Here’s to All the Beautiful Girls (and All of Them Are Beautiful)

141010121544-01-malala-nobel-1010-horizontal-galleryOh, what a joy that the brave and amazing Malala Yousafzai has won the Nobel Peace Prize!

She shares the prize with Indian children’s slavery activist Kailash Satyarthi, and together they portend a shift in the global temperature regarding gender and youth: Girlstheir health, their well-being, their contributions to the worldmatter.

For millennia and in so many places still, girls have been shoved aside, denied education and treated as property. When Taliban can send a gunman to kill a schoolgirl and terrorists can still steal hundreds of innocent young women from their families, Malala is both a symbol of the death of the poisonous patriarchy and hope that humanity might get it together after all.

Her victory means even more as Little Yenta Girl and I just returned from Southeastern Women’s Herbal Conference, a yearly gathering of sisterly camaraderie and classes in the gorgeous mountains of Western North Carolina, where the trees are just beginning to flash their fall colors.

I’ve been attending since 2007 to deepen my understanding of natural remedies to nourish my family and to spend time with like-minded sisterfolk who dig a good drum circle. Over the years I’ve learned and implemented the medicinal uses of honey, how to prepare a poultice for a bee sting, the herbal pharmacopia used by slaves and a thousand uses for lavender. This is where I get tips on how to sneak more astragalus into the soup and how long to boil down bones for the best broth. It’s where I take in big breaths of unconditional love for my one precious life.

I used to bring along Yenta Boy until his *ahem* britches got too big and began wrinkling his nose every time I said the word “vagina.” I sure hope the knowledge he absorbed stays with him as he forges his own life in the Instagram era. Now my lil’ girl has finally come of age to be initiated in the wise woman ways.

Even though we live in a country where women are free to drive, go to school and wear what they please, our society is still sick with rape culture, inequality in the work force, sexualization of children and Nicky Minaj. Girls and women (along with boys and men!) receive so much negative conditioning about their bodies and social roles, but so terribly little about their inherent gifts and those of the planet itself.

It feels like a very big deal to be a mama to strong, beautiful girl right now, and and I am so grateful she had the opportunity to supplement her education in the following ways:

She sat in the Red Tent with her Soil Sisters (aged 10-13) learning that when her body becomes activated by the moon, she is powerful, not dirty.

She learned that the Earth and its plants are allies for our own health, and the best medicines can often be found growing right outside our front door.

She saw women of all shapes and colors and ages, learning that womanhood is expressed in a kaleidoscope, not a scale.

She helped build a mandala out of flowers to honor the sacred feminine element within all of us.

She ate and danced and drummed with no one telling her “too much, too loud, too wild.”

She was validated and valued for being a girl, that she can and will participate in the healing of the world, including helping the boys and men embrace their own sacred femininity.

What could the world become if every girl received the same sacred education?

Easy, Fast? What Yom Kippur Isn’t

yom-kippur-ecards-free-yom-kippur-cards-funny-yom-kippur-11The last hours of 5774 are waning in the rearview mirror, and once again I find myself famisht.

This evening begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, our one last chance at tshuvah — redemption — for the coming year. As the cover of the Book of Life starts to close this evening with the Kol Nidre service and stays open just a crack, we fast and pray for our names and those we love to be written inside.

It’s very nerve-wracking. First off, there’s all the meditating on all the ways a person can perish — fire, water, sword, stoning, wild beast, strangulation — I swear, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is like a Game of Thrones production meeting.

Then there’s the assumption that we’re all basically hopeless assholes with no chance in (the) hell (we don’t believe in) that we’re going to escape God’s wrath. We Jews don’t go in for much talk about sin for the rest of the year, but on Yom Kippur, every one of us has a soul as filthy as the bottoms of the rivers and oceans that we’ve polluted on this glorious green earth.

I like to think of myself as a Pretty Good Person. To the best of my knowledge and limited self-perception, I don’t lie, cheat or steal, unless you count picking gardenias out of the vacant rental property across the street. I visit with my mother-in-law as she wastes away ever-so-slowly. I go out of my way to be nice to people working shitty jobs. I write small checks to dozens of charities, mostly the ones with the most heart-wrenching photos on their marketing materials. And in spite of the fact that no jury would convict me, I have not slapped or punched anyone in the throat this year.

