Jewels of Elul: 10 Years of Inspiration from Craig ‘N Co

jewels-xi-emailEvery year for the past decade, iconic musical leader and silver fox Craig Taubman has published a sweet little book of inspirations prior to the Jewish High Holy Days. Jewels of Elul is meant to help get us in the mindset of praying, giving and repenting during the extra-cleansing month before Rosh Hashanah, which I find super helpful because the whole New Year thing sort of sneaks up on me. (Maybe that’s why I always burn the honeycakes.)

I had the honor of writing a jewel for the very first book (linked here, or scroll to the bottom of this post) and have delighted ever since in the sweet shorts contributed by many wise souls, Jewish and not. (Hey there, Dalai Lama, hey…)

For round 11, Craig asked his legions of fans and followers to submit their favorites, a precious necklace of crowd-sourced gems, if you will: Jewels of Elul: Ten Years of Inspiration is available starting this Friday, Aug. 15, otherwise known as the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, and will come right to your inbox if you like.

The 29 shorts feature Elie Weisel, Anita Diamant (The Red Tent, y’all!), a whole bunch of rabbis including David Wolpe and Rami Shapiro, Pastor Rick Warren, brilliant feminist filmmaker Jill Soloway, Mary J. Blige, Arnold Schwarzenegger…and me.

Floored, y’all. Just floored. I can barely believe anyone takes the time to read anything I write, and I’m so humbled and honored that this tiny piece of my family’s experience has touched so many:

Learning How to Dance by Jessica Leigh Lebos

My mother-in-law’s mind is full of holes. She spends most of the day in a placid fog, a place where there’s nothing left to do but walk the dog and wonder what’s for dinner. Every time it’s chicken, she rolls her eyes and kvetches, “We had this last night!” No one argues with her anymore.The situation is undeniably tragic. She’s only in her early 60’s, has already suffered through cancer and a mastectomy, and her dementia has been diagnosed incurable.

Yet, her disease has set into motion a certain regeneration: Both of her sons have returned to Savannah to help care for her and to assume their roles as men alongside their father, who is finally learning to treat them like the mensches she raised. Her grandchildren — my kids — sit beside her and sing with gusto while she plunks out the same damn Disney song on the piano: “The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed…”

Whenever there’s music, she remembers exactly what to do. She snaps, she swings her arms; she’s particularly fond of jazz hands. This is endearing when “Funkytown” comes on the radio and she shimmies around the living room, less so when we’re in line at the grocery store and she sashays off in the direction of someone’s cell phone. My husband and I have made a family pact to never let her dance alone. Often we resemble a circus without a tent, a multi-generational band of spastic merrymakers getting down to the sound of the garbage compactor. Helping someone keep her grace doesn’t always look graceful.

We hold faith that God loves us so, and yet still, still, life hurts. Sometimes healing comes from accepting what is. Hope is learning how to dance with it.

****

Reading this a decade later, I tear up all over again. My mother-in-law, bless her, still lives and breathes, but the dementia has rendered her bedridden and speechless now for many years.

May all of us dance as long as we possibly can, and may the New Year bring us peace.

Thank you, Craig and Co., and I hope y’all will cherish these jewels as we head into 5776.

 

The Yenta’s Wet Hot American Summer Comes to A Close

10895024_oriSo, embarrassing fact: I just watched Wet Hot American Summer for the first time last week.

I KNOW. A movie about the last day of Jewish summer camp starring the favorite funny people of my generation has been streaming on Netflix for a decade and I’ve never once clicked there. A shonda if there ever was one.

A dear friend put it this way: “How is that even possible? You’re like, the Jewiest camper person ever. Plus you love Paul Rudd and will totally forgive him for Ant-Man.”

I dunno how this Jewish gem failed to hit my psyche in the last 14 years. Maybe because my kids were tiny needy dwarves when it came out, and it felt too weird to watch sexy teen movies while I was breastfeeding.

