Afro-Hebrew Dance Music? YES.

“Todah raba” to my homie Dan Skidmore-Hess for turning me on to Fool’s Gold, a band out of L.A. whose sound sensation combines African beats with Hebrew lyrics.

NPR describes their perky guitar style and tight syncopation as a mash-up of Congolese rhumba, Malian desert blues and 70s Ethiopian soul — which is quite a feat, considering those are three very disparate regions on a rather enormous continent.

I’m thinking I hear what might have transpired if African master Ali Fakar Touré and Talking Heads’ vocalist David Byrne and Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen smoked a bunch of weed together and jammed to an epic California sunset. As it is, the video for “Surprise Hotel” by Fool’s Gold is definitely channeling some kind of wackiness. Not sure how girls in bikinis, old men with snorkels and an iguana fit in, but love it:

What a gift to enter 2010 not feeling like freak for being a Jewish girl who gets hyper at the sound of a djembe! (DS-K, remember when you thanked me for introducing you to the kosher soul of Blue Fringe? We are good now, dude.)

Want to read about the origins of the Jewish African Cowgirl? Read my essay “Tribal Confusion,” originally published in 2007.

Musing on the Myth

Driver's side of the Yenta's AbsurdivanThis time of year always exacerbates the sense of “otherness” that plagued me through childhood, then later fueled my adult sense of individuality. Nothing like being the one to start a rockin’ game of drunk dreidel at the office Christmas party to make a Jewish African Cowgirl feel like a STAR, right?

Though I spent plenty of high school Christmases feeling sorry for myself while sipping cocoa out of the Maltby’s vaunted Santa mugs, sometime around my early 20s I realized being a Jew at Christmastime was kind of fabulous — you can basically do whatever you want and there’s no expectations. These days, while I deeply respect my Christian friends’ traditions and beliefs, I definitely revel in feeling like an outlaw during holiday season with our five burning menorahs in the window and twinkly blue palm tree in the front yard (ironically, the only colored light display on the block. Go figure.)

My parents think the lights are a shanda, and frown on us when El Yenta Man and I drive the kids around to see the Christmas yard displays (we were VERY upset this week to see that the house that always exhibited a life-size nativity scene — including goats — had an empty yard and a For Sale sign. I never even got the chance to live out my Baby Jesusnapping fantasy.) Whatevs; I have a mezuzzah posted to the door of my minivan, y’all — clearly there are no sacred cows around here.

But suprisey suprise, we light candles far more Fridays than my folks did during my childhood, and I read and think and talk and write about Jewish things all day long. I like to characterize myself as a do-it-yourself Jew — I keep certain traditions but flaunt others, I teach Shalom School but my fourth grade son already reads Hebrew better than I do, I believe interfaith families can thrive just fine but think Chrismukkah is bullsh*t. Thankfully, I’m married to someone who lets me lead the way when it comes to how we practice Judaism at home. And make no mistake, this IS a Jewish home — even when we’re eating oysters.

Paradoxical and pariah-worthy? Definitely. A nightmare for the purists who think “picking piecemeal” is worse than no religion at all? Hells yeah. Yet in a world where assimilation and homogeneity are the biggest fears for the Jewish future, I’m quite proud of and secure in my Jewishness. So are my kids, in spite of the strange matter of Santa worming his chubby self into their imaginations (which I admit is totally my fault.)

In fact, the only times I don’t feel Jewish “enough” is around other Jews, particularly ones who are observant. This is rarely because these folks are judging me or arching eyebrows when I roll up on my bike to Shabbos lunch. In fact, some of the kindest and most generous folks I know in Savannah call themselves “frummies” and don’t leave the eruv on Saturdays.

It’s just that I’ve always held a belief that “more observant” means “more authentic,” and as someone who is more likely to paint the walls orange than kasher my kitchen, I’ve harbored something of an inferiority complex about it until recently.

When I first began writing this blog in 2004 (!) and began to find more on the Internet about Judaism than I ever learned at camp or synagogue from sites like MyJewishLearning.com and big kids on the Jewish bloggy block like Jewschool and My Urban Kvetch, I came to understand the embarrassing depth of my ignorance not just around Torah and halacha, but also about the Diaspora (Jews in Uganda what?), Israeli politics (HOW many parties at the Knesset?) and Old Country customs (Kapores. WTF?)

I’ve also come across weird Jews, kinky Jews and Jews who hate Israel. The more I seek, the more contradictions I find: Just this year, a Mormon Senator wrote a Chanukah song and a female African-American rabbi became the spiritual leader of the Reform temple in Greenville, North Carolina.

It seems that being a “real” Jew isn’t as simple as following 613 directions to the ‘t’ and circumcising one’s sons. So even though I mostly still feel like the fourth son in the Haggadah who’s too dull to know what question to ask, I’ve figured out than no one has any definitive answer to it anyway. Or rather, each of us do, and it’s up to any individual to discover what is true, what echoes off the walls of our own soul and connects us to the Most High.

