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! ~

Tzedakah Level 9?

God bless them, my parents have taken the “tire” out of “retirement” and thrown it off a bridge somewhere. I’ve kvelled continously over my mother’s literary accomplishments and generosity over the years (The Most Energetic Woman Alive just passed through town to smooch the grandkids and buy us new livingroom drapes on her way to realize a long-lived dream of hanging out in Paris for a month) but now it’s Dad’s turn:

After decades mired in the medical world as a surgeon, he closed his practice. For awhile, he played a lot of golf and cooked chicken parmagiana from scratch and drove my mother nuts.
He also began honing his photography hobby into something serious.

A few years ago, missing the adrenaline of cutting people open, he began volunteering his surgical services in fun, sun-filled places like Pakistan and parts of Africa so poor no one’s even heard of them. Last summer Dr. Skip (his favorite sobriquet these days – it’s chummy, easy to pronounce and ambiguously non-ethnic, which is convenient for Jews visiting countries where radical Muslims like to hole up) went to a small village in Tanzania, where he removed goiters and repaired appedixes and generally saved people’s lives with nothing more than a butter knife under a single light bulb. (Ok, I’m exaggerating about the butter knife. But the lighting part is true.)

His sporadic emails were full of appalling details about how little the villagers have (and heartening stories of how sweet and lovely they are) and as soon as he returned he started collecting medical equipment and materials to take back, filling two huge suitcases.

He’s there now, and this time he’s got a blog!

It’s great to get the daily updates, but it doesn’t seem like things at the tiny hospital have improved in the past year:

This one case points up so much of what’s wrong here. The equipment problem has gotten worse. Things like NG tubes , suction equipment and funtioning, reliable lights should be available. They don’t cost that much but nobody cares enough to see that they are on hand. It’s easy to blame the administrative personnel but I accuse the doctors. There is one cardiogram machine in the hospital and it is in the office of the physician/administrator who never sees a patient. The excuse you hear over and over is ‘Well, this is Africa. Things will get better poli-poli (little by little.)’ Well, people, poli-poli isn’t cutting it. I’ve been away from here over a year and from what I see things have gotten worse.They’ve gone from an occasional power outage to four or five a day with no improvement or even deterioration of back-up capacity. The conditions in the wards are dreadful. Most even lack a place to wash your hands … They have allocated a fortune to build a new surgical unit which will be beautiful but how can they use it when they lack the ability to supply the unit they already have? When built it will be a showplace to display to visitng dignitaries who have no idea that it is an empty shell providing the same crappy care as the old one.

It sounds so frusturating, but he keeps doing what he came to do, seeing patients, performing surgery, one stitch at a time. I’m so proud of him.

Maimonides categorized how we give of ourselves into Eight Degrees of Tzedakah – I wonder where Rambam would place continuing to give of one’s time, energy and skills even when the lights keep going out and there’s no antibacterial soap.

More Tales From A Bad Jewish Mother

You might think this post is about how Yenta Boy has been singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” non-stop since Carly Smithson rocked it hard on American Idol last week (song choice aside, Carly was the most talented of the bunch and shouldn’t have been eliminated) but you’d be wrong. No, it gets much, much worse.

A few weeks ago we brought home one of YB’s friends from Shalom School, a darling kid with fine manners and a wicked whiffleball swing. We headed out the beach for an afternoon of shark-tooth hunting and as the light began to get low, everyone’s stomachs began to grumble. Hungry children are whiny children, and my patience was not going to last through the drive back to town, so we decided to stop off at a local restaurant.

Now I knew that YB’s friend’s family keeps a kosher home, and El Yenta Man and I commended ourselves for ordering passably-parve fried grouper and french fries all around. The waitress was just walking away whenYenta Boy made a sound like a dying whale, which I, a linguistic expert in Whinese, translated “Can’t we order an appetizer?”

I shrugged, which is Mothering Sign Languange for “I don’t f*cking care, just shut that child up or I will pull someone’s hair, even if it has to be my own.”

So El Yenta Man added another dish to our order. Five minutes later, a steaming, savory-smelling basket arrived at the table and was promptly devoured by the kids like monkeys attacking a banana Moon-Pie. Our meal followed, and it wasn’t until we were driving along Highway 80 admiring the marsh at sunset that we heard Yenta Boy ask his friend, “So, did you like the calamari?”

EYM and I looked at each other and dropped our jaws simultaneously. “Oh, sh*t.”

