Yom Kippur and Synagogue Etiquette, Or, Sorry For Judging Your Shoes

imagesAs we dial down to the last of the Days of Awe, we Jews look a little closer at our motives and mistakes. We examine our souls like we’re cleaning out the cupboards of chametz with a scrubby sponge and some heavy-duty spray cleaner (non-toxic and environmentally friendly, of course.)

I haven’t had many moments in this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to reflect on my sins, but I did a little time in the garden yesterday, going over the past year as I weeded the okra.

Here’s what I have come up with so far: I am judgmental bitch.

For reals. I like to think I’m a tolerant, peace-loving earth mother who welcomes everyone into my muumuu of organic cooking and DIY spirituality, but I have critical streak as wide as RuPaul’s bald spot. It’s mostly reserved for hypocritical morons who try to impose their morality on women’s bodies, but I realized while I was picking bugs off the squash that I am totally guilty of turning my Stink Eye on my own people.

I am talking about Synagogue Etiquette. I have developed a certain idea about how you show up to Temple, and I spent a nice chunk of last Thursday’s service eyeballing people who IMHO were not observing the basic threshold of decent behavior and/or attire.

Yes, I should have been focused on the liturgy or at least sounding out the Avinu Malkaynu without the transliteration. But instead I started obsessing over the following choices made by my fellow congregants, keeping up a rude inner dialogue:

Denim. People, it’s a house of worship. Find your way to the back of your closet and extract something other than what you wore to the Sand Gnats game last night.

Sequins. Unless you are under 8 years old or over 80, you look like you’re going clubbing with Lady Gaga. At no point during the service will the black lights come on and rabbi bust out with turntables on the bima.

Flip-flops. No matter how much modern culture devolves, my feelings on this will never change: They’re shower shoes and don’t belong in public. Let alone in the same sanctuary with the fabulous 95 year-old balabusta rocking the sequins.

Cell phones. Seriously, you need to be told? Totally busted the guy behind me checking the Yahoo news scroll during the Amidah. WTF? And btw, Torah trumps football scores (yes, even if Georgia is playing, El Yenta Man!)

Chit Chat. Maybe you’re not riveted by the rabbi’s sermon, but some of us are trying to pray, or like, think about shit. I’m not gonna take an ad out in the paper or anything, but SHHHH. Also, the Talmud says God will strike you dead. Or worse.

See? I’m a terrible person.

As much as we’re supposed to ask God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, we’re also supposed to make peace with our fellow humans in order to be written into the Book of Life for another year.

So I’ll make a deal with you, fellow Jews. Maybe y’all could forgive me for judging you and maybe you’d consider not wearing stupid stuff and talking in shul and we can all have a blessed Holy day and an easy fast.

But we’re all human, so no guarantees, right?

‘Cause it might look like I’m sitting there davening along with the V’Havta but I’m probably just whispering “Why does that assh*ole keep putting his feet on the back of the pew?”

 

 

 

Southern Shabbat Dinner: What, No Shrimp?

imagesDelish post today on the Forward’s The Jew and the Carrot about NYC’s City Grit, a culinary salon that hosted a four-course Shabbat meal last week. But questions remain.

First of all, what the hosanna is a culinary salon? Can I get my toes done there while noshing? Sounds awfully lofty to be taking on the Southern Shabbos meal.

I’m not denying the fabulosity of beet puree and benne seeds (really, the only truly Southern ingredient, as there is no such f*cking thing as “rice grits”. Grits are made of corn. Period.) I have no problem AT ALL with leeks, morels or heirloom tomatoes, even in my cereal. I am all about adventures of the palate. I would eat a locust if someone else cooked it. I get all up in Leoci’s Rasperry Jalapeno Jam with some duck prosciutto and have a freakin’ gastronomic party any chance I get.

But messin’ with the Shabbos meal? I dunno. I dig the innovation behind Chef Sarah Simmons’ deconstructed brisket, but also it just made me nervous. Shouldn’t be something sacred about the Shabbat meal, something as unvarying and solid as the tradition itself? What’s next, shrimp couscous? A roasted pig wearing a yarmulke?

It’s not about the kosher. ‘Cause y’all know trayf happens plenty around here. But we Jewish Southerners (oh dear, Lawd. Did Ah just call mahself a suthenah?!) don’t like to mess with a good thing.