Jay Michaelson, a Jewish writer and deep spiritual thinker who has no problem with paradoxes, wrote an interesting article on “The Myth of Authenticity” in yesterday’s Forward, elucidating far better than I ever could the inventions that cause us to feel “other” among one’s own people. If living according to God’s will is the goal, he writes, then “authenticity isn’t about form, it’s about getting to what matters.”

And the thing is, as Jews, what “matters” is different things to different people, whether it’s hitting the mikveh every week or saying b’racha before noshing on shrimp. Michaelson, who has likely struggled with outsider status himself as a gay man who has worked in religious environments over the years, presents a proverb for those not yet at peace with the ambiguity of Jewish identity: “Real Jews are the ones who make Judaism real for themselves.”

Read the whole piece here
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In the meantime, I feel as true a Jew as ever on this Christmas Eve. And I’m okay with that.

Stolen Auschwitz Sign Found

The-sign-at-the-Auschwitz-001Poland declared a state of emergency on Friday after the bronze “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign arcing above the site of the former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was wrenched from its hinges and stolen. Today, the BBC reports that the sign has been recovered and that five men are being questioned for the crime.

The sign, meaning “Work Sets You Free,” was cast by camp prisoners, offered a cruel, ironic welcome to new inmates during Hitler’s grip on Eastern Europe, and has stood ever since as a testament to the hideous acts committed beyond the gates. The theft caused international outrage, and a collective global sigh could be heard when the announcement that the sign had been recovered, albeit it three separate pieces.

Polish police say the perps they arrested aren’t members of some neo-Nazi group or political idealists looking for cheap decor to match their Stalin posters in their post-Socialist lair. Nope, the authorities now think the theft was financially motivated. Um, really? There’s nothing better to steal in Poland than an unwieldly wrought iron sign that’s going to spark the ire of the Mossad? Dumbkopfs.

Fanning the Flames

Happiest final night of Chanukah to all! It’ll be a full-throttle fire hazard at Chez Yenta with all five chanukiahs burning at maximum capacity, and I’m admonishing all to know the location of the closest extinguisher. And as every year, I offer my special menorah cleaning tip as my gift to you: Stick ‘em in the freezer overnight and the wax will chip right off.

Speaking of gifts, Jewish Suburban Homeboy Supreme Eric Schwartz, aka Smooth-E, has a last night prezzie for all of us. You may remember Smooth-E’s kicky holiday anthem “Hanukkah Hey-Ya” from 2003, which had bubbies everywhere shaking their tushies like Polaroid pictures, or perhaps his Passover hip-hop ode to the giant cracker, “Matzah.”

He bills his raps as parody, but damn, Smooth-E knows his way around the rhyme, y’all. Now the man who I thank everyday for showing me that “‘Oy’ is just ‘yo’ backwards” is bringin’ the beats into 2010 with his latest:

Brilliant as nine candles burning in the window, nu? Now you’ve got to check out the all-Jew flash mob vid Nefesh B’Nefesh produced to Smooth-E’s “Hanukkah Hey-Ya” on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem:

De-LIGHT-ful! Happy Chanukah, Hanukkah, Honika to ALL!

Fry ‘Im

So, no, even though I’ve ingested more fried foods so far this Chanukah than a carny on a lunch break, this post isn’t about more latkes or Krispy Kremes. It’s a doozy, I’m warning you.

My holiday spirit has dampened a bit this week since I found out that the Arizona Supreme Court has finally been asked to set an execution date for Donald Beaty.

Yes, I said “finally.”

Donald Beaty has been in prison since 1986 for raping and killing a 13 year-old girl named Christy Ann Fornoff. In the spring semester of 1984 at Connolly Junior High, Christy was the new girl. I remember walking into the band room with my awkwardly-sized French horn case and being overjoyed to see a smiling blond girl in tube socks sitting in my section. Not only was I not going to be the only nerd on the French horn anymore, I had a new friend who cracked jokes about the band teacher’s toupee and could tell the difference between “staccato” and “legato.” We sat next to each for a few months before I asked her if she wanted to sleep over at my house. She grinned her gap-tooted grin and said “Sure!” My mother called her mother and made the arrangements.

Before the weekend came, Christy disappeared. She and her mother were collecting money for her paper route in an apartment complex close to school, and suddenly, she was just gone. Donald Beaty, the complex janitor and a known sexual deviant, grabbed Christy in the few minutes she was out of her mother’s sight, raped her, suffocated her and stored her body in his apartment for two days. During that time he made a big show of “helping” the police search for Christy, going door-to-door with them and showing his concern that something so terrible would happen on his watch. He snuck her body behind a Dumpster to be discovered, feigning surprise. Before the police completed their investigation that led straight to Beaty, the sicko actually attended Christy’s funeral and shook her father’s hand.

