The Black Jewish Soul

When I think Black Sabbath, I get visions of Ozzy Osbourne in his bat-eating days. But this isn’t about riding the meshuggeneh train.

I was already sold on The Idelsohn Society’s Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations because I have a soft spot for anything involving Johnny Mathis (and Danny Kaye, for that matter.) In spite of its kitschy name, this collection of rare footage of African-American musicians singing Jewish music is clearly the endeavor of educated and passionate audiophiles. And finding this clip of Nina Simone singing a Hebrew song was the clincher:

Sez the site:

The High Priestess of Soul sang this 1950s Israeli folk-dance ode to “a land flowing with milk and honey” (written by Eliahu Gamliel) on the stage of Carnegie Hall in 1963 on the same day that Martin Luther King Jr was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama. Neither Simone nor her biographers talk much about her choice of “Eretz Zarat Chalav,” which she first added to her repertoire in 1962 when she performed on the CBS program Camera Three. A year later, she sang it again on the TV show Hootenany, in front of an all white audience at Salem College not long after the assassination of JFK.

I’m just kind of glad The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations doesn’t include Sammy Davis Jr. as its icon. Not that I don’t love him; he’s just so obvious.

Hey, you know what would really be awesome? Black Sabbath: The Cookbook. Black-eyed pea blintzes, collard kugel, ya feel me? But no bat casserole.

Many, many thanks to Supah Kewl Jewish Mama Mindy Winn for the tip!


Apparently I wasn’t the only one fed up after the High Holidays, because I received a nice “feelout” email a couple of weeks ago from Dan Chapman, who took it upon himself to invite anyone who wanted to come to a Shabbat gathering at his home to discuss the possible formation of a Savannah chavurah.

Helpfully, Dan also sent out the the Wikipedia entry for chavurah, defined as:

a small group of like-minded Jews who assemble for the purposes of facilitating Shabbat and holiday prayer services, sharing communal experiences such as lifecycle events, and Jewish learning. Chavurot usually provide autonomous alternatives to established Jewish institutions and Jewish denominations.

DIY Judaism, peeps. Dig it.

Friday evening marked the first meeting, and no one plotzed. The first we thing we did after Shabbat prayers and noshing is go around the room and talk a little about what we’re looking for in this “alternative Jewish experience”; some talked about social gatherings, some want activities for their kids, a few want Torah study and learning, me and Wendy Cohen want to rock some hippie Shekinah worship and at least one person wanted absolutely no religion at all.

It was quite excellent to establish right away that there really is no such thing as a group of like-minded Jews, so we all agreed to disagree about practically everything and go from there.

Here are a few photos I snapped on the iPhone; why the clever captions I wrote for them aren’t appearing is a question only the gnomes living inside this magic box can answer. As you can see, it was a happy, relaxed group of folks aged seven months to 70 and an AWESOME food spread, which is obviously a key piece to any successful Jewish gathering.

Aaron & Catherine

Robin and Sam with our host Dan Chapman reaching for some more brisket

The Big Bad Jake Hodesh, who isn't nearly as fuzzy in real life

Hot Jewish Mamas Michelle Solomon and Sari Gilbert

More gorgeousness: Wendy Cohen, Melissa Paul-Leto and Cathy Skidmore-Hess

Next up for the Savannah Tribe: A beachside Havdalah dance party in November hosted by the Yentas! Email for details.

Hut, 2,3,4

Look at the amazing sukkah El Yenta Man is going to build in our backyard this week!

Just kidding. This fancy shanty is one of the finalists of Sukkah City, an international sukkah design competition currently being held in NYC’s Union Square Park. Sounds a little like Chabad Meets Burning Man, nu? The winning hut gets to stand all the way through the week of Sukkot, which starts Thursday.

For the new people, a sukkah is a three-walled, open-ceilinged hut built right after the High High Holy Days to commemorate what our ancestors lived in after bailing from Egypt (no cardboard boxes or VW buses back then.) I dig the depth of the definition that Sukkah City gives:

Ostensibly the sukkah’s religious function is to commemorate the temporary structures that the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus from Egypt, but it is also about universal ideas of transience and permanence as expressed in architecture. The sukkah is a means of ceremonially practicing homelessness, while at the same time remaining deeply rooted. It calls on us to acknowledge the changing of the seasons, to reconnect with an agricultural past, and to take a moment to dwell on—and dwell in—impermanence.

*Sigh*. I’m not even going to pretend the Yentas are putting up our own this year, though El Yenta Man did lend hands to build one at the home synagogue yesterday (and apparently climbed a ladder, an act that shows his true dedication to Judaism as he his fear of heights is second only to his aversion to construction paper chains.)