There has never been a Walk of Shanda like the one we made up to our friends’ door that evening. I mean, is there any tactful way to say “I’m so sorry we trayfed up your son”?

Thank Our Benevolent Creator, instead of forbidding their child to ever come near our heathen, shellfish-scarfing family again, the kid’s parents laughed at our oversight and were as sweet and forgiving as could be. True Blue Jews, these folks. Though you can bet I’ll check my kashrut rule book should they ever invite us over for another potluck Shabbat.

And, of course, there is a Talmudic ending to this story: It really helped shrug* it off when another mom gave Little Yenta Girl a PB&J on white bread last week during Passover.

*In this case, the shrug can be translated as “we all make mistakes with other people’s children; if it didn’t cause bleeding or conversion, let it go.”

Kitsch Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

neilsedakaboxHow has this gem of a book eluded me until now? It was released in 2002 and I ogled over it for so long at a friend’s house last week that she let me take it home. Sisters Jennifer and Victoria Traig, who created the fabulousness that is Judaikitsch: Tchotchkes, Schmattes & Nosherei, are brilliant, funny balabustas.

I know Jennifer’s name from her more recent book, Devil in the Details, about her obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which explains the painstaking glue job on the “Neil Sedaka Box”.

From the publisher:

What would happen if Martha Stewart were abducted by a tribe of trailer park rabbis? Judaikitsch! Filled to the brim with crafts, collectibles, and creative cooking, here’s the ultimate guide to a funky, festive Jewish lifestyle.

Or, as I like to call it, next year’s kindergarten Shalom School curriculum.

Why Is This Bestseller Different from All Other Bestsellers?

bookIn spite of being a proud Person of the Book, I do not like to full price for them. But I was recently blessed to receive a gift card to Barnes & Noble and decided to splurge on an unthinkable luxury: A first edition hardcover.

It’s kind of a no-brainer that Geraldine Brooks‘ latest novel should receive the highest honor this Yenta can bestow: First of all, she won the Pulitzer Prize for March. And it’s got a Jewishy title and its on the NY Times bestseller list, which means there are people other than Jews are reading it. And it’s a thriller about books, which just appeals to my nerdy little heart.

The mystery surrounds the origin of one book in particular, the Sarajevo Haggadah, a real manuscript written in Spain in 1350. If you know a little about Sephardic history, you know Spain was not a great place to be a Jewish book, or a Jew for that matter, soon after that time, so the fact that the haggadah survived the raging fires of the Inquisition is a miracle in itself. The story of its survival – all true and documented – takes it from Spain to Italy to Austria and finally to Bosnia, where it was hidden from the Nazis by a Muslim librarian. It stayed in Sarajevo, and was brandished at a community seder in 1995 after the Bosnian government was accused of selling it to buy weapons.

Have I mentioned that this Haggadah is one of the few Jewish illuminated manuscripts in existence since Jews back then considered artistic representation of godly ideas to be idolatry? It’s simply stunning – just the pictures take my breath away.

But back to the novel on my nightstand. Over the course of its travels, the Haggadah came into contact with real people, and it is their stories that Brooks weaves together as the main character, Hannah Heath, an Aussie and professional book restorer, examines each hair, partial butterfly wing and wine stain for clues.

I’m no critic, thank goodness, because I might have to be more cynical about the absolute majesty of this story, kind of like Yvonne Zipp, writing for the Christian Science Monitor:

As the book goes further back in time, allowing for greater imaginative license, Brooks tries just a little too hard to build connections between religions. But that’s not to take away from her abilities. In the hands of a lesser writer, it’s easy to imagine the Haggadah having become a gilded Forrest Gump.

Feh, lady, life’s like an old Haggadah – everyone, if you go back far enough, eventually shares the same story.

I’m not finished with People of the Book yet, savoring each chapter because books this delicious don’t come along every day (certainly not brand new, with a book jacket.) But I’m recommending it to all of you anyway because I know you appreciate good fiction based on even better reality.

Borat: No High Five

boratSo I finally, finally got the DVD of Borat and after almost a year of hype and reading other people’s blogs about what a piece of cinematic genius it is, I have to say…I am beyond disappointed. More so disturbed and feeling pretty icky. I don’t deny that Sacha Baron Cohen is quite an artist in the way he shakes up the norm, but from here on out I consider him less of a comedian and more the kind of performance artist that smears poop on himself to make a statement about the disgusting state of the world.