It was my first funeral, and the first time I’d ever been in a Catholic church. I felt really awkward, not knowing if I should kneel like everyone else, wondering if my prayers would still reach Christy or if only the ones to Jesus counted. I sat with my classmates, our eyes red and reflecting a fear that hadn’t been there before. Back at school we made memorials to Christy and got excused from class to cry in the hall. When the police arrested Beaty, we cut out the newspaper articles to save. We followed the trial every night on the news, and when he was convicted and sentenced to death, we cheered.

In the years after that, I admit, I got caught up in adolescence and only thought about Christy when her closer friends reminded us of her birthday or the anniversary of her murder. I still played the French horn, but I got used to being alone behind the trumpet section again. Christy’s brother was a class below me in high school, and he looked so much like her it was like a quick punch in the gut when I passed him in the hall. I left the Phoenix area for college and bailed from Arizona in 1995, and it wasn’t until a Facebook friend posted a beautiful article about her a few months ago that I realized 25 years had gone by since my happy-French Horn-playing friend was murdered in the worst possible way.

Maybe those last paragraphs aren’t entirely true. I’ve never told anyone the following information, and my heart is beating hard just thinking about writing it down. I’ve kept it to myself all these years maybe because I thought no one would believe me, and maybe because it’s so strange and awful that sharing it would bring too much pain to those who loved Christy. I hope it doesn’t, and I don’t see how it helps to tell you, but something is compelling me to get it out. Those of you reading now who knew her, I apologize if this upsets you in any way.

I had a nightmare in the days Christy was missing, when we hoped she was still alive. In trying to describe it, I realize I don’t want to burden you with the images, but in the dream I watched in horrific detail how an unidentified man hurt and smothered Christy while she called for her mother. When I woke up screaming, I knew she was dead. And when the details of Don Beaty’s confession came out in the newspaper, including the use of a sheet as the murder weapon, I knew I had had some kind of hyper-natural experience that allowed me to see Christy’s murder as it had actually happened. I was 13 and it didn’t occur to me to tell anyone then; I was so hoping to be wrong. When her body was found, a kid’s dream wasn’t going to help the police anyway.

I haven’t brought the dream up for total recall in a very long time, and I’ve certainly pushed Donald Beaty’s disgusting mug out of my mind. I suppose I assumed that when the bailiffs led Donald Beaty away in 1986, they took him straight to the electric chair and meted out the court’s justice.

I have always been torn on the subject of capital punishment. As a loud, proud liberal, the thought of an innocent person being put to death by our justice system infuriates me. The Jewish view supports the death penalty in Talmudic theory, but Jews historically oppose it except for extreme circumstances like the execution of Nazi Adolf Eichmann – the only official execution in Israel’s history. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides said “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”

But I have not a single doubt that Donald Beaty is guilty of murder. And with the images burned in my consciousness of what I believe to be the actual circumstances under which he killed my friend, I feel no conflict at all in expressing my wish that the State of Arizona fry the cretin as soon as possible. In fact, I’m pissed off for the taxpayers who have been paying for his food and shelter for the last two and half decades.

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll feel differently. If Christy’s parents have found forgiveness and faith in their hearts, perhaps I can, too. They’ve turned their grief inside out to help others whose children have been murdered, creating sanctuaries for spiritual growth and offering respite. They are an inspiration.

To contact the Christy House in the Pines, please call (480) 540-4845 or e-mail caroforn@juno.com. To learn about the grief and bereavement support groups at the Christy Center for Loss and Renewal, contact Diane Smaw at (480) 775-5202.

May we all come to live in a world where children are safe. images-2

Some Sexy Chanukah Beats

Thanks, Jewlicious, for introducing us to Chevonne:

And just who is this tiny Gagaesque Semitic goddess with gelt in eyes? From her web site:

She’s a pocket-sized Betty Davis at maximum volume, a rainbow-brain naughty nerd, a one-girl girl group, a soul scream machine from straight up outer space…Join Chevonne as she speed-dials the forces of mascara and nylon, challenging the powers of boring stuff in a battle to keep our hearts on our sleeves and our dreams in our bras.

Now THIS is a freaky pop star our little Jewish girls can look up to.

Night By Night

7669~Hanukkah-Posters‘Aight, here we go – eight nights of candles, prezzies, songs and love!

Before I start nattering, I must tell you that Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch’s catchy tune is not the only new Chanukah song to sing this year:

Fabulous Jewish singer/songwriter Beth Schafer has a wonderful anthem called “Night By Night” on her latest album, Raise It Up Bring It Down, which can should be downloaded immediately to enjoy at your festivities this evening. It’s a clap-a-long feel-good tune that’ll have everyone dancing the hora around the livingroom….

