The Yenta Immortalized in Yarn and Sequins

IMG_8484 (2)Fiber artist and SCAD MFA student Willian Nassu creates incredible textiles on a Jacquard loom. This Brazilian-born whiz marries old school technique with high-tech tools, fitting the 19th-century loom with a computer to project his designs.

For his thesis exhibition, this wondrous weaver chose 10 local “celebrities” to immortalize in colorful yarn and sparkly sequins, and I was quite honored to see my punim at the opening of the “Savannah Icons” show at the Andaz Hotel!

It’s quite a shock to see one’s face enlarged to three feet, but once I got past the weirdness of examining my own two-inch teeth, I marveled at the details of each thread and meticulously-placed sequin. In fact, the more I looked at it, the more abstract it became, and I finally had to go drink some wine before I fell into my own face.

Willian (yes, with an “n”) began the project using actual celebrities (check the Jake Gyllenhaal, yo!) but found that working with within Savannah’s local community was far more satisfying (funny, I feel the same way.)

“I’m not from the U.S. so it was a nice way to research the city and try to get to know people,” he told the Savannah Art Informer.

“I’ve been here for two years almost and I barely know anyone outside SCAD. At SCAD we stay in this very small world and this was an opportunity to break out of that.”

For the record, Willian chose this photo (an Instagram selfie from last summer) before he’d even met me. Now he knows what I dork I am, and I know what an incredible talent he is, so the cult of celebrity shall swing the other way!

Read the rest of SAI’s awesome interview here.

i-Shiva or i-Shanda?

So I was lamenting the dearth of Rosh Hashanah parodies on Twitter recently (do you follow @yoyenta? Please do!) and lo and behold, my mother sends me a link to this.

While it has nothing to do with the Days of Awe, it does involve deli meat, loquacious yentas and bored hipsters, so ya know, it’s super Jewish. I guess it’s funny.

But I kind of also wonder who we’ve become when a shivah — a gathering of mourners where, yes, there is usually some delicious snacking because nothing assuages grief like stuffed cabbage — is lampooned as nothing more than a comedic drive-thru window.

I know, I’m just sensitive, probably because sitting shivah for someone you actually knew and cared about isn’t all that fun. Maybe I just have low-blood sugar.

Here, watch my favorite Fountainheads’ Rosh Hashanah parody from days of yore while I go get a corned beef sandwich.

Phoenix: A Holocaust Film For the Faint of Heart

11191735_oriFor the most part, any movie about the Holocaust or its aftermath is a trigger for me.

I tend to shy away from them, not because I don’t think they’re important and that I want quash history, but because I usually end up hysterical for days, even if the ending is spun hopefully.

Though they are beautiful and finely wrought, films like The Pianist and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tend to send me down the bad feeling hole, worry and guilt and panic bubbling under my skin.

I promise, I’m never gonna forget. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.

My cinema-induced anxiety might be a scientific fact: For her next book, my mother, author Marcia Fine, has been researching epigenics, the study of how trauma can affect DNA. Demonstrating how horrorific events can affect future generations, Scientific American recently published a piece about altered stress hormone levels among descendants of Holocaust survivors.

So, suffice it say, the Holocaust doesn’t usually make it to my Netflix list. I don’t get a lot of time to watch movies at all, and when I do, I prefer to be entertained, not distressed.

But a respected friend recommended the German film Phoenix to El Yenta Man, and he insisted we go. I couldn’t remember the last time EYM invited me out for a movie, let alone one with subtitles, so I had to. Also, he promised I could have a whole XL box of Junior Mints to myself.

I knew my fragile countenance would be protected from the very first scene. A car pulls up to a Swiss checkpoint right after the war bearing two women. The head of the passenger is entirely wrapped, save a pair of haunting eyes. The driver tells the English-speaking soldier, “She was in the camps.”

The soldier demands that she unroll her bandages, but instead of being subjected to the usual American-style gore, we see only his reaction to her wounds.

What follows is a masterful psychological thriller in the vein of Hitchcock, each scene measured with a balance of exposition and suspense. We learn that the patient, Nelly (played with such harrowing delicacy by Nina Hoss,) is a Jewish chanteuse who has narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis, but her entire family is gone. Her friend Lene (Woman in Gold‘s Nina Kunzendorf; no I haven’t seen it) helps Nelly recover from facial reconstruction surgery, though she does not quite look like her past self. Lene tries to sell her on a move to Haifa or Tel Aviv with her inheritance, but Nelly’s greatest urge is find her husband, Johnny.