Shabbos at the Yenta home almost always consists of roast chicken, quinoa and kale from the garden. Sometimes we get meshuggah and have salmon. It is the way it has always been. It is the way it should always be.

Unless someone opens a culinary salon and serves up that tasty-sounding latke-chocolate mousse dessert.

Shanda-less Self-Promotion

El Yenta Man and I finally managed to get to Connect Savannah‘s Best of 2010 Bash last night after split-attending a soccer game, a piano lesson, a PTA meeting (at which Yenta Boy won a district-wide essay contest! kvell, kvell) and a walk with a constipated dog.

I missed my name called the first time, but fortunately, Connect Savannah‘s editor Jim Morekis gallantly gave me another chance to accept my “Best Local Blogger” award and show off my farpitzed* self. (*farpitzed – sounds like a bodily function, but it means “done up to the nines” in Yiddish.)

Jim also penned this mighty kind article about your Yenta for the paper, which includes my most favorite quote I’ve ever given while blathering on about myself:

“I’m just trying to make sense of the otherness I’ve always lived with and reveled in. Who wants to fit in, anyway?”

I sent it a couple of different photos for Jim to use on my bio, and even though I lurve photographer Jade McCully‘s original that’s in the paper, I think this snap taken late in the evening at a recent supersonic bat mitzvah might’ve fit better with the quote:

Thank you so much to all who voted. Read the rest of the Best of 2010 Winners here!

Breakdown of a Southern Simcha

When I was a kid, a bat mitzvah consisted of reading a Torah portion followed by a nice nosh in the temple social hall where people slipped envelopes into your pocket. Maybe your grandparents flew in from Miami and your very best friend from camp got to take a plane by herself from L.A., but other than that, there weren’t too many out of town guests. There was a DJ, and all your friends took their shoes off and did the Electric Slide. Your mom stressed out over the planning and seemed relieved when the last lily centerpiece was given away to the leaving guests.

So when I married into what may be the largest, loudest Jewish family in the South, I was confused. A blessed event, say a bat mitzvah or a wedding or even a funeral – is not simply ONE day. It is a series of fantastic functions attended by hundreds of well-dressed, genteel people hailing from Raleigh to New York to Tampa to Atlanta who treat these occasions as opportunities to celebrate life like nothing I’ve ever seen — have you ever been outdanced by people in their 70s?

A quick tour of the family tree: My husband’s maternal grandmother — still kickin’ at 96 — had four sisters, born and bred in Tampa, FL. Though I continually ask, I can’t seem to get a straight answer as to what Eastern European country their grandparents hailed — according to Grandma Florence, someone came from Lithuania way back to become one of the area’s first Jewish settlers around the 1870’s. She and each of her sisters had two to three to five children, who, as my father-in-law says, took it upon themselves “to populate the South with Jews.”

That’s why places like goyishe places like Macon, GA and Winston-Salem, NC have historic, solid Jewish communities. Once you start adding spouses and another couple of generations, things get LARGE. It’s a close family of around 300 people, and everyone gets invited to everything — even third cousins by marriage, like me. It’s kind of awesome. Although when it came time to plan my wedding, my mother was dumbstruck — I don’t have any first cousins and just a smattering of kin on either side. We’d thought 150 was a nice, generous guest list until we found out that only covered one puny branch of El Yenta Man’s family tree. We had to cap the list at second cousins, which apparently hurt some feelings but good Lord, I thought my mother was going to have a stroke. That’s when I found out that a Southern Jewish wedding isn’t just a union between to nice kids starting a life together, oh no. It’s a meshing of families á la feudal times where clans unite to form a stronger nation so that wherever one goes to college, one will inevitably date a cute coed for several weeks before realizing he or she is somehow related.

Of course, these being Jews, there’s food at these things. A lot of it. Bagels, lox, egg salad, whitefish. Brisket, chicken, roast vegetables, mashed potatoes. Kugel, rugelach, cookies and cake. And these being Southerners, there is plenty of wine and beer. And scotch. And whiskey, rum, gin and vodka. It’s comfort food and indulgence and an excuse to start drinking as early as you like. At last Saturday’s bat mitzvah I found myself with a pinot grigio in one hand and a plate with tuna and donuts in the other — at noon. Forget trying to keep up with the aunties in their 70s — those women can knock back a scotch, tuck down a rueben sandwich, then play a game of tennis before it’s time to change into their Louboutins for dinner.

