Little Women’s Jewish Roots, The Inquistor’s Wife and More

imagesCompletely obsessed with this week’ article in the Forward about Louisa May Alcott’s Portuguese Jewish history. (I read Little Women at least ten times as a child, and I always knew Jo and I had to be from the same DNA somehow!)

Eve LaPlante traveled to Portugal recently to research a biography about the Little Women author and her mother, Abigail, to whom she is distantly related.

Though “Alcott never wrote about her Jewish heritage, nor did she visit her ancestral homeland of Portugal,” LaPlante found the threads of their Jewish heritage amongst the bloody history of mass conversion in the 15th and16th century, when Jews were either forced to become Christians or be expelled.

Unbelievably, many Jewish features remain in Lisbon and beyond, even though the vibrant Jewish community that once lived here has been dispersed for centuries. Read more here.

There is good reason for my fascination with “Renaissance” Portugal’s and Spain’s expelled Jews: Many of them ended up in England, and a boatload of those refugees were sent over to America in 1733. Those 42 men and women docked in Savannah, GA just three months after General Oglethorpe had declared it a colony for England, and they founded Congregation Mickve Israel — the third oldest synagogue in the America and the one the Yenta family attends (not as often as we should. But that is a different blog post.)

The feeling of persecution is a familiar one for us who grew up with Polish and Austrian and German and Hungarian relatives who told us in their yiddishe accents about the heartbreaking and hair-curling anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. The stories of Spain and Portugal are further removed — I don’t think I was even aware that Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, a whole other Hebraic-derived dialect with songs and folktales, even existed until I found it on the interwebs.

While we are, well, not exactly comfortable but aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, the atrocities of the Inquisition are even creepier for their exotic evils. It’s amazing what the ancestors did to keep the traditions alive, practicing crypto-Judaism behind closed doors and pretending to eat pork to fool the neighbors. If someone suspected a converso as not being faithful enough to the church, all they had to do is sound the call and that person would be burned at the stake. In public. Like it was a party. Sick.

16044974I just finished reading The Inquisitor’s Wife by Jeanne Kalogrides, a novel set in 1481 Seville, Spain just as Queen Isobel has issued her doctrine of death to the Jews. Marisol Garcia, a young women from a wealthy family, is married off to a lawyer with connections to the Church — ostensibly to protect her, though escaping one’s roots is awfully tricky.

While the story itself is a little slow and chastely romantic for my tastes, I was interested enough to keep reading all the way through — the scene where Queen Isobel sheds her fake-pious mask to host a party full of nude boys was definitely a highlight. Based on the true events of Seville, the book contains fascinating details of life at this point in history — what a crappy time to be a woman AND a Jew.

2300903Of course, my FAVORITE book about the Sepharic conversos is The Blind Eye, written by my mother, Marcia Fine. Set in 15th century Portugal as well as modern times, it makes the connection all the way to Cuba and Miami — tracing the threads of this hidden history all the way home.

The Blind Eye was a finalist in the International Book Awards, and Mom travels to NYC this week to present it to the Jewish Book Council — it all goes well, she’ll be speaking at a JCC near you soon!

In the meantime, I think I’ll go brush up on my Spanish. Perhaps El Yenta Man and I might do some Sephardic sleuthing of our own while the kids are at camp…?

Ketchup Yenta

Heinz_Organic_KetchupOy, dahlinks, I am so farmisht.

I’ve  been so super busy over at the day job that it may seem like I’m neglecting my dear mishpoche over here. But I promise I’ve been fighting for the forces of good and tikkun olam  best I can, farblongent schmo that I am.

Let us “ketchup,” organically, of course: This week’s (Civil) Society Column encourages everyone to stand up for food by attending a March Against Monsanto tomorrow – there is one near you! Why should you go? Here are 5 Very Good Reasons.

Then, I’m gonna quote myself:

Monsanto, the creepiest and most insidious corporate Godzilla in the history of humankind, can package up its tumor-causing corn with some asbestos flakes, slap a cute cartoon character on it and call it cereal. And when the last of the underfunded independent research facilities finally proves it causes cancer, Monsanto’s CEOs will cackle maniacally as they enjoy cocktails and cigars in their hermetically-sealed underground biodome.

The injustice that this corporation commits every day towards our nation’s farmers, our health and our future. Our freedom depends on our food! Hope to see y’all out there, if only for the organic delicious popsicles at the Forsyth Farmers Market.

On the micro injustice level, I’ve also been busy pointing out the folly of the developers who built a monstrous rooming house in my historic neighborhood and how the city plans to do not a frickin’ thing about it. Every day I wake up to the Nightmare on 61st Street and feel so helpless, though I remind myself that a giant ugly building in front of my windows doesn’t come close to the horror experienced by those who lost their homes and lives to the Oklahoma tornado this week. Bless them with courage and those around them with kindness.

Also preoccupying my time: The dog has recently been diagnosed with diabetes. This means two shots a day of expensive pug insulin and expensive special food that without, she will slip into a diabetic coma and die. So I buy the cheap tea while she ogles me with her goggly pug eyes and pray that the goldfish don’t develop gout.

On the good news front, El Yenta Man was voted Best Personal Trainer by the readers of Connect Savannah! Look at him, so handsome. (I missed a fourth win as Best Blogger by a narrow margin; guess I shoulda reminded y’all to vote, oops! But like I sez, I AM FARBLONGENT)

Oh! AND I had the honor of performing at Indigo Sky Gallery’s Blank Page Poetry event last weekend, too – I know I already shared “One True Poem from a Housewife” with you, but for those who cannot get enough of me (thanks, Mom!) here’s the video:

Life does not appear to be slowing down at all with the school year winding down and the imminent arrival of my parents next week (Happy 71st Birthday, DAD!)

