I Sing a Song of the South—But I Ain’t Whistlin’ Dixie

[cross-posted from Connect Savannah]

scarlett+green+velvetWHEN I was 10 or 11, summer in Arizona was horrendously boring and hot as hell.

To keep me from burning holes in the pool furniture with a magnifying glass and O.D.ing on Days of Our Lives, my mother handed me the biggest book she could find: The paperback edition of Gone with the Wind looked like a brick and weighed about as much, and I dubiously hefted it onto my lap.

It took me all of a week to devour all 1,087 pages, love-hating spoiled Scarlett as I pined for Rhett and sobbed for Melanie. The burning of Atlanta seared my heart, and for years I fantasized about making a dress out of the Venetian blinds.

Between GWTW and repeated viewings of the adorable Myrtle Beach chick flick Shag at the local dollar theater, I formed some rath-uh romantic notions about the South in my youth.

By the time I met the surfer from Savannah who would become my husband, however, I had also acquired also a comprehensive liberal arts education that put me eye-to-eye with the true bloody history of the Civil War and the hard-earned legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, fermenting a passion for social equality and filling in the gaps of my imaginary petticoats. I married into the South with my eyes wide open, ready to embrace its complicated charms and difficult paradoxes.

As any wise person will tell you, marriage ain’t all about the romance, dahlin’.

As an outsider, I knew I’d never be considered a real Southerner no matter how deliciously I fry my okra (it’s all about the coconut oil, y’all). Such tacit acceptance has always been fine by me: As a Jewish hippie chick, I figured I was absolved from the past’s persistent evils, as though I could line dance and swill bourbon with the South’s fun-loving side and tiptoe away when it gets all blackout drunk and waves its guns around. I could be up to my earlobes in it, but not of it, so to speak.

I think that changed forever last week. We were at a wedding in upstate New York when the horrific shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church hit the news, ripping off the gauze on a wound that still seems to fester as deeply as it did 150 years ago. It can be argued that the South’s racial issues aren’t any more or less intense than the rest of the country’s—the most violent cases of racial unrest in modern history have taken place in the Midwest and Southern California—but slavery’s painful legacy remains embedded in its soil, in its history, in the heritage some of its citizens champion so fiercely.

I felt the backlash as we introduced ourselves to the other wedding guests and told them where we were from. There was an exception when one person asked excitedly, “Georgia? Did you see the zebras running through the streets?” I had to explain gently that last month’s flooding incident involving the escaped zoo animals actually took place in the country of Georgia, “like, near Russia.” She seemed very disappointed.

Mostly though, I watched eyes frost over warily, as if I was going to break out a Confederate flag bikini and an AK-47 and start spitting tobacco juice all over the furniture.

It was real strange to be judged as Southern. I mean, I did not put a boiled peanut in my mouth until I was well into my 30s. I birthed my babies in California with a doula and a bottle of Rescue Remedy. I was born in freaking New Jersey, for criminy’s sake.

Wait, y’all have got me all wrong! I wanted to shout. I am not responsible for this hot mess!

Instead, a surprise entered my heart: I found myself defending the South. Maybe I was just rebelling against the Yankee snarkiness that assumes everyone below the Mason-Dixon line has a double-digit IQ and a fried Twinkie in the glovebox. But I could not let my chosen home be reduced to the actions and attitudes of a few violent, inbred cockroaches.

Hackles raised, I spoke passionately about the joyful diversity of my kids’ public schools. I described the miles of forest and marsh, the kindness of strangers, the humble goodness of a paper plate of boiled shrimp caught in one’s own castnet.

Granted, I live in a lovely city with a racially-balanced city government, an organic farmers market and a thriving arts scene, a little bastion of progressive thinkers and educated transplants. It also helps that we’ve got The New York Times fawning all over Savannah like we’re the most covetable girl at the cotillion. (Three articles in two weeks? Any more of this courtin’, honey, and you’re gonna have to put a ring on it.)