But on Yom Kippur, I come face-to-face with the ugly reality that I didn’t do enough for others this year. I broke promises to myself and to my family. I’ve been lazy and wasteful with money, time and food. I’ve colluded — unconsciously, helplessly, but still — with the greedy capitalistic Godzilla machine that continues exploit other humans so that my children can wear affordable school khakis from the GAP.

I’m not even really that nice. I judge others for their wardrobe mishaps and parenting skills. I talk endless shit about people who annoy me. I pretended to forget to sign up to bring snack to Little Yenta Girl’s class when I really just didn’t feel like it. I have had the chutzpah to kvetch and feel miserable when my life is nothing but a series of beautiful blessings.

On Yom Kippur, we wish each other an “easy fast,” but nothing about this day ought to be easy or fast. It’s humbling to be locked up in synagogue all day as the tummy rumbles and the mind grumbles and the heart contracts with shame and guilt. Every time I get distracted by my own discomfort, I borrow from the Buddhists and bring myself back to the moment, remembering that the “severe decree” of this day can be tempered by tefillah, tzedakeh, teshuvah: Prayer, charity and repentance.

I think I’d rather have a meaningful fast than an easy one, a day of rigorous self-examination that inspires me to do better this year, to be more patient and generous and hopefully a little less of an asshole when things don’t go my way.

But even the most observant say there’s no reason to suffer unnecessarily: Ha’aretz’s “14 Tips to Make the Fast Easier” advises to drink lots of water today and don’t shtuff yourself at the last meal of the year.

Also, this isn’t the time to be “faddish” about carbs—better to eat bread than protein this evening, since “leisurely digesting meat which takes a lot of water from your body that you’re not replenishing, is asking for toilet-mouth and ‘furry’ teeth.”

Gross. Guess I’ll pass on my father-in-law’s chicken this evening. But I’ll do my very best not to judge others’ this Yom Kippur, especially tomorrow afternoon when a noxious cloud of bad breath hangs in the air above the sanctuary like a pack of hyperventilating Dementors has come to visit.

L’shanah tovah to all y’all. May you and yours be judged mercifully and with compassion, and may 5775 be the best year yet.

The New Year is Here!

Rosh Hashanah begins tonight at sundown, and I see no better way to send out 5774 with a bridge between our our sacred traditions and Top 40 pop songs.

Not everyone agrees. All morning I drove the kids crazy by singing, “Across the world, the mighty world, the shofar blows tonight…” They didn’t even appreciate my “AH-wimoweh, AH-wimomeh” choreography.

Perhaps the practice works best when paired with songs of the moment? Check out 5775’s best Jewish parodies as I scramble to ready our home for a new cycle around the sun. (Who am I kidding? We’ll be lucky to get to shul on time tonight. Might have to save burning the honeycakes for tomorrow afternoon.)

Here’s one man spoofing Little Yenta Girl’s favorite tune by the not-so-empowering Meghan Trainer, in which he is thankfully not singing about his zaftig tushy:

And this one is not “Rude” at all, but has a very important message about the New Year tradition of noshing ’til ya drop:

And best for last, here’s wishing y’all a Sweet, Healthy and Happy New Year!

Around the Fire with Michael W. Twitty

twittyWell, slap me with a piece of wet okra and call me a real Southerner!

I had the honor to talk slave cooking, teshuvah and trayf with Mr. Kosher Soul himself, Michael W. Twitty last week and was deeply inspired by the joyful way he claims all parts of his identity. Anyone who can rock tzitzit while peeling a shrimp is my kind of mispocheh!

Here’s the down and dirty account (Cross-posted at Connect Savannah.)

The (Civil) Society Column

It’s the darker side of dusk at Wormsloe Historic Site, and as I pick through the saw palmettos along the dirt path, I’m sure we’ve taken a wrong turn.

“No, it’s just a little further,” urges Forsyth Farmers Market maven Teri Schell as she strides through trees vibrating with the cacophony of cicadas.

