The First of Two Jewishy Coinkidinks

tumblr_mv6yz6pWHI1qiyrilo1_500Got an interesting press release today about a new exhibit at NYC’s Yeshiva Museum:

Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue centers around the intricately carved wood panel that formed part of the door to the ark that held the Torah scrolls in the ancient synagogue of Old Cairo around the 11th century.

Jointly owned by the Yeshiva museum and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, this “doorway” to an Islamic-friendly Jewish past was discovered at a Florida garage sale in the early 1990s. But that isn’t even the coolest trash-to-treasure element of the exhibit: The Ben Ezra Synagogue is the site of the Cairo Genizah, a massive trove of forgotten documents found in 1896 that revealed all kinds of information about Jewish life in the Middle East.

According to Jewish law, any piece of writing that contains the name of God in Hebrew cannot ever be thrown away, and a genizah is literally a “hiding place” for the worn-out books and other synagogue stuff taking up space. Think of it as sacred hoarding.


Maimondes – aka the Rambam – had impeccable penmanship, of course.

Back in the 1000s and 1100s, old Jews dumped not only prayer-related parchment in the empty spot behind the wall, but also grocery lists, school primers, letters written by Maimonides‘ own hand and the only known Hebrew version of the Book of Wisdom, also known as the section of the Christian canon Ecclesiastes.

Many of these will be on display for the exhibit along with one of the oldest surviving Haggadahs, a letter written by poet doctor Judah Halevi and a rare 16th–century navigational chart of the Mediterranean by the Jewish cartographer, Judah Abenzara.

What’s blowing my mind is that I had never heard of the Cairo Genizah until I read Dara Horn’s new novel, Guide for the Perplexed. The tale of a software mogul who disappears in Egypt, this tight intellectual mystery uses the same genizah as a plot keystone and as a metaphor to explore how we curate the past.

The Washington Post calls the book “overdone,” but for Jewish nerds like myself, it’s absolutely riveting. I just finished it last week, and today I find out about a whole museum full of genuine genizah artifacts? That’s some crazy Kabbalah mystic mind melding right there.

a guide for the perplexedHorn, author of my all-time faves The World to Come and the Southern Jewish epic All Other Nights, has a tremendous talent for layering all kinds of historical wisdom into her fast-paced fiction. She has a knack for combining the secular with the scholarly, and Guide for the Perplexed blooms with biblical and Talmudic references both overt and oblique.

I hope El Yenta Man and I get a chance to visit the Yeshiva Museum in the spring – he just loves it when I shlep him to look at dusty old grocery lists.

And yes, I did mention a second Jewishy coincidence – this one’s a little more modern and hits closer to home, so stay tuned!

Shalom Y’all Food Festival this Sunday!

El Yenta Man rises before dawn most every day weekday to meet the masochists who pay him to make them cry, but if he’s up that early on a Sunday it can only mean two things:

The fish are biting or it’s the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival. Tapped for his particularly useful combination of brawn and brains, EYM has been in charge of loading up trays of challahs, rugelach, corned beef and latke mix into the refrigerated truck for the past six years. He spends the whole day ferrying reinforcements as the booths sell out right around the time church lets out – everybody in Savannah wants to be Jewish on Food Fest day!

The whole shebang is 25 years old this year and I wrote a lil’ something over at the day job about these fabulous matriarchs:

Shalom Y'all balabustas Peggy Harris, Joan Levy and Ellen Byck. Photo by Jon Waits/jwaitsphoto

Shalom Y’all balabustas Peggy Harris, Joan Levy and Ellen Byck. Photo by Jon Waits/jwaitsphoto

“25 Years of Noshing” from Connect Savannah

Come October for the past 25 years, the kitchen at Congregation Mickve Israel has erupted into a tzimmes. For those who know their Yiddish, that could mean a mess of traditional European carrot and squash stew dripping from the walls. But it also translates into the less literal definition: A big fuss. [Read the rest here.]

In the meantime, I’m making sure EYM gets to bed early all week – he needs his strength!

From My Pew…

imagesEvery Jewish fundraiser and synagogue leader and professional Jew is currently plotzing over the latest from the Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans.

Some are wringing their hands into shreds over the data concerning the increase of intermarriage and assimilation; others interpret the findings as celebratory proof that we are indeed Jewish Americans, not American Jews.

The headlines might say Jews are jumping the synagogue ship and that the children aren’t being raised Jewish; J.J. Goldberg shows it’s all in the interpretation. Rabbi Gerald Skolnik writes in New York’s Jewish Week that he can’t find the good news in any of it; in today’s Forward, NYU professor Bethamie Horowitz provides a much more optimistic lens with which to view it all (a historically uncharacteristic practice for Jews, but hey, the point here is that we’re changing.)

