Shavuot: The Forgotten Holiday

imagesIt’s time for Shavuot already? Errrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmm, I forgot.

I know, in past years I waxed on about my awesome holiday crafts and bragged about how the strawberries were bursting like I’m some kind of balabusta.

Well, this year the garden’s a little wilder and life’s a little messier. Sorry I’ve not gotten around to decorating my Shavuot table with peonies. Though Kveller’s Bethany Herwegh did and it’s simply lovely.

(I do so adore the Pintrest-y direction Jewish lifestyles blogs are taking! Even if makes me feel like the worst Jewish mother ever. I bet Bethany is a true balabusta who never forgets to replenish the Shabbos candles and has to use jack o’lantern votives scrounged from the junk drawer. *sigh*.)

You’ve got to admit, Shavuot is not the Jewish holidays cycle’s most thrilling point on the pinwheel. This year it falls into June, and with school out and everyone already in full-on summer mode and I’m more in the mood for margarita pie than I am for cheesecake.

But then my Jewish guilt gets all riled, and I go looking for a little Torah knowledge, since Shavuot is a harvest festival meant to celebrate the giving of the tablets to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Or is it?

Elon Gilad writes in Ha’aretz that with its uncertain name and twisted history, Shavuot might not even be a holy day at all:

In its earliest stages, during the First Temple period, Shavuot was an appendage to Passover, the first of the two major agricultural holidays. Shavuot marked the end of the festival (Atzeret) of the 50-day period called the Omer, between the harvest of barley – Passover – and the harvest of wheat.

During First Temple times, two loaves would have been baked out of that first batch o’ barley, brought to Jerusalem and used in a massive ritual he rightfully deems “complicated, bloody, and expensive.” Gilad explains that according to the Torah, the loaves were “waved before The Lord” with wine and “a complicated array of animal sacrifices.”

That kind of partying just simply isn’t sustainable, and the practice was wildly adapted over the years until somehow—and no one really knows, not even the most sagacious among us—we got to cheesecake and blintzes.

Gilad concludes with good-natured realism that while all-night study sessions that include the Book of Ruth are still the rage in the yeshivas, most less-than-pious Jews don’t get too fancy about Shavuout other than to eat some dairy deliciousness.

So maybe I shouldn’t feel so badly, sitting here with my peony-less table and my blintz-less freezer.

But now that I’m aware of my farblogence, I can’t stop thinking about Shavuot and its opportunity to absorb its compelling and confusing spiritual gifts.

Maybe I can work up a hankering for a pizza.

 

 

How A Stolen Ketubah Almost Ruined Snow White’s Jewish Wedding

Thank you to Tablet for posting this clip of actress/glamor elf Ginnifer Goodwin recounting to Jimmy Kimmel how her ketubahthe fancy Jewish wedding contract that basically says a husband can’t abandon his wife without shelling out some serious cashwas stolen then recovered the morning of her wedding:

I love this story for a few reasons. First, off my kids adore Godwin’s show Once Upon A Time and I can’t wait to tell them that Snow White is Jewish. That she married Prince Charming is extra adorable. Guessing sparrows and fairies bearing smoked herring will attend their child’s birth.

Second, that the rolled up piece of paper was found by people who could actually discern what it was clearly reflects a divine hand, no?

Lastly, l am no stranger to ketubah drama. On the morning of our wedding, as El Yenta Man and I were preparing ourselves to meet under the chuppah, the rabbi, who was no one’s favorite, decided he didn’t like the Hebrew lettering on it.

I was not present for the ensuing temper tantrum, but I heard murmuring that the rabbi was yelling at the top of his lungs ten minutes before the ceremony. On our honeymoon my new husband told me how our gorgeous wedding almost didn’t happen because the rabbi literally refused to sign the document that a Jewish artist friend had prepared for us. Apparently after a stern talking-to from my father, he made a big show about scribbling a “real” ketubah from a scrap from the recycling pile.

After the dizzy ride where I circled my groom seven times, I was a little confused as to why I had to sign the back of a flyer to the Sisterhood luncheon as well as the painting. But at that point I was so starry-eyed I would have signed my name in Sharpie on my dress.