Absolutely, Savannah is a precocious exception to the South that regularly sells out its natural resources to the highest bidder and still refuses to expand Medicaid benefits to millions under the Affordable Care Act no matter what SCOTUS says about subsidies.

This is the only South I know: One where for every Confederate flag on an F-350, there’s an Obama sticker on a Prius. Where there are more people authentically concerned and engaged with economic equality and social justice than any place I’ve ever lived.

The South I laud is the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a seat of the national food justice movement. It is where, in the wake of horror and death, we stand up, link arms and march together, black, white, brown, young, old, straight, gay, trans, and everyone in between.

To this adopted daughter, being Southern is to own the good, the bad and the ugly and work for better. It’s a bittersweet row to hoe, which is probably why we put so much goddamn sugar in the tea.

The Confederacy’s been dead and gone a long time, and even the most delusional debutante must know deep in her bones that South ain’t rising again, no matter how much starch it put in its white hoodie.

But as God as my witness, how I do believe that this South, our South, can and will rise above the ignorance and the corruption, heal the wounds and show the rest of America what forgiveness, perserverance and gentility really mean.

And what will we do with all those retired flags?

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Don’t Fall Asleep in Hebrew School

This poor shlub is surely enjoying some unwanted fame this week after10373947_10152784001662233_4685397027155974914_n rabbinical student Sruli Schochet posted this photo on Instagram:

“So we were at the Walmart in Bentonville, AR, buying some food and we see this guy with a massive arm tattoo. Shmueli Newman asks him if he knows what it means. ‘Yes,’ he proudly says, ‘it means ‘strength’ just like my name. I got it while I was in the military.’
We didn’t have the heart to tell him…”

Listen, I can barely follow the V’ahavta without transliteration, but even I know that guy’s arm says “matzah.” But only because of the vowels.

As Schochet noted in the comments on his post: “Let’s just say, there is a white guy in Arkansas walking around with the Hebrew word for ‘cracker’ on his arm…and he doesn’t know it!”

Listen, I’d be hardy-har-har-ing along with the rest of y’all, if only I hadn’t made my own egregious grammatical mistake this week: In this week’s Connect Savannah profile of Best Clergy of 2015, I somehow managed to spell my own rabbi’s name wrong–IN ENGLISH. 

It’s been fixed online, but print is well, printed. But let’s talk about the irony of a Jewish person elected as the favorite person of the cloth in a city steeped in Christianity:

SAVANNAH’S Jewish community may be America’s third oldest and one of its most storied, but it remains a fact that synagogue dwellers will always be a tiny minority in this city. Yet out of all the pastors, reverends, ministers and priests preaching the Good Word out there, y’all somehow elected a rabbi as the favorite clergy of 2015. Perhaps it’s a testament to Savannah’s accepting climate, or maybe you’re all secret gefilte fish fans.

Read the rest here, and congrats to all the 2015 Best of Savannah winners!

Peace Out Friday: Sending Love and Blessings to Baltimore and Beyond

53db6d364a6651948a4c3b6d461763c0What a week. Some of us are graced with the knowledge that we’ll have some peaceful hours with loved ones, save a soccer game or two. And maybe an annoying trip to Home Depot.

Others among us enter the weekend without respite from the injustice and inequalities that make their lives miserable.

As I light the candles later this eve (no, never on time), I’ll send up a Sim Shalom, the prayer for peace for all.

Kids always learn the happy, clappy version, but Julie Silver’s tune has always been my favorite; somehow, the somber chord progression gives this prayer the depth it deserves.

I love the translation below—we’re all in this together, friends.

A peaceful Shabbat and wonderful weekend to all—and may we hold compassion for all those who suffer.

(“Peace Hamsa” by Kansas City artist Laura Bolter.)

Mickve Israel’s museum makeover

  • Toby Hollenberg (l.) and Eileen Lobel look at almost 300 years of Savannah Jewish history. - JON WAITS/@JWAITSPHOTO Jon Waits/@jwaitsphoto

This week in the Civil Society Column:

THE RENOVATION of Savannah’s only Jewish museum holds important implications for all of us, even if you don’t know a knish from a kishke.