I follow behind her, clutching my purse, and try not to shriek when I realize the mosquito I just swatted off my ear was actually a bat. I soldier on, out here in the shadowy woods to track down culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, for whom Teri and I share a certain fascination (fine, call it a foodie crush.)

Twitty has soared to fast fame since he published “An Open Letter to Paula Deen” last year on his blog, Afroculinaria, smack in the midst of Our Lady’s carmelized career meltdown. In his letter, Twitty gently reminded that Southern cooking belongs to us all, but it cannot be discussed honestly without acknowledging its origins in Africa and American slavery.

Wise but not accusatory, the post burned a big hole in the internet after the Huffington Post picked it up, and Twitty has been up to his earlobes in book contracts and speaking engagements ever since.

His forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene, chronicles his adventures and insights as he recreates the meals of his African ancestors in the places they lived and worked, and his social media reflects humorous musings on cultural equality, food justice and creative uses of sorghum.

I don’t know if he’s the only gay, black, Jewish culinarian in the entire world, but this gent is definitely my kind of unicorn. I got all groupie-eyed when I found out Twitty was in Savannah to lead a special presentation for the Slave Dwelling Project Conference, and I’d be damned if any dark, scary forest was going to keep me from meeting him.

When Teri and I arrived at the former plantation, we heard the strike of the djembe and the traditional rhythmic stylings of West Africa—that happened to be provided by Abu Majied Major and his son, Yusuf, who I had just interviewed the day before for the article on this Sunday’s African dance workshop.

The universe so does love its serendipity, and several of the themes that I’d been researching all week for that story were being discussed here around the tables, specifically the preservation of slave history in the American South and its incorporation into the mainstream narrative.

As attendees found their way from the conference’s main locale at the Coastal Georgia Center, one young woman commented on the mile-long tunnel of massive trees that’s made Wormsloe one of Savannah’s most famous photo ops.

“It’s called an ‘oak allee,’” informed Reneé Donnell, a recent grad of UGA’s historic preservation department. “All plantations had them. But we rarely talk about the people who dug those holes.”

While the slave dwelling conference attracted academic historians and archaeologists from around the country, organizer Joe McGill noted there was almost no participation from Savannah universities.

“This subject does not appeal to locals,” observed McGill drily.

That’s a real shame, since Savannah is ground zero for slave history and the perfect place to foster Twitty’s message of inclusive history.

I kept looking over my shoulder for our celebrity culinarian. Teri whispered that she overheard Twitty was preparing his presentation at the Colonial Life Area, “a bit” further down the dirt road.

“Might be our only chance to talk to him without a crowd,” I murmured.

We looked longingly at the long line at the tent housing tantalizing food from Daufuskie Island’s own celebrity chef and Gullah cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson, then snuck away from the tables into the woods.

For a few moments, we were guided by the golden strip of marsh shimmering in the last light of day beyond the trees. Then the curtain of the forest swallows us whole, and we step out of time.

As we trudge, I’m aware how little this land has changed since Noble Jones and his slaves cut its paths almost 300 years ago. My phone and its flashlight are a pocket away, but I don’t dare break the spell.

Finally, we glimpse the flicker of torchfire. We make our way across a footbridge towards the tiny wattle-and-daub shack, smoke rising from the chimney.

Suddenly, there he is: A barrel-chested bear of a man tending the hearth, sweating as he preps plates of okra and peppers on the rustic wooden table.

He is as grand and gregarious as I thought he’d be, his voice higher and more mellifluous than I’d expected.

“Come in, come in!” cries Michael Twitty, wiping his brow.

Teri and I tuck in to watch as he stirs cast iron pots of Muscovy duck and Gulf Coast lamb neck, heritage breeds raised by Bradley Taylor and Cat Compton on their sustainable farm in Sylvania. Knowing the rest of the conference will appear on golf carts momentarily, I spill out a rush of questions like chicken bones at the feet of a voodoo priest.

Though he studied at Howard University and worked at respected sites including Colonial Williamsburg, the 30ish historian approaches his discipline not academically, but as a folk heritage tradition. He remains itinerant, traveling and cooking and educating from the roots up.