There’s no question that this movie made an impact, but what was it? I mean, it was huge, made loads of money, everyone was talking about it forever, but I sat there and watched the “running of the Jew” bit without feeling so much as a smile crack from within. I have a sick-ass sense of humor that encompasses the silly to the sophisticated, but I found the whole anti-Semitism shtick very worrying. Even though it was meant to expose the bigotry of the igoramusi walking the Western world, it was like he took an in-joke between us Jews, who know full well there are idiots out there who would throw a Jew down a well if they thought they’d get away with it, and put it out there for those idiots to take literally. Plus, the naked hairy balls wrestling scene made my stomach churn.

Am I the only Jew who didn’t get it?

On the Nightstand (And Elsewhere)

You might wonder how a busy lady like myself gets in any pleasure reading, but here’s my little secret: I keep books all over the house. That way, whenever I find myself with a spare minute, I snatch up a paragraph or two.

shmutzy girlSometimes they’re in the kids’ rooms, but y’know, I’ll take what I can get. Right now we’ve been into a couple from the Matzah Ball Books series, Kvetchy Boy and Schmutzy Girl. Perhaps because my own kvetchy and shmutzik children also adore these, I find myself reading them over and over and over again … but seriously, they’re cute (both the books and the kids — when they’re not kvetching or wiping their hands on the walls.) The series is a pretty basic but sweet way to introduce a little yiddishe pride into the home; there are already five funny boys and girls, with more on the way. Personally, I can’t wait to meet Shvitzy Boy and Tushy Girl, but I don’t need anyone getting any ideas from Shlemiel Boy.

judygoldIn the bathroom (oh, like you don’t read in there) I’ve been reading Judy Gold’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, the literary version of her hysterical one-woman Broadway hit (if I wasn’t already sitting down when I came some of the anecdotes about her own mother, I would’ve had to – such a guilt sponge!) With help from writer Kate Moira Ryan, this Emmy-award winning comedienne asked 50 Jewish mothers from around the country the same series of questions and got some unexpected answers. “What makes a Jewish mother different? We love our children more!” insisted one woman. I don’t know about that; maybe we’re just louder about it? Judy weaves in her own hilarious story of being a lesbian mother with a Catholic partner while giving sensitive and compassionate service to the stories of these other women.

There’s a list at the end of the book of those 25 questions to ask your own Jewish mother, and expect a forthcoming blog post of the Yenta’s answers…

yiddishpolicemansAnd in the bedroom, where if I’m lucky I get in about ten minutes of reading time (and if I’m luckier, I get none, wink wink), I finally finished Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union a few weeks back. I had my doubts that he could top the rollicking good time of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – he won a Pulitzer for heaven’s sakes, where do you go from there? – but those doubts were dashed after the first chapter.

Chabon has created an airtight fictional world where the Jews of the world congregated in Sitka, Alaska after the fall of Israel in 1948. Now it’s sixty years later and control of this frozen shtetl is going to revert back to American control; once again, the Jews of the world must disperse. No assimilation or complacency here; Chabon almost seems to warn the Jews of the world not to forget how the world treated us before some tenuous political agreements allowed us back into Eretz Yisrael.

He uses the frigid opposite of the biblical desert to spotlight the adaptive capabilites of his Alaskan Jews; there are Orthodox gangsters and tough, hard-nosed policeman. His main character, Meyer Landsman, is one of these cops, known as “latkes”; there’s a noirish echo of Mickey Spillane in Landsman’s suicidal, drunk at 10am persona, but it doesn’t seem derivative. When an anonymous corpse leads the plot into a murder mystery with Messianic implications, Chabon deepens that noir genre into something bigger, more important, and completely Jewish. It’s a history lesson of a parallel universe that doesn’t seem that far away, not to mention the kind of love story you might actually imagine yourself a part of; another masterpiece, really.

So, what are you guys reading?

Shabbat, Not Stress, For The Modern Jewish Mom

mjmI don’t know what Friday afternoon looks like at your house, but let me share a glimpse of what Yenta Central looks like: I am, of course, sitting at the tiny table masquerading as a home office in the middle of the livingroom. One child is reading The Adventures of Captain Underpants out loud at the top of his lungs; the other has brought all of her shoes and stuffed animals out of the bedroom and is lining them up in the hallway: “Look, Mommy, boats! Lots and lots of boats!” El Yenta Man went down to the garage hours ago to see about the fifteen loads of laundry that mysteriously can’t seem to fold themselves; it’s unlikely that his long absence means he’s taught the socks to find their mates, but rather that he has mastered the high score on the old Defender game that I keep hiding.

