Todos Es Gracia Even Though I’m A Hot Mess

Fabulous article in the Forward featuring Ladino songstress Sarah Aroeste:

“For Ladino Musicians, The World’s A Stage: Artists are Forging a Global Sephardi Culture”

I’ve been a fan of this spicy Jewish singer ever since my mother quoted her lyrics in her novel The Blind Eye (currently being re-released on L’Image Press with an awesome new cover.) We like to call her our Spanish cousin, though I’m not sure she wants to own our Eastern European DNA.

Along with a handful of other artists, Sarah has breathed new life into Ladino, the quirky Judeo-Spanish dialect last heard in the streets of Portugal circa the late 15th century, mining its rich, round sounds. Her new album, Gracia, shakes up the old with new things that the Sephardic rabbis probably hadn’t planned on, like sick beats and feminism and Sarah’s sultry, sexy tones, all of which place what was one a dying language quite firmly in the NOW.

Check the new single with samples from Gloria Steinem and raps by Hebrew Mamita Vanessa Hidary:

The song was inspired by Dona Gracia Nasi, a 16th century writer and activist who stood up to the forced conversions of the Jewish people in Portugal and Spain (her JWA profile is fascinating.)

“All is grace” is also the perfect mantra for me at the moment, as I’ve just discovered that I somehow overlooked the full-on tax code of summer camp forms and health history and character assessment worksheets that warn the counselors that your kid might be a little freaky and not the best sleeper but has above average leadership skills and hates lima beans. All these were due four weeks ago. Camp starts in a week. And the doctor’s office is closed today.

Fifteen minutes ago I opened up the monster PDF and decided maybe they didn’t have to go to camp after all.

Now that my inner castanets are clicking, I think I can deal.

The Giant Tome of Kvell

It always makes my stomach a little barfy when lists are published “proving” how Jewish people are smarter and/or more accomplished than any other group of people that inhabit the Earth.

Not because the disproportionate amount of Jewy names on Nobel prizes (23% of the total ever awarded) and powerful businesspeople lists (24% of Fortune‘s Top 25) gives fodder for the whole “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” mishegoss that Jews secretly rule the world. Or that such lists, found readily on nasty white supremacist web sites, feed the fuel of global anti-Semitism (jealous much, beeotches?) And it’s not even because the self-lauding of such fabulous feats displays a level of hubris that’s just in poor taste.

Sure, the numbers are there: 14.3 million Jews in a world of 6.23 billion humans = .00207% of the world population, yet we seem to be EVERYWHERE (except Wal-Mart.)

But the real reason it skeeves me out when someone started pointing out all the accomplishments of “the Jewish people” is because frankly, it just makes me look bad.

I come from a family of accomplished people—my mother is working on her sixth book, my father volunteers in third-world operating rooms and my Brother the Doctor basically saved ten lives this morning before I finished my tea. As the perpetual underachiever of the lot, it is not helpful to be reminded how statistically, I should have made millions in real estate, invented a new molecule, donated a children’s hospital and rocked out a couple of blockbuster movies by now. It’s a LOT of pressure to swim in this gene pool, people. I don’t need any added stress. (And maybe I’m not the only one, since Jews are also found in therapists’ offices in large numbers, dealing with neuroses.)

However, when Steven L. Pease’s The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement: The Compendium of A Culture, A People and Their Stunning Performance arrived at my door, I could not help but shunt aside my slacker swagger to make room for some serious kvelling. Literally, since there wasn’t actually room for me and this book to be in the foyer at the same time.

The size of a challah on Prednisone, or say, a supersize mandelbrot, this is 622 pages of dizzying, exhaustively-researched awesome. It’s an encyclopedia of Jewish exultation, a magnum opus that spotlights Jewish involvement in almost every aspect of modern civilization. From military to civil service to sports to philanthropy to Broadway to Hollywood to high-tech, there’s an entry for some enterprising Einstein or Feinstein or Weinstein or Koufax or Rosenwald or Gershwin or Guggenheim. And don’t forget the bad guys, too—oligarchs (Russia’s Mikhail Khordorkovsky) and mobsters (Lansky) and spies (Rosenberg). There’s even a paragraph on Jewish pirates.