As the trees begin to let go of their leaves and the air loses its hot summer grip, my children get taller and my hair gets grayer and my mother-in-law transitions further into the recesses of what’s left of her mind, the stress of wielding tools to honor the impermanence of life seems redundant and unnecessary.

As much as I would love to have a designer sukkah in my backyarden to give thanks for the bounty of okra, peppers and eggplants, we’ll have to make do with a communal rituals and our favorite striped blanket under the crape myrtle tree.

But next year, I’ma show up all these fancy shanties by making something craaaazy out of kudzo and chicken wire.


To soothe my New Year’s blues, I popped over to City Market on my lunch hour yesterday to visit my favorite accessories shop in the whole wide world Twinkle.

Proprietor Joa Kelly has always impressed me with his facile command of Yiddish words (second only to Brian Williams as my favorite shaygetz who can rock the mamaloshen.) Even so, it was an unexpected delight to see this fantastic hamsa ring on display, all shiny and sparkly in its Jewishy glory.

Of course, it looks even better on my hand:

A wonderful way to bling in the New Year, nu? Comes in black, too.

Be Twinkle’s Facebook friend for plenty of eye candy and arching wit.

The In-Between Time

There’s a pretty heavy religious poem that’s recited in synagogue during the High Holy Days called the Unetana Tokef that lets us know that this whole Being Judged Business is no joke. It says that our Creator is paying very close attention to all of us at the New Year, deciding who will live and who will die by excoriating circumstances, including but not limited to being burned by fire, eaten by wild beasts or crushed by an earthquake.

The takeaway line of the Unetanah Tokef is “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” which means we’ve got about ten days to get it together and up our stakes for a better year using the spiritual currency of tefillah (prayer), tzedakeh (charity) and teshuvah (repentance). Considering just how badly we humans can screw things up, I think giving us a week and a half to turn things around is pretty darn generous.

I take this in-between time kind of seriously for someone with such an elastic approach to religion. Maybe I’m superstitious, or maybe I don’t need last year’s monkeys following me into 5771. (Speaking of big monkeys left behind, this holiday season marks five years since I’ve had a cigarette.) I try to release old grudges, pay any unpaid debts and examine and apologize for my many, many flaws, including but not limited to hostile impatience, delusions of grandeur, inappropriate sarcasm and disrespecting authority.

I’m having a difficult time with that last one. There’s been some serious issues in my synagogue of late which I haven’t addressed on this blog because 1) I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings (thus adding to the list of things I need to atone for) or 2) add to an already shockingly ugly situation 3) more and more and more, synagogue is becoming the most irrelevant part of my Jewish life, since I can’t seem to find any inspiration nor an example of how to be a better person coming from the bima.

Ouch. That wasn’t very nice, was it? But here’s the deal: I chose to attend a different synagogue for Rosh Hashanah so as to avoid the political messiness and lack of spiritual connectivity happening at the home shul. When we arrived, I saw quite a few other home shul families who must’ve been thinking the same thing: We just want to have a quiet morning of learning how to repent, pray and ways to give without all the other crap.

Instead we were treated to an hour-long sermon about the rabbi’s personal fears about Islam, his perceived disingenuousness of moderate Muslim leaders and whole bunch of other negative stuff that seemed wholly inappropriate for the bima, let alone the one service of the year when everyone actually shows up. Those who didn’t leave after he announced “I am an Islamaphobe” the third time politely waited until he finished and then cleared the room immediately. I stayed with the 30 or so remaining folks all the way through the Musaf service, more to test my stamina than anything else, as it was awfully hard to regain any spiritual mojo after such a strange and uncomfortable tirade.

All I could think was “What is my religion’s freaking problem with simple faith? What does a Jew have to do to get a little ruach in this town?!” Friends at the home shul reported that the sermons I missed there were also offensive, though for different reasons, and we all agree that it’s been a disappointing way to herald in a new year.

Given the opportunity and the audience to do so much good, why would a rabbi choose to speak about fear over love on Rosh Hashnanah—or ever? My understanding is that a rabbi’s role—in the Conservative and Reform movements, anyway—is to interpret the Torah, lead the congregation in prayer and in song, to emulate sagacity in times of trouble and to provide words of hope and faith—especially during a time when we’re all trying to turn the Divine tides in our favor.

During this in-between time when what is written can be transmuted into something I want to be sealed, I apologize for questioning the rabbis of this community and ask for forgiveness for the anger and frustration. I also pray for solutions for this community, for connection, for peace and for prosperity.

