Thoroughly Modern Abby: Savannah’s First Jewish Mother

44127092_132244189224-1In honor of Mickve Israel’s upcoming 281st anniversary, Yo, Yenta! is featuring guest blogger and all-around balabusta Phoebe Kerness.

THOROUGHLY MODERN ABBY: The story of Abigail Minis, founding member of Congregation Mickve Israel, business entrepreneur and independent woman.

Abigail Minis, one of the original Jewish settlers of the colony of Georgia and one of the original members of Congregation Mickve Israel, is considered to be one of the most foremost women in American Jewish History.

On July 11th, 1733, she arrived in Savannah at the age of 32, along with the 40 other original Jewish settlers, on the ship the William and Sarah. She was accompanied by her husband Abraham Minis and her two oldest daughters, Leah and Esther.

Welcoming her in Savannah was a rough and primitive environment lacking access to the necessities of life. She devoted herself to her children. Over a period of 11 years, Abigail gave birth every two years, followed by her youngest child four years later at the age of 47. In total, she gave birth to nine children, five girls and four boys, and raised eight of them to adulthood.

Possessed of a hearty constitution, Abigail survived her pregnancies and births at a time when pregnancy death rates were high. When Abraham died in 1757, she went on to display fortitude of will and wisdom. Upon his death, Abraham stipulated Abigail as the executrix of his estate to insure that she had the wherewithal to support, educate and to bring up their children.

By the time of his death, Abraham had established himself as a successful planter and businessman. Abigail took over his businesses and doubled his fortune. She invested in real estate in and around Savannah. In 1764 she opened the Minis Tavern which was to become a highly successful enterprise.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, she convinced Royal Governor Wright to grant her and the children safe passage and protection in Charleston until the British were defeated. She hired someone to manage her affairs in Savannah in her absence. At the same time, she assisted the Continental army with money, food ammunition and uniforms. When the War ended she returned to Savannah, regained control of all her properties and businesses, again doubling her fortune and continuing to increase her real estate holdings.

Abigail Minis died in October of 1794 at the age of 93. She was survived by her five unmarried daughters and six grandchildren. Her sons had all predeceased her. She was way ahead of her time and would have been hailed as such by the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s. She was a single mother, a well-respected citizen and a shrewd business woman. To have lived to be 93 in the 1700’s was remarkable.

Although documentation is scarce that verifies that Abigail Minis’s family was active in Savannah’s Jewish community, it is reasonable to assume so. The Minis and Sheftall families, the only German Jewish families in the earliest days of the colony, were close in business as well as cultural background. Reverend Bolzius, the Salzburger minister who lived in Ebenezer and who had friendly connections with Savannah’s German Jews, commented on the strict tradition of the two German Jewish families.

Abigail Minis was buried in the Mordecai Sheftall cemetery and her husband and two of their sons were buried in the original Jewish Burial Plot in the area of the present monument at Bull and Oglethorpe Streets. Philip Minis, Abigail’s son, was the first parnas of Mickve Israel after its post-Revolutionary reorganization. Finally the ultimate confirmation: descendants of Abigail and Abraham Minis were connected with the Savannah Jewish community and Mickve Israel for about 260 years.

Mickve Israel’s Museum Committee wants to remind our congregants that, although women have not always held official positions of leadership in American Jewish congregations as they do today, women have always been leaders in our Savannah congregation.

Abigail Minis set very high standards for generations of Mickve Israel women who followed her. She was a true heroine of Congregation Mickve Israel and Savannah, one of the foremost women in the history of American Jewish life, and a thoroughly modern woman.


Word To Your Mutha

fleursMother’s Day isn’t until May 12, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it.

Actually, do better than just think about it because I know you: You’ll think about all the way until that Sunday morning and realize “oops!” you forgot to actually do something and the woman who carried you, birthed you, wiped your tushy and tolerated your fresh mouth will get a lame grocery-store card and limp flowers. Or worse yet, if she’s out of town – a pathetic phone call that evening.

So here, make yourself look like a grateful child and log onto Jewish Women International’s Mother’s Day Flower Project right this minute. For each $25 donation, JWI will send an honoree a perfectly-timed
gorgeous card
by Israeli artist Betty Rubinstein as well as send a beautiful bouquet of flowers to one of 150 battered women’s shelter’s around the country. You can even partner with JWI and get $5 back for every $25 donation for your synagogue or Hillel.

Planning ahead and giving tzedakeh at the same time? That’s the kind of multi-tasking your mother would kvell over!

T-Shirt of the Week: Oy, This Metal Is Heavy

ironmaidelachThe superfabulous Jewess congregated a Purim posse (good heavens, that sounds kinda obscene!) of other hot Jewish mamas last week to form the coolest fake band this side of Spinal Tap:

Formed especially for Purim, the non-instrument-playing, women-only rock band IRON MAIDELACH!!! took the Lower East Side by storm Thursday night with their debut performappearance at the Stanton Street Shul’s women-only reading of Megillat Esther. Armed with more spunk than actual musical talent, the women of Iron Maidelach made quite a splash. “I wish they would stop singing, and just sit there and look pretty,” said one onlooker.

