Modern Tribe Store Open in ATL!

Well, this is exciting!

Screen_Shot_2014-06-26_at_11.19.55_AM_grandeModern Tribe, the super hip online Judaica shop has a swanky new storefront in downtown Atlanta!

Those of you who live in areas of the country where you just pick up a new menorah or a kabbalah bracelet in between Pilates class and your morning latte, are like, yeah, *yawn*, whatevs.

But we who live in places where our sweet and well-meaning synagogue gift shops are the size of a bathroom stall, the idea of a WHOLE STORE OF JEWISH TSOTCHKES elicits a joyful dance that’s somewhere between twerking and the hora.

Shopping online is fine; it gets the job done. But I would have loved to see these gorgeous Jonathan Adler birds bowls that I bought for my Bro the Doc and his bride as a wedding gift before purchase–when I finally got to touch them in person, I was a little disappointed they didn’t hold more charoseth.

And I’d actually like to try on this adorable Candleschtick sweater to find out if it itches.

But this is the SOUTH, y’all, and Southern Jews accept that our storied history comes with certain limitations. We are so used to paying stupid money for the last box of Chanukah candles that we finding ourselves thanking the manager of Michael’s for designating an entire endcap to paper plates with dreidels on them. (I don’t know what Hobby Lobby’s got going on this year, and I don’t effin’ care.)

Sure, the Modern Tribe store is a four and half hour drive from me, but STILL, same state. Anyone up for a field trip? I’d drive, but the Absurdivan isn’t allowed to leave the city limits.

 

Hey, Zeus: What Every Jewish Mother Never Wanted

My children brought home some wonderful things from camp this summer: A tie-dyed challah cover. A swimming medal. A rock ‘n’ roll version of the Birkat Hamazon.

Of course, some of the things they brought home were not so wonderful, like moldy towels and a wicked case of athlete’s foot.

And then there’s this:

This is Zeus. Zeus

We were first introduced the last day of camp when my darling children that I hadn’t seen in three-and-a-half weeks threw their arms around my neck and told me how they’d missed me and how grateful they were for the experience of camp and someone needs to take the second session guinea pig home or he’ll die could we keep him please please please?

What can I say? They caught me off guard.

So that’s how the Yenta household added to its auspices—which already patronize the well-being of a diabetic pug that requires twice-daily insulin shots, four menopausal chickens, an aquarium containing three fish and a snail, a snake that makes an inordinate amount of noise, and four feral cats in the garage—a goddamn pet rodent.

If you’re not sure how I feel about rodents in my house, here’s what happened when a couple found their way into my pantry this summer.

And you probably already know that Guinea pigs are not even remotely related to pigs; they’re not even from West Africa. I don’t know what sicko decided to domesticate these little assholes, but I will tell you they are the most boring freaking pets on the planet (well, besides snails.)

Still, I indulged the children because I had missed them so. Also, it was too late since El Yenta Man had already named the guinea pig “Zeus” because he thought it was hilarious for a bunch of Jews to call out “Haaaay-Zeus!” every time this little varmint poked his nose out from his plastic cave.

It’s been three months that Zeus has lived with us and I’m about to lose my mind. First off, Yenta Girl’s room smells like a zoo. And the thing squeals like he’s being squeezed to death every time the dog walks by. Plus he’s gotten so spoiled from being fed fresh kale leaves I can feel him eyeballing me every time I make a salad.

I love my children, but if either of them ever tries to con me into adopting another thing that eats and poops they will be living in the garage with the cats.

Here is my point: Chanukah is coming. Would anyone like a free guinea pig? Otherwise, I may decide to use him to shut up the snake.

 

Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival this Sunday, Oct. 26!

The Great Fressing of Savannah takes place this weekend – here’s my piece in this week’s Connect Savannah:

ALL RIGHT, Savannah, are y’all ready to fress?

Any Jewish grandma would happily explain that “to fress” means “to eat with great gusto” in Yiddish. That same bubbe will also tell that you don’t need to know a shlemiel from a shlemazel to enjoy the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival, loxing up Forsyth Park this Sunday, Oct. 26.

This year over 10,000 noshers—some coming straight from church—are expected to descend on booths stretching from Gaston Street to the fountain for a variety of traditional Jewish and Israeli treats, from vats of matzah ball soup to sizzling potato latkes to garlicky hummus.

click to enlarge It wouldn’t be the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival without many vats of delicious and medicinal matzah ball soup. Photo by Becky Smith/Photos By Becky

  • It wouldn’t be the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival without many vats of delicious and medicinal matzah ball soup. Photo by Becky Smith/Photos By Becky

Speaking of tradition (any Fiddler on the Roof fans out there?), what began in 1988 as a tiny fundraiser for Congregation Mickve Israel has evolved into one of the city’s most beloved culinary events. Connect readers voted it their favorite food festival in 2013, and it’s regularly touted as a “don’t miss” on TripAdvisor.

It’s also a massive undertaking to feed 10,000 people, no matter how many machers are in the kitchen. (Macher = “person who gets things done,” usually while other people are sleeping.)

