Frusturated Howl of the Jewish Mother

So much rawr-ing in the last few weeks about Amy Chua’s shocking mothering memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother!

The explosion began with Chua’s piece in the Washington Post called “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” where she proudly announced her strict parenting regimen of three-hour violin and piano practice sessions, shame-inducing insults and a no-sleepovers-or-anything-fun-EVER policy for her two daughters. Chua insists that the kind of cruel discipline present in first and second generation Chinese (and other immigrant) families is necessary to produce skilled, responsible adults—or at least avoid raising the kind of bratty, entitled shmucks who seem to be overtaking our country.

Folks, especially Jewish mothers, are pissed. The New York Times reports Chua has been called a “monster” and received death threats for her provocative support of a parenting style that’s put many into therapy for life.

Personally, I’m impressed Chua has enough confidence in her parenting skills to share them as if they’re actually working. I mean, how do you know? When they get into a good college—but then binge drink and screw the debate team? When they score a fat job after graduation but develop a secret heroin problem? I want my kids to be happy, productive citizens, and all I know is that they absolutely cannot be trusted to figure how do this on their own.

While I worry terribly over their self-esteems, and El Yenta Man cannot seem to give up his penchant for getting a little too involved in science fair projects, I kind of believe in Chua’s philosophy of demanding they do their homework, respect their elders and work their little tushies off to excel:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.

Fundamental stuff, no? Not that anyone would ever accuse us of being Tiger parents: Last night at 10pm, one kid had literally have his iPod pried away from him because he said he wouldn’t go to sleep until he surpassed Level 16 on “Angry Birds” while the other one was riding a broom around the house in her underwear pretending to be Witchy Lady Gaga.

You’d think we could count ourselves as doing something right since Yenta Boy practices piano for hours a day without being asked. Yet this does this not puff my pride up like a mother peacock whose progeny has scored with every hen in the yard. Why? Because instead of tackling the simple arrangement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” that his teacher assigned him months ago, he gleefully bangs out the same damn jaunty three chords of Cee Lo Green’s “F*ck You.”

At least he sings the clean lyrics?

Mensch-Of-The-Month Club

Generally, I don’t do wall calendars. Most of them seem to feature kittens or half-naked photos of neighborhood firemen and such images do not help me reflect positively on the sucking passage of time that leads me closer and closer to my own mortality. Besides, I use my iPhone.

But, this, THIS is worthy of wallspace and any kvetching from El Yenta Man about how even little tiny nails make holes in the plaster. The Nice Jewish Guys Calendar is the brainchild of NJG Adam Cohen and features fully-clothed eligible bachelors who like Weird Al Yankovic and hipster dive bars and possess just the right amount of self-deprecation and of course, the absolutely fundamental quality in a sexy man: A sense of humor.

All the singles ladies should be swooning, I’mma tellin’ ya.

But “nice” doesn’t just mean they’ll pretend to like your new chop haircut: The NJG calendar donates its proceeds to charity and recently wrote a big fat check to Mazon.org, a Jewish hunger relief agency “that allocates donations from the Jewish community to prevent and alleviate hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds.” Tzedakeh is HOT, people.

It’s been selling like hot latkes after a BBYO dance (rumor has it that it’s HUGE in assisted living common rooms) but there are still a few 12″x12″ units to be had. January’s not even over yet, so take down that hideous Garfield calendar and pass 2011 with some guys who think nerd glasses are sexy and would never, ever leave the seat up.

“Like” Nice Jewish Guys on Facebook; they’re hilarious (of course they are!) The calendar’s available at ModernTribe.com.

You Own Personal Lorax

One of the many things I appreciate about Judaism (which is longer than the list of the things I don’t appreciate, promise) is that we have a whole holiday dedicated just to trees.

Tu B’Shvat celebrates the “New Year” for our leafy friends and the emergence of the first blooms of the new cycle. Some of you are looking out the window at your spouse dressed up as the Michelin Man shoveling snow out of your driveway under spindly, very bare branches and thinking “Man, Jews are whack. Clearly it is WINTER and nothing is going to bloom for MONTHS so stop teasing me, you crazy woman.”

Sorry for tormenting the snowbound among you, but this holiday commemorates the new foliage in the Land of Israel, a place that may know much strife but is mostly spared the hell of freezing over. It began as a way to mark certain tithes in ancient times, but has evolved into a call to stand up for environmental causes and take the time to appreciate nature.