Listen, dahlink, this isn’t about theology or politics. And I’m not here to debate whether “Jewish” means a religion or an ethnicity or a secret ingredient that imbues regular chicken soup with magical powers. (My perspective continues to vary between a.) All of the above, but not all of the time b.) It depends; who wants to know? and c.) Oy, can we eat already? Pass the salt.)

Above all else, Judaism is a story, an epic tale that has survived pharaohs, pogroms and Hitler’s unspeakable evils, one intertwined with Western civilization. The tiny chapter written by Savannah’s Jewish community is not only unique, it’s essential to this city’s history—and its future.

It starts in July 1733 with Gen. James Oglethorpe, three months into his colonial experiment on Yamacraw Bluff. The good general had already lost a tenth of his troops to a mysterious marsh illness when the London-launched ship William and Sarah sailed up the river and requested amnesty.

On board were 41 Jewish pioneers, including Dr. Samuel Nunez Ribeiro, a descendant of Portuguese Jews expelled at the time of Christopher Columbus and forced to practice their traditions in secret. Dr. Nunez soothed those festering with fever and saved dozens of lives. Gen. O welcomed him and his band of freedom seekers as citizens of Savannah, granting them full rights and plots of land.

(Grateful as they must have been, you know somebody still kvetched, “We came across the ocean for this heat? And the bugs! What, we couldn’t find a nice place in New Amsterdam?”)

So right there, this act of tolerance and inclusion defined Savannah’s earliest days. Mickve Israel remains the third-oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.

“From the beginning, we were here,” reminds the timeline of the newly refurbished museum on the second floor of the Gothic synagogue on Monterey Square.

Indeed, American history is mirrored on every wall, from the portrait of Revolutionary War hero Mordecai Sheftall to the tasseled Chatham Artillery helmet worn by Chaplain Rabbi George Solomon. Original letters from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many more presidents congratulate the congregation on its major anniversaries—including one from President Obama on its 275th.

The installation also unblinkingly examines Jewish Savannahians’ roles on the losing side of the Civil War, documenting spy Eugenia Levy Phillips, whose sneaky efforts are credited towards the Confederate victory at Manassas. (Though being freed from Egypt is an important plot line in the Jewish story, some Southern scions ignored the cruel irony of owning slaves.)

Decades later, three Mickve Israel members became Juliette Gordon Low’s first Girl Scout leaders, and the museum chronicles congregational connections to the Mighty Eighth Army Air Corps and Tony-award winning play Driving Miss Daisy.

The crown jewels of the permanent exhibit are its oldest: Two deerskin Torah scrolls that date back to the 1400s, gallantly protected through the tumult of the centuries and now professionally archived under bulletproof glass courtesy of North Carolina-based Studio Displays, Inc. One is still used on holy occasions, though thankfully the ancient circumcision kit is not.

click to enlarge The crown jewels of the permanent exhibit are its oldest: Two deerskin Torah scrolls that date back to the 1400s - JON WAITS/@JWAITSPHOTO

  • Jon Waits/@jwaitsphoto

“We have all of these wonderful artifacts, and I’m thrilled to see them displayed professionally,” says Jane Feiler, who with her husband, Ed, collaborated with the late David Byck, Jr. and architect Henry Levy on the original museum in the 1970s.

Already one of Georgia’s top Trip Advisor destinations, the upgrade was made possible by beloved local attorney Alan Gaynor, who passed in 2010. Member Greg Mafcher volunteered to manage the project, and committee members Toby Hollenberg, Eileen Lobel, Ellen Byck, Herbert and Teresa Victor, Jules and Phoebe Kerness and Rabbi Saul Rubin went through the 400+ items piece by piece, parsing the tsotchkes from the treasures.