It’s clear that she cannot accept her new self until Johnny validates her. Thing is, Johnny may or may not have been the one who betrayed Nelly in the first place. She finds him, but instead of recognizing her, he sees her as a good enough substitution to claim her family’s money. He’s obviously a cad, but the nuanced performance by Ronald Zuerfeld keeps us guessing until almost the very end.

Writer/director Christian Petzold doubles down on the mystery, disguise and deception, but ultimately, this film is about a woman’s reclamation of her identity in love and life. And because I really like happy endings, I felt tremendous joy in this film’s last rising moments.

Hope you’ll enjoy its limited run in theaters over the next few weeks, and perhaps it will make it to the Jewish Film Festival circuit. And don’t be afraid to add it to your Netflix list, even if your heart is as faint as mine.

 

Time for (Local) Honeycakes from Savannah Bee Co.!

MTMyNjcxMDc3Nzk2MDcxNDM0

A new improved honeycake for the Yenta? Photo by Jess Brannen for Joy of Kosher

Listen, we all know I have a honeycake burning problem.

Every Rosh Hashanah, my loaves of love turn into shriveled bricks of charcoal, in spite of nice organic ingredients, Sister Sadie’s recipe and a ton of good intentions.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out where I go wrong. When they’re baked goldeny beautiful brown, they’re still goopy in the middle. By the time the center sets up into something that doesn’t have the texture of snotty oatmeal, the top is a blackened sheet of death, which is a terrible way to bring in a new year.

Did I overgrease the pans? Undergrease? Too much baking powder? Is my convection oven anti-Semitic?

Whatever the case, 5776 is gonna be the year this yenta breaks the cycle of honeycake failure. I’m going to start with a new recipe, because even though Sister Sadie and I go way back, I have some serious suspicions that she may be a little senile.

I’m still about keeping it local, of course, so I’m delighted to have come across this recipe on the Joy of Kosher blog for Orange Blossom Spiced Honeycake, using honey from one of my favey local spots, the Savannah Bee Co. (Not local? Shop the site, or get the sticky goods from Modern Tribe.)

It’s a fabulous excuse to use my mother-in-law’s neglected copper bundt pan, plus it includes directions for a glaze to cover up any burnt spots.

Savannah Bee Co.’s food photog and recipe development balabusta Jess Brannen has been contributing some other wonderful recipes to Joy of Kosher, though I’m pretty sure these Pintrest-pretty apple rosette thingies are beyond my baking skill set.

Lemme stick to tradition for now. I’ll let y’all know how the cake turns out next week — although you can probably guess if you see smoke streaming from the porch.

Jewels of Elul: 10 Years of Inspiration from Craig ‘N Co

jewels-xi-emailEvery year for the past decade, iconic musical leader and silver fox Craig Taubman has published a sweet little book of inspirations prior to the Jewish High Holy Days. Jewels of Elul is meant to help get us in the mindset of praying, giving and repenting during the extra-cleansing month before Rosh Hashanah, which I find super helpful because the whole New Year thing sort of sneaks up on me. (Maybe that’s why I always burn the honeycakes.)

I had the honor of writing a jewel for the very first book (linked here, or scroll to the bottom of this post) and have delighted ever since in the sweet shorts contributed by many wise souls, Jewish and not. (Hey there, Dalai Lama, hey…)

For round 11, Craig asked his legions of fans and followers to submit their favorites, a precious necklace of crowd-sourced gems, if you will: Jewels of Elul: Ten Years of Inspiration is available starting this Friday, Aug. 15, otherwise known as the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, and will come right to your inbox if you like.

The 29 shorts feature Elie Weisel, Anita Diamant (The Red Tent, y’all!), a whole bunch of rabbis including David Wolpe and Rami Shapiro, Pastor Rick Warren, brilliant feminist filmmaker Jill Soloway, Mary J. Blige, Arnold Schwarzenegger…and me.

Floored, y’all. Just floored. I can barely believe anyone takes the time to read anything I write, and I’m so humbled and honored that this tiny piece of my family’s experience has touched so many:

Learning How to Dance by Jessica Leigh Lebos

My mother-in-law’s mind is full of holes. She spends most of the day in a placid fog, a place where there’s nothing left to do but walk the dog and wonder what’s for dinner. Every time it’s chicken, she rolls her eyes and kvetches, “We had this last night!” No one argues with her anymore.The situation is undeniably tragic. She’s only in her early 60’s, has already suffered through cancer and a mastectomy, and her dementia has been diagnosed incurable.