You people in the snow, you can appreciate nature from the window and by joining us in some indoor fun:

Snacking on pomegranates, figs, olives, almonds and other exotic fruits is a traditional way to celebrate Tu B’Shvat. Some folks bring more meaning to the noshing with a Kabbalistic seder and wax spiritual over the gifts from the trees (just make sure the fruit isn’t wax, blaach.) The Jewish Hostess has some gorgeous centerpiece ideas to add color to the table.

While enjoying the earth’s bounty, don’t forget to send some cash to the Jewish National Fund to help reforest the lands scorched in the Carmel fires last month.

My favorite way to ring in this green new year with the kids is with an enthusiastic reading of The Lorax by Dr. Suess and The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Both these books drive home the message that the great green things outside are more than just scenery—that not only do we need to appreciate the food and oxygen they provide, but that we have a responsibility to protect them. May we all raise children who “speak for the trees.”

Though important and hopeful, those classics are a teeny bit sad, so I recommend singing “Tu-Tu-Tu Tu B’Shvat Tu-Tu” to the tune of “Duke of Earl” to lighten the mood if the little ones get teary when the Lorax floats away—it always helps me. Which reminds me, the title of the post sounds fabulous when sung over Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.”

To add a little glam to your Jewish Arbor Day, rock Yontifications’ stupendous holiday earrings—little leaves and pomegranates, so precious!

Since I’m an obsessive treehugger anyway, I’ll probably be giving a few inappropriate squeezes to my favorite live oaks in the neighborhood. I was planning on doing a fancy full moon dance around our broccoli plants, because no matter how old I get, I cannot get over how the crowns look exactly like little trees.

But guess who left the chicken coop open a few weeks back, leaving those tender greens at the mercy of the violent pecking of five hungry hens? Let’s just say El Yenta Man may be appreciating Tu B’Shvat under a bush in the front yard.

Chag Sameach, y’all!

That’s Weird, I Thought We Were Supposed to Be Neurotic

According to a recent Gallup poll, American Jews are the happiest people out of any religious group:

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index is based on a survey of more than 550,000 people who were scored on a number of categories, including emotional and physical health, work environment and healthy behaviors. Jews were placed in the No. 1 spot, with an overall “well-being” score of 69.8, followed by nonreligious or atheists/agnostics, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims and other religions. Protestants scored the lowest, at 64.8.

I guess this means all the therapy is finally paying off.

(Thanks to Amanda ZR for reminding me of this post!)

A Jewish Miss America—What Are the Chances?

Growing up with a feminist mother who also happened to own a modeling agency, I am no stranger to the paradox of the Miss America pageant. Yes, for 90 years it’s been about pretty girls with stupendous orthodontia parading around in nude pantyhose and bathing suits and high heels. But it’s also about talent, presence and community service and scholarship—the winner gets her post-graduate college education fully funded. Yeah, I know—you’re rolling your eyes. No one watches it ’cause these girls are smart, right?

In the early 80s, with a mouthful of dental hardware and the slumped shoulders of one whose chest entered puberty before the rest of her, I was in no danger of being swept up into the sparkly sequined world of teenage pageantry. Though my mother’s agency occasionally brushed into this realm when a stage mother pushed headshots of her pancake-make-up’ed little princess into Scottsdale’s small fashion industry, I remained far on the fringe of rhinestone tiaras and Vaseline smiles. I thought it was all so weird and false, especially at the local levels it seemed like only the snottiest, super holier-than-thou girls entered beauty contests. No one had to tell me that that pageants were not a place for nearsighted Jewish girls with big boobs.

But when the BIG show from Atlantic City aired, I was always in front of the TV, making fun of the opera singers and ballet dancers (unoriginal, IHMO) and being awed by the pianists and harpists (is there anything more captivating than a gorgeous woman playing a giant wall of strings?) I never felt much of a kinship with the inevitably vanilla contestant from my home state of Arizona and I definitely had an unreasonable prejudice against the Texans (something about combo of the drawl, the big hair and obviously false dental veneers offended me.) I usually rooted for the African-American women and practically choked on my retainer when Vanessa Williams won in 1984.