As I mentioned before, at a Southern Jewish simcha, the party starts days in advance. If it’s a wedding and there’s a rehearsal dinner on Friday night, everyone’s in town by Thursday, which means a casual buffet for at least 150. For any event, Friday night is a sit-down, multi-course affair before or after Shabbat services, and then there’s Shabbos lunch after the bar or bat mitzvah earns the right to wear a tallis and have a few slugs of Manischewitz. Then there’s the Saturday night after-Havdalah extravaganza, oriented to the tweenagers with a team of high-energy DJ dancers spinning Lady Gaga and dipping into an endless goodie bag of giveaway hats, flashy rings, sunglasses and these crazy giant plastic clown shoes that your children will insist on wearing to school the following week.

And it doesn’t even stop there: the gracious hosts of the weekend stay up to party Saturday night and then invite everyone over for a full-on, omelet station brunch on Sunday morning! This I never heard of before my own wedding, when I was absolutely appalled that we had to get out of bed on our very first day of being married to shmooze some more!

Plus, just in case you’re hungry or thirsty in between, there is something called the Hospitality Suite in the hotel where all the out-of-town guests star, stocked with snacks and sweets and beer and soda and liquor where everyone can lounge between meals. This is where children’s cheeks get pinched and the old men compare stock tips, where you update the aunties about your life and your poor mother-in-law, who hasn’t been able to come to such things in a while because of the dementia but you don’t dwell on how she’s getting really bad because this is a HAPPY time for the family and you don’t want to be the only one bringing people down. Even if someone’s getting divorced or has cancer or had been laid off for over a year, the mood is always convivial in the Hospitality Suite, because we’re there to celebrate.

Because this family is so big, I tend to forget who I met at the last wedding or 90th birthday, so I introduce myself to everyone. Usually I receive more than one gracious “I know who you ah, dahlin’, I was at your wedding!” Ooopsh.

Being a yenta, I’m always curious about how these gargantuan fêtes get funded. I don’t mean to be tacky, but wow, weekends like this cost a ton. It turns out many in the generation who populated the family also had a knack for business, which is a wonderful blessing. It also sets the bar rather high, but what else is money for than to spend it on showing your loves ones a good time? I keep telling Yenta Boy that his bar mitzvah will be just as big, but we’ll be serving homemade falafel and that his father will be the entertainment (“What?” says EYT. “I’ll play guitar and give out kazoos – it’ll be great!”)

It really is such a marvelous gift to be invited to these simchas, and I always tell my husband how lucky he is to come from such an enormous, generous family. Like my Brother the Doctor and I growing up, my kids don’t have any first cousins (no pressure, BtD) but they have — I am not kidding you — over 25 second and third cousins whom they adore. Watching them on the dance floor with their floppy hats and plastic clown shoes together, I felt my heart surge for them because they’re part of this huge family tree, as steady and strong as one of the ancient oaks on the Southern countryside. I marveled that every over-the-top wedding, bar or bat mitzvah and yes, even funeral, is a joyous testament to American Jewish life and tradition and enjoying and sharing all of the delicious and delightful parts of it.

Then I was struck by a terrifying thought: I’ve got a bar mitzvah for hundreds to host in three years. I think I’d better start baking the rugelach now.

Art at the JEA

There’s an interesting show up at the JEA right now that y’all must check out.

Ching Levy
is a local Savannah artist who began her career on on rice paper using traditional Chinese brush strokes and has evolved into a unique, delicate style that incorporates Eastern and Western influences. She’s won awards all over the place and I just love her colorful, kind aesthetic:

繽紛小鳥聚枝頭
合唱一曲樂自由
左右牽手共一處
同心齊力為地球

A colorful flock gathers at the treetop
Singing in unison celebrating freedom
Hand in hand, living in one space
With united hearts and combined strengths for the earth

What I’m wondering is how such a talented Chinese Jewess has escaped the Yenta this long.

Ching Levy is Jewish, right? Related to the Levy’s Jewelers Savannah mishpocheh? Somehow?