“We didn’t throw anything away,” promises Toby. My bubbe—who escaped from Poland in the 1930s and saved every scrap of paper because “you never know”—would be very relieved.

But my bubbe would also be wringing her hands over the news right now. Anti-Semitic violence and vandalism has surged across Europe in the past year, from the massacre at a kosher supermarket in Paris to the shooting of a security guard at a synagogue in Copenhagen. Even as Pope Francis and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemn them, the alarming rash of attacks on Jewish people, businesses and synagogues continues. Writer Jeffrey Goldberg asked in The Atlantic last week if it’s time for Jews to leave Europe for good.

Here in America, the FBI reported in 2013 that 62 percent of anti-religious hate crimes target Jews. Every day I see Facebook acquaintances conflate their criticism of Israeli politics with prejudice and hatred. The vitriol has shaken my conviction humanity has learned its lessons from the Holocaust—which wiped out not only a third of the world’s Jewry but millions of Catholics, gays, disabled citizens and people of color barely 70 years ago.

Next week, Jewish and Christian families around the world will gather to celebrate Passover and Easter, each with its themes of renewal and freedom. My family has always encouraged a macabre sense of humor, and my brother broke us all up at last year’s seder table with a joking game of “Who Would Hide Us?” This year, it doesn’t seem so hilarious.

Perhaps when we open the door for the prophet Elijah, we will keep the door cracked to remind us of how many people in the world still need amnesty, and how lucky we are to live in a country where our rights were written in from the very beginning.

As Jewish history brims with tragedy at every turn, here in Savannah it is far outweighed by triumph. Curated on Monterey Square is not simply preservation of the past, but a hopeful testament for a future where diversity of all kinds is honored.

Savannah’s Jewish story is just one example of how the principles of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion beget strong communities.

If you believe those principles are the path to healing our city, our country and maybe even the whole wide world, then it’s your story, too.

A Very Classy Purim

HamantaschenLast night the Yenta crew went Whole Megillah for our favorite holiday!

Purim commemorates Queen Esther’s badass rescue of the Jewish people from the conniving Haman, and somehow that’s become a fabulous excuse to dress up and drink.

I didn’t break out the turban this year and El Yenta Man didn’t come in drag, but hilarity still ruled as we groggered and grogged the night away.

I mean, when your rabbi pays homage to the late, great Leonard Nimoy while dressed as Gonzo from the Muppets, that is a party.

Gonzo Rabbi

Gonzo Rabbi

Unfortunately, the kids didn’t think so. Yenta Son barely met the family costume requirement by ruining my eyebrow pencil. Nonplussed

The addition of blanched green beans, however, greatly enhanced his look.Stringbean mouthLittle Yenta Princess kept it classy, as always: PrettySome people think Purim is a children’s holiday, but that’s ridiculous. We’ll be dressing up long after the kids are grown, and I hope we look as good as the Hofsteins:MichaelMarian

We missed the kid version of the Purim shpiel Sunday, so I was soooo glad Miss Piggy and Kermit reprised their roles: PiggyKermitEl Yenta Man wishes I would bring the pink flask every time we go to synagogue. Yenta Princess does not approve.

EYMflask

As he read from Mickve Israel’s 600+ year old Megillah — the oldest in the Western Hemisphere — Rabbi Gonzo reiterated that a warped sense of humor has been the key to Jewish survival for 6000 years. It sure isn’t because we blend. Megillah

Purim sameach and boundless silliness to all y’all!

YentaEMYclose

 

 

Please Ms. DJ, Spin Us a Lil’ Chanukah

Oooh oooh the countdown is ON!

I’ve got the frying pan ready and the non-swastika wrapping paper bought and enough candles to burn a hole in the roof. But I just cannot light the menorahs without a Chanukah video round-up (even if Ha’aretz got there before me this year!)

Here are Yo, Yenta!’s top picks for 2014’s Festival of Lights:

This one, I love, tired old tunes and all! Such mensches, the men of Shir Soul, with their non-competitive, color-coded dreidel playing and gorgeous harmonies!

