Hallow, Are You There?

Every year the Jewish blogosphere buzzes about how Jews really aren’t supposed to celebrate Halloween because it’s Christian Pagan bad for the digestion not Jewish.

Some rabbis say it’s OK to give out candy but not to dress up; others nix the whole deal and say ignore the meshuggeneh goyim and save your costumes for Purim.

I say, FEH. While it may have had ritualistic origins long ago, Halloween can hardly be called someone else’s religious holiday anymore. Unless you count zombies.

You have to be really reaching to see Halloween as anything other than a secular, American holiday that exists only so children can OD on high fructose corn syrup and women with very little imagination have an excuse to dress up like slutty nurses or slutty pirates. While I struggle plenty to reconcile with my version of Judaism with everyone else’s, Halloween is not one of my issues. (But why chicken parmesan is not kosher is.)

It’s a way to participate in community, not just your Jewish one, but the one you actually live in if your live somewhere besides within an eruv. If Halloween isn’t Jewish enough for you, then you make it Jewish, OK? Here are a few tips:

*Answer the door for trick-or-treaters in full tefillin and tell the kids that laser beams will come out and fry them if they take more than one piece of candy

*Hang a skeleton from the mezuzzah

*Give away chopped liver

*Dress up as a zombie Amy Winehouse, complete with extra eyeliner and empty bottle of Manischewitz

*Drink He’Brew beer while trailing behind your children as they schnorr for candy

And now, I have fake blood to administer to some little Jewish zombies. See you on the street.

Mountain Mama Musings

A few weeks back I was asked by the cool kids of Seersucker Live, Savannah’s no-pretension literary group, to write a little something based on the illustration at left. And read it. In front of people.

The event was “An Evening of Jazz to Benefit Adult Literacy sponsored by Royce Learning Center,” and the idea was that three literary people (me plus the very funny Joseph Schwartzburt and DEEP executive director Catherine Killingsworth) and our interpretations of this picture would be the warm-up act to Ricardo Ochoa and some seriously smokin’ gypsy jazz.

I had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately, Zach Powers provided whiskey backstage, so I didn’t care. Enjoy.

Elixir

Far up into the mountains, in a tiny hamlet we would never remember the name of, back when families were close-knit by necessity and personal problems were handled without the benefit of clinical analysis or prescription medication, there was once a recipe for an elixir that could heal a fractured heart, rocket-jump a lazy intellect and vivificate a marriage gone inert.

It likely originated with a woman, a mother probably—a grandmother, actually. Already schooled in the medicinal uses of the plants growing up off the forest floor and forever encroaching on the homestead, she would have had a highly developed intuition that comes only with years of spending time among the leaves and flowers growing outside her door.

This woman would have had a specific condition to address, as hard mountain living rarely leaves spare time for random experimentation, invention only arising out of need. Maybe she had a daughter rendered catatonic by the loss of a lover or a neighbor’s son who spent too much time dozing behind the barn; perhaps her aim was to spice up her own husband’s ardor after decades of waning. Whatever the case, a cure for any lassitude was probably motivated as much by compassion as the strong urge to get everybody back to work.

She must have foraged for the herbs known to energize, like ginseng, a five-leaved low-growing shrub known in those parts as “sang,” as well as the ones to have a swirling, enervating effect on the libido and the part of the mind that governs it, maybe damiana, with its pretty white flowers. To improve a mood and activate brain power, perhaps she plucked a few passionflowers off the vine strangling an abandoned outhouse.

Once she settled on a prescriptive combination, she would have had to cure them in some type of fermented grain. Magical tinctures always, inevitably, involve alcohol. It draws out the medicine and preserves it, allowing the messy lumps of foliage to be thrown away, the essence retained in a clear, smooth medium. Of course, alcohol unarguably contributes to the medicinal quality of the recipe itself.

Our mountain grandma would have stuffed the picked plants into earthenware jars, poured moonshine over them, sealed them up tight and left them in a dark corner for a few weeks to steep. (Where she obtained the moonshine is a whole other story, but surely we can all agree that its fabrication arose out of a need to soften the edges of survival in the mountains.)