Come to think of it, that may have been the last time I watched the Miss American pageant. After they dethroned VWill when her (admittedly racy) nudey pictures surfaced in Penthouse, the whole phony-innocence ideal of the “perfect American woman” seemed ridiculous. I decided whomever it is wearing the sparkly crown and waving her hand like she’s got the palsy, she probably ain’t representin’ me or mine.

But it’s 2011, and whaddya know—we got ourselves a nice Jewish girl to cheer on come Saturday night. I can’t claim to have a whole lot in common with Lauren Galler Rabinowitz, the current Miss Massachusetts: She’s a former champion ice dancer, a Harvard graduate whose been recognized for her poetry and will attend any medical school she likes in pediatrics. She’s a world-class pianist related to Leonard Bernstein, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and has already raised tens of thousands of dollars for charities that benefit sick and hungry children.

She’s adorable, her teeth are fabulous, and she’s a genuine mensch (too bad Yiddish doesn’t have a feminist version of that word, but let’s say in this era is just means “good human being.) And a fine reason to break my pageant boycott. Listen to some of Lauren’s cute Dr. Suess-y poetry here (I’m positive her Harvard poetry thesis was much more complex) as well as vote for her as your favorite.

You may already know that if Lauren wins, she wouldn’t be the first Jewish Miss America: Bess Myerson shocked the world when she won the crown in 1945, becoming a “modern day Queen Esther” as she stood up to anti-Semitism and bigotry throughout her reign and after. She went on to work for the Anti-Defamation League, served as Ed Koch’s mayorial campaign chair, ran for Senate in 1977, raised over a million dollars for Israel and worked for the state of New York. She survived ovarian cancer and scandal in the 80′s, and by all accounts, is living out her golden years in Florida. I’ve give anything to be able to watch Saturday’s pageant with her.

So the chances of another Jewish Miss American are obviously one out of fifty, which isn’t too bad, and they’re even higher if the judges are as sick of Celine Dion covers as I am. You know El Yenta Man will have no patience for this and my kids will be out of town with their grandpa, so it’ll just be me and my adolescent judgements on the couch. Let me know if you want to come over; I’ll make Jiffypop and we can try on each other’s headgears and braid each other’s hair.

Guns Are For People Who Underestimate the Power of Words

Since she was gunned down at a Safeway in Tucson on Saturday, there’s been a lot to say about Representative Gabrielle Giffords:

She’s the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona State Senate, Arizona’s only female congressional delegate and the first Jewish person ever elected in the state.
She’s fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
She supports immigration reform but wants to protects the human rights protected.
She supports the military but opposes the war in Iraq.
She’s one of the only moderate, reasonable people left in Congress.
She’s a nice Jewish lady who is proud of her heritage. (“Jewish women, by and large, know how to get things done,” she told JTA in 2006.

What can I say about the Gabby Giffords and Saturday’s horrific event?

That I pray for her speedy and full recovery. Shouting out a Debbie Friedman “Misheberach,” to Ms. G. and the others who were wounded.)

That my heart and prayers are with the parents of Christina-Taylor Green, the gifted nine year-old with a provocative birthday and a passion for politics, who lost their beautiful daughter to senseless violence.

And with the parents and fiancée of Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’ beloved aide.

And with the family of Judge John Roll. And the loved ones of the victims of those whose names have not been released.

I can also say that while Jared Lee Loughner is a likely an untreated schizophrenic cookoopie whose psychotic violence may or may not have been influenced by vitriolic propaganda of right wing media windbags or motivated by anti-Semitism, his frightening actions are an indicator that something is very, very wrong with our gun laws.

As my friend Dr. Cathy Skidmore-Hess asked, “How does a young man who is too mentally ill to attend college get a semiautomatic?” Why else does a person buy a machine gun OTHER than to have the capability to kill many people at once?

Josh Horwitz, the Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, points out the sick logic of the NRA’s Second Amendment “remedies” in his column today:

If our leaders—of all political persuasions—once again fail to find their voices and speak out in no uncertain terms against insurrectionist ideology and the weak gun laws that routinely arm America’s deranged and disgruntled, then Tucson will mark the beginning, and not the end, of America’s flirtation with anarchy.

Read the rest here.