Or perhaps subconsciously, I did not want to revisit the social trauma of Jew camp, where I was the only girl did not possess a pair of Guess jeans.

All I know WHAS‘ status as a cult classic is fully deserved, and from now on when I don’t feel like having sex, I will tell El Yenta Man he tastes like a burger.

But I will tell you, I couldn’t even make it through a single episode of the new Netflix series. Am I the only one who thinks the asinine dialogue is boring and totally beneath this amazing cast of now-seasoned, highly successful comic geniuses? Apparently so.

Anyway, the most important part of this post is to note that tomorrow is MY kids’ last day of camp, and only the good Lord knows what kind of mishegoss they’ll get into because it’s pretty obvious no one will tell me unless there is blood or fire involved. (Though I’m anxious to see it Yenta Girl ends up being the camper that must be forced to shower.)

It’s also the tail end of adult-only time in Yentaland, a period that has been used to rip out the tile in the bathroom and sleep in the dust, eat popcorn for dinner and nothing for breakfast, let the dogs sleep in the bed and eat at the table, not reapply sunscreen, sleep naked because the dogs don’t care, drink three too many mojitos by 5pm and try to avoid the mobs following Adam Sandler around Tybee Island. (I’m not exactly sure what the concept of “The Do-Over” is, but I have great doubt that it will even be able to touch WHAS.)

It’s been awesome being able to dance in public without the kids around to tweet how disgusting we are, but I’m ready to have them home. I’m pretty sure they’ll make it back in one piece, unless of course, they are lepers.

Historic German Church Becomes A Synagogue; Anti-Semites Plotz

P7162802_tone

Germany’s newest synagogue, otherwise known as the “castle church”

As of this year, the state of Brandenburg in former East Germany has its first synagogue since 1938.

Along the main corridor of Cottbus, a college town of around 100,000 people, the formerly Protestant and religiously-abandoned Schlosskirche—or “castle church”—was dedicated in January as a synagogue by a community of 1000 or so Jews. (Of course, only about half of them pay their official temple dues, but what else is new?)

The changeover has been met mostly with joy and respect by the rest of the town, though the strong “neo-Nazi scene” near the Polish border remains a concern—in 2006, some thugs defaced the Cottbus Jewish community offices with swastikas, and rising anti-Semitism across Europe has Jews fleeing for Israel.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants the fragile rebuilding of German Jewish life to continue and has vowed her support, saying a recent press conference that “we are glad and thankful that there is Jewish life in Germany again.”

Cottbus once had a glorious synagogue of its own, with “intricate stained glass windows,” built by the prosperous merchants and tradesmen of the Jewish community. Like so many historic Jewish structures, it was destroyed during Kristallnacht, and its members vanished into Hitler’s horrific chasm.

Out of respect for my ancestors, I never learned a lick of German (though Young Yenta Man did try to download the entire language when he was a boy.)

But I think “schloss synogoge” has a nice ring to it, don’t you?

Read the whole article here.

Dueling Passover Parodies: Six 13 vs. Aish HaTorah

To some, Passover might mean long seders and matztapation (I thought I made that up, but apparently not.) But bring on the boils, ’cause this Yenta only cares about one thing: It’s parody season!

Pesach 5775 brings us the miracle of not one but TWO fabulous Talmudic interpretations of Bruno Mars’ tushy shpilkiss-inducing “Uptown Funk”

First, those nice yeshiva boys Six 13 with the lovely a cappella skillz trotted out their version a few weeks ago.The breakdown of the plagues is super clever, and how rad is that matzah beach ball?

Then the boyz at Aish HaTorah slid in with their sizzling historical adaptation. Honestly, is there anything hotter than breakdancing tzitzit? Also, now I want a limo driver named Yankele.

So which one’s your favorite? Plenty of time to stew on it. Speaking of which, try the stewed apricots for that matzapation.

Manischewitz announces Non-GMO Matzo!

320f527614308ec071a37bed938fe627On all other nights, most Reform Jews eat whatever the hell they want.