In his introduction, Pease, who is not Jewish, respectfully declares a lifelong affinity for Jews, beginning with sympathetic horror as post-WWII photos of concentration camps were released, followed by cheers for the underdog as the state of Israel fought for its independence and continuing through his years as a student at Harvard and career as a venture capitalist which were populated by Jewish roommates, partners, employees and friends. He took on the task of cataloging Jewish (over)achievement in order to fill his time while caring for his sick mother, but it was writer Rabbi Harold Kushner who charged Pease with figuring out WHY Jews have racked up so many accomplishments since breaking out of the shtels in the late 19th century. (Pease uses the term “Jewish Emancipation” to mark the move from oppression to assimilation in Eastern Europe.)

Rather than simply an almanac of names and facts, The Golden Age provides a outsider’s analysis, piecing together history and speculating how certain factors figure into certain individual’s success. In the end, Pease decides it’s not DNA or racial superiority or a special stamp from God that has levied so many Jews to high levels of success and service but participation in a culture that values education and an adaptable religious doctrine that both adheres to tradition and is open to change. This combination of adaptability and observance is also what has stirred the pot of hatred in our neighbors through the centuries.

The last chapter muses whether the swift rise of Jewish accomplishment will stagnate and fade as intermarriage, complacency and “á la carte” religion dilute what was once a necessarily cloistered culture. I wonder if in the coming years the emphasis of education in India and Chinese culture will create a more competitive global setting that inspired people to make lists of Patels and Huangs.

Rabbi Kushner calls The Golden Age “a book to strengthen one’s pride in being Jewish,” which of course it is. But in the wrong hands, it will surely be used as textbook for conspiracy theorists who will look at the numbers of corporate CEOs and won’t appreciate Pease’s thoughtful examinations. It probably isn’t going to debunk the sick myths about Jewish world domination. But it is nice to have this particular perspective of history all in place where our children can read, saucer-eyed, about the marvelous triumphs (and trials) of their ancestors and elders.

Though maybe I won’t leave it lying around lest mein kinder shoulder the undue pressure of thinking they’re expected to win a Nobel Prize. Then again, maybe one of them will find the cure for neuroses?

Summer Reading Riot

I know summer’s only just begun, but I tend to snarf through good books like they were covered with chocolate sprinkles and laced with crack. One of these days I hope to be hawking my own book, God willing, but until then, I’m content to immerse myself in the genius of others.

Of course, it’s a challenge to squeeze in reading time now that I’ve got a day job again, let alone think about writing something with chapters and an actual plotline. I find myself lying about doing laundry just so I can disappear to suck down a few more pages. So I cannot comprehend how Rabbi Zoe Klein managed to scribe Drawing in the Dust—she has a huge L.A. congregation to tend to, not to mention a family, and even if she doesn’t have to do everyone’s laundry, she still must have had to call upon some divine time management skills to craft such a richly-drawn, carefully plotted book.

The rabba’s first novel, Drawing in the Dust, is the story of an unhappy, beautiful archaeologist (there’s a funny interchange in the book about whether she’s “depressed,” “repressed” or “oppressed”) who stumbles upon the remains of a mysterious woman wrapped in arms the prophet Jeremiah. Accompanying the bones of the prophet and his lover is a scroll mirroring the Book of Jeremiah and would be the only documented proof of a woman’s voice in ancient times — if only it wasn’t fiction. (What’s amazing is that Klein herself wrote—practically channeled, really—the scroll of Anatiya while in seminary.)

