Welcome to 2015: Southern Living names Michael Twitty a Changemaker

Listen, when I moved to the deep South from the hippie nether regions of Northern California, I had some serious slaps upside the head.

First, boiled peanuts. Also, the weird thing the South does with marginalizing and often outright ignoring its history of slavery.

And then there’s the secret social code.Other than reading Gone with the Wind when I was 10, I really had no blueprint on how to fit in, and I sure as shit wasn’t gonna make anything pretty to wear out of the curtains.

These days, I feel pretty good about being a Southerner these days. I write a lot about pervasive and persisting socioeconomic and environmental issues in the Civil Society Column for Connect Savannah. I’ve documented some of my misadventures in Confessions of a Hapless–But Not Hopeless–Southern Belle.

And I have to say for the most part, my experience of the last few years is that the South has as vibrant a progressive and hip momentum as anywhere, only with better side dishes.

michael-twitty-lI mean, when Southern Living — the favorite magazine of steel magnolias for over a century — names a black, Jewish renegade slave historian as one of 50 People Who Are Changing the South in 2015, you know change has already come, nu?

Check it out:

This year you might see food historian Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria camped out at landmarks across the South re-creating historical meals with local chefs—one of the many ways Michael is preserving African-American foodways in the region. Be on the lookout for his forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene, which documents his personal journey exploring the connection between food and history from Africa to America.

I had the honor and joy of hanging around the fire with this visionary a few months ago, and I’m so pleased to see him included on a Super List with The Bitter Southerner, feminist beermakers and an Avett Brother.

Mazel tov, Michael!


Watch “The Story of the Jews” on PBS or Your Mother Will Plotz

In the last week, I have received numerous e-mails from BOTH of my parents expressing great concern that the Yenta family watch Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews.

pPBS3-18058099dtParts one and two of the five-part miniseries premiere tomorrow Tuesday, March 25 on PBS (check your local affiliate) and apparently if I don’t put our tushies on the couch for it, there will be hell to pay.

Well, not Hell, since Jews don’t believe in all that. (Unless, of course, they want to.) But my folks only noodge when it’s something fairly important, and I don’t like to disappoint them.

“I know it’s a weeknight, but maybe you’ll let the children watch a few minutes…” writes my mother in a style the rest of the family refers to as her Power of Suggestion tone.

Dad goes for more a direct tactic, as in “Your dead grandparents would be very happy, if in fact there is an afterlife and they could know of such things.”

Actually, I don’t need any guilt trips at all to defer my Parks & Rec Netflix viewing for this epic documentary, although some people I’m related to (*cough cough*) might consider it the T.V.-viewing equivalent of a museum full of Torah pointers.

Lushly filmed at archaeological sites, medieval synagogues, Venetian ghettoes and Palestinian neighborhoods, it promises to present Jewish history in relate-able, relevant terms as well as in the context of modern culture itself.

“What ties us together is a story, the story kept in our heads and hearts,” says Simon Schama in the preview.We told our story to survive. We are our story.”

It’s a salient timing as we’re readying ourselves and our homes for our Passover seders on Monday, April 14, when we will tell one of the most important parts of the Jewish story over five courses, four cups of wine, several songs in Hebrew AND Yiddish and still have to do the dishes. Maybe this will bring a little clarity to the table.

If you need more intellectual coercion, check out Adam Kirsch’s lengthy but insightful review on Tablet.com. He makes the case just upon the visuals alone—even as he points out that as a religion without icons but plenty of tsuris, there aren’t that many grand edifices to revere:

“There is no Jewish Notre Dame,” Kirsch writes wryly.

He is also clear that the series does not “ignore” the Holocaust nor does it let it “dominate” this narrative, which may be a relief for those who are learning—with great respect—to define their Jewish identity as more than Hitler’s victims. Our story—and whether you’re Jew, Christian or Muslim, this is indeed your story, too—is bigger, bolder and more beautiful than that. Plus, it’s nowhere near finished yet.

So, yes, Mom and Dad, we’ll be parking it on the faux leather sofa tomorrow night under the Harry Potter throw blanket. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty excited about it.

And not just because it makes me feel less guilty about abbreviating the seder.



The Savannah-Slany Torah Connection

I promised you another coincidental Torah tale last week, and this yenta keeps her word. It’s a perfect story to honor all the soldiers who fought in WWII and veterans everywhere:

Mr. Herbert Victor with the Slany Torah

Mr. Herbert Victor with the Slany Torah

We have a Torah in the ark at Congregation Mickve Israel that comes from a trove of over 1500 scrolls recovered from Prague after WWII. Known as “The Holocaust Torahs,” they had been gathered up by Czech Jews as the Nazis made their horrific way across Europe and stored in a “museum” for the Germans. Most of those brave souls perished in Terezin and Auschwitz, but the Torahs survived and were moved to London in 1964.