Yet, her disease has set into motion a certain regeneration: Both of her sons have returned to Savannah to help care for her and to assume their roles as men alongside their father, who is finally learning to treat them like the mensches she raised. Her grandchildren — my kids — sit beside her and sing with gusto while she plunks out the same damn Disney song on the piano: “The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed…”

Whenever there’s music, she remembers exactly what to do. She snaps, she swings her arms; she’s particularly fond of jazz hands. This is endearing when “Funkytown” comes on the radio and she shimmies around the living room, less so when we’re in line at the grocery store and she sashays off in the direction of someone’s cell phone. My husband and I have made a family pact to never let her dance alone. Often we resemble a circus without a tent, a multi-generational band of spastic merrymakers getting down to the sound of the garbage compactor. Helping someone keep her grace doesn’t always look graceful.

We hold faith that God loves us so, and yet still, still, life hurts. Sometimes healing comes from accepting what is. Hope is learning how to dance with it.

****

Reading this a decade later, I tear up all over again. My mother-in-law, bless her, still lives and breathes, but the dementia has rendered her bedridden and speechless now for many years.

May all of us dance as long as we possibly can, and may the New Year bring us peace.

Thank you, Craig and Co., and I hope y’all will cherish these jewels as we head into 5776.

 

The Yenta’s Wet Hot American Summer Comes to A Close

10895024_oriSo, embarrassing fact: I just watched Wet Hot American Summer for the first time last week.

I KNOW. A movie about the last day of Jewish summer camp starring the favorite funny people of my generation has been streaming on Netflix for a decade and I’ve never once clicked there. A shonda if there ever was one.

A dear friend put it this way: “How is that even possible? You’re like, the Jewiest camper person ever. Plus you love Paul Rudd and will totally forgive him for Ant-Man.”

I dunno how this Jewish gem failed to hit my psyche in the last 14 years. Maybe because my kids were tiny needy dwarves when it came out, and it felt too weird to watch sexy teen movies while I was breastfeeding.

Or perhaps subconsciously, I did not want to revisit the social trauma of Jew camp, where I was the only girl did not possess a pair of Guess jeans.

All I know WHAS‘ status as a cult classic is fully deserved, and from now on when I don’t feel like having sex, I will tell El Yenta Man he tastes like a burger.

But I will tell you, I couldn’t even make it through a single episode of the new Netflix series. Am I the only one who thinks the asinine dialogue is boring and totally beneath this amazing cast of now-seasoned, highly successful comic geniuses? Apparently so.

Anyway, the most important part of this post is to note that tomorrow is MY kids’ last day of camp, and only the good Lord knows what kind of mishegoss they’ll get into because it’s pretty obvious no one will tell me unless there is blood or fire involved. (Though I’m anxious to see it Yenta Girl ends up being the camper that must be forced to shower.)

It’s also the tail end of adult-only time in Yentaland, a period that has been used to rip out the tile in the bathroom and sleep in the dust, eat popcorn for dinner and nothing for breakfast, let the dogs sleep in the bed and eat at the table, not reapply sunscreen, sleep naked because the dogs don’t care, drink three too many mojitos by 5pm and try to avoid the mobs following Adam Sandler around Tybee Island. (I’m not exactly sure what the concept of “The Do-Over” is, but I have great doubt that it will even be able to touch WHAS.)

It’s been awesome being able to dance in public without the kids around to tweet how disgusting we are, but I’m ready to have them home. I’m pretty sure they’ll make it back in one piece, unless of course, they are lepers.

Camp Care Packages: More Baggage than Bonus?

1823lovedA couple of years back in a post called “Camp Care Packages or Parcels of Dysfunction,” I mused on the possible insane implications of overthinking a padded envelope of Mad Libs and temporary tattoos.

In the six summers my children have escaped the heat for three weeks of archery, Israeli dancing and hip-hop HaMotzi (OMG, what, where has the time gone?! Now they both now pack razors!) I’ve tried to keep the gift parcels cheap and under control.

I make them cheap and infrequent—two per session at most—and follow camp guidelines, no matter how much Yenta Girl tries to convince me that pulling out the stuffing in a teddy bear and replacing it with a Costco-sized bag of Sour Patch Kids then duct-taping it inside a tampon box is totally cool with her counselors.

I’ve resisted the parental peer pressure to up my care package game and shook my head at the wackadoodle Pintrest pins (gluing a vision board to the inside of the box? NOT GONNA DO IT.)

Last week, as we were getting the kids settled in (did I mention it was their sixth year? They basically threw their duffels out of the car while it was still moving and shouted “Bye love you OMG THERE’S SHOSHANA!!!”) I observed a whole new level of meshuggeh.