I don’t know where I’ll be listening to those last shofar blasts at the end of Yom Kippur on Saturday, and I guess all this confirms is what I’ve suspected all along: It’s up to each of us to cultivate our own faith, and in lieu of examples, we must do our best to be our own with what we’ve got.

That said, I may bring in 5771 with a webcast from L.A and a kazoo.

A Loaf of Love

I do so love to bring in Rosh Hashanah right, considering it sets the tone for a whole year and I secretly believe I can bribe God into putting us into the Book of Life with baked treats. So this morning I got up extra early to wake the family with sweet, cinnamony smells before I left for work.

I mixed the honey and the flour with the spices and poured it into the pans. I gently placed them into the oven and went to take a shower. As I was putting on make-up and rousing the children from their slumbers, the perfume of golden cakeyness began to waft through the rooms. I hummed as I finished straightening my bangs (it is still soooo humid in Savannah) and presided over cereal preparation. Mediated bickering about who would feed the chickens and who would empty the compost. Reminded the boy to walk the dog. Wondered why brushing two sets of small teeth takes ten minutes. Did the breakfast dishes and consulted with El Yenta Man about the evening’s synagogue schedules as an aroma of Happy Yiddishe Mama enveloped our little home.

But somewhere between making lunches and discovering I was wearing two different shoes, the lovely smell took on an acrid edge. By the time I spazzed over to the oven after tripping over the dog, my loaves of love were no longer the golden-brown pounds of perfection I envisioned in the wee hours of the same morning: They looked like bricks from the belly of a coal mine, the slivered almonds little chips of charcoal.

“Nooooo!” I screamed. “This is no way to begin a New Year! We’re doomed!”

“Don’t worry, Mommy,” consoled my son. “It’s the thought that counts.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t matter,” chirped my little girl. A pause. “Can I eat it anyway? It still smells kind of good. Like steak.”

*sigh* I think the message here is that trying to do too much is just as bad as not doing enough–and I guess 5771 is about finding balance.

I would have posted a photo of my blackened honeycakes, but at this point I didn’t want the morning to deteriorate any further by making myself late for a staff meeting. I suppose I can try to salvage them by slicing off the really crusty parts or maybe I’ll leave them outside for the squirrels. Perhaps our Lord will consider and accept them as a baked sacrifice.

Here’s the recipe, from Savannah’s own, much-missed Gottlieb’s Bakery:

Sister Sadie’s Honeycake
(with a few Yenta additions)

1 cup sugar
2 cups honey
4 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cold strong stale coffee or flat Coca-Cola [I use a combo of both if I can. Why does it have to be stale or flat? I don’t know. Sister Sadie isn’t around to ask anymore.]
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 sliced almonds

Preheat the oven to 325*. Grease and line and line with wax paper two loaf pans. Cream the sugar and honey together til it’s drippy. Beat in eggs, oil and coffee and/or Coke. Sift the dry ingredients together and beat like a bad dog. Divide between pans, sprinkle almonds on top. Bake until top springs back, about 45 minutes. It might be 50 minutes depending on your oven. But an hour is too long, I promise.

L’Shana Tovah Umetukah, my dear friends!

Fun with Hate Mail

This may come as a shock, but I’ve gotten very few negative emails at this blog over the years, in spite of my spirited attempts to alienate everyone:

I love Jewish ritual, but I’m unwilling to pick a religious denomination because I feel unfilled at synagogue. I make a kick-ass parve chopped liver, but I don’t keep kosher. I love Israel and support the Jewish state, but I remain ambivalent about its government.

If you’re traditional Jew, you likely think I’m a heathen. If you’re a super-liberal Jew who needs to apologize for Israel, I’m not on your team either.

This blog is six years worth of documentation of a loud and proud and extremely lazy Jew. I don’t think we’ve got more or better answers about the Great Unknown than anybody else. Following the literal laws in the Torah doesn’t call to me. I don’t like rules or obligations. I shun serving on boards and committees that don’t involve food. I quit teaching Shalom School kindergarten, for cryin’ out loud. I’m not fundamentalist about too many things, other than my kids will be having b’nai mitzvot and there will never be a Chanukah bush in this house (but twinkly blue lights are OK.)