As we gear up to celebrate the Great Miracle That Happened There, I wonder if back in 167 BCE Judah Macabee really thought it was a miracle when the oil lasted eight days at the Temple, or was he still pissed at having to clean up the stinkin’ mess the Greeks left behind? Sure, most religions have a celebration around the Winter Solstice centered around bringing back the light, but why does Judaism make a whole shtuss about a thimbleful of oil and call it a miracle?

Thankfully, my favorite Savannah rabbi, Adam Singer, clarified these questions in his e-mail parsha this week:

How insane it should seem to dedicate eight days in the Jewish year to a bit of oil that burned an extra long time. You call that a miracle?! Splitting the Red Sea, now that was a something! Turning water into blood, that’s impressive! Long burning olive oil? What’s the big deal about that? It’s a huge deal, but it requires some investigation and contemplation to really understand. That miraculous carafe of oil was the proof that even in times when G-d seems understated and it is hard to find the Divine Hand in our lives, G-d is there. In all of our victories, in all of our efforts to do what is right, G-d is with us and fighting for us, even when it feels like we’re alone. The Hanukkah story is a reminder of the Divine Hand which is always present, even when we don’t necessarily notice it.

So I think maybe I get it now, Reb Singer: It takes at least eight whole days to appreciate and give thanks for the kind of not-so-obvious blessings that don’t really seem like miracles until you think about how unlikely it is that we’re even here. Sheesh, just being to able to light a menorah in the window without soldiers decimating the neighborhood would be considered a miracle not too many generations ago.

So many teensy miracles to consider: Like the fact that the CD burner in my Mac died on number six of the 12 CDs of Jewish music I’m giving as gifts to my Shalom Schoolers, but I was able to figure out how burn the rest on the other computer without crying. Or that my mother-in-law in her clouded demented state still seems to be able to read music and play piano. And how about being married to a fine Jewish man for 11 years who makes me laugh every day and our two truly menschy children? That my minivan still runs like a faithful old horse in spite of almost 150K on the odometer? I bet I could come up with thousands more, but I’ve got potatoes to grate.

Ok, that’s a total lie. I use Streit’s Latke mix because it tastes awesome and I don’t have to touch any gross wet potato strings. Yet another small miracle.

Chag Sameach Chanukah to all!

Senator Orrin Hatch’s Gift to the Jews

What do you get when a Mormon senator, an Arab-American chanteuse and a Jewish songwriter who pens Christian rock hits meet up to record a Chanukah song?

Believe it or not, you get a snappy little ditty that not only isn’t silly and sarcastic, but contains heartfelt, relevant lyrics we can be proud to teach generations of Jews.

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for Tablet Magazine, tells the story of how he came to elicit “Eight Days of Hanukkah” from the senior senator from Utah, which is kind of miraculous — as well as a relief to those of us for whom one more rendition of “I Have A Little Dreidel” induces the urge to stick one’s head in the oven or would like non-Jews to know a little more about Judaism than that Goldie Hawn is half Jewish:

It’s a delightful thing to have Orrin Hatch write a song for Hanukkah. Of course I appreciate the absurdist quality to this project, but I also deeply appreciate Hatch’s earnestness. His lyrics are not postmodern or cynical, which is a blessing, because I for one have tired of the Adam Sandlerization of Judaism in America.

Amen.

Eight Days of Hanukkah from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

Nice, nu? I’m thinking of making it my mission in life to send this to every public school music teacher in America so that no one will ever have to suffer through same two songs at every requisite holiday music recital.

But let it be known: Just because they’ve given us a song to sing, that doesn’t mean I’m suddenly down with the icky Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing Jewish souls.

The Rise of the “JILF”? No, Details, We’ve Been Here All Along

imagesA former intern of mine just sent me the link for an article with a note that said, “If anyone has anything to say about this, you do.”

The article is “The Rise of the Hot Jewish Girl” in Details Magazine, and yes, I have a bit to say:

This is a piece of sexist trash. Though I’m sure plenty of insecure Jewish girls now feel validated because being #2 to “freckles” as the top kink on Fleshbot, it is a mighty insult to all women. Its author, Christopher Noxon, is clearly not Jewish nor seems to be aware that hot women come in other flavors other than “porn star” and “avatar vampire slayer.” Calling Jewish women the “ethnic fetish du jour” is just wrong, ’cause see, Noxon, the Nazis already creepily objectified and sexualized Jewish women ages ago with their nasty “Joy Divisions,” so you’re just a little Aryan-come-lately with your obsession, m’kay?

The accompanying slideshow, “The Rise of the Hebrew Hottie Timeline” was kind of fun since it included Queen Esther and Betty Boop, but calling Princess Leia “the First JAP” is just retarded.

Kind of like calling Details a “men’s” magazine.