From there the Holocaust Torahs have been distributed to synagogues around the globe as part of the Memorial Scrolls Trust — “on long term loan,” explains MI matriarch and mameleh Phoebe Kerness in an article she wrote for the temple newsletter. The communities they once belonged to destroyed forever, the scrolls were adopted by their new stewards “with the stipulation that they play a prominent and meaningful part in the religious and educational life of the institutions responsible for their safekeeping and condition.”

Our Torah comes from the little Bohemian town of Slany, about 12 miles northwest of Prague, and was scribed in 1890. Indeed, it has played a prominent and meaningful part of Jewish life in Savannah since it arrived in 1968: The Slany Torah is carried through the sanctuary and read from every Saturday. It’s recently been refurbished and re-koshered in Florida, thanks to the efforts Phoebe and her husband, Jules.

But it wasn’t until last summer that congregant Kerri Rosen actually asked, “Where is Slany, anyway?”

The former synagogue in Slany, Czech Republic, now a police station.

The former synagogue in Slany, Czech Republic, now a police station.

And thus began the adventure: Historian and Sunday School teacher supreme Teresa Victor found that the Jews of Slany has been expelled in 1458 but returned a few hundred years later to build a prominent synagogue in 1865. That part of Europe was never particularly friendly to our kind, and the population declined by 1930. In 1942, the remaining 81 Jews in Slany were rounded up for the camps. There are no Jews there today. The former synagogue now houses the police department.

Ms. Victor also discovered that in March 1945, the Eighth Air Force of the United States fought a bloody battle near Prague, bringing down a B-17 bomber over Slany and killing eight airmen. Here comes the meshuggeh part:

This plane came from a squadron known as “The Mighty Eighth,” founded in Savannah and referred to as “the greatest air armada in history.” The Eighth’s soldiers earned 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, 850 Silver Stars, 7,000 Purple Hearts 46,000 Air Medals — and also suffered half of the entire casualty of the entire war. All were American heroes, and eight of them began their last journey from right here in Savannah, Georgia to die fighting in the town of Slany.

The temple contacted Mickve Israel bar mitzvah boy and former El Yenta Man compatriot Jeffrey Young, who defected from Savannah for Prague after college and has been living la vie bohème ever since. Young took the ten-minute trip to Slany and found the memorial built from the wreckage of the plane that reads “In memory of the crew of the American B-17 bomber shot down at this spot on 2 March 1945.”

The Slany memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, based out of Savannah, GA.

The Slany memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, based out of Savannah, GA.

Our rabbi Robert Haas traveled there this summer to see it, and all of us are marveling at the serendipity: Savannah honors its Slany Torah, and Slany honors Savannah’s fallen soldiers.

This Saturday for Veterans Day weekend, Mickve Israel is holding a special Shabbat service at the sublime chapel at the Mighty Eighth Museum (which happens to be one of the most stupendous installations in the land.) The Slany Scroll will be there; reservations are required.

So how’s that for interconnectedness? Some may call it coincidence, others the work of the Divine. All I know is that the next time Little Yenta Girl is called up to undress the Slany Torah, her hands had better not be sticky.



Don’t F*$# With The Rabbi

nvts12011150357.rp350x350He’s not ordained yet, but Yuri Foreman showed the world what Torah study plus a lot of speed bag training can do:

The Belarus-born, Israeli-bred, Brooklyn-based boxer punched his way to victory over Daniel Santos last Saturday after Shabbos, taking Santos’ title as the Welterweight Champion of the world. Which means that along with Orthodox junior welterweight champ Dmitiry Salita, it’s only a matter of time before synagogues start setting up Las Vegas-style boxing rings on the bima after Havdalah, which would be AWESOME.

For another compelling example of an a**-kicking Jew, look no future than Foreman’s wife, Leyla Leidecker: The future rebbetzin is an amateur boxer herself who directed the documentary “Golden Gloves” – check out the trailer here. She also happens to be GORGEOUS.


All I have to say is that I hope they have lots of fast-fisted, observant children who form a Maccabean-like army and scare the pants off Iran.

Amy W. To Make Her Mother Proud?

amynmanWell, well, well, for all her boobie tattoos and drunken sailor swearing, could it be that Amy Winehouse is just a traditional girl at heart? The tabloids are aflurry with the news that Judaism’s most badly behaved celebrity is engaged to on-again, off-again beau Blake Fielder-Civil after making him wait 24 hours before accepting his proposal. “He proposed at home a few days ago and I took a day to finally agree. Obviously we are both young and it is frightening.”