When I went to the camp office to check on their canteen balances (enough to buy them a lemonade at Tweetsie Railroad, but not so much cash that they buy out the souvenir shop) I saw several mothers hustling in giant shopping bags full of cardboard boxes and padded manila envelopes. Some had broken out a rainbow of Sharpies and were color-coding them with “Week 1” and “Please deliver before third Shabbat” or “Give only if she is still homesick by fourth day.”

Yes, in addition to making a fourth freaking trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy the correct moisture-wicking underpants for the camping trip, these moms had planned, shopped and arranged three weeks of care packages in advance. AND PUT CUTE STICKERS ON THEM. Maybe I’m just jealous at their organizational skills, but this level of micromanagement seems just beyond healthy parenting parameters.

The kids hadn’t even dirtied a pair of socks yet, and already there was a huge, smothering wall of love piled up around the Gayle the Nice Office Lady’s desk. And what about spontaneity, or letting the kids let them know what they need in that first whiny letter their counselors make them write? It’s like buying next year’s Chanukah presents in February and finding out it October that they won’t be caught dead in a stupid Harry Styles t-shirt.

I self-righteously kvetched my thoughts on this to Gayle, who nodded sympathetically. Then she dropped the main reason these parents shlepped their care packages to camp:

“Well, it saves a lot on postage.”

Why didn’t I think of that? Woulda saved me the $20 I just spent to overnight pair of wool socks and some fake mustaches. Damn it.

Donate to JWI, Look Like A Mensch

ECardPreviewImageMother’s Day is coming up fast, and while I kvell and kvetch about my own state of motherhood in this week’s Civil Society Column, I can’t forget to give props to the woman who birthed me.

I can’t give her a bouquet from my own garden because 1) we live 2000 miles apart and 2) the stupid chickens ate the zinnias and 3) my mother is allergic to certain flowers, but I can’t remember which ones.

So I continue my yearly tradition of the next best thing:

For half the price of some hothouse wax job, the Flower Project of Jewish Women’s International sends out an instant e-card to your favorite mama and uses the funds to bring fresh flowers to domestic women’s shelters all over the country.

Each $25 card shows your mom what a mensch you’ve become by thinking of others, and you still have plenty of time to get it done, in case you happen to be super busy.

It’s ingenious—all the flowers for Mom, but none of the sinus problems!

flowers2Enjoy, mom!

#ItWasNeverADress Creator and Former Yenta Youth Group Crony Demolishes Gender Stereotypes

bathroom-sign-gender-equality-it-was-never-a-dress-tania-katan-1Hopefully by now you’ve caught a glimpse of the reworked universal symbol everyone is talking about:

This graphic whipped through the interwebs this weekend with mentions in the New York Times, BoredPanda, the Today Show, HuffPo and about eleventy billion tweets lauding its brilliance.

What better way to “shift perceptions and assumptions about women” than to reveal the ubiquitous bathroom lady as the superhero she was all along?

The campaign was launched last week by Arizona-based software company Axosoft as PR for its Girl in Tech Conference and to promote more female participation in Science, Tech, Engineering, Art and Math, which is always a good thing.

But here’s my favorite kicker: #ItWasNeverADress is the brainchild of a certain Tania Katan, author, activist and the reason why Temple Emanuel youth group meetings in the 1980s were so much fun. She recently left her post as Curator of Performing Arts at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art to become Creator of Code at Axosoft, a surprising switch that shows just how creative and exciting the STEAM world has become.

Super proud to know this woman and watch her genius shine!

Watch Tania ‘splain the campaign here.

Yes #MarriageEquality ‘Cause I LOVE to Cry At Weddings

I TAKE my role as a wedding guest very seriously. In fact, I have a checklist:

Flat shoes, ’cause I like to tear up the dance floor once the giddy couple does their first twirl. I can usually find someone’s old aunt to join me in the Charlie Brown.

Also, a roomy purse to take home a slice of cake. Superstition says that if you sleep with it

Chela Gutierrez (l.) married Cody Shelley in front of God and everybody in a ceremony presided over by sometimes-minister Roy Wood.

Chela Gutierrez (l.) married Cody Shelley in front of God and everybody in a ceremony presided over by sometimes-minister Roy Wood.

under your pillow, you’ll dream of your future spouse. I already married my Jewish McDreamy, but I do like my late night snacks in bed.

By far the most important thing to bring to a wedding is a lot of tissues. Witnessing two people declare that they’re in it together for life—even when the toilet clogs and somebody burns dinner at least once a week—always pushes my happy-cry button. And McDreamy doesn’t like it when I wipe my nose on his yarmulke.

For sure I shed some extra tears at the recent nuptials of Cody Shelley and Chela Gutierrez. Not only were these two lovelies totally made for each other, the ceremony had the distinction as my—and many of the other 250 or guests’—first gay wedding.