Highly suspenseful and deeply spiritual, the plot revolves around the scroll and its complicated love story as well as the difficult romance of the non-Jewish archaeologist and an Orthodox historian. Klein does such as artful job of keeping the character’s inner struggle a consistent presence without smashing us over the head with it and still manages to weave in the juxtapositions of the Holy Land’s hidden historical secrets and modern pulse and Arab/Israeli relationships. The descriptions of the archaelogical sites are breathtaking, making place a strong character in itself.

Here’s the author explaining her process:

Is it weird to want her to be my rabbi, mentor and BFF?

Speaking of mentors, I hope to one day be a part of novelist Jonathan Rabb’s local writing group. A former Columbia political theory professor, Jonathan moved to Savannah a few years ago from NYC (what can we say? It’s a lovely place to raise a family) and now pens his best-selling historical fiction from Ardsley Park. Because I can’t manage to fit in his writing group yet, I’m consoling myself by consuming his Shadow and Light, the second book in a trilogy set in Berlin between the two world wars. (I have yet to the first, Rosa, since it was already checked out of the library, and the third, tentatively titled The Second Son, will be released in early 2011.)

Noirish and impeccably researched (did I mention the man taught at Columbia?), Shadow and Light utilizes the real-life backdrop of Germany’s Weimar Republic and budding film industry to tell a story of murder, conspiracy and decaying social morale. Another example of how place becomes an active character in fiction, Shadow and Light is a history lesson that crackles with Sam Spade-quick dialogue and hundreds of tiny details. I’m not usually one for crime novels or political commentary, but the combination of perfectly-drawn characters (even the anonymous truck driver in the first scene sticks in the brain) and tasteful treatment of the sordid action of Berlin’s underbelly has me burning through pages when I should be attending other responsibilities (how long can you leave sheets in the dryer without molding?)

After Rabb’s book, I’ve got Chris Cleave’s Little Bee beckoning to me from the nightstand. And if anyone’s looking for chuckle-worthy, stereotype-skewering satire, I must recommend Stressed in Scottsdale scribed by my very own mama, Marcia Fine.

Happy reading! What, you say you’re pressed for time? You’re welcome to sneak down to the laundry room with me.

Aw Yeah, More Jewish Afro Latin Funk

Sheesh, if this keeps up, I’m gonna have to create a whole new category.

Please meet Brownout from Austin, TX, who will be kicking out their dirty jams at the SXSW festival March 18.

I gotta disclaim: I first heard about Brownout when from someone’s random Facebook comment touting the band as “filthy Afro-Latin funk with a Jewish twist,” so of course, I went a’hunting for the Hebrew connection.

Turns out their music isn’t specifically influenced by Shlomo Carlebach or anything, and the above album cover art design was never actually used. However, Brownout’s manager David Lobel is Jewish, as is saxophonist Josh Levy, who Lobel assures me is definitely twisted. Kosher enough for me.

Here’s “Slinky” from their new album Aguilas and Cobras:

Afro-Hebrew Dance Music? YES.

“Todah raba” to my homie Dan Skidmore-Hess for turning me on to Fool’s Gold, a band out of L.A. whose sound sensation combines African beats with Hebrew lyrics.

NPR describes their perky guitar style and tight syncopation as a mash-up of Congolese rhumba, Malian desert blues and 70s Ethiopian soul — which is quite a feat, considering those are three very disparate regions on a rather enormous continent.

I’m thinking I hear what might have transpired if African master Ali Fakar Touré and Talking Heads’ vocalist David Byrne and Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen smoked a bunch of weed together and jammed to an epic California sunset. As it is, the video for “Surprise Hotel” by Fool’s Gold is definitely channeling some kind of wackiness. Not sure how girls in bikinis, old men with snorkels and an iguana fit in, but love it:

What a gift to enter 2010 not feeling like freak for being a Jewish girl who gets hyper at the sound of a djembe! (DS-K, remember when you thanked me for introducing you to the kosher soul of Blue Fringe? We are good now, dude.)