Shmuel Rosner’s hilarious column in this week’s Jewish Journal breaks down a few other categories of the Jewish response to the study, including the smartasses. Rosner acknowledges that all points are valid but not necessarily useful — until taken into context with each other. What good is the Pew study if it’s just given our community more grist to fuel the endless infighting?

If all such studies can do is to merely strengthen previously held beliefs – who needs them? If the community can’t look collectively at this study (the key is doing it collectively) and agree on at least one or two main implications of it – then what’s the point?

So many of our big brains have already weighed in, and as this yenta is neither as learned or broadthinking, I have nothing to offer about it other than I can’t say that the trends documented in the study come as any surprise:

More Jews are marrying non-Jewish — six out of 10, according the statistics — and less are identifying with religion and more with culture and heritage. Ninety-four percent of those polled are proud to be Jewish; only 30 percent describe themselves as “very attached to Israel.” An increasing sector is raising their children “partly Jewish,” which I guess means Chrismukkah exists after all.

Frankly, I don’t have the time to interpret it all, what with twice-a-week Hebrew school carpool, taking down the (worst) sukkah (ever) and guilting Yenta BoyMan into finally finishing the last phase of his mitzvah project. It’s a good thing no one called to poll me, I might have given a few smart alecky answers myself.

All I know if that from the pew where I sit in my small Southern city, the future of Judaism looks quite bright: Our 280 year-old Reform congregation just renewed the rabbi’s contract and membership is up. Shalom School enrollment is logging record highs this year, evident in the complete (but friendly!) madhouse at pickup. A gorgeous new preschool at the Jewish Educational Alliance opened this fall. The Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival continues to be one of the city’s most well-attended public events and was voted “Best Food Event” by the readers of Connect Savannah (It’s coming next Sunday, Oct. 27. Let the noshing begin!)

There’s also a cadre of young families and singles attending services regularly, not that I know anything about attending synagogue regularly but they’re always there when we show up (usually late, of course.) Some have one Jewish parent with another studying to convert, some are already Jews by choice, some are scoping out the dating scene. I don’t care because they know the right tune for the Sh’ma AND they bring their own wine to oneg. They ask questions, they are fun to be around and they make my excuses for skipping shul seem pretty lame. Many of them come to Judaism without baggage about What It Means to Be A Jew, and it’s a pretty refreshing perspective.

There have already been and will continue to be many solutions for the “problems” that the Pew study presents, but I can only offer the same of what I’ve been trumpeting for years:

In order to survive, Judaism must be joyful. And tolerant. And welcoming.

Many won’t agree, and I’m okay with that. But I can’t get caught up in handwringing and long meetings and strategizing — I’ve got honeycakes to burn and Chanukah to stress about and children to teach to curse in Yiddish. And maybe, if we get it together this Friday, services to attend.

America, the beautiful mess

Civil-Shooz-4This is running in the current Connect Savannah, but I’m reposting it here ’cause I pretty proud of it. Plus, I make a bar mitzvah reference, so it counts.

The Civil Society Column: America, the beautiful mess

Girl, we need to talk.

I know you’re hiding under the covers right now, refusing to do any work and basically shirking all of your responsibilities. I don’t blame you. If I had a bunch of old suits screaming all day long about what they think is best for me while ignoring what I actually have to say about it, I’d break some serious bad, too.

But listen. You’re pushing 238 and it’s time to grow the fuck up.

America, honey, you’re like a Disney Channel star who spent her childhood racking up one success after another: You dumped the shackles of British colonialism and built your own coast-to-coast empire.

You helped bring down Hitler. You were the first to send people to the freakin’ MOON!

Your rebellious years seemed fairly promising, too. You stood up to those meanie Commies and protested the Vietnam War. You shed Old World notions about sex and feminism. You demanded equal rights for minorities while rocking epic bell bottom jeans.

You also started to get kind of rich, which tends to make people a little crazy. Protecting your fortune and your ego became more important than preserving the dignity and well-being of your denizens, and frankly, well, you’ve kind of lost your shit.

While you’ve been taking cross-eyed selfies in the mirror of your collagen lips, corporations have plundered and pillaged almost every one of your natural resources, polluting the oceans and blowing the tops off of your purple mountains majesty. You’re still dicking around with putting cutesy labels on Monsanto’s GMO-tainted amber waves of grain while dozens of other governments have banned them as poison. You have more of your own citizens in jail than anyone, anywhere.

You’re the last in the developed world to provide some kind of guaranteed baseline health care to its citizens, and the latest freakout a certain congressional faction of petulant babies had over THAT has sent you AWOL. And if the suits don’t get it together next week, your credit problems could trigger the economic meltdown of the whole world.