The Jewess wants to make very clear that Iron Maidelach is not an actual band (though I bet there was some tushy-kickin’ air guitar happening during the Megillah reading) – it’s more of a “state of mind” that makes my Drag King Haman costume look way lame. But the shirts are for real, yo! Buy one – all proceeds go to the Stanton Street shul.

Jewish Mother Stereotypes: A Thing of the Past?

jewishmotherWith his usual empathy and dry humor, the j.’s Dan Pine explores how the image of the over-bearing Yiddishe mama who ladles out guilt with the soup she’s been slaving over all day is so, well, over. At least in the San Francisco Bay area, anyway.

He found that “instead of the kugel-baking shrew meddling in her grown children’s affairs, today’s Jewish mother shares the progressive post-feminist outlook of other modern women.” I have to agree when I see the Jewish mothers around me — the college professors, the filmmakers, the Phd candidates — who also volunteer on the PTA, keep kosher kitchens and bake their own challah. While as a mere blogger I can hardly count myself as a high achiever, I’m honored to be among these amazing mamas. We balance carpool and obessessing over healthy meals with our own ambitions; we struggle to keep our own identities as we succumb to the fierce love we have for our children. In short, the new Jewish mother still has her children at the center of her life, it’s just that life includes a personal quest to be part of something larger than the nuclear family.

So maybe our “centers” have evolved and grown larger since the shtetl days to accomodate this complicated dance. While we’re still perceived as “pushy,” I think the current stereotype of the Jewish mother is a Lexus SUV-driving gym addict with fabulous nails rather than a rugalach-pushing immigrant. But still, I don’t know anyone who actually fits either description, which is why it’s called a stereotype. Rather than go there, I’ll just agree with one interviewee that “Jewish women have this courage and positive attitude, and a tremendous amount of chutzpah.”

But you should know that I won’t rest until the stereotype of the new Jewish mother is perceived to be an organic foods-pushing, energy-conserving, religious and cultural outlaw with blue hair.

Early Mother’s Day Gift

yentaLook what I got in my mailbox! Only other mothers can truly appreciate the blood, sweat, guilt, meal planning and patience of motherhood — and that’s why this unexpected prezzie from Modern Jewish Mom Meredith L. Jacobs is such a treasure. Not only does it tell the world exactly who I am, it’s one of those super-flattering cuts that makes my shoulders look buff. Dahlink, I’ll wear it ’til it’s threadbare and the “y” peels off. Plus, she sent me a “yenta” mug; what better vessel to get jacked up on green tea while I blog?

These items, along with more adorable swag, are available for the Jewish mamas in your life — as well as Meredith’s funny and practical book The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat. (Read my glowing review here.) There’s still time to ship for Mother’s Day — but you’d better gib zich a shukl!

Apples to Apples, J-Style

applesThis time of year when someone says “apples,” we start thinking about chopping up piles of ’em with walnuts and cinnamon for a little charoset action, right? (Eeeps, that’s very Ashkenazi-centric of me. Lots of recipes for the Passover seder’s symbolic mortar don’t include apples, such as these delectable-sounding Moroccan Charoset Balls, but I’m going somewhere with this. Forgive me, Sephardic friends.)

So anyway, for us Jews of Eastern European descent, it’s apples, apples everywhere (and plenty of wine to drink), but you can really spice up any Pesach afterparty (if anyone’s still awake) with a few more: Out of the Box has just released Apples to Apples: The Jewish Edition, a superfun family board game that even the drunkest uncle can figure out.

The rules are as simple as the original Apples to Apples game, where players make comparisons using one set of cards with descriptive words like “brilliant” or “inspiring,” and one set of cards with people or things. Only in the J-version, the cards hold references to “My Rabbi,” “Gefilte Fish,” and yes, even “Paula Abdul.” Someone gets to judge which thing or person best fits the adjective on the table, mixing up subjectivity, hilarity and Jewish trivia all at once. Good times. And it’s shomer Shabbos, too, since there’s no writing or creating involved. A much nicer reward for finding the afikomen that the same ol’, tired five-dollar bill, nu?

This Jewish version of Apples to Apples (and you will never, ever refer to it as “Japples to Japples,” understand?) sprung from the fertile mind of Cleveland Jewish mama Alice Langholt, who compiled the game in the oodles of spare time she has in between raising four (four!) children, working at her synagogue’s religious school full-time, writing a midrashic novel, and publishing greeting cards. Oh, and baking her own challah every Friday. She developed the game after the kids were asleep, in the hours when her husband should have been rubbing her feet while she watched Grey’s Anatomy. Obviously, Alice is trying to make the rest of us slacker Jewish mothers look bad.