 

This one, I’m feeling a little “meh” about. Why my beloved Maccabeats gotta parody a tune that already gives me the retchies? Of course Little Yenta Girl just adores it and has been singing it non-stop, which is better than hearing her croon about her tushy (a la the original) in the shower. (BTW, “neis” means miracle.)

And THIS one, well, I’m not sure. At first, I dismissed this “Jew Girl Rapper” and her “JAP RAPS” with the references to stereotypes about money, allergies and big noses.

But she a certain facility of language (those with dainty ears: she cusses A LOT, a quality I personally find super-endearing), and her breakdown of the Maccabee story kicks ass. (Although I’m pretty sure bubbe is sitting shivah over her Yom Kippur, Bitch.)

But always, ALWAYS, it’s the Sephardic-flavored “Ocho Kandelikas” that get the Yenta house grooving. Here’s a jazzy rendition by house favorite Pink Martini:

Chappy Chanukah to all y’all and here’s to a season of light and love! xo Yo, Yenta!

Really, What Would Chanukah Be Without Swastika Wrapping Paper?

walgreensswastika-wA SoCal bubbie got an icky surprise when perusing the Chanukah endcap of her neighborhood Walgreen’s this weekend:

Cheryl Shapiro was admiring a silver and blue roll of wrapping paper with her grandson when she realized that the blocky modern designs really, really looked like swastikas.

Like any good Jewish grandma, she expressed outrage and demanded that all the rolls be removed.

“I came home and I spoke to my rabbi. He couldn’t believe it,” Shapiro told her local NBC News affiliate. “I’m still very upset about it, that something like this could be on the market.”

The origin of the design remains a mystery, but expect Walgreen’s to come out with an apology later today. (Guess they’ll have to pull those all those yellow star garlands, too?)

I’ve been staring at the photo all morning, and I’m torn. On one hand, I’m thinking some graphic designer in Bangladesh had too much chai tea and simply got a little too aggressive with his M.C. Escher aspirations. Then again, swastikas.

We Jews tend to be sensitive to such things, but professional provocateur Perez Hilton says it’s up for discussion.

What sayeth y’all, Yenta folk?

No Mensch on This Bench

mosheMeet the Mensch on the Bench, the circumcised answer to the manipulative, passive-aggressive Elf on the Shelf phenomenon.

Apparently some Jewish families have been suffering from “Elf Envy.” And because this is America, some schnorrer enterprising gentleman is getting rich because no good parent would deny their precious child another tsotchke.

C’mon, Yenta, you’re saying. You’re just bitter because your kids are too old to fall for the “behave yourselves or the mensch won’t bring you prezzies” nonsense.

You may be right. Perhaps I’m becoming an alterkocker in my 40s. For reals, I’m so old school I still spell Chanukah with a “C.”

I admit, the book that accompanies this little man actually looks kind of cute and somewhat redemptive in its moral tale.

And I guess it makes little Jewish kidlets feel good that even though Santa’s not freaking coming ever, at least there’s a stuffed midget moving around the living room. He might even be useful if he can clean wax out of the menorahs.

But I don’t like contrived, million-dollar ideas masquerading as “new traditions.”

Whywhywhywhy us Jews gotta be all “Let’s Christmas up Chanukah” all the time? Why do Jewish kids need a Mensch on the Shelf, or his less flashy Israeli cousin, The Maccabee on the Mantel?

Look, I’m all about flashing up ancient ritual. I understand the need to create a sense of belonging however we can in Judaism, and I fully support creative appropriation of decor, within limits. (Blue lights around the palm tree in the front yard? Cool. Decorating any type of indoor foliage. HELL NO.)

I just think it’s difficult enough to cultivate healthy Jewish identities from the roiling stew of nationalistic idealism, capitalistic brand brainwashing and plain old family weirdness.

On the other hand, Blue Velvet Cupcakes? That I can get behind.