Suddenly I realize it is less than an hour until sundown. My adrenal gland flushes my body with a once-a-week stress hormone: It’s the Shabbat-specific panic attack, unlike the daily low-grade buzz that simply repeats the same old neurotic gossip like one of those electronic marquees with the red scrolling letters: “Is anyone reading my silly blog? I am too told to be coloring my hair blue? Is this mole precancerous? Why are there still Jews who support George Bush?”.

I hit the “Shut Down” bar on my Mac and clap. “All right everyone! Clean it up! Now!” Resembling a cross between the Tasmanian Devil and Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest, I spin through the house tossing toys and shoes and grabbing collars, hissing orders like “wash your face!” “put Mr. Monkeypants and Baby Garbage back in the basket!” “for God’s sake stop whining!” and get responses like “Just one more chapter, puh-leeez!” and “Hey! You’re stepping in my ocean!” El Yenta Man surfaces from the garage, fresh and relaxed from his video game session, miraculously carrying a basket of clean towels, napkins and tablecloths. I thought ahead to defrost an organic chicken last night, there’s fresh kale to steam and a challah baked by the anonymous employees of Publix this morning. I say a silent prayer of gratitude for instant brown rice.

Fifty-five minutes later, I am panting with the aftereffects of hysteria, but the Shabbat table has come together: the candles have been lit on the bottom so they will stick in their holders, the napkins stand like crooked swans per El Yenta Boy’s trademark folding technique, and Little Yenta Girl’s snarly wild hair has been tamed on top of her head. Our family breathes three collective breaths together; the first one just to get to the moment, the second to look at each other and wonder at each other’s presence, and the final one that cracks open a deeper sense of being. In that moment of silence — the only one my extremely loud and active family experiences all week — I strike the match and usher in Shabbat: Baruch ata adonai… Peace descends like blanket crocheted with the softest wool by your bubbie — for about thirty seconds. Then the kids start bickering over who got a bigger piece of challah and someone spills the kiddush cup on the freshly washed tablecloth.

It’s not always that hectic, though never perfect by halachic or probably even Child Protective Services’ standards. But I know Meredith Jacobs doesn’t judge me for our messy traditions. Better known as Modern Jewish Mom, a Maryland maven who knows what to wear to synagogue and how to bake a honeycake, Ms. Jacobs understands that every family does Shabbat dinner differently, and the most important thing is that you do it — even if it’s pizza.

“It’s not the meal, it’s the mood,” she admonishes in her new book, The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat. It’s the perfect tonic for families who want to bring more of a Shabbesdik feeling into the home, without any of that sanctimonious bullhockey that makes us less-than-perfect mamas feel guilty. In fact, her very point seems to be that Shabbat is a gift to decrease a family’s stress, not make more:

“I don’t believe there is a “right” way to do Shabbat…Start with what speaks to you and build from there…It doesn’t mean you do everything. It means taking the time to figure out what feels comfortable and what works for you and your family.”

Part siddur, part cookbook, with generous dashes of sass and style, the Guide bridges the ancient traditions with real life in a way that will remind you of gabbing with your best friend. Each chapter includes adorable illustrations (showcasing MJM’s apparent predilection for strappy high heels, God love her) and helpful tips (add a little water to the bottom of glass candleholders to prevent a mess), yet the history and essential aspects of Jewish life are explored much more deeply than the fun, glossy layout might belie.

MJM is very clear to remind her readers that she’s “just a mom,” but don’t let her self-effacing humility fool you: Girlfriend knows her Torah. Every relevant prayer is included here in Hebrew and English, including the Eishet Chayel — “Woman of Valor” — that every husband might consider memorizing. There’s a dip into kabbalah to put the Shabbat ritual into perspective, and never before has this Yenta found such a lovely, easy Havdalah service to end Shabbat once the three stars of Saturday make their appearance. And get this: MJM has interpreted each of the weekly parshas (Torah portion) in family-friendly terms, which instead of being intimidating, will surely inspire enlightened conversation between all generations.

Unlike so many other “Jewish 101”-type tomes, MJM’s Guide to Shabbat covers the ground only a mother can appreciate. The how-to chapter for creating shalom bayit (peace in the home), called “Wine, Not Whine” (heheheh, hear that kids?), includes essential direction for preparing your home for Shabbat, as well advice on how to remind little ones of their manners: “Pretend God is at the table. How would you act?” MJM also demystifies the challenge of DIY challah (bake for the whole month and freeze — brilliant!) and she isn’t stingy with the kosher recipes, either. There’s even an entire chapter devoted to projects with the kids — what home doesn’t need a glittery spice box made from a milk carton?