Want to read about the origins of the Jewish African Cowgirl? Read my essay “Tribal Confusion,” originally published in 2007.

Cookin’ With Clichés

BOOK2-200One of the perks of being a loudmouth Jewish blogger is that occasionally my opinions are solicited about a new product or book relating to our people. A few years back, the publicist for The Jewish Princess Cookbook contacted me to see if I’d like a review copy. I cringed immediately.

Listen, I’m not one to judge a book by its cover — or its title. But the term “Jewish Princess” stopped me cold. I don’t care how much you love Frank Zappa, it’s undeniably pejorative, attributing a superficiality and materialism to Jewish women, and I couldn’t believe that a publisher in the 21st-century would perpetuate such a negative stereotype. After checking the web site and finding sample recipes for inane things like “Grapefruit with Brown Sugar” and “Melon Balls in Champagne”, plus a lot of tired shtick springing from the old joke, “What does a Jewish princess make for dinner? Reservations!” I passed on reviewing it on my web site. Like my mother taught me; “If you can’t say anything nice…”

It turns out the bad jokes are on me. Authors Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine not only embrace the Jewish Princess cliché, they are workin‘ it. That first cookbook was a bestseller in their native United Kingdom, and the British BFFs have appeared on TV and radio, lauding themselves as the “new ambassadors for Kosher cooking.” Seems that there are plenty of Jewish women out there who identify with their lavish lifestyles and simple kitchen tips, not to mention the interpretation of the laws of kashrut as the first “Diet Bible.”

So now Tarn and Fine have written a second cookbook, and I thought it only fair to take a closer look. Their latest endeavors at the stove are featured in The Jewish Princess Feast & Festivals, a collection of recipes for the major holidays and others simchas couched in the Princesses’ familiar saccharine humor. However, once you get past the references to plastic surgery and designer handbags (“What did the Jewish Princess say to her baby? Gucci, Gucci, Gucci!”) there happen to be a few useful dishes to incorporate into your homecooked menus.

Most of the recipes don’t require more than a handful of ingredients or more than a rudimentary knowledge of basic cooking skills. According to the authors, this is because Jewish Princesses don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen in between shopping and getting their nails done, but for those who have jobs or don’t necessarily enjoy spending the entire day making one meal, this works out for us, too.

For dairy ideas on Shavout, the “Vegetable Risotto” and “Spinach and Ricotta Tart” are quick, tasty main courses, and I’m looking forward to trying out the “Lemon-Chile Lamb Chops” on the grill during Sukkot. And though “Hosting a Designer Dinner Party” may not be anywhere close to the top of your agenda, the collection of canapés might prove useful at your next book club meeting.

So though I still find their concept offensive, I’m not one to turn down a decent kugel recipe. But that doesn’t mean I condone the Jewish Princess stereotype, nor do I plan to follow the Princesses into their quest for fame. Yes, it turns out the Princesses have penned a third book out this fall, The Jewish Princess Guide to Fabulosity, exploring topics like hairdressers and mother-in-laws.

Frankly, I don’t even want to know.

Champagne Salmon
Serves 4
(from the Jewish Princess Feasts & Festivals by Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine)
For the fish:
2 ¼ pounds fresh salmon
¼ teaspoon dried dillweed
2 onions, sliced
1 ¾ cups sparkling wine (your choice)
salt and pepper to taste

For the crème fraîche sauce
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
¼ cup water
½ cup crème fraîche
2 squeezes of fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon of dried dillweed

Preheat the oven the 350˚F.

Wash the salmon well and place on a sheet of foil on a baking sheet.

Add the rest of the fish ingredients, then make a loose parcel with the foil to seal the fish. (Mine resembles a clutch bag, of course!)

Bake for 10-15 minutes.

Unwrap your parcel and remove the fish with a slotted spoon. Strain the stock and reserve for the sauce.