New congregant Risa Perl didn’t quite know what she committed to when agreed to take on the role of chair this year. She quickly found out it’s a full-time job, one she has spent every day working on since March —along with studying for her adult bat mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage.

click to enlarge shalom1-1.jpg

“Fortunately, I’ve had the help of about 300 volunteers, who have not only helped make this festival happen but have also made me feel like I’ve been part of this community for years,” says Perl, who moved from Port St. Lucie, FL to help her son adjust to life at SCAD.

She celebrated her bat mitzvah last month, and it turns out she’s a real balabusta (kind of like a macher to the 100th power): “I’ve actually signed on to chair the festival for the next four years.”

Perl and her crew have baked and braised and stuffed and rolled to make sure you won’t leave hungry, but this gathering isn’t just about the food. Here’s five more fabulous things you’ll find at Shalom Y’all besides the fressing:

5. Beer

Habersham Beverages owner Bubba Rosenthal has arranged for many kegs of He’Brew Beer, crafted by Shmaltz Brewing Company in Clifton Park New York.

“We’ll be right across from the kosher hot dogs—what goes together better than a hot dog and beer?” asks Rosenthal.

Be sure to toss back that to-go cup of He’Brew with the traditional Jewish toast to life—L’chaim! (Pronounced “Le-HIGH-im,” with a little throaty growl the second syllable.)

4. Bling

The Sisterhood Baubles booth collects costume jewelry and donated earrings, necklaces and other adornments all year long to raise funds for the synagogue and its various charitable activities. Treasures abound, from tasteful pearl-drop pendants to stars of David the size of a hubcap.

Please note that no one, but NO ONE, hoards flowered brooches like the bubbes in this town.

3. Entertainment

From the first blow of the shofar (ram’s horn) that designates the commencement of the festivities, the stage around the Forsyth fountain will resonate with delightful music: Danielle Hicks and the Eight Ohm Resistance ought to wake up everyone’s appetites with a honeyed mix of blues, rock and reggae, which may inspire a spontaneous round of the hora.

They’ll be followed by the mellower sounds of the Savannah Philharmonic Trio (the bubbes always say that classical music is good for digestion.)

click to enlarge Danielle Hicks and the Eight Ohm Resistance will rev up the festivities along with the Savannah Philharmonic Trio. Photo by Blake  Crosby

  • Danielle Hicks and the Eight Ohm Resistance will rev up the festivities along with the Savannah Philharmonic Trio. Photo by Blake Crosby

Should you feel the need to work off some of that extra chopped liver later in the afternoon, the Maxine Patterson School of Dance will lead a session of Israeli folk dancing.

2. Culture, dahlink

The Shalom Y’all Food Festival is an opportunity to support and learn about the third oldest Jewish congregation in America, established July 11, 1733—just five months after General Oglethorpe staked out the city of Savannah. (Take that, you Northerners who think the only Jewish people in the South live in Boca.)

Housed in the Gothic architectural gem on Monterey Square, Congregation Mickve Israel remains a tourist favorite (TripAdvisor users rank it No. 6 out of 122 attractions offered in the city) as well as a vibrant part of the Savannah community. Its members support dozens of interfaith and social justice activities each year, including Congregations in Service and Backpack Buddies, which provides food to local schoolchildren over the weekend.

Should you have any questions regarding Judaism, theology and/or Star Trek, to stop by the new “Ask the Rabbi” booth, manned by Mickve Israel’s Rabbi Robert Hass.

“This booth wasn’t my idea at all,” admits Rabbi Hass when asked why he chose to offer his sagacious services at the festival.

“The decision was made when I offered to cook.”

1. Who are we kidding? It’s about the food.

People wait all year for a plate of those crispy, golden-fried potato latkes, served with a dollop of sour cream and spoonful of applesauce. Ditto for the deli sandwiches—served with your choice of corned beef, pastrami or tongue. Other savory dishes include tangy stuffed cabbage and Sizzling Sephardic Lamb.

Then there’s those sweet cheese-filled blintzes, or maybe you go in for noodle kugel, baked just right to get that crown layer of crunch.

Various sweets—including the rugelach ubiquitous in every bubbe’s cookie jar—are ready for your carbo-loading pleasure, along with 750 loaves of challah.

Buy food tickets at either end of the festival; each ticket is $1 and most items range from $3-$9. Everything is available to go, maybe for the sick friend who could use the medicinal benefits of matzah ball soup.

Speaking of soup, here’s the difference between a shlemiel and shlmazel: Both are real shmos, but the shlemiel is the guy who spills the soup and the shlemazel is the one who gets spilled upon.

But you, you’re the macher who gets in line long before both of them.

Hear ye, hamsas!

il_170x135.669673000_77rjI had a birthday recently and was super delighted to receive this pair of lovely hamsa earrings from my co-worker and sassy feminist Alice J of Mic Drop Designs!

Miz Alice grew up among the busy Jewish neighborhoods of Sydney, Australia and has just added a bunch of Jewish-y bling to her Etsy shop:

The Challah At Ya Girl Statement was inspired by the cool Jewish ladies in my life, but you don’t have to be Jewish to wear it – maybe, like me, you just love wonderful baked goods and pretty silver jewelry with heart and meaning.

Thanks for the gift, Alice–I’ll wear these double Evil Eye repellers to the next city zoning meeting!

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.)