“If I was interpreting at an institution or a museum, you’d never hear about me,” he declares, placing a three-legged skillet in the fire by its long handle.

Though corporate network types have come sniffing around his campfires looking for the next foodie star, Twitty’s not interested in being put in a box as “another black chef doing soul food.” His Jewishness also muddies any notion of simple marketability.

“People want uncomplicated narratives,” he shrugs. “That’s not me.”

I can relate. As a Jewish gal with a strong affinity for African dance, I ask about this African-American urbanite’s Jewish soul.

“Roads converge,” he nods sagely, explaining that he converted when he was 22.

“Judaism gave me insight on how to preserve something from generation to generation. It’s a leitmotif, the obligation of the transmission of Jewish culture. Therefore, my black identity and my Jewish identity are inextricable.”

Unlike this heretic, Twitty keeps a kosher home. But that’s not gonna keep him from Sallie Ann’s Lowcountry boil.

“Oh yes, I’m going to get down on this plate of trayf right now, forgive me,” he laughs, nimbly peeling shrimp from shell in less than a second flat.

We talk about the similar forced Diasporas of Jewish and African culture and the non-racial notion of “peoplehood,” a term often used in Jewish circles to navigate the ever-evolving balance between tradition and identity.

“We are but one race on this planet, but our ethnicities are the diversity,” he preaches.

“Our differences are valuable.”

That’s what feeds his passion to protect the culinary heritage of his ancestors. And he’ll kindly call out those who insist on fetishizing slave culture and cuisine—or worse, appropriating it without honoring its origins.

“Collards are the new kale,” he snorts. “Please.”

This, of course, brings us back to Paula Deen. He holds out hope that her people will contact him so he can bring her out to cook biscuits and hamhock around the fire, which y’all have to admit would make some good TV.

“I’m not looking for a confrontation,” he promises.

“I am about reconciliation, I want to have a dialogue. I want to get people talking about how it all fits together.”

With a shake of his wrist, the pan-fried veggies are done. They taste of smoke and spice and the air of the night, echoing with the presence of the enslaved people who likely ate the same dish near this very spot.

“Centuries of stories are contained in a simple meal,” reminds our host.

The golf carts appear out of the dark. It’s time to abdicate our private audience, and the philosopher chef launches into a new round of his fascinating schtick to the arriving group. We part with hugs and calls of mispocheh, the Yiddish word for family.

As Teri and I hitch a ride back with the rangers through the woods, it occurs to me that we’ve reached the Age of Meta: History informs the present as the inclusion of neglected narratives feeds back to our perception of the past. An enlightened future depends on how well we honor our own origins while holding others in the loop.

It’s a lot to chew. Can we ever learn to see ourselves as a peoplehood, each one of us a unique stew of culture and DNA, nourishing and nourished by the same complicated, multi-layered human story?

 

 

When Jews Owned Slaves

leadLiving in Savannah, GA, one can not really escape the horrid specter of slavery: I mean, if you are any kind of awake, you understand that this pretty little city, the South, this whole dang country wouldn’t be here if weren’t for the labor and skills of enslaved Africans.

While there may be reminders in Maya Angelou’s powerful words at the feet of nicey-nice memorials and clues in the thumbprints of brick buildings, the stories of these tortured men, women and children–let alone their actual names–rarely made it to the metanarrative of local history. But that is finally changing:

I wrote a cover story for Connect Savannah a few months back about how city archivists are using old records to document the local government’s participation in the slave trade. The results of the project are now available, providing primary sources for academics and anyone else interested in real history.

A recent article in The Atlantic by my friend Kris Monroe details the largest slave auction in American history that took place in Savannah in March 1859. Only marginally discussed on the trolley tours if at all, this terrible event known as “The Weeping Time” sold off 436 human beings and split apart hundreds of families. There’s a little plaque west of the tourist corridor that commemorates the Weeping Time, but few people outside of Savannah knew about it until Kris brought it to a national readership.