Perhaps even freakier is that she’s planning to marry him under the chuppah — Blake has converted to Judaism in what appears to be an instantaneous rabbinical transformation to accomodate this summer’s wedding date. Just s’long as you know ya don’t eat the broken glass after you stomp on it, you crazy kids.

Shenanigans aside, I stand by Amy’s Back to Black as one of the best albums in ages for all ages (um, that is, over the age of 18). I even downloaded it for my father-in-law for his birthday yesterday and let’s just say our musical tastes rarely collide. He was amazed and kept looking at the album cover. “How does this anemic-looking Jewish girl sound like a 300 pound black woman?” he kept asking — and you know you’re thinking the same thing. Just proves that soul knows no color, age or size.

Jews on the Verge of Giving Their Mothers Nervous Breakdowns

amywinehouseWhen I saw a flyer for a local Savannah band called Jewop, I pictured a clean-cut quartet of Fonzie types snapping their fingers and combing back their ducktails, singing “Dayenu” in four-part harmony. Turns out it’s a guitarless Jewish-Italian death metal duo whose current album’s cover art features a bloody scapel and is aptly called Stab/Operate. Not really my scene, but maybe you’re into it.

Also on the causing-parental-chest-pain radar is British songstress Amy Winehouse, whose drunken escapades have made her the darling of the tabloids across the pond, especially with the folks at Jewtastic. I downloaded her second album Back to Black, and well, wow. Amy might be a potty-mouthed, “dickhead drunk” (her words), but the girl can sing. But maybe my UK friends can help me out: What exactly does “fuckery” mean?

Then there’s nice Jewish punk princess porn star Joanna Angel, whose Jewcy interview I will be happy to link, but you’ll have to find the really dirty stuff on your own.

None of these kids incorporate their Judaism into their professional work (and just what would that look like anyway, Ms. Angel?) yet all identify as Jewish in interviews and such. So do we consider them “Jewish artists” or not? I don’t know, I’m not sure I care. I suppose I only wanted to show my mother how I could have turned out so much worse.

isaac cohenStick a fork in this tawdry affair; it’s as overdone as a microwaved baked potato (can you tell what I had for lunch?)

Apparently her instant conversion last week freaked Isaac out, or perhaps it was that she left him on chihuahua-sitting detail while she was in New York. (Which reminds me; um, has anyone seen her kids lately? If she left her dog with her boyfriend, did she leave her boys in a crate with a bowl of kibble?)

Anyhoo, OK! reports that he dumped her — by phone. Not so menschsy, Isie, but you’re still young. At least you finally listened to your mother.

Now go fill out your dating profile already. Next time we see you, you’d better have a decent script in your hand and a J-girl on your arm.

The Care and Feeding of Marriage

drlauraHave you heard about the New York Orthodox couple who built a wall down the middle of their house as a solution to their marital issues?

Neither Chana Taub nor her husband Simon will give up their three-story Borough Park house as part of a divorce settlement that can’t quite get settled — the Taubs have been in court for almost two years trying to dissolve their 20-year marriage. A judge with a creative sense of justice has ordered them to put up a drywall partition that gives Chana the top floor and the kitchen; Simon gets the livingroom and the diningroom. Mom has three of the kids, Daddy lives with one. No word on how Simon and the last kid eat with the kitchen barricaded; it’s a good thing Brooklyn has killer takeout.

When I first read about the Taubs I thought “What a fabulous idea! During the ten days out of the month when the mere smell of my husband’s socks can push me into a psychotic tirade, I will simply erect a wall between my side of the closet and his. I will nail the door shut to the downstairs and he can sleep and cook on the grill in the garage. He’ll pee outside, which he does anyway and thinks the neighbors don’t notice. Since the laundry’s down there, he can do that, too. We can alternate between the two children, depending on which one’s behaving the worst.”

Unfortunately, this is not a real solution, since I cannot possibly trust him to wash my delicates. But it got me thinking about marriage, and what a crazy myth this “happily ever after” bollywash is. Now, listen, I love El Yenta Man with all my heart and soul. I know a spaz like me is blessed to have a found a virile Jewish prince to help propagate the Chosen people. It’s just that living with him drives me batsh*t sometimes, especially around that time of the month when I am feeling particularly sensitive about having all the dishes put away and absolutely no lintballs floating down the hallway, and he is just not being empathetic enough to my need to have order and silence and tends to mock me instead. Continue reading

You Could Screw Your Real Estate Agent, But SHOULD You?

