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

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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.

 

 

 

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?”

 

 

 

If I Had A Preacher…

…It’d be Otis Moss III. The good reverend cracked the code of compassion and tolerance with this sermon given in Chicago last week:

Now, the Jews know that things never get quite as exciting at synagogue; the rabbis I’ve known don’t so much as preach as, say, suggest.

But our congregation is welcoming a new spiritual leader, Rabbi Robert Hass, into the fold in the coming weeks, and judging from how much his previous flock adored him, my hopes are high. The good news is that he’s from Texas and probably won’t suffer much Southern social shock.

A blessed Shabbos to those who do and a wonderful weekend to all!