There’s also this piece by Susanna Ashton in today’s Forward that focuses on Charleston and explains why Savannah’s Jewish community–the third oldest in the U.S.–took a nose dive just eight years after it was established:

One important population influx took place in 1741, when a large contingent of Jewish families left their homes in Savannah, Georgia, to resettle in Charleston because trustees of the Georgia colony would not let them (or anyone else) hold slaves. The state of South Carolina, which had long embraced slaveholding, was thus a welcoming place for these families. By 1749, when Georgia rethought the ban and decided to allow slaveholding, it was too late.

Ashton’s article reminds that with the South’s historic Jewish communities comes a certain responsibility to the truth of that history: Much of the success and prosperity of those early families was built on the scarred backs of others. As a Southern Jew of more modest origins, I think it’s high time that Jewish communities researched the enslaved people who helped build the synagogues and businesses. Who were they? How can we remember and include them into our bigger story?
This weekend, Savannah is hosting The Slave Dwelling Project Conference, a gathering of academics and artists from all over the South who will discuss the preservation of slave history. Rumor has it that Kosher Soul chef and Afroculinaria blogger Michael Twitty may make an appearance, which would be a tremendous opportunity. (I’ve been trying to get him to my Shabbos table ever since his “Open Letter to Paula Deen” went viral!)
It’s an odd notion to consider for most of us, this Jews-owning-slaves business, considering our own past as slaves. Though it should come as no surprise for those with relatives who have been in America since the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even though I’ve scoured the family tree for any slaveholding branches and it’s come up empty, it’s times like this that I like to remind people: Hey, I married in.

Out with a Cackle: Joan Rivers, 1933-2014

imagesOh, Joan, you, too?

Here we are still deep in grief over Robin and his tragically premature exit, and though our girl Betty Bacall stepped out gracefully last month at a ripe old age, the ache from that loss hasn’t quite waned.

And now we’ve lost another treasure who made the world a little less bleak, someone who never failed to help us giggle at the absurdity of it all.

Back when women’s career choices were housewife or secretary, you busted through the glass ceiling of TV comedy with a diamond-sharp wit and unabashed feminism.

You had us in stitches for 60 years—even as your were nursing stitches from all that cosmetic surgery. You could slay sacred cows on the red carpet and get away with flipping a manicured bird to anyone.

Joan Alexandra Molinksky Rosenberg, you gave us loud Jewish women permission to be as loud and Jewish as we are because no matter how opinionated and obnoxious, we could never even come close to your unapologetic, gravel-voiced, Israel-loving, “oh no she di’int” divahood.

You mined your personal pain into productivity as well as profit, and as you once said, “People say money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you had enough money, you can have a key made.” Girl, I sure hope there wasn’t a single spot left on your big blingy Gucci keyring by now.

And while we mourn your passing so deeply, I find a certain comfort in the way you went out. Clearly, being under anesthesia while under the knife was something you found endurable if not enjoyable. I have this picture of you floating up above the surgeons, looking down at your body—practically bionic at this point but still, still mortal, no matter how much silicone or titanium or snake venom was inserted into it.

I imagine you saw all the TV series and the clips and the books and the TMZ hits you’d made, and maybe you could even hear the echo of all the snorts and sniggers and chortles and shrieks you’d caused to bubble up out of us over the years, a massive sound cloud of hysterical crows.

Up there on the quiet ceiling of the operating room, maybe you found a certain serenity that had eluded you for so long, even though its absence is what had driven you all these years. Maybe you saw your frail, 81-year-old body and shrugged, “Yeah, fuck this, I’m out, assholes.”

And then I like to think this happened next: With an almond-shaped red nail, you sliced through the silvery cord that binds all of our souls to this earth, gathered up your crazy fur coat, and headed towards the Great Beyond, cackling all the way.

images-1(To see how Joan Rivers’ comedy—and her cheekbones—evolved over the decades, check out The Hollywood Reporter‘s compilation of hilarious clips.)

Elvis WAS A Shabbos Goy (Sorry I Didn’t Believe You, Mom)

imagesIf you didn’t know, my mother is an amazing storyteller.

It’s not just her books that are riveting, but her basic family lore. Her grandmother’s escape from Warsaw, growing up in bohemian Miami Beach in the 1950s, how I knocked my front teeth out the first day of JCC summer camp in 1976all told in fascinating and colorful detail.