Or has El Yenta Boy’s latest obession of all things Asian tricked me into a hopeful game of Jewish geography?

The Yenta In The Most Unusual Place

mickveisraelarkOver the 15 years of my not-quite successful writing career, my work has appeared in a myriad of places, some worth mentioning, most not. I’ve helped other people compose love letters, book proposals and, for a fee paid up front in cash, college term papers. I’ve seen my name in lights, ink, pixels and on the door of my Shalom School classroom (though no one’s ever called me “Mrs. Lebos” to my face and lived.)

But never, ever have I written a Yom Kippur sermon. Intentionally, anyway.

So you can understand why I was a little surprised while sitting in synagogue Saturday, stomach rumbling, sinuses aching, consciousness fading, when I heard the rabbi thunder the name of this blog.

El Yenta Man poked me. “Wake up! He’s talking about you!”

Reb Belzer was reading the post I wrote last Yom Kippur about the curious incident of the Mickve Israel Jesus intruder, in which I came to terms somewhat with the churchy ways of my adopted Jewish community. It was not, um, the most flattering piece in certain parts, which is to say it was not written with the intention that it would be read out loud to the entire congregation on the holiest day of the year.

I began to pray to our good and merciful God to open up an escape hatch under my pew. El Yenta Man started complicated hand miming to indicate to anyone sitting around us that the woman next to him with her head between her knees was the blogger being quoted on the bima. I glanced two rows back at my father-in-law, but his red ears were the only part I could see since he had his face in his hands. At least it wasn’t one of those posts where I detonate multiple f-word bombs.

As the rabbi finished reading, I understood why he had chosen this piece to elucidate his point this Yom Kippur: In the end, I make clear that this congregation is full of good people, good Jews who embody the essence of tolerance and non-judgement of what I (and apparently the rabbi) believe to be True Judaism. (Even if they still, say, break the fast at Walt’s BBQ with a pulled pork sandwich.)

Still, when the morning service ended, I wondered if I could use the ancient secret passageway under the ark (pictured here, btw) to get up to the babysitting room to claim my children without having to face the five hundred people who now knew my web address, which has my punim on it. No such luck. El Yenta Man steered me right into his father, who looked at me and shrugged. “I’m speechless.” I could only assume I had tarnished the family name forever.

Then a colleague of his came up and clapped him on the back. “She’s your daughter-in-law? Well done!”

“Yes,” his wife agreed. “Definitely one of Belzer’s best sermons ever. At least he didn’t talk about Iraq.”

My father-in-law looked relieved. I snuck out of the sanctuary, but not before receiving a bear hug from the rabbi, who has a terrific sense of humor and apparently appreciates mine. But now that I’ve been outed as a a renegade Jew, y’all had better be ready for some crazy African dance moves on Simchat Torah.

I also would like to add that last year’s Yom Kippur post was a turning point in my opinion of Mickve Israel. Sure, I’m always going to be talkin’ some sh*t that the Gothic architecture and its interior cross are always going to make me feel like I’m in Notre Dame, but I’ll take on anyone who dares call this congregation “Judaism Lite.” The 275th anniversary of its founding is coming up this year, and its history is fascinating. (Phoebe Kerness, one of the brilliant docents you might meet if you come visit, brought tears to my eyes when she reminded me that my mother-in-law did much of the research and wrote the text used during the tours, even though she’s received no credit for it.)

During Rosh Hashanah services, the three beautiful young women of last year’s confirmation class each sang a Torah portion with such clarity and spirit it gave me goosebumps. And of course, there is the unique event of “El Norah Ah-Lee-La” preserved in the original vernacular of the Sephardic ancestral founders, sung by Kayton Smith for the past chunk of years. The tune has been passed down l’dor va’dor (generation to generation) and I’ve already asked Kayton if he’d teach it to me, though he assured me he’s good for another twenty years or so.

Such a meaningful High Holidays combined with the rollickin’ good time of Shalom School has finally groomed a real feeling of being at home at Mickve Israel, where my husband was bar mitzvahed and confirmed, where we were married, where our children learn how to make sukkahs out of graham crackers and pretzels.

And that’s why I can overlook the round challahs baked with candied green and red maraschino cherries you usually find in a Christmas fruitcake. ;)

Happy 5768, y’all!