The other countries are starting to notice that you’re unraveling. They really do care about you, but your erratic behavior is causing them to edge away, like Aww, bitch be cray, maybe we should go chill with Venezuela — she got mad oil, and I hear she’s way cooler now that her pimp Hugo is gone.

Your domestic civil discourse has devolved into an obscene game of third grade Telephone as evidenced on your default national news network Twitter, where an educated daughter of successful Indian Americans is derided as an “ugly Arab” and somehow the “real Miss America” could only be an AK47-toting bleach blonde with a giant tattoo on her rib cage. Not that your blondes and tattoos aren’t super hot; they’re just not the ONLY kind of hot. You used to be proud of your melting pot heritage; we’re just as colorful as we’ve always been, baby. What happened?

But, hey, even with your bad taste in TV and your nasty meth problem, I’m still pretty enamored of you.

I happened to be in Washington, DC a couple of weekends ago, right before those Congress dudes shut your whole thing down. We were actually in Maryland for a bar mitzvah, celebrating with a brood of cousins whose ancestors escaped hatred and oppression to forge successful businesses and happy families. It occurred to me that a ballroom full of brilliant and hopeful Jewish kids dancing the dougie is a pretty excellent example of the American dream.

I insisted that we drive our rental car down the wooded Beltway that afternoon so my kids could see in person the architecture of America’s inner workings, your elegant guts. The Washington Monument was cloaked in scaffolding, and we didn’t have time for the Smithsonians or a tour of the Capitol (if I had known I wouldn’t get another chance for a while I might have skipped the cocktail hour.) Our GPS led us straight to the Mall, where Providence somehow provided us a parking space next to the Lincoln Memorial.

In other countries, this magnificent monument would be considered a temple. But it’s not a religious beacon for the gods — it’s a testament to this revolutionary idea of civic life based on our inherent equality as humans, something so important your founding fathers put it in writing. America has never been about what God we pray to or whether we pray at all — your strength has always been in how We the People treat each other.

There’s a reason Lincoln’s legacy will always be part of your legend. Few have led with the same integrity, honesty and willingness to stand up for the rights of everyone. Everyone. All of us. Not just the richest. Or the prettiest. Or the whitest. Or the ones with the most guns.

As Mr. Lincoln gazed down on my small family, I pressed up on the cool marble columns and got all choked up because in spite of all your wrecking ball shenanigans, I am still so honored to call you home.

The following week, while you were holed up in your room catching up on HGTV, to climb the same steps became an act of rebellion. There at the Lincoln Monument, We the People remembered for a minute just who you really are. If my kids and I had been there then, we would have breached those barricades, too.

There are those of us still believe in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — as well as in a decent education, universal health care and dignity in our daily life. We understand that none of it comes free in this land of freedom, and we’re willing to pay a little more if it means everyone will have enough.

The ones hollering over lost jobs while they collect their fat paychecks, those who would rather asphyxiate you into chaos rather than help your poor and sick, they don’t get you. But we’ve got your back. We can do this. We’ll dry you out, get you some therapy, revive your spirit.

We can insist that the suits act like competent, compassionate adults or they’re fired — they work for us, remember?

We don’t have to eat the toxic swill or buy the cheap crap they’re shilling. We can grow a revolution in our gardens and in our neighborhoods and our minds. We can fend for ourselves and let the suits drown in their own misappropriated greed. We can unite as one nation, indivisible over the promise for liberty and justice for all.

Just wake up, sweetheart. It’s just time to wake up.

Suck it, Hobby Lobby

hobbylobbySo, it was reported this week that chozzerai peddler Hobby Lobby won’t carry Chanukah or Passover decorations because it conflicts with CEO Steve Green’s “Christian values.”

“We don’t cater to you people,” a clerk told some nice Jewish lady last year, according to New Jersey blogger Ken Berwitz, and boy, did THAT cause some tsimmes.

The Hobby Lobby damage control trolls are already at work, sort-of-apologizing on Facebook and pretending that someday, they might consider carrying some cheap crap made in China that could pass for Chanukah decorations:

“Hobby Lobby is currently working with our buyers over our merchandise selection. Our customers have brought this to our attention, and we are currently evaluating our holiday items and what we will carry in the future,” wrote a representative.

Herm, I’m bowled over by the sincerity, yeah. Listen, Hobby Lobby, don’t do us any favors. We don’t need you to dust off a shelf of moldy yarn in the back and stock it with some blue tinsel and crap cardboard menorahs and call it redemption. Chanukah is the Festival of Lights, and all we Jews ever need to make it a joyous holiday is a chanukiah and box of candles, both available in the gift shop of our local synagogue.

And maybe just a few strings of blue twinkly bulbs from Home Depot.