All I know is the rabbi no longer shepherds that congregation. The ketubah still hangs over our bed.

Passover panic

fb5c40e8259a0c32549d3af2d870d453Ummm I think I just agreed to hosting the seder this year at my house.

All these years, I’ve managed to duck that responsibility by visiting my parents in Arizona or getting ourselves invited elsewhere. Even though El Yenta Man and I planned and cooked the Passover meal in Savannah a couple of years ago, the deed was actually done at my in-law’s house a few blocks away.

This year, with my mother-in-law barely breathing yet still hanging on to life from her adjustable bed in the back room, I think it’s just too much for my father-in-law logistically and emotionally to host. So it’s our turn to be the grown-ups, even if we don’t own a set of matching dishes.

You’d think after attending 40-something seders in my life, I would have a handle on what all this entails. And I do, mostly: There’s the cleaning of the chametz and the brisket and buying both colors of horseradish and digging out the recipe for that marvelous pea paté “faux gras” everyone likes until they find out what’s in it.

But something’s eluding me. Oh yes. That would be my EVER-LOVING SANITY. Even in the non-holiday times, I am barely hanging on with the full-time job and the full-time wife-ing and mothering and the neverending laundry and unrealized ambitions and remembering to take my Graves’ disease medication. (Errm, actually, forgetting it several times this week may be contributing to my mental confusion. Add that to the list.)

There is just something about being responsible for the continuation of the Jewish people’s epic five thousand seven hundred something year history that I find VERY OVERWHELMING. While no Orthodox rabbi would ever approve of my unkashered kitchen, it’s still important to try and do things as correctly and meaningfully as I can, even if it means I end up rocking in the corner of the pantry trying to remember if kidney beans are kitniyot. (They are, and I’m not sure I care.)

Anyway, I was quite glad to run across this lovely article, 10 Steps to a More Serene Passover by Rivka Caroline on chabad.org. Rivka is a rabbi’s wife and has seven children, so if she can stay sane during Passover, surely I can figure this out.

First thing I’m going to do is make good on my yearly promise to clean out–really clean out–the pantry. (More on that DIY project to come next week.)

Then, I’m gonna pack up my in-laws’ gathering-dust-in-the-cabinent china and shlep it over. For the better prepared, Passover (aka “Pesach” with an “acch”) requires its own set of special dishes.

The least I can do is borrow some matching ones.

*coveting this gorgeous hamsa seder plate at Moderntribe.com!

Got Shpiel-Kiss?

Just when I thought Shabbot 2000′s classic Purim parody could never be topped, here comes another yeshiva a cappella group (how many are there?!) with an infectious invective of everyone’s favorite Persian villain. Warning: A.K.A. Pella’s “What Does Haman Say” may worm into your brain deeper than a bottle of tequila:

A little something to dance out your shpilkiss. Or, since Purim parodies are called “shpiels,” we can call that ants-in-your-pants spring feverish feeling that seems to be going around “shpiel-kiss.”

Mad new beats aside, Shushan Shabot still rules!

I Wrote In the Torah and It Didn’t Explode

soferYesterday the entire Yenta family got near a Torah with some ink and it was not a disaster.

A nice (and anonymous) philanthropist has bought our congregation a brand new Torah to add to the collection of historic scrolls. (Because they’re kind of like cute shoes; no matter how many you own, you always want more.)

As tradition dictates, the Torah’s scribe–called a sofer–left a handful of letters blank. For a small donation, anyone can help “complete” the Torah, even not-s’-kosher heretics like us. (We did, however, wash our hands.)

Rabbi Yochanan Salazar of the traveling Torah crew Sofer On Site (who knew?!) came from Miami to aid our congregation in this most holy endeavor. The section left open was the very end of Exodus, which discusses how the Jews are to set up the Holy Tabernacle to house the Ten Commanments tablets. Rabbi Salazar gave us a quick lesson on the various interpretations of parsha Pekudei, but I was so excited about getting to draw in the Torah that I retained none of it. (Thankfully, there is this internet thing.)