South Carolina Sojourn

bethisraelMy new job’s editorial territory extends past the state line, so last week I found myself touring the tiny coastal town of Beaufort, SC with local writer/arts maven/breadmaker’s wife Lisa Rentz. She was walking me through the halcyon streets past the arsenal when we came face-to-face with a small, white clapboard house with a mogen david plaque out front. Even with the South’s established Jewish history, it was still a surprise to find a synagogue among the Baptist churches, and I had to take a peek, even if it wasn’t official skirt! business.

Congregation Beth Israel has a sweet little ruby-carpeted sanctuary and knotty pine social hall and looks like it can accomodate a couple hundred worshippers. The core can’t be more than 100 or so families, though the lone volunteer unloading Chanukah chozzerai (in July?) says the numbers vary depending on recruits from the nearby Marine training center on Parris Island, who have been attending Beth Israel since 1918. (I know! Jewish Marines! It was an afternoon of anomalies, what can I say?)

The most interesting tidbit gleaned from my six-minute detour in to Beaufort’s Jewish nexus is that the Torah housed in Beth Israel’s ark is the very one carried over from Lithuania by the Lipsitz family. “Is that the same Lipsitz of Lipsitz Shoes?” I ask Lisa, looking over my contact list for the day (part of my job is scouting products from local businesses for the magazine; yes, I’m getting paid to shop, don’t be jealous.)

“That’s the younger Lipsitz,” Lisa informs me. “His dad still runs the department store across the street.” So she takes me back down Bay Street to Lipsitz’s Department Store, Beaufort’s oldest mercantile establishment, where the son of Max and Bertha Lipsitz, the first couple to be married inside Beth Israel, has spent almost all of his 87 years selling anything you could possibly need.

It’s Mrs. Lucille Lipsitz who greets us when we walk in; even though she’s probably said the same “Hello, y’all, may I help you?” greeting a million times in her life, her voice still rings with sincere Southern charm. Business appears to be rather slow, the store is sparsely stocked with the pink pastel beachwear, straw hats and vinyl suitcases. There’s a circular rack of vintage dresses, and I can’t decide whether they’re there to fulfill Beaufort’s demand for retro polyester or if they’ve actually been there since 1967.

There’s the tinny drone of a daytime game show in the background, and I ask if Mr. Lipsitz might be able to speak with me. From a recliner in the back of the store a crackly drawl pipes up. “I’m him, whatcha y’all need?” Joseph Lipsitz is simply the most adorable old man I’ve ever seen, with thick plastic glasses and pants up to his armpits, and is delighted to tell me all about his family’s role in Beaufort since the 1870’s. Much like the Jews of Savannah, these folks assimilated into Southern life by becoming outstanding citizens and opening successful businesses. Joe grew up in an apartment above the store, and a walk across two lanes introduced me to two more generations of Lipsitz, Joe’s son Neil and Neil’s bar-mitzvahed age son Adam, training for the family business during his summer vacation.

Thankfully, Lipsitz’s Shoes had a much more modern inventory than its parent store, and I was able to find a fabulous pair of moss green Clarks for September’s sneaker layout. So I got what I came for in Beaufort — as well an an unexpected addition to my never-ending historical education of Southern Jewish life.

For more morsels, check out this online museum of Southern Jewish artifacts
and A Jewish Tour of the Carolinas.

The Earth’s Not Really Moving And Other Wisdom From Georgia’s Legislators

monkeyPeople, I’m trying to fit in here in the South, really I am. I’ve let the fuschia hair streaks lay fallow, the orange combat boots are packed away, I don’t visibly shiver anymore when I see children at the playground snacking on pork rinds. But y’know, I still keep a little suitcase all packed and ready under the bed so I can throw the children in the minivan and escape to safer lands should it become necessary. Places where people don’t giggle and mime puffing motions when you tell them you’re wearing a hemp shirt. Where a “smoothie” is more that corn-syrup flavored powder and tap water. Where local politicians aren’t complete backasswards morons (I might have to keep driving to Canada, eh?) That suitcase has moved next to the door as of today:

I’m referring in particular to state representative Ben Bridges of Madison County, who distributed a memo all over the country calling for a school-wide ban on teaching evolution — not just because he believes Darwin’s theory is “a myth,” but that the Big Bang is just some cockamamie lie made up by the Jews.