The Yenta family has been looking for a suitable house within the Savannah area for six months now, and in spite of all the nonsense I hear about “buyer’s market” and “appreciation value,” I still can’t find a place that feels like home.

jerryseinfeldOur extremely patient realtor sends us emails twice a day, calls my cell when she sees anything like a 3 bedroom, 2 bath within 10 miles of our kid’s school, and pretends not to hear when El Yenta Man and I start sniping at each other about whether putting our daughter’s bedroom in the garage is a fair trade-off for a gourmet kitchen. She’s shown us probably 60 houses so far, and she’s always smiling when she takes off the lockbox on the latest vinyl-sided monstrosity/mouse-sized brick bungalow/mold-infested ranch style. Her optimism far surpasses mine.

(I could write a whole other post about how guilty I feel for being so goshdarn picky. But it’s my first house. I’m not trying to be difficult, and my demands aren’t that outrageous — all the bedrooms on the same floor? A kitchen that doesn’t need all the plumbing and electrical ripped out and replaced prior to moving in? No daily drive-by shootings? All I can say is I know what I looking for, and I haven’t seen it yet. I’ll know it when I walk in the door.)

The ladies at the weekly senior lunch (aka The Yentas) are growing impatient. Ethel, who moved to Savannah from Brooklyn last year to be near her grandchildren, puts her hand on my arm the minute I arrive on Thursdays. “Nu? Any news?” When I shake my head she pats me and says “Ach, it’s a good thing your in-laws are so generous. I’d have put you out on the street by now.”

Beezy, the spriteliest 82 year-old in Hadassah history (she flattered my father-in-law into $150 towards the latest fundaraiser) is convinced that my realtor is to blame for our chronic houselessness. “Girls, don’t you think she should change agents? Someone from the community could find you a house like that.” She snaps her bejeweled fingers. By “community” she means “of our kind.” As in “Ditch that goyish Yankee already and employ someone Jewish who’s from here, schmuck.”

I try to explain to the Yentas that all realtors have access to the same listings, unless there’s a secret Jewish real estate cabal to which I am not privy. I say El Yenta Man has been working with this woman since before we made the cross country shlep and that if we change agents, she won’t earn a penny for all the time she’s spent with us. The Yentas all wave their hands and make “bosh!” and “pish” noises at me.

Maybe there is an underground Jewish real estate mafia hawking fabulous homes with rose bushes and front porches and endless closets and built-in bookshelves, but I cannot in good conscience dump someone who has tried so hard to help me find a home. At this point when when we finally do find a place, the math breaks down such that with her commision divided by the hours she’s put in, she’ll be lucky if she breaks minimum wage, anyway.

Even though I’m too much of a pansy fuzzyheart to do it, I guess I can forgive the Yentas for thinking it’s fine to screw over my realtor in favor of “my own kind.” But what the deal with Jewish a**hat who f*cks over his observant Jewish realtor?

When I heard that Jerry Seinfeld duped his Orthodox realtor out of her commission by purchasing his $3.95 million Manhattan townhouse on the Sabbath, I have to say I experienced something like moral superiority, bordering on howling righteousness. Sure, a judge has ordered Jerry and his wife, Jessica, to pay something like $100,000 (far below the standard 5%, by the way) to poor Tamara Cohen, who made it clear to the Seinfelds that she was unavailable from sundown on Friday ’til three stars out on Saturday. So maybe the Seinfelds could care less about Shabbat, but showing such disprespect to one of one’s own is shanda. Cohen’s loyalty to the Sabbath was merely an inconvenience to them; they couldn’t wait another minute to spend their millions and do the right thing?

Obviously my sympathies lie with Tamara, who likely spent Sunday morning to Friday afternoon for months showing the Seinfelds every piece of real estate form Staten Island to Park Avenue, trying to keep a positive attitude while gelt-digger-turned-socialite Jessica rejected brownstone after penthouse because she hated the crown molding. (Okay, so maybe that was me, but I refuse to see any similarity between us beyond our first names. Besides, I know I’m an idiot, whereas I suspect Jessica Seinfeld thrives on asserting her role as a bitch.)

Maybe Jerry and Michael Richards should get together and pitch a new show: “So it’s your basic ad-lib about this entitled jerk who has no social conscience but makes pithy observations that are supposed to apply to everyone, right? And he has this friend who’s prone to yelling racist things, but he’s not really racist, he just has some form of Tourette’s…”

*Photo care of USAToday. Are Jerry and Jessica giggling over their power to dis’ the little people and the religion of their ancestors?