As you can see above, the family inked in a “tav” that was outlined by using a turkey feather cut in a specific way that only draws the outline of the letter. Yes, an actual feather. I’m not saying that all things Jewish can be seen through the lens of Harry Potter, but Rabbi Salazer did kind of remind me of a young, Ecuadorian Dumbledore.

I kind of thought you had to be a rabbi, or a least be able to read Hebrew without the vowel symbols, to write in the Torah. Turns out this divine task actually the last of the 613 Commandments, though the literal text dictates that every Jew is supposed to write out his (of course, it does not mention her) own Torah at least once in this lifetime. Rabbi Salazar says it takes like ten months to write a whole Torah, “maybe a year if you’re lazy.”

Ain’t no one ‘cept the soferim got time for that. But just to lay out just a little ink was quite cool. Meshuggeh to think that Little Yenta Girl might read from this very Torah at her bat mitzvah!

Sov Sov Sov ’til Ya Drop

Image

In case you missed it, here’s my local take on the Chanukah/Thanksgiving mash-up in the current Connect Savannah. Hope to see some of you braving the chill for the Torch Relay on Wednesday afternoon!

In the meantime, Conan O’Brien and his farmisht Turkey Dreidel Man illustrate the dizzying Thanksgivukkah madness quite perfectly:

Lorde Might Not Celebrate Thanksgivukkah, But We’ll Always Have “Oils”…

Oh, you thought we were done with Thanksgivukkah ranting? Please. We have eight nights to fill.

Here’s the talented Big Teeth Productions‘ pop earworm answer to the mishegoss:

Chanukah Decor: Go Big and Get a Free Gift From Zion Judaica!

ZJ-MEN-BUOh damn you lunar calendar, I just scraped the jelly skeleton off the storm door and now it’s time to decorate for Chanukah already? There’s still wax on the bookcase from last year!

And don’t even get me started on Thanksgivukkah – to paraphrase my bubbie (of blessed memory), I need a two-holiday shebang to prepare for like I need a hole in the head. (Yes, there’s a Wikipedia entry for it. Calling it “a pop-culture portmanteau neologism” is taking a little far, dontcha think? And anyway, as Haaretz blogger Allison Kaplan Sommer wonders, why not Chanksgiving?)

I just pray that the next time this happens in the year 79,811 (or something like year 83,582 in Hebrew) someone has invented a robot that cleans the ceiling of our descendants’ underground pods after the GMO-free potato-latke-frying and inevitable cranberry sauce explosion.

EBS-1-TOn the other hand, if I can get it together this week, the Yenta house will finally be the first one in the neighborhood to get all splashy flashy with the lights! Every year our front yard display gets a little more glitzy and farpitzed like an aging Las Vegas showgirl for several reasons:

First, I am rebelling against my spartan childhood where every house on our suburban block sparkled with fake snow and festive glare except ours. Second, 2 for 1 LED garlands at Rite-Aid.

In case you’re wondering, no, a Chanukah bush is still never OK, but I all ABOUT owning the Festival of Lights with some oscillating blue bulbs or better yet, this 17.5-inch Star of David from Zion Judaica (yo, it’s on sale!)

Sommer reminds us that even though Chanukah usually falls closer to Christmas, it’s not a competition. But listen, my bubbie, who wore full-on costume jewelry sets and gloves just to go to the Winn-Dixie, taught me to go big, and a whole house done up in blue on a crisp, cold night is just so gorgeous. I haven’t quite gotten into the world of inflatables yet (that spartan childhood will always have its hooks in my psyche,) but should I ever garner the chutzpah to 11-foot bear holding a dreidel in my yard, Zion Judaica is the hook-up.

In fact, ZJ’s got pretty much everything you need for Thanksgivikkah Chanukah in their online superstore — and they’re offering a special gift for Yo, Yenta! readers! Just include the words “free neck” in the comment box on the confirmation page any order over $49.99 and you’ll receive a free dreidel necklace. (Because nothing goes better with flash lots of than Jewish bling!)

Orders usually ship between two and eight business days, with express options. Hurry up, we’ve only got two weeks to make the neighborhood shine!