As MJM gets down with the practical and generates giggles with the frivolous, she’s never far away from the spiritual: The overreaching theme of this guide is to create peace — for yourself and your family one day a week. Religious or no, observing your particular kind of Sabbath facilitates the kind of close family connections we all need more of, as most of us spend the rest of week scattered all over creation in carpools, school, work and extracurriculars. What a relief to find a Jewish how-to book that lets you know it’s all right to do it your way! This is one to give every Jewish mother you know, whether they think they need it or not.

Nachitas: Blue Fringe and Mare Winningham

Nachas Week continues here at Yenta Headquarters as two new CDs are featured in one post — let’s call these short reviews “nachitas,” my very own made-up Ladino-flavored expression meaning “a spicy little snack.” Because “nachas” always reminds me of “nachos,” so when you add a “nosh” with a bit of flair, it linguistically adds up to “nachitas,” see? Mmm, can you smell the zest?

bluefringeFirst on the plate is The Whole World Lit Up, the third album in three years from the bluesy-Jewsy, alt-rock quartet Blue Fringe. I’ve only heard the title singles from the previous two, My Awakening and 70 Faces, which couch spiritual lyrics in guitar and bass licks so rockin’ they belong on XM Ethel, so I can’t compare them to this latest effort. But I really don’t need to: The Whole World Lit Up kicks tuchus all on its own.

Musically speaking, these 20-something Yeshiva boys take that staid combo of modern rock, the guitar/bass/keyboard/perky persussion with vocal harmonies, and swirl it up with deep Jewish soul — like if Jacob Dylan had had bar mitzvah, maybe he’d be opening for them. (Actually, you can hear the Wallflowers and little of Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz in lead singer Dov Rosenblatt’s voice — no surprise that he cites them as influences.) Though the lyrics are undeniably Jewish, this is a band who fits right in with Coldplay and other pillars of mainstream mellow rock.

Most tracks combine English with Hebrew, flavoring certain traditional tunes like Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach’s “V’Shamru” and the “Birkat Kohanim” with what seems to be their signature hypnotic chord-layering. “Eshet Chayil” and “Listen to You” will provoke major head-bobbing, and the Beatles-inflected “Do You Realize?” may have you repeating its catchy wisdom like a mantra: do you realize that life goes fast/it’s hard to make the good things last/do you realize the sun don’t go down/it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ’round. The overall effect of The Whole World Lit Up” is a rich, Talmudic-influenced pop soundscape that will have even the most secular among us grooving hard.

marewMare Winningham is another addition to the growing group of artists who simply cannot be contained by the Jewish music genre. An Oscar-nominated actress (remember prissy Wendy from St. Elmo’s Fire?) and a convert to Judaism, Mare has declared herself the second Jewish country singer — after Kinky Friedman, of course.

But Kinky’s tunes are mostly twangy jingles that are more satire than substance, and Mare has waded into the much deeper waters of roots rock and American folk. Her first album, Refuge Rock Sublime, marries the minor chords of Eastern Europe with the fiddle-playing and banjo-picking of Appalacia, a combination that immediately engages anyone who digs sweet, down home music. The Jewish-country connection peaks right away in “Valley of the Dry Bones,” echoing mandolin giant David Grisman’s “Shalom Aleichem” in its quiet reverence.

Like so many converts who burn with a fever so much more intense than many born Jews, Mare’s passion for the faith comes through in her lyrics and her crystal clear tones. She’s taken the best parts of gospel music and made it definitively Jewish; one only need listen to “The World to Come” and “Al Kol Ele” to hear the words of the rabbis.

Maybe it’s the first forty years of Winningham’s life that give this album the kind of flavor you might find in a Southern Baptist church on a Sunday morning, but surely that’s the point: This is her own Jewish experience laid out, gospel influences and all. Even her tongue-in-cheek explanation of her late-in-life Jewishness, “A Convert Jig” (I will be a Jew like all of you/and never eat a pig), sounds hymnal. She’s taken a risk here, and pulls it off with a beautiful dignity. Though it may take time for Jewish listeners to “get” her, Mare Winningham will surely find her way to the top of the genre and beyond. And I’m not just saying that because I have an affection for Jewish cowgirlhood.