Sometimes, however, I suspect her stories employ a certain poetic license. Now, I’m not saying she makes things up, but she has been known to embellish, like when she tells people my literary genius was evident at an early age because I analyzed John Steinbeck when I was 4. (I was 7, and all I got out of it was that Lennie should not be around pets.)

I’m just saying this is where I learned that sometimes creatively interpreting the truth makes it way more entertaining, especially at the dinner table.

For my entire life, I’ve heard about how my grandparents had a friend who knew Elvis Presley as a teenager. Not only knew him, but actually had him come over on Saturdays to act as a “Shabbos goysomeone who can turn the lights on and off and turn on the over during Shabbat, when those acts are forbidden to observant Jews.

This is a great story, right? The King of Rock swiveling his hips through the livingroom on Friday night to flip the light switch? That famous pompadour crooning “Wise men say…” along with the kaddish? It also sounds totally unlikely.

For the decade-plus I’ve been a digital yenta, I’ve been combing the interwebs for corroboration to no avail. I am ashamed to admit I have assumed my mother was either unknowingly repeating someone else’s fiction or had confused Elvis’ love of all things Jewish with her own teenage obsessions. But still, a good story.

But lo and behold, lookie what’s on the Tablet Magazine’s Vox Tablet podcast today: An interview with Harold Fruchter, a Jewish wedding singer who grew up in Memphis in a duplex in the early 1950s. Fruchter’s father was a rabbi, and when the family needed someone to flick a switch on Saturdays, the nice young man named Elvis would come upstairs to help out.

Fruchter recounts how Elvis called his father “Sir Rabbi,” and that his mother bought Elvis cufflinks for his high school graduation. The Man Who Changed Music Forever borrowed his Jewish neighbor’s record player so he could listen to his first recordings.

Mindblowing! I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Mom. The part about me being a genius is real, too, right?

Listen to the 8-minute podcast here.

T-Shirt of the Week: Hamsas for World Peace?

hamsa_hand_3_shower_curtainI think y’all know by now how I feel about hamsas: They’re my favorite.

I’ve got one on my key ring, one above the kitchen sink, three glued to my dashboard, several hanging in my closet and one always, always around my neck. I love them so much I’m thinking of ordering this one for the bathroom.

It’s more than an aesthetic attraction: It’s a symbol before my eyes to remind me of all of life’s blessings at all times. I don’t know that I’m so superstitious that I really believe in its protective powers, but listen, dahlink, it can’t hurt.

Most importantly, it serves as a token of peace: This symbol of God’s hand not only evokes the sacred feminine, but also represents common ground between Jews and Muslims: Writer Yaron Gordon explains:

The name “Hamsa” (“Hansa” in Sanskrit, or “Al Khamsa” in Arabic) is from the Semitic root word for five, and is a very ancient symbol in the Middle East…Some say that the Jews were the first to adopt the use of the Hamsa, as a protective amulet against the evil eye. Jewish lore sometimes calls the Hamsa the Hand of Miriam, referring to Miriam, the sister of Moses, or it is more generally called the Hand of God.The Hamsa hand is also a popular talisman with Muslims, who call it the Hand of Fatima, referring to the daughter of Mohammed. To the Muslims, the Hamsa refers to the five pillars of Islam.

Somebody tell Selena Gomez. (After Gomez’s uneducated pro-Hamas tweets, Supreme Yenta Joan Rivers eye-rollingly referred to her as “that college graduate.” Check the hilarious TMZ vid here.)

But let’s just be happy about today’s cease-fire extension. Perhaps by flooding the world with hamsas we can smother the hatred and violence. Or better yet, hold them up as “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” in solidarity for Christian our brothers and sisters in Ferguson, MO.

I say hamsas for everybody, regardless of religion. The only remaining question is: Up or down? According to Gordon, it depends:

With the fingers pointed up, the Hamsa symbolizes a “stop sign” to the adversary, in other words, for protection. With the fingers pointed down, the Hamsa symbolizes God’s goodness and blessings coming down to the wearer or to the room where it is hung. The interpretation of the Hamsa is for the individual who owns it.