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From My Pew…

imagesEvery Jewish fundraiser and synagogue leader and professional Jew is currently plotzing over the latest from the Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans.

Some are wringing their hands into shreds over the data concerning the increase of intermarriage and assimilation; others interpret the findings as celebratory proof that we are indeed Jewish Americans, not American Jews.

The headlines might say Jews are jumping the synagogue ship and that the children aren’t being raised Jewish; J.J. Goldberg shows it’s all in the interpretation. Rabbi Gerald Skolnik writes in New York’s Jewish Week that he can’t find the good news in any of it; in today’s Forward, NYU professor Bethamie Horowitz provides a much more optimistic lens with which to view it all (a historically uncharacteristic practice for Jews, but hey, the point here is that we’re changing.)

Shmuel Rosner’s hilarious column in this week’s Jewish Journal breaks down a few other categories of the Jewish response to the study, including the smartasses. Rosner acknowledges that all points are valid but not necessarily useful — until taken into context with each other. What good is the Pew study if it’s just given our community more grist to fuel the endless infighting?

If all such studies can do is to merely strengthen previously held beliefs – who needs them? If the community can’t look collectively at this study (the key is doing it collectively) and agree on at least one or two main implications of it – then what’s the point?

So many of our big brains have already weighed in, and as this yenta is neither as learned or broadthinking, I have nothing to offer about it other than I can’t say that the trends documented in the study come as any surprise:

More Jews are marrying non-Jewish — six out of 10, according the statistics — and less are identifying with religion and more with culture and heritage. Ninety-four percent of those polled are proud to be Jewish; only 30 percent describe themselves as “very attached to Israel.” An increasing sector is raising their children “partly Jewish,” which I guess means Chrismukkah exists after all.

Frankly, I don’t have the time to interpret it all, what with twice-a-week Hebrew school carpool, taking down the (worst) sukkah (ever) and guilting Yenta BoyMan into finally finishing the last phase of his mitzvah project. It’s a good thing no one called to poll me, I might have given a few smart alecky answers myself.

All I know if that from the pew where I sit in my small Southern city, the future of Judaism looks quite bright: Our 280 year-old Reform congregation just renewed the rabbi’s contract and membership is up. Shalom School enrollment is logging record highs this year, evident in the complete (but friendly!) madhouse at pickup. A gorgeous new preschool at the Jewish Educational Alliance opened this fall. The Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival continues to be one of the city’s most well-attended public events and was voted “Best Food Event” by the readers of Connect Savannah (It’s coming next Sunday, Oct. 27. Let the noshing begin!)

There’s also a cadre of young families and singles attending services regularly, not that I know anything about attending synagogue regularly but they’re always there when we show up (usually late, of course.) Some have one Jewish parent with another studying to convert, some are already Jews by choice, some are scoping out the dating scene. I don’t care because they know the right tune for the Sh’ma AND they bring their own wine to oneg. They ask questions, they are fun to be around and they make my excuses for skipping shul seem pretty lame. Many of them come to Judaism without baggage about What It Means to Be A Jew, and it’s a pretty refreshing perspective.

There have already been and will continue to be many solutions for the “problems” that the Pew study presents, but I can only offer the same of what I’ve been trumpeting for years:

In order to survive, Judaism must be joyful. And tolerant. And welcoming.

Many won’t agree, and I’m okay with that. But I can’t get caught up in handwringing and long meetings and strategizing — I’ve got honeycakes to burn and Chanukah to stress about and children to teach to curse in Yiddish. And maybe, if we get it together this Friday, services to attend.

Good Times in the Worst Sukkah Ever

Loyal readers know that I find Sukkot the most challenging holiday to observe. I love my garden, I love the harvest, I love fall, I love being outside, but when it comes to building shit, you’ve lost me.

Though I have a fleeting memory of making construction paper chains at the JCC preschool in Miami circa 1974, Sukkot was not something we Reform Jews brought home. As far as I can tell, carpentry skills fled our DNA as we evolved over generations to become doctors and lawyers and neurotic intellectuals. If God wanted modern American Jews to construct temporary dwellings actually worth dwelling in, the Torah would have come with blueprints.