To cut the bitterness of the herbs and the eye-searing fumes of the hooch, she would have added precious honey bravely collected from hives overseen by protective stinging minions, not to mention possessive bears. If she was the kind of woman who believed medicine should be sweet since life was so bitter already—and don’t we think she was?—she would have added even more honey, and depending on the season and the generosity of the harvest, added ripe blueberries or blackberries or cherries or pears and let the flavors mix and mellow. Every few days, in between the weeding and cooking and scrubbing and tending and mending, she would shake the jars to make sure the magic was still awake and working, just like everyone else needed to be if they didn’t want to starve to death.

She did believe in a certain kind of magic, after all. Her father had taught her how to fiddle and she could work her way up to a sizzle on nights when the neighbors gathered with someone’s new barrel of fermented juniper berries and everyone forgot their age and their troubles and everything seemed downright immortal. Some kind of benevolent truth in the first silent snow. The clear voice that spoke through the flowers.

Finally, the jars would be decanted and drained into smaller bottles, a clear, amber liquid not as thick as syrup but glowing warmly in a ray of sunlight coming through a small window of a cabin built with logs felled less than a hundred yards away. Grandmother—who was probably not much older than me but stooped and gnarled by the work, the work!—would deliver her medicinal elixir to those in need, hopefully reserving a bottle or two to invigorate herself on long afternoons or before a barn dance.

If its recipients sat up and returned to their chores with a renewed energy, she’d become known in her parts—even famous—as a medicine woman, someone on whom a community would depend to get them through the toughest times in a hard life. Sometimes she’d get a dozen eggs in return for her talents, or a scarf knitted from wool spun from raggedy sheep, but rarely money.

Perhaps word spread even beyond the mountain about this particular batch, that it had a spark that spread from the belly to warm the heart and flood a bad mood with cheer, to lubricate aching joints and some swore, thickened thinning hair. Our mountain grandma would work to reproduce the recipe as best she could to keep up with demand, but the efficacy of the blend would vary, depending on the strength of the liquor and the potency of the herbs, which both have minds of their own.

Eventually collecting the plants and procuring the moonshine got to be too much for her old bones, and finally, her life of work and giving and getting through the day was over. Let’s imagine that she finally sat down in her favorite chair after the supper dishes had been cleaned, took a great big swig of her own elixir from a bottle she had stashed in her sewing basket, let out a cozy belch and fell fast asleep forever.

Since she didn’t write it down—never did learn how—the recipe for her marvelous remedy disappeared. They say you can’t miss what you never knew, but I can’t help feeling called to recreate a similar panacea. In this age when work means not so much physical labor but hours upon hours logged in front of a small electrical box, our wrists and shoulders tight from typing and our backsides and legs soft from disuse, our medicants for the accompanying ennui and sense of disconnection from the natural world only furthering a sense of anxiety we just can’t shake, I have long been fascinated with this imaginary mountain grandma and her simple medicinal wisdom for making life tolerable.

However, having been raised in a giant suburb where the only accessible flora was the pesticide-soaked turf of the golf course adjacent to my house, it’s been a challenge. My own grandmothers were good for costume jewelry and bawdy jokes, but I have not even a recipe for rugelach from either. Encyclopedic descriptions of plants copied from the little electric box aren’t real knowledge, and I can never seem to recognize anything from the photos with the forest floor in front of me.
So I go out seeking in the woods, touching this plant and that, smelling, tasting, until I understand that being outside is half the cure for any negative condition of the soul, that lying on a bed of pine needles and listening to the birds washes away discontent to reveal an allowing of life’s unfolding, even if it’s hard.

Still, I experiment with the plants, soaking out their medicine, tracking down artisanal honey and fresh, sweet berries. Though I may never get it right, I sense the root of grandmother’s recipe is doing it all with joy. And that the true effect of her magical elixir is, that with a sweet spark, is to remind the psyche what joy is so that it can perhaps reestablish its capacity to generate it on its own.

