation that yes, the Holocaust really, really happened. Anne has become sign and symbol of all that the Nazis stole from Eastern Europe and the rest of the world, but as Sisterhood blogger Sarah Seitzer points out, that’s an awfully big burden for a young girl.

The video — just a glimpse of Anne as she admires her newlywed neighbors — gives me chills every time. I’ve always felt close to her; I already kept my own journal when I read hers as a kid, and with her sweet overbite and pointy chin, she could be a not-so-distant cousin. That there could be something new to be discovered about her is amazing, and the resurgence of interest in her ensures that her story — the one she wrote herself with a pen and paper cramped in an attic, the story that a permanent part of our collective Jewish story — will endure.

And somehow, I think, her eager spirit would enjoy this new way of connecting to to the world. After all, isn’t Anne’s love of life, her curiosity, her steadfast belief that “despite everything, people are really good at heart” that touches us all?