I know, I know! I couldn’t believe it either! But look, here’s the quote from the memo:

“Indisputable evidence — long hidden but now available to everyone — demonstrates conclusively that so-called ‘secular evolution science’ is the Big-Bang 15-billion-year alternate ‘creation scenario’ of the Pharisee Religion,” says the memo, which has Bridges’ name on it. “This scenario is derived concept-for-concept from Rabbinic writings in the mystic ‘holy book’ Kabbala [sic] dating back at least two millennia.”

The memo, which was sent to legislators in at least six other states, directed readers to the site www.fixedearth.com, an ignoramus’ paradise of skewed facts and ungodly nonsense such as “The Earth is not rotating…nor is it going around the sun,” written by someone who, from the rambling nature of the site, appears to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia.

But don’t you worry, the ADL is already on it (man, I just love those people!) The Southeast’s Regional Director Bill Nigut sent Bridges an e-mail calling on him to “repudiate and apologize” and that the memo “conjures up repugnant images of Judaism used for thousands of years to smear the Jewish people as cult-like and manipulative.”

Was Bridges repentant? Not so much. In fact, he denies writing the memo at all. But he fully stands behind his legislation to remove “evolutionism” from Georgia’s public schools: “I am convinced that rather than risk teaching a lie, why teach anything?”

Welcome to f*cking Georgia, people.

You Know It’s Hard Out Here For A Jew*

*in the spirit of my favorite kvetch, one should sing the title of this post to the tune of Three 6 Mafia’s Oscar-winning ditty.

mickve israelIt probably doesn’t come as an surprise to you that this Yenta finds life in Savannah somewhat understimulating, at best. (At worst, I have a big, bad bag of obscenities that unlocks itself and spills onto the table after I’ve had a few cocktails.) The ironic absence of African dance and drum culture, the bizarre pride in the mediocrity of the public school system, the ubiquity of fried food — I’m not finding a whole lot to keep my spirits juiced. Even my Jewish experiences thus far have led me to the edge of becoming a Reform shul dropout.

But I got a flyer in the mail for an all-day “learning experience” at Mickve Israel hosted by Rabbi Arnold Belzer, and even though it probably wasn’t going to be the iconoclastic, “new Jew revue”-type event like the lucky kids in NYC get, I just couldn’t spend another Shabbos staring at the cold, flat ocean.

Twelve hours at temple…with the rabbi?” shrieked El Yenta Man after I had lured him into the car with intimations that we were going on a long date. Of sorts. “I thought we were going to a cheap motel! Let me out! I’m going fishing!” Thank you, Lord, for child-proof locks.

We arrived to a fairly packed sanctuary, which I’m guessing is rare for a non-b’nai mitzvah Saturday, in spite of the synagogue’s generous weekly Kiddush brunch. Rabbi Belzer presided on the bima, explaining the differences between the traditional Orthodox, modern-but-observant Conservative and anything goes-Reform movements of Judaism, which he broke down as “crazy, hazy and lazy.” (I’d never heard that one before; I think I laughed the loudest.)

My eyes did their usual wandering around the room with its classic nave structure and breathtaking stained glass with inscriptions from the 1800’s, but was distracted by the sound of pens scratching on paper. I saw that some people were listening very attentively and taking notes. I had my pen out, too, of course; I’m always scribbling stuff to collect for this blog, and perhaps one day, a book. Since when do Jews listen to the rabbi, let alone write it down? I thought. Could it be that I am not the only Jewish blogger in Savannah? Then it dawned on me: These people weren’t Jews.

It seems the rabbi’s Judaism 101 talk is immensely popular among Christians looking to find out more about our religion, for various reasons, some earnest, some scary. Not that there weren’t a good number of congregants there, too; I recognized several senior Yentas from my weekly lunch with my mother-in-law. The rabbi, who I’ve always liked a lot but many find to be a little showy for the third oldest congregation in the country, unapologetically framed religion in marketing terms, and admitted that Judaism has pretty lame PR: We don’t seek converts, we don’t believe in original sin and we don’t promise eternal salvation.