Surely, there are reasonable people on both sides of the gun control issue who are willing to make it harder for would-be murderers to walk into a sporting goods store and buy a weapon. Otherwise, we can all look forward to wearing Teflon vests to the grocery store.

She Sings with the Angels Now…

Jewish muse Debbie Friedman has left the planet.

Armed with a guitar, a cheerful love of God and a deep belief in the power of the people, she changed what it means to worship Jewishly. She offered a genuine interpretation of traditional prayer that inspired joy, community and a sense of the sacred. She brought the women of the Torah to our consciousness and brought the voice of everyday women to the bima.

When so many facets of modern Jewish life are rife with contention, she gently admonished us that not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.

Her music had a much more profound impact on many of us than any rabbi. It’s a happy irony that this “rebel” ended up becoming an “official” cantorial teacher for the Reform synagogue movement in 2007. She leaves behind a body of work that will continue to enrich the spirit of people around the world, and us Jews who want ruach in our prayers will continue to sing her songs in shul, at camp, at religious school and at home for many generations to come.

I had the honor to share a stage with Ms. Friedman in 2007 at Craig Taubman’s awesome event Hallelu Atlanta—she was fierce, a diminutive but dynamic force (read here for the play-by-play.) Backstage after the show, she was warm and humble. She looked exhausted, but hugged my children and patiently listened to my sycophantic blathering. She bowed out of the afterparty, and there were whispers that she had not been well for some time. It was reported that she was hospitalized last Friday for pneumonia after years of struggling with a dehabilitating neurological illness that kept in bed for weeks at a time and in pain constantly.

Somehow, she used her illness as a blessing without us knowing. She could have retired, stopped touring, given in to the pain, but instead she used it. Listen to her “Lechi Lach” while you read her thoughts on healing from from her website:

We are powerful. It is hard to remember that. Sometimes life takes its turns into the unknown and presents us with challenges we would have preferred not to encounter under any circumstances. Suddenly we are confronted with our pain…The willingness to both offer and receive blessings of healing and well-being allows one who is wounded to transform and unravel their pain. Our pain need not bury us, instead it may elevate us to the point of healing – if we choose to allow it.

With this, you become the messenger. We are not just the recipients of blessings, but the messengers of blessings as well. Remember, out of what emerges from life’s painful challenges will come our healing. And ultimately, our greatest healing will come when we use our suffering to heal another’s pain – ‘to release another from their confinement.’

I am grateful this true spiritual leader has finally been released from her pain. May we all be the blessings she knew we are capable of bringing to the world…go forth.

Debbie Friedman Needs Our Prayers

The Jewish Journal reports that beloved songwriter and composer Debbie Friedman has been hospitalized in Orange County, CA.

She is reportedly sedated and on a respirator, according to an email sent Wednesday from the West Coast office of the Union for Reform Judaism. The email asked that prayers be said on Friedman’s behalf, as well as for her mother, sister and aunt. An immensely popular singer and songwriter, Friedman, who is in her late fifties, is widely credited with reinvigorating synagogue music by introducing a more folksy, sing-along style to American congregations. In 2007, she was appointed to the faculty of the Reform movement’s cantorial school in a sign that her style had gained mainstream acceptance.

As we power down for Shabbos, I know many will be thinking of this great woman during the singing of “Mi Sheiberach” during services—it’s the lovely prayer for healing that she herself composed. It has brought solace to so many, and I hope it will bring the same to her to and family during this time.

Grateful for my health, the health of my loved ones—heartfelt prayers to all those struggling with theirs. A peaceful Shabbat to all.

What Savannah Needs Is A Black Lady Rabbi, IMHO

And it just so happens that the Sisterhood blog reported this morning that there’s one looking for a job.

Alysa Stanton, who became ordained as the first African-American female rabbi in 2009 and has served at Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C. since, will not be renewing her contract after it expires at the end of July.

Rabbi Stanton said the challenges that she faced at the Bayt Shalom weren’t all that different from those of any other first-year rabbi, but hers ‘were more visible because the world was watching.’

As far as I know, there’s a certain congregation in Savannah, GA that will have an opening for a new rabbi come this summer. I’ve lived here long enough to not get any hopes up for big changes that would upset the delicate constitution of aw-wah Suh-thern Classic Re-fohm trah-ditions, but I’d sure love to see her throw her yarmulke in the ring.

Read more here.