Tattoo one to your forehead for all I care, as long as you’re willing to high-five with the rest of humanity.

Sunday School Conflict

I swear it, us Jews have Hamas and Iran and the rest of the world aiming rockets and insults and hatred at us, and we still can’t get out of the way of our own.

Since I’ve lived in Savannah, the Jewish community has simmered with various conflicts that I’ve managed to skirt at their margins: Some have been shocking, like the 2006 conviction of a local Orthodox man for child sex trafficking, which people were still whispering about when we moved here. There is the ongoing effort to get the JEA pool open on Saturdays, and no one ever seems to agree on whether you have to go to both days of Rosh Hashanah services or if one will do. Mostly it’s been political quarrels that have divided people, like the awkward removal of our congregation’s rabbi after 20 years and the bitter fight over the new preschool and subsequent decampment of the Orthodox day school from the JEA.

I’ve known people on all sides of the scandals and issues (including the lovely woman who was married to the sex crimes monster) and I try to stay non-judgmental even though I am pretty terrible at it. For me, being Jewish is about faith in and love and heritage and tradition, and anything that distracts from that is a waste of my precious time. Whatever tsimmes is going on at the synagogue board meetings or behind the Federation walls seems so removed from lighting Shabbat candles over a delicious dinner after a hectic week, of reciting Sh’ma together at bedtime, of singing El Norah in the late afternoon trance of Yom Kippur.

Maybe I’m just a selfish schmendrick, but I’d rather leave the bureaucratic business of Judaism to those who have the time and will. I don’t like meetings and I don’t want to be treasurer of anything, ever. I have enough on my life’s plate other than doing a little volunteering at the Jewish Food Festival and a five-year stint teaching kindergarten to the Shalom Schoolers.

But I guess like Jacob wrestling with the angel, it’s rather impossible to be Jewish without conflict. The latest local discord comes from an incident that happened the morning before last year’s Jewish Food Festival at the Shalom School. New York writer Paul Berger did a pretty good job of objectively reporting what happened in a recent article in the Forward, which has been passed around the country and has garnered a slew of comments underneath it.

If you’re familiar with the issue, you already know that last that sunny October morning, the rabbi of Savannah’s Conservative congregation gave the fourth graders an inappropriate—and some believe damaging—lecture involving sex trafficking and prostitution.

Some of the kids were extremely upset by the rabbi, and their parents asked that he no longer be involved in the Shalom School for the rest of the year. (A few weeks ago the Shalom School announced that will be the case going forward into the new school year.)

Other children who were present on that day shrugged off the rabbi’s discussion of sexual abuse, and their families are upset that the first group of parents is dictating the direction of the school and denying their kids the scholarly presence of the rabbi.

As our Jewish karma would have it, this was my child’s class. But she was not there that day. I figured it was a shortened lesson because of the food festival, and I felt that allowing her sleep in was more beneficial to her health after a hard soccer game the day before. (If I thought she would get more out of a shortened lesson than an extra hour of sleep, I’d make her go. More on that later.)

Many of the families have left the Conservative congregation for our Reform synagogue, which doesn’t quite solve anything in a town as small as Savannah. The Shalom School is a cooperative venture between the two congregations; Hebrew instruction is on Wednesday afternoons at the Agudath Achim shul, Sunday mornings are spent learning about Jewish traditions downtown at Mickve Israel.

It’s been really difficult to navigate neutrality on this one. Because my child was not directly affected, I have had no point of reference to “pick a side.” I believe that the kids who were upset were telling the truth and honor their parents’ concerns. I also understand the viewpoint that the while the incident was weird and disturbing, it isn’t worth destroying the rabbi’s career over (finding another position at this point will prove challenging now that it’s been a national news story.)

There have been town hall meetings, which I haven’t attended, and private alliances formed that I am not a part of, because frankly, I didn’t and still don’t have a whole lot to contribute on the matter. I’m just over here washing laundry from camp and looking forward to burnt honeycakes for Rosh Hashanah and wondering if we will ever get it together to make a real sukkah in our backyard.