To make the sauce, mix the flour and water together in a bowl until smooth. Reserve.

In a saucepan over low to medium heat, slowly heat the crème fraiche. Add the 4 tablespoons of the strained stock, the lemon juice, dill and seasoning.

As the sauce begins to simmer, add the flour past, then turn down the heat and cook, stirring, for at least 1 minute.

Remove from heat, and serve the sauce with the fish.

The dish can be served hot or cold.

Don’t forget to serve with a glass of Princess Pink Champagne. Lechayim!”

New Discoveries…

septLoves JessicaSAVI’m totally loving this hamsa necklace by Israeli artist Seeka. Protection + sweet style = much lovelier than chicken swinging…Not that I’m superstitious, but I’ll take all the help I can get these days.

They’re carried locally (and affordably!) by Chroma Gallery on Barnard Street, and it’s always an awesome surprise to see Judaica for sale in downtown Savannah amongst the kitsch and candy.

And here’s a shout-out to my homegirl Steph for turning me on to another new favorite thing: The Red Box is a network of vending machines for DVDs – cheap, easy and always open! Hollywood Video and their “deals” can kiss my tuchus!

We rented “Defiance” outside Walgreen’s last night – the Bielski Brothers’ tale of Nazi resistance in the Belarussian forest haunted my dreams last night. Made me wonder if EYM and I should shore up our survival skills so we could move all the JEA Yentas out to the swamps of Wassaw Island if there ever came a reason…

Mental Illness as Entertainment

An old boyfriend once told me I made a beautiful depressed person. I took this as a compliment since at the time I was sort of cultivating a tortured writer-Betty Blue thing that required smoking constantly, crying a lot about the hopeless state of the world and quoting Dorothy Parker’s Resume. Looking back, it was definitely one of my more obnoxious phases. Fortunately, after a few months I was able to climb my way out of that suckhole of a relationship and start hanging out with people who thought I looked a lot prettier when I was happy.

But still, then as now, I value people who can appreciate a good trudge through the cesspools of the soul. Someone who understands that it’s possible to be grateful for life and its myriad blessings and still recognize that it freakin’ sucks, it hurts, that it’s messy and confusing. Certainly most of my favorite writers, from Balzac to Bukowski to Rumi to Roth, have all been ecstatically depressed.

But there’s one hot mess in particular who’s psycho shtick always made me feel better about myself because I know I’ll never be quite as crazy as he is – comedian Richard Lewis. I remember being 14 and watching the illicit HBO while my parents were asleep (yes, as well as being a head case, I’m also a lifelong insomniac) and watching this guy hem and haw his way through a monologue that took me out of my own teenaged, chubby, pimply Braceface angst.

The constant pacing, the head-slapping, the groaning “Ohmygawd, I’m so depressed” – I realized that this crazy cat from Brooklyn who even I in my suburban innocence pegged as a cokehead and myself shared a neurotic wavelength that was actually sort of funny, possibly even hilarious, and undeniably Jewish. I began entertaining my friends at school with Richard Lewis impressions – using his “from hell” to the max. “Ohmygawd, I can’t believe it, did you take the biology test? Mr. Olsen is the teacher from hell!“”Mom, spaghetti again? This dinner is, like, from hell!” (that one got me grounded, of course.)

I’ve been navigating the narrow road between trying to make people chuckle and obsessing over my ego ever since, which eventually – along with too much red wine and prententious poetry – led me into the above-mentioned “beautiful depressed person” persona. Not too many laughs there. So, like I said, I moved away from that planet, but I still end up visiting once in a while. Between the (IMHO, biased) coverage on Israel and the departure of my parents back to Scottsdale (meaning the another long absence of stellar Scrabble partners, free babysitters and two of my favorite people), it seemed I was going to be taking a visit to the abyss for a bit.

But amazingly, an antidote came swooping into town just in time: The Savannah Jewish Federation sponsored a one-night stand with my favorite batsh*t Jew last night at the JEA.