So this message from a person with the name “magnetic” is a bit mystifying. I left the punctuation and spelling as is, even though I really wanted to correct them as I’m much more fanatical about grammar than I am about religion. I’ve broken it up with my comments :

You are not going to enjoy this email, so if you are not open minded
enough to actually think then delete it NOW.. ok you are still here?
I’ll make it brief

1. I’m not in a militia
2. Im not southern
3. I’m not brainwashed jesus freak

Huh. OK, that still leaves “mental patient,” but go on.

i’m a very educated thinking person. I have copies of the Torah,
Qu’aran, Bhagavad Gita, Bible, Book of the Dead, etc etc etc and have
read them all. I had a minor in theology @ Umass.

Pretty sure your major wasn’t English.

You really should get a life and learn to be something other than a
“jew” and gear your entire life towards zionisitic extremist behaviour
and dipping yourself into jewish indoctrination any chance you get.

Whoa…First of all, this blog is all ABOUT a life geared towards a million things—my juicy, child-full, demented mother-in-law caring, spiritual niche-seeking, Southern by marriage, yoga-obsessed, kabbalah-curious, church-visiting, bike-riding, chicken-raising, idea-considering, awesome life—so clearly, I HAVE ONE ALREADY. I am many, many things “other than” a Jew. It’s an important part of me, but apparently, not nearly as important as it is to you.

I’m not sure what “zionistic extremist behavior” is but I can honestly say I barely have time to trim my toenails, let along engage in anything extremist. And if I’m doing any dipping, it will likely have more to do with intoxication than indoctrination, thank you.

As much as someone like you cries and complains and yellls out when
somebody makes anti jew remarks, you really should contain your veiled
contempt for all non jew. Especially Muslim and Christian belief
systems. People like you who indoctrinate young jewish children with
this crap are part of the reason why many so called “gentiles” do not
like Jews.

Yup, you’re damn f@*king straight I’m going to call out when someone says something anti-Semitic—or racist. Or sexist. Or insensitive. And if I have PMS, just plain stupid. I’m far too lazy to have hard feelings towards too many folks, and I tend to save my deepest contempt for the willfully and woefully ignorant. Believe me, if you think it’s too veiled, then I promise to be more unambiguous in the future.

I have no argument whatsoever for any belief system, only for people who distort holy words to justify violence against those who do not think like them. The only “indoctrination” my children receive is to interact with the world from a place of service, tolerance, understanding and kindness.

I’ve often wondered why the world has disliked Jews to the point of massacre so many times during human history, but I’m almost positive that I shouldn’t take it personally. Perhaps you should start writing letters to people who fill their children’s heads with hatred and their hands with guns?

Why dont you work on yourself more instead of just basing your entire
identiy, ego, and superego on being “jewish” which is in itself a
subjective term.

Well, we finally agree on something, Mr. or Ms. Magnetic! Being Jewish IS subjective—it’s truly a complicated term, one I’ve struggled with over several thousand navel-gazing posts on this blog, which I suppose could be considered “working on myself.” It’s sure as hell cheaper than therapy.

I don’t try to define Judaism so much—it makes my brain hurt. It’s more than a religion, since you don’t have to practice to be Jewish. In spite of shared DNA, it’s not a race, as so many vile hacks have tried to prove, since you can become a Jew by studying the Torah and adopting Jewish values. It surely is a heritage and a culture that I am proud to identify with and honored to pass to my children as their own.

Oh, and I don’t base my entire identity on anything—I’ve done far too many drugs to depend on just one of the many voices rattling around my psyche.

I mean really do you do ANYTHING other than expound
on being jewish and furhtering jewish political and religous rhetoric?

Yes, Magnetic, I do; see my answer to your first question. This blog, however, is ABOUT what being Jewish means to me, which I know a lot more about than say, golf. There are those people in the world who make a living at and have a passion for promoting Jewish and Israeli ideals (two very different things, actually); I will happily to concede to them while continuing on my own personal Jewish adventure.

If your whole identiy as a human is based on being a “jew” you have
A LOT to learn about the world and the universe WAKE UP

Magnetic, I am awake, eyes wide open, a soul in a body that’s given birth to two other amazing souls growing in bodies. I am in awe every day of the breadth of Creation, all the the colorful and ingenious and leafy green and adaptable and curious ways life manifests. I was born into a Jewish family that taught me about a history of a people that has remained steadfast in its faith and commitment to making the world a better place. I’m continually reminded that I have so much to learn about the world—and that each of us has the responsibility of reconciling our individual experiences and our judgments with what IS.

I’m not sure if this was a form letter you send to “Jewish bloggers” to try and disturb their equanimity or just a misspent, mispelled use of your time, but if your goal is to convince me to renounce Judaism for whatever you’re selling, I must tell you that you have a lot more work to do. Maybe get some more sleep?


Head Yenta