I can’t manufacture an outrage either way that I don’t feel. I just feel sad, since it seems the community has broken apart once again, right down the middle of my daughter’s Shalom School classroom.

The religious school year has started, and I’m way conflicted. Some parents are calling for background checks on all staff and better curriculum management, which is not unreasonable, yet as far as I know these demands haven’t been implemented. I know from experience that lesson planning can be challenging, but the coordination of particular topics definitely needs to be addressed, especially as the kids get older. If my child brings home one more set of plastic painted candleholders I’m going to go insane.

The drama that’s erupted out of the rabbi incident has been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back (an expression not actually in The Book Proverbs, in case you were wondering), and it turns out, many families have not been very happy with the two-synagogue partnership or Shalom School in general. Another group of parents is forming their own chavurah, an informal, clergy-less Sunday morning study group as an alternative to Shalom School, which sounds nice, especially since it might eliminate the need for another separate day for Hebrew lessons for our already-overscheduled kids.

Except that deep in my heretical heart, way way down in my seditious soul, I think Sunday School for Jews is dumb.

For centuries — millenia, even — Jews have gathered at synagogue on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. Sundays are for sleeping in or shopping at an empty grocery store while your neighbors are at church. Yet the Reform and Conservative movements insist that Jewish education take place on Sunday mornings, all the while complaining that young families never show up to synagogue.

Let me tell you something, Jewish leaders: No one–whether you are a frum Orthodox with a kosher kitchen or a bacon-eating agnostic–wants to spend both weekend mornings at synagogue. When are we supposed to tend our gardens, clean the shutters, make love and/or get lost in Home Depot?

Most Reform and Conservative Jews pretty much ignore the Saturday Sabbath to run errands and go to soccer games, then drop off their kids on Sunday mornings for some menorah crossword puzzles and read out of a textbook. This is not working.

If the point is to prepare our children for their bar and bat mitzvahs, then wouldn’t the best educational experience be attending the Sabbath services they’re eventually supposed to lead? And if another point is to foster Jewish community and joy through from generation to generation, wouldn’t it also be better to provide programming for everyone under the same roof on the same day?

If it were up to me, Shalom School would take place before services on Saturdays, and then the kids would help read Torah with some great singing and prayerful noise led by the elders, and afterwards everyone would have a nice nosh and go home for a nap. Then on Sunday we’d all be free clean out our garages or watch an entire season of Community on the iPad.

So if I haven’t registered my kid for Shalom School or Hebrew tutoring or a study group just yet, it isn’t because of any scandal. It’s my fundamental problem with the system itself. And it may never get resolved to my liking, and that’s cool, because my family’s Judaism lives in the candles, the prayers, the blackened honeycakes and our faith.

But it sure would be nice to commune with others without any conflict.

 

 

 

Kippah Clip Genius

Please forgive the unforgivable pun, but it sure is refreshing to see the interwebs blowing up with something positive coming out of Israel.

All over every gadget site this week and joining the ever growing list of examples of Israeli ingenuity—which includes cell phones, portable flash drives and the camera on the end of the hose they shove up you for a colonoscopy—is the Leatherdos, a multi-functional tool masquerading as a barrette.

enhanced-20787-1406490235-3Tel Aviv industrial design student (and obvious future Mossad recruit) Yaakov Goldberg came up with the Most Amazing Yarmulke Clip in History for his yeshiva buddies, and now every observant man in the world will be unclipping his kippah to measure the unkosher space between the slats in your terribly-built sukkah.

It’s good to know I can snatch this off someone’s head in synagogue next time a screw falls out of my sunglasses.

Of course, it still wouldn’t be kosher to use on Shabbat, unless it was an emergency, like if you found yourself locked on a moving trolley (wtf is a trolley coin, anyway?) and needed a chihuahua-tooth saw and tiny wrench to detonate a bomb. (Dammit! I’m sorry. There’s really no escaping the explosively tasteless humor around here.)

Anyway, Presbyterian divestment be damned, young Yaakov has a bestseller on his hands head—the $10 clip is already on back order.

Guessing it won’t be long before it’s standard IDF in rucksacks and on next year’s camp list.

And the countdown until one of these in confiscated by a TSA agent starts now…