Since even the smartest kids under 12 probably can’t keep up with the Bette Midler and Woody Allen references, Alice is currently at work on a junior version of the game, which will surely become a staple in Sunday schools everywhere. After that, hopefully Alice will reveal where she’s hiding those six or seven extra hours a day the rest of us don’t know about.

There’s still time to buy Apples to Apples – The Jewish Edition in time for your seder — Look, it’s even on sale!

Crazy Yentas Still Kickin’ Tuchus

roseanneEveryone knows Jewish mothers are a little crazy, but it comes to giving out first prize trophies for meshuggah, these two win. You’ve got Sarah Bernhard, bulldozing her way through her lesbian pre-Esther Madonna days and then emerging again to the public spotlight, only to start sh*t-talkin’ on morning TV and pissing off the prissy ladies on The View, then getting her MAC lipstick commerical pulled. And then there’s Roseanne, who, along with her other personalities, basically wrote the book on batsh*t.

And I love both of them. I worship at the pedicured toenails of the these screamingly hilarious divas for their unapologetic presence in a world that would rather not hear from loud, smart, gleefully inappropriate in ways that-make-your-pootie-pucker types of women. Sandra and Roseanne are heroes, do you hear me?

Sarah’s out there these days performing, skewering George Bush and his ilk on a verbal shish kabob and practicing a personal form of non-obnoxious kabbalah. And Rosie’s in Vegas and has a fat (in juicy, exciting way that has nothing to do with eating disorders) blog, where she dabbles in everything from kabbalah to Katrina relief.

Like it or not, these are the crones of Jewish mother culture and we must pay respect. Otherwise, at least one of them is known to spit.

613 Plus 1

coverThere are some Jewish mothers out there who make the rest of look like lazy slobolas: Since overseeing the fabulous teen zine J-Vibe and revving up the sassy, smart blog Jewesses With Attitude all while raising a two-year-old, all-around balabusta Michelle Cove has launched yet another new project that will surely enrich the edutainment of the Jewish people.

614, an online mag to promote “fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender worldwide” sponsored by the Hassadah-Brandeis Institute, was just born at the beginning of the month — and it’s a perfect read for busy Jewish women and the people that love them. Short, digestible essays from experts and scholars revolve around a common theme, like January’s focus on the origin of Jewish names and how they affect how we feel about ourselves. The crisp format appeals to those of us with challenged attention spans who nevertheless want to know more about the modern conversations around Jewish identity, and you can peruse the whole journal without putting the evening’s dinner in jeopardy.

And speaking of names, aren’t there 613 commandments? What’s the deal with the extra? Of course, being clever and thoughtful, Michelle has named the zine quite carefully: She writes that “the idea of 614 is not that there is one commandment missing. Rather it is about the idea there is always room for innovation and exploration.” She adds that “Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003) had the idea of adding a specific 614th mitzvah: the preservation of the Jewish people.”

With all the concern about intermarriage, assimilation, suffocation by Christmas and other dangers to Jewish life, 614 has the right idea to ensure that we Jewish mamas and papas keep on keepin’ on: It’s not some grand committee of rabbis who can stave off our fears, but the small conversations that take place in kitchens, chat rooms and comment sections. Read on, sisters and brothers!

Madonna and A Mohel Dilemma?

madonnaandchildRumor has it that Madonna wants to get her adopted baby boy circumcised, presumably so he’ll look like all the other kids in the JCC locker room come time for basketball season.

The Kabbalah Queen brought one year-old David Banda home from Malawi a few months ago in spite of global criticism, and like any Jewish(ish) mother, deems it necessary for her son to join the covenant of Abraham. However, David’s biological father, Yohane, is vehemently opposed to such an act since this the boy was already baptized in Africa. “This goes against the Christian religion and is not something we would ever consider in Africa. We don’t ever get circumcised here. I would urge her to think again.”

(Sorry, Yo, scissors beat water every time. That and y’know, Madge’s bank account worth more than the entire GNP of your country.)

Of course, Jewish law states that a boychik be snipped on the eighth day of life, not 14 months later, so it’ll be quite interesting to see how a rabbi rules on this decidedly unorthodox brit milah. Since Madonna not actually Jewish, she just makes up her own rules anyway, doesn’t she?

Mother Of The Year

babyfeetMazel tov to brave Jewish mama Dayna Klein, who gave birth to a baby boy this week after surviving last summer’s shooting rampage at the Seattle JCC.

One woman was killed and five others wounded when Naveed Haq burst into the building on July 28 with a gun, violently distressed about the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Klein was shot in the arm and leg while protecting her womb from the spray of bullets, an act police called heroic. I call it fierce mother’s instinct, and the fact that Klein managed to call 911 and persuade the attacker to get on the phone and eventually give himself up to police makes her one serious balabusta.

Blessings to the new parents and little Charlie Paz. May you enjoy every sleepless night and poopy diaper — you already know how precious they are.