It started off a little shaky – Richard seemed more than a little scattered at first – actually, I don’t think he finished a thought for the first 20 minutes even though he’s been sober for 15 years. Once he warmed up though, he was in true form, spewing neuroses about sex, his sidekick role on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bush’s last days and the Rolling Stones. He’s still stupendously mulleted and wore an asymmetrically-zippered suit that in his words, made him look like a moron.

El Yenta Man, his brother (heretofore known as BIL, as in Yenta brother-in-law) and I were sitting with the “Young Jewish Savannah” crowd (they had seats reserved for us and everything, plus we got to meet-and-greet with Richard before the show – photos to come! I may have to lie to keep up such VIP status when El Yenta Man turns 40 this year) – but the average age in the room was probably 65. Everyone who’d donated to the Federation was there, and let’s face it; there are more Jewish philanthropists on Lipitor than not.

Now if you know Richard Lewis, you already know this is not a chaste type of humor. And not much into subtlety, either – in fact, once he got juiced, the obscenities flew fast and furious about stuff you might not want to hear while sitting next to your bubbe. I’m just sayin’ some of the old kosher folks from the Jewish retirement home may have followed him for a while, but I think he lost half the room at “masturbation puppet.”

Me, my sides ached by the time it was over, which was a whole lot better than the tension headache from hell I had when I got there. I don’t know if Richard Lewis appreciate a comparison to lamb’s blood on the door, but this guy sure staved off the Angel of Depression at my house.

Here’s some vintage Richard from my BraceFace days:

You Light Up My Life

menorahAs the planet spins like a lopsided blue dreidel towards the darkest day of the year this Sunday, I must admit I feel like I’m taking a bath in the blackness. When you’ve got crazy assholes with guns and bombs attacking cities and shitbags like Bernie still on the loose and, oh – the astonishing ridonkulousness that people actually name their children Adolf Hitler and then cry First Amendment rights when a shopkeeper refuses to decorate the kid’s birthday cake with swastikas (the retard parents did finally get their Nazi cake – courtesy of Wal-Mart, who else?) – plus your usual mass rapings and killings in Africa and child sex slaves in Asia, well, humanity just sorta adds up to a really fucked-up mess.

And yet somehow, we power on, with our hope and our love and our creativity that it might just get better tomorrow. The faithful folks at have posted a sweet, one-minute movie to remind us that this season celebrates actual living proof that the weak can overcome the mighty and that miracles do happen.

Some sage once said it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, so here we go now, Jews and Christians and pagans alike, lighting up millions of candles and burning miles of flourescent light bulbs as a sparkling paean to hope. All those menorahs in windows and pretty blinking trees and yes, even the freakishly life-sized manger scene in Habersham Woods (I almost took baby Jesus out for a joyride last night, but the cow scared me away) are better than Prozac-laced eggnog, and I plan on drinking in a big dose.

Thank you, dear readers, for continuing to patronize this blog with your eyes and comments. Hearty Chanukah (do not deny the back-of-the-throat pronunciation of the almighty Chet!) greetings from the Yenta, and for the goyishe among ye, wonderful wishes for whatever the Solstice-based, banishing-the-darkness celebration of your choice.

Don’t Mess With The Pig

I will not deny that I am more than a little vain. I happily wear undergarments that make my tushy look smooth as glass, and thanks to my mother’s scolding wisdom, I have been using eye cream since I was 11.

But I have limits on what I will do to preserve my delicate Polish beauty (mostly because I am cheap and lazy, hence my campaign to bring prematurely gray hair and quick-bitten fingernails into high style) and I definitely draw the line at injecting diseases that kill entire African villages into my laugh lines.

Now that the FDA has approved pig collagen shots as the latest way to play on America’s obsession over growing old ungracefully, I can just play the trayf card, nu?

Thanks to Adam S. for the tip! ~