But on Passover, we abstain from fluffy breadish products and suffer with matzo not only to honor our ancestors, but perhaps to lend a bit of consciousness to our consuming to the rest of the year.

While the Yenta family does not keep strictly kosher (El Yenta Man has to cook his shrimp on the grill), we do try to keep our food as local and non-Monsanto-stained as possible, so I’m very excited at that this news:

Massive mazto maker Manischewitz has announced a whole line of non-GMO Project Verified foods for our Passover tables this spring. The list includes pretty much everything but the gefilte fish:

  • Matzos
  • Matzos Thin Tea
  • Matzo Meals
  • Matzo Farfel
  • Matzo Cake Meal
  • Organic Matzo
  • Organic Spelt Matzo
  • Whole Grain Matzo Farfel
  • Whole Grain Matzo Meal
  • Whole Wheat Matzos
  • Unsalted Matzo

If you’re not familiar with the debate over genetically-modified ingredients–aka GMOs–have a look here.

It seems to me that ALL food that is genetically modified–and we’re not talking about old-fashioned cross-breeding–ought to be considered unkosher for its insidious dicking with God’s perfect genome, but hey, I’m no rabbi.

But I do know that come April El Yenta Man is going to soooo happy about his non-GMO organic spelt mazto brie!

 

When Jews Owned Slaves

leadLiving in Savannah, GA, one can not really escape the horrid specter of slavery: I mean, if you are any kind of awake, you understand that this pretty little city, the South, this whole dang country wouldn’t be here if weren’t for the labor and skills of enslaved Africans.

While there may be reminders in Maya Angelou’s powerful words at the feet of nicey-nice memorials and clues in the thumbprints of brick buildings, the stories of these tortured men, women and children–let alone their actual names–rarely made it to the metanarrative of local history. But that is finally changing:

I wrote a cover story for Connect Savannah a few months back about how city archivists are using old records to document the local government’s participation in the slave trade. The results of the project are now available, providing primary sources for academics and anyone else interested in real history.

A recent article in The Atlantic by my friend Kris Monroe details the largest slave auction in American history that took place in Savannah in March 1859. Only marginally discussed on the trolley tours if at all, this terrible event known as “The Weeping Time” sold off 436 human beings and split apart hundreds of families. There’s a little plaque west of the tourist corridor that commemorates the Weeping Time, but few people outside of Savannah knew about it until Kris brought it to a national readership.

There’s also this piece by Susanna Ashton in today’s Forward that focuses on Charleston and explains why Savannah’s Jewish community–the third oldest in the U.S.–took a nose dive just eight years after it was established:

One important population influx took place in 1741, when a large contingent of Jewish families left their homes in Savannah, Georgia, to resettle in Charleston because trustees of the Georgia colony would not let them (or anyone else) hold slaves. The state of South Carolina, which had long embraced slaveholding, was thus a welcoming place for these families. By 1749, when Georgia rethought the ban and decided to allow slaveholding, it was too late.

Ashton’s article reminds that with the South’s historic Jewish communities comes a certain responsibility to the truth of that history: Much of the success and prosperity of those early families was built on the scarred backs of others. As a Southern Jew of more modest origins, I think it’s high time that Jewish communities researched the enslaved people who helped build the synagogues and businesses. Who were they? How can we remember and include them into our bigger story?
This weekend, Savannah is hosting The Slave Dwelling Project Conference, a gathering of academics and artists from all over the South who will discuss the preservation of slave history. Rumor has it that Kosher Soul chef and Afroculinaria blogger Michael Twitty may make an appearance, which would be a tremendous opportunity. (I’ve been trying to get him to my Shabbos table ever since his “Open Letter to Paula Deen” went viral!)
It’s an odd notion to consider for most of us, this Jews-owning-slaves business, considering our own past as slaves. Though it should come as no surprise for those with relatives who have been in America since the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even though I’ve scoured the family tree for any slaveholding branches and it’s come up empty, it’s times like this that I like to remind people: Hey, I married in.

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!