A little moonshine never hurts, either.

Jewsy Food Goes Mainstream Media

I got to schtick in plenty of Yiddish in this week’s Connect, doing my best to educate Savannah on the ways of the tribe:

Here’s an excerpt from “What the @$#! is Rugelach?”, a little overview of this Sunday’s Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival:

First of all, you have to say it right. When it comes to Jewish food, “ch” doesn’t sound like the one in “cheese” or “patch.” It’s more of a growly “h” that comes from the back of the throat, reminiscent of a bear with a cold. Say it now: Rugelach. Did you get that “achhh” part? You can practice more later…

Read the rest here.

Huge props to Becky Smith of Photos by Becky who supplied the sumptuous photos for the story. Many apologies, Becky, that your credit did appear in print–I’m hoping the boss will print a correction next week.

On the next page is my account of eating with Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern in the kosher sukkah. Money quote: “I eat enough pig and shellfish to make my rabbi’s toes curl.” Check it out.

And while I’m shepping nachas for myself, here’s this week’s Civil Society Column regarding last week’s mayoral debate, “Women & Children First-or You Know, Whenever”.

Hope to nosh with y’all Sunday!

TransJmerica

It’s so heartening that transgender folk are finally finding their way into our collective souls.

Even as a relatively straight married lady, even when I was a little girl in combat boots, I have always understood that the duality of gender is just too simple for beings as amazing and creative as we are. I find the people who explore and claim their own genders in spite of what came with their birth bodies just incredibly brave and awesome. Especially the ones with a sense of humor.

You wouldn’t think the frum world would be so open to queer and gender-twisting tendencies, but the truly pious know God don’t make mistakes. If you didn’t catch the story in last week’s Forward, it’s a must read. I’ve been thinking about dear shtetl Beryl all weekend.

And then there’s Schemeckel, the wicked funny Jewish transgender punk polka band from Brooklyn, telling us all about the interesting dilemma of visiting the mohel once you’ve got a shlang to snip:

Awesome, nu?

While I’m on the subject, I may as well post my favorite song in the world from my favorite movie in the world, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig is East German and definitely not Jewish, and The Origin of Love has its roots in Greek mythology and not Torah. But somehow, these lyrics—written by James Cameron Mitchell who performs them himself as the blond goddess of hilarity—reach their arms around the whole, wide, weird world:

May you be feeling loved today, wherever you’re dancing on the gender spectrum.

A Few Noshes to Tide You Over

I don’t know how the observant balabustas do it. Several J-mamas posted this photo on Facebook, and even our heretic family can totally relate. Too many holidays, too little time…and so much going in the (and my) Jewish world.

I’m having hard enough time getting a full meal on the table, so you, like my family, are going to have to settle for a series of nourishing snacks:

*All of Israel and the diaspora is celebrating that Gilad Shalit is a free man! All I can think about is his mother and her tears of joy. I wonder if she thought the same thing I did when she saw him: “Oy, so thin! The terrorists couldn’t feed you a little schmaltz in five years?”

*This week the Forward published an extensive article about the “lost” letter from George Washington to Savannah’s Congregation Mickve Israel…oops, not sure anyone actually knew it was missing! This article is a must read for those interested in Southern Jewry and the history of America’s third oldest congregation. Have you visited the museum lately?

*Paul McCartney married nice Jewish girl Nancy Shevell and attended Yom Kippur services a couple weeks back. Mazel tov to the couple; all they need is love, since I’m pretty sure they’re both rich.

*I’ve been writing my tushy off at Connect Savannah, including the weekly The Civil Society Column. Last week’s “How to Raise a Subversive Rabblerouser” has gotten lots of “likes.” New stuff goes live today at noon. It might be a little racy.