Still, for years, I maintained the delusion that El Yenta Man and I would transform into tool-wielding architectural dynamos and slap together SOMETHING kosher enough to be consider a sukkah. It’s for the kids! I would say, dragging over our neighbor’s palm tree clippings. They can help! Then I realized that simply breaking down a cardboard cereal box for the recycling is too complex a task for almost everyone in this family, so I gave up.

Not that dwelling in a hut in the backyard for a week doesn’t sound like a blast. But a sukkah is more than just a secret clubhouse to enjoy a purloined stash of snacks and comic books; it has rules: It has to have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. It has to have a ceiling, but you have to be able to see the stars through it. It should be festively decorated with specific items like perishable fruits, which sounds a bug problem waiting to happen, especially since I tend to leave up the Chanukah banners until Passover.

But this year, Little Yenta Girl would not be satisfied with the Torah-sanctioned and perfectly lovely sukkah at our synagogue and begged and pleaded for us to make our own last Wednesday.

El Yenta Man can’t refuse his precious lovely much, so he said yes. At 45 minutes before sundown and no discernible dinner plans. With nothing more than a some bamboo poles, a broken drill and a stack of wild-patterned schmattas leftover from my African dance days. Let no one ever deny the deranged determination of indulgent Jewish parents.

First, we selected an area near the garden to make a square-like structure, as dictated in the Torah and the helpful, handy folks at Chabad.com. Unfortunately, we had no way to secure the bamboo into the ground, so they kept falling over into the okra bed and onto my head. So we dug some holes, causing the chickens to rush over and scratch at the bed of fire ants we uncovered. Though the sukkah building was not going well, we did at least invent a new Sukkot dance that employs the choreographed spastic slapping of legs while hopping from foot to foot to avoid stepping in chicken poop.

At this point it was getting dark and tempers darker, so we gave up on “kosher” and settled for indigenous, leaning all the poles into each other. It’s inclusive, we’re celebrating the Native American heritage of our region, I explained briskly to our daughter, who looked doubtfully at the sukkah coloring sheet she brought home from Hebrew school and back at our teepee.

Then it was time to decorate: Yenta BoyMan chopped some giant philodendron leaves and leaned them against the poles while EYM draping the mismatched fabric like he was swaddling a giant baby. I started stringing okra and other half-rotting things from the garden until a worm crawled out of the butternut squash and I threw it all over my neighbor’s fence.

The result was a cross between something built by an Ecstasy-addled hippie at Burning Man and the saddest corner of a Somali refugee camp.

“It’s awful,” I said, thinking the dinner I was now expected to make out of penne pasta and wormy squash would pair really well with this disaster.

“A total embarrassment,” agreed EYM.

“I wish I had my Epi-Pen. We not sleeping out here, are we?” whined the BoyMan, obsessively checking the bottom of shoes for chicken poop.

But our girl clasped her hands and smiled.

“It’s perfect,” she declared.

sukkah

More teepee than sukkah, but at least it’s there?

So we brought out blankets and some takeout burritos, and stared through the gaps in the animal prints at the heavens. The girl rushed back inside for a moldy lemon to serve as the etrog, and we gathered up some lawn clippings for a lulav. A happy peace settled over our little family as the philodendron leaves lifted with the first cool breeze felt in these sultry parts since April.

The dog wrenched herself out of her diabetic stupor and snuggled against our outstretched legs as the BoyMan stretched out on the ground pointing out the constellations to his little sister. EYM and I high-fived each other with the relieved enthusiasm of those who choose to celebrate simple accomplishment over obvious ineptitude. I relished the triumph that while we may be the most half-assed Sukkah builders in the history of Judaism, my kids would have at least one decent memory of a hut of their own.

We experienced a good 20 minutes of spiritual and domestic harmony until the dog mistook the purple blanket for a patch of grass and peed in the BoyMan’s hair. That inspired the second movement of the Yenta Sukkot Dance, a highly energetic solo of pulling the shmattas off the wall and flailing them about the head.

“It’s OK,” said Little Yenta Girl. “We’ll just wash everything and put it away for next year.”

Next year? Oy.