The scary storm clouds skedaddled at the last second to reveal a glorious, honey-glow afternoon, as clear a sign as any that the heavens were completely on board.

While they had to get their official marriage license across the border in South Carolina (more on that irony later), Cody and Chela—the communications director at Tybee Marine Science Center and one of Savannah’s Fire Dept.’s finest, respectively—exchanged vows April 18 at Juliette Gordon Low Park in front of a diverse crowd of friends, family, co-workers and cohorts.

To be honest, it wasn’t so different from any other wedding, other than that the betrothed each danced down the aisle to the raucous beats of the SCAD drumline. (Pachelbel’s Canon in D is for straight people and Muggles.)

Service Brewing, the Beer Growler and Five Point Beverage kept the suds and bubbles flowing. There were Pinterest-perfect details like Madame Chrysanthemum‘s fuschia feather bouquets and the pink souvenir koozies emblazoned with “C + C”. The homemade lasagna buffet was followed by a rose-festooned cake, courtesy of Cody’s mom, Diana Shelley. (“No pizza in sight,” somebody snickered.)

As internet-ordained minister Roy Wood (“I bought the collar online, too!”) reminded that we were gathered here today for a purpose “both spiritual and of the earth,” I felt the familiar tears of joy rise.

The event may have been monumental in its political significance, but in that tranquil moment under the shimmery pines, it was simply two people promising to share bathroom towels forever.

Still, when Roy declared, “I now pronounce you ‘Wives for Lives!'” I couldn’t help but bawl out loud for the sweet justice of it all.

I wasn’t the only one clutching a bouquet of wadded-up Kleenex.

“Even though we don’t want to make it a big deal, it is,” sniffed artist and landscape architect Lisa Watson, dabbing at her eyes.

For those who grew up in a time when “gay” was something discussed in hushed, disapproving tones, Cody and Chela’s wedding represented a welcome shift in the direction of cultural enlightenment.

(On a related note, Gay Savannah’s Tybee Rainbow Fest takes over the island this weekend.)

“I think it’s so wonderful,” kvelled liberal maven Miriam Center, marveling at the sea change towards the normalization of gay marriage in the last decade.

“They are great girls and deserve all the happiness in the world.”

Most of us feel exactly the same way. The latest poll shows that 61 percent of Americans believe gay marriage ought to be legal, and the same amount agrees that state bans on same-sex unions should not be.

Georgia remains one of the last 13 holdouts still clinging to its puritanical petticoats as the rest of the country flips a double-bird at pathetic prejudices cloaked as “religious freedom.”

How South Carolina—where it is still illegal to make moonshine or, if you’re under 18, operate a pinball machine—became more progressive than us remains baffling.

This week the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional, and it’s looking pretty good that the feds will overturn those discriminatory overtures. Attorney General Sam Olens has said that Georgia won’t fight the supreme edict, though I’ll bet my best Ginger Goff flats that legislation akin to the now-strangled SB 129, aka “the religious liberty bill,” will rear its vituperative snake head in the next session.

For those of us who understand that the most important part of the phrase “liberty and justice for all” is the last two words, marriage equality certainly intersects with civil rights. But Cody is surprisingly thoughtful about whether the fight for it is as paramount as society’s other scourges.

“On one hand, the debate is a distraction from issues of systemic violence and injustice. For me, it’s hard to scream about my right to marry while immigrant children are being deported, trans kids are killing themselves, and the school-to-prison pipeline incarcerates generations of black men,” she muses.

“On the other hand, I’d rather confront those inequalities with a wife by my side. And I damn sure want the same legal rights as the next married couple.”

For now, without the same legal protection, tax benefits and parental rights afforded hetero marriages, Cody and Chela’s union remains symbolic in our home state.

But symbols hold power, and these women showed tremendous courage and generosity by inviting what seemed like half the town to what they called their “big, fat, gay wedding.”

“Our decision to have it in the first half of 2015 was based solely on the upcoming Supreme Court decision,” says blushing bride Cody. (Her sparkling spouse Chela admits all she cared about was getting to dance down the aisle to the drums. That, and getting the girl.)

“I’m proud to have been the first gay wedding for so many friends and families. I hope the experience has a ripple effect throughout our lives and brings even just a few more people to the side of equality and love.”

I hope so, too, and that it translates not only to wedded bliss but to the resolution of injustice for all.

I also hope the SCOTUS ruling means I get invited to a lot more weddings.

But I’m definitely going to need a bigger purse.

Cross-posted from this week’s Connect Savannah.