*Hope y’all have had a fabulous Sukkot. A big thank you to my friend, Eeta Travis, for inviting me to lunch in her pretty sukkah decorated by her four daughters. I even got to participate in the mitzvah of shaking the lulav and etrog, adding my own hippie-Afro dance moves, ’cause I’m DIY like that. Then I spent the weekend camping under the stars, marveling at the maroons and yellows of the changing leaves at the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference near Black Mountain, NC, which in my personal tradition fulfills the rest of the Sukkot blessings. What better way to honor the harvest than learning about the practical and spiritual properties of medicinal plants?

*Tomorrow we conclude the outside festival with Simchat Torah, which includes a tradition of joyfully taking the congregations for a spin around the synagogue to show ‘em a good time. I have my dancing shoes all picked out–get ready for some hippie-hippy shake, peeps.

The Festival of Putz

Tonight begins the holiday of Sukkot, and once again, I am an epic fail.

Every fall, I really think, “THIS is the year we are going to build a sukkah!”

But then I remember how much bickering ensued when El Yenta Man and I were building the chicken coop and I think maybe hanging out at the communal synagogue sukkah together with a glass of wine is sooo much more pleasant.

Clearly, I have no more excuses since apparently it’s so easy, even a dog can do it:

Thankfully, it’s a mitzvah to invite others into their sukkahs, so we can leave the backyard to the chickens and come to your place.

T-Shirt of 5772: Make The Fast Go Faster

Tomorrow evening brings us to the culmination of the Days of Awe, a time when Jews eschew food, drink and, if they’re way hardcore, toothbrushing.

Fasting on Yom Kippur helps us focus on atonement and lets God knew we’re serious about teshuvah (repentance.)

Tomorrow is also my 40th birthday. El Yenta Man keeps lamenting how superlame it is that my milestone birthday should fall on Kol Nidre, but sheesh, I came out of the womb at the beginning of the month of October/Tishrei, whaddya gonna do?

Milestone birthdays, suffering, I’m all over it. My 21st birthday corresponded to the day of Yom Kippur 5753, and after breaking the fast with my family at a Meixcan restaurant, I marched right up to the bar and ordered my first legal shot of tequila. And promptly puked. Had to break the damn fast all over again, this time sin los chiles rellenos.

So a wild throwdown of fried chicken livers and martinis at Circa is out of the question tomorrow. As heretical and blasphemous as I portend to be, deep down I really am a nice Jewish girl who wants to be written into the Book of Life. I’m sincerely sorry for all the fun I’ve poked at my peeps this year and if I’ve offended anyone personally. I repent for all the times I’ve lost my temper and committed lashon hora with my nasty pottymouth. I’mma gonna go ahead and do this fast, big birthday or no, because I believe it’ll help me see where in my life I can be better and how I can make amends.

But I might be wearing this t-shirt with my vegan shoes.

It’s available at Cafepress.com, along with other Yom Kippur-themed swag such as Repentance Means Having to Say You’re Sorry and The Fast Way to Forgiveness.

An easy fast to all!

Penile Freedom of Choice Protected

The fanatical zealots of the anti-circumcision movement got a bitter taste of their own medicine when Governor Jerry Brown effectively banned circumcision bans in California over the weekend by signing AB768, a bill that precludes local and city governments from establishing legislation that would make it illegal to have a child circumcised.

As you may recall, “intactivists” in San Francisco and San Diego attempted to get measures on the ballot to ban circumcision in their cities last spring. Both were shot down when attorneys declared that city governments don’t have the authority to regulate to what’s considered a medical procedure. Of course to Jews and Muslims, it’s much more, and these asinine measures were correctly seen as an attempt to limit people’s religious freedoms.

Best background can be found on my original penis post, which caught some very interesting commentage, including a really long hilarious one from El Yenta Man.

Governor Brown’s signature shuts down any more possible impositions on what should be a private, personal decision. It’s a definitive “Fuck OFF already” to the fascist and undeniably anti-Semitic undertone of this movement. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it, some people don’t want to snip their boys. So don’t. No one’s making you. Mind your own penises, m’kay? Again, and always, it’s about choice. This country will improve tremendously when we stop trying to politicize the personal.

So that certainly means I don’t support the mandatory male circumcision movement, though I do love this photo that I nipped off their website. Hee hee.