I started to get down with the basic explanations of Judaism, learning what I must’ve slept through in Hebrew school. Did you know that Reform Judaism was developed in the 19th-century South in keeping with the Protestant aesthetic so popular in America at the time? Or that the Southern Baptists fund Jews for Jesus? (Rabbi B. invoked meshuggeneh pundit Dennis Prager when one of the non-Jews asked why one couldn’t be a Jew for Jesus: “It’s like being a vegetarian for meat.”)

I was enjoying the learning so much that I was jarred back to reality when it came time for the Shabbat service. This synagogue in particular exemplifies that benign Protestant aesthetic and feels so much like church that I find it kind of creepy. Yarmulkes are the exception rather than the rule. The 1950’s prayerbooks are small, black, read left to right and look like something a Franciscan priest might carry while riding his horse to the next mission. Common prayers like the Sh’ma and Sim Shalom are sung by a choir in weirdly unreachable melodies rather than the easy, familiar tunes that prevail from Scottsdale to Jerusalem to Buenos Aires. It bothered me also that there is no exhuberant carrying of the Torah around to receive a kiss or a touch — where is the joy, people?

Rabbi B. made up for some of this crusty WASPyness by changing references to “mankind” to “humankind” in the service and maintaining moderate liberal viewpoints during the following discussions on all the touchy subjects like abortion, homosexuality and the Apocalypse. He also told a quite a few decent jokes: A Liberal Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew are discussing when life begins. The Liberal Protestant says: “At birth.” The Catholic disagrees: “At conception.” The Jew trumps them all: “When the kids leave for college and the dog dies.”

We spent most of the afternoon discussing Maimonides 13 Articles of Faith, comparing Judaism to Christianity and Islam, which rose some hackles when we came to #9 — that whole “the Torah is complete, don’t add to it with say, a new testament.” Rambam’s (Maimonides nickname) levels of tzedakeh were also on the curriculum, as was the basic rules of kashrut, which the rabbi taught are not so compulsory. I had to ask: Why is chicken considered meat when it would be impossible to cook it in its mother’s milk? Have you ever had chicken milk? The rabbi’s answer was that many of the tenets that we think of as essential to Judaism are actually religious interpretations ingrained into culture; i.e. the old rabbis thought someone might mistake chicken for lamb meat (uh, only if you cooked the kishkes out of it) and it was just easier to include it in the fleishig category, so it became law. I don’t know if I buy that, and I suspect the rabbi might’ve dumbed down some of this knowledge for the gentiles present.

While I liked what the rabbi had to say much more than I expected — he certainly kept everyone’s attention for 12 hours, which is more than anyone in Hollywood could ever do — there were a few moments that the “we’re just like you, except for the Jesus part” schtick kind of got to me. Rabbi Belzer makes no secret that he thinks Chassidism and its missionary arm Chabad is for nutjobs, and he used the example of how some Lubavitchers carry around beepers so they can be notified the very second the Messiah comes. The room broke into giggles, but I’m positive there were a few in the Mordecai Sheftall Memorial Hall that would camp outside Wal-Mart if they started selling beepers for Jesus.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from Rabbi Belzer and this day of learning for Jews and people who want to know about them is that I have nothing to be ashamed about as a falling-far-short-of-kosher, rarely-attend-synagogue kind of Jew (sheesh, at least I don’t eat bacon.) His inclusive, changeable, “not written in stone, except for the parts that are” interpretation of Judaism falls closer to my own than I figured, yarmulke on his keppe or no. (Even El Yenta Man took away plenty from the day, though I had to promise a cheap motel night sometime soon.)

This notion that we have free will and autonomy as Jews, that we do get to choose how religious, how cultural, how kosher we want to be, is liberating and empowering to those of us finding our way in this Jewish life. All too often I abdicate my own self-respect to those more religious, as if they are better people simply because they read better Hebrew (to note, I surprised myself at my remembered teenage skills — those little goyishe prayerbooks had no alliterations.) I consider myself a creative kind of Jew; while I suppose some may critcize me for “picking and choosing” my mitzvot, I do what feels right out of love, not obligation.

So while the Christians got a crash course, the rabbi gave me the gift of affirmation and inclusion into Savannah Jewry, even if I don’t know the tunes yet. Perhaps one day I’ll rock my idea for future t-shirt of the week: “Jewish by birth, Southern by the grace of God.”

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?