And holy wow, it’s Friday again! May all be blessed on this long weekend and/or Shabbos that’s coupled with a Super Full Moon Eclipse in Sagittarius – those in the know say these are powerful times to create our highest good. Maybe those who aren’t down with the program will levitate off the planet.

Standing on the precipice of this mental moment, I am hugely grateful that my kids are happy and healthy, my mother-in-law continues to drift in the fog of dementia but appears content, I have a job doing what I’m supposed to do and my air-conditioning works.

Plus, I have bar of organic fair trade chocolate stashed in the pantry.



Shavuot Shoutout!

imagesSo this evening begins the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and also the First Fruits of the Harvest.

That totally make sense because guess who’s got strawberries? I love this holiday and its gifts, as long as we can keep those gifts away from the damn squirrels. God bless bird netting.

Shavuot is traditionally observed with an all-night study session meant to make up for the fact that the morning God delivered the Torah on Mount Sinai, our lazy ancestors overslept. So now we go the insomniac route to show we’re actually ready to receive the wisdom. It also includes a reading of the Book of Ruth, a story that defies the nasty stereotypes of sparky relationships between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws. (Here’s another one, a recent Civil Society Column.)

For reasons not completely understood but heartily embraced, Shavuot is also celebrated by eating a lot of cheese. Farmer’s cheese, gouda, goat, blue, ricotta, cottage, Limburger, parmesan, asiago, the drippy white deliciousness served with chips at Mexican restaurants, you name it. Unfortunately, El Yenta Man is viciously lactose intolerant, so me and the kids may be partying on our own with a wheel of brie and a stack of cheddar cubes.

And we can’t forget cheesecake, a ubiquitous Shavuot staple, as well as blintzes, which are the same EXACT thing as crêpes except your bubbie didn’t know Nutella from a noodge and filled the thin pancakes with — what else? — cheese.

Here is the fabulous Joan Nathan making her Ultimate Blintzes for Tablet:

How good are THOSE gonna taste at 4am? Not that I’m so pious that I’ll be joining in the learning tonight, but I’ll may be up anyway guarding the strawberries.

Happy Mother’s Day to All Y’all

A blessed day to all who know the joy of watching tiny wrinkled people grow up before your eyes as well the enormous fun of following those people around cleaning up their messes and reminding them to mind their manners.

I’m reposting my favorite poem, my “Mother” work, if you will. When I wrote it, I could not imagine how fast the next decade would speed by nor the challenges and wonders in store. Though the little calamari fingers described below have grown into full-sized man hands, I am ever perplexed and bouyed by motherhood’s lessons. I maintain that one of the most important ones is to mother oneself, to nurture our own bodies and souls as lovingly as we do our children’s.

For those of you close by, I’ll be performing this along with some very talented Savannah people next Saturday, May 18 as part of the Blank Page Poetry Event at Indigo Sky Gallery. Hope to see you there!

One True Poem From A Housewife

This morning all I ask
Is for a wee bit of wisdom before these tasks:
The laundry, the dishes, my children’s needs and wishes
The packing, the stacking, the order the house is lacking
The cooking, the cleaning and I guess I should think about weaning…
But today I can’t find meaning in any of it.

Even though I know
This is the work the world cannot do without
I want to shout “There has been some mistake! I was not supposed to have this ordinary life!”
See, when I became a wife
I had this notion I could still go far, learn how to play guitar, be a rock star
But now that I am a mother, with only seconds sprinkled throughout the day for other, grander dreams
It seems those aspirations vaguely float around my head
Whisper who I meant to be as I make the beds, poach the eggs
Search for the self I still hope to become but find mismatched socks instead.

I stand in an old, old house that slopes in the kitchen
And I reckon the heart of any home is in that dip in front of the sink
It’s enough to drive me to drink to think of some other woman who stood here before
Growing old on this here slanted floor
And I fear there’ll be nothing left of me in fifteen years

But I banish that thought right from my brain
Because I’m not going to go insane
Not just because I have too much to do
But because it just doesn’t have to be true
Not if I revel in this choice
Use my voice
I’m going to do these fucking dishes for all womankind!
And find the courage to rescue my dreams from the trees
As well as shoulder God’s greatest responsibility:
Beating the heart of a family.

So what I have today is this:
A Cheerio-scented morning kiss
Constant companionship while I piss
Tiny fingers like calamari wrapped around my wrist
The list is longer than what I could possibly miss from some fantasy of my future
I can still suture together a poem or two
Cobble the truth with words and glue
Poetry saves me every day
What saves you?

So as I stand at the sink on this slanted floor
Thinking of the woman who stood here before
And finally comes the wisdom that I’ve been asking for:

What is Now
Is what is True
No matter how mundane, how boring, how depressing, how plain
So you see, I will not go insane
No, that will not be me
I will find a way to stay free

But right now I’ve got to take my place
With grace
In the face
Of ordinary.

Flower Power Up: JWI Mother’s Day Project

Every year I post a little something about how your mama doesn’t want another tsotchke for her dashboard mantel or a bouquet of wilty tulips for Mother’s Day — all she cares about is that you turned out not to be a shmo.

So, listen, make her proud already: Donate $25 to JWI’s Mother’s Day Flower Project and she’ll totally forget about that time she found you smoking weed with your uncle when you were supposed to be cleaning out your bubbie’s garage.

The funds go towards flowers and gift baskets full of feminine necessities for 200 domestic violence shelters around the country, helping out over 45,000 women and children not lucky enough to have someone like you to care about them every day.

Yes, it says May 3 to guarantee delivery by Saturday, but click it up today and you’re golden. Better yet, save a tree and send an e-card.

Either way, you’re still a mensch.