The New Year is Here!

Rosh Hashanah begins tonight at sundown, and I see no better way to send out 5774 with a bridge between our our sacred traditions and Top 40 pop songs.

Not everyone agrees. All morning I drove the kids crazy by singing, “Across the world, the mighty world, the shofar blows tonight…” They didn’t even appreciate my “AH-wimoweh, AH-wimomeh” choreography.

Perhaps the practice works best when paired with songs of the moment? Check out 5775’s best Jewish parodies as I scramble to ready our home for a new cycle around the sun. (Who am I kidding? We’ll be lucky to get to shul on time tonight. Might have to save burning the honeycakes for tomorrow afternoon.)

Here’s one man spoofing Little Yenta Girl’s favorite tune by the not-so-empowering Meghan Trainer, in which he is thankfully not singing about his zaftig tushy:

And this one is not “Rude” at all, but has a very important message about the New Year tradition of noshing ’til ya drop:

And best for last, here’s wishing y’all a Sweet, Healthy and Happy New Year!

Around the Fire with Michael W. Twitty

twittyWell, slap me with a piece of wet okra and call me a real Southerner!

I had the honor to talk slave cooking, teshuvah and trayf with Mr. Kosher Soul himself, Michael W. Twitty last week and was deeply inspired by the joyful way he claims all parts of his identity. Anyone who can rock tzitzit while peeling a shrimp is my kind of mispocheh!

Here’s the down and dirty account (Cross-posted at Connect Savannah.)

The (Civil) Society Column

It’s the darker side of dusk at Wormsloe Historic Site, and as I pick through the saw palmettos along the dirt path, I’m sure we’ve taken a wrong turn.

“No, it’s just a little further,” urges Forsyth Farmers Market maven Teri Schell as she strides through trees vibrating with the cacophony of cicadas.

I follow behind her, clutching my purse, and try not to shriek when I realize the mosquito I just swatted off my ear was actually a bat. I soldier on, out here in the shadowy woods to track down culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, for whom Teri and I share a certain fascination (fine, call it a foodie crush.)

Twitty has soared to fast fame since he published “An Open Letter to Paula Deen” last year on his blog, Afroculinaria, smack in the midst of Our Lady’s carmelized career meltdown. In his letter, Twitty gently reminded that Southern cooking belongs to us all, but it cannot be discussed honestly without acknowledging its origins in Africa and American slavery.

Wise but not accusatory, the post burned a big hole in the internet after the Huffington Post picked it up, and Twitty has been up to his earlobes in book contracts and speaking engagements ever since.

His forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene, chronicles his adventures and insights as he recreates the meals of his African ancestors in the places they lived and worked, and his social media reflects humorous musings on cultural equality, food justice and creative uses of sorghum.

I don’t know if he’s the only gay, black, Jewish culinarian in the entire world, but this gent is definitely my kind of unicorn. I got all groupie-eyed when I found out Twitty was in Savannah to lead a special presentation for the Slave Dwelling Project Conference, and I’d be damned if any dark, scary forest was going to keep me from meeting him.

When Teri and I arrived at the former plantation, we heard the strike of the djembe and the traditional rhythmic stylings of West Africa—that happened to be provided by Abu Majied Major and his son, Yusuf, who I had just interviewed the day before for the article on this Sunday’s African dance workshop.

The universe so does love its serendipity, and several of the themes that I’d been researching all week for that story were being discussed here around the tables, specifically the preservation of slave history in the American South and its incorporation into the mainstream narrative.

As attendees found their way from the conference’s main locale at the Coastal Georgia Center, one young woman commented on the mile-long tunnel of massive trees that’s made Wormsloe one of Savannah’s most famous photo ops.

“It’s called an ‘oak allee,’” informed Reneé Donnell, a recent grad of UGA’s historic preservation department. “All plantations had them. But we rarely talk about the people who dug those holes.”

While the slave dwelling conference attracted academic historians and archaeologists from around the country, organizer Joe McGill noted there was almost no participation from Savannah universities.

“This subject does not appeal to locals,” observed McGill drily.

That’s a real shame, since Savannah is ground zero for slave history and the perfect place to foster Twitty’s message of inclusive history.

I kept looking over my shoulder for our celebrity culinarian. Teri whispered that she overheard Twitty was preparing his presentation at the Colonial Life Area, “a bit” further down the dirt road.

“Might be our only chance to talk to him without a crowd,” I murmured.

We looked longingly at the long line at the tent housing tantalizing food from Daufuskie Island’s own celebrity chef and Gullah cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson, then snuck away from the tables into the woods.

For a few moments, we were guided by the golden strip of marsh shimmering in the last light of day beyond the trees. Then the curtain of the forest swallows us whole, and we step out of time.

As we trudge, I’m aware how little this land has changed since Noble Jones and his slaves cut its paths almost 300 years ago. My phone and its flashlight are a pocket away, but I don’t dare break the spell.

Finally, we glimpse the flicker of torchfire. We make our way across a footbridge towards the tiny wattle-and-daub shack, smoke rising from the chimney.

Suddenly, there he is: A barrel-chested bear of a man tending the hearth, sweating as he preps plates of okra and peppers on the rustic wooden table.

He is as grand and gregarious as I thought he’d be, his voice higher and more mellifluous than I’d expected.

“Come in, come in!” cries Michael Twitty, wiping his brow.

Teri and I tuck in to watch as he stirs cast iron pots of Muscovy duck and Gulf Coast lamb neck, heritage breeds raised by Bradley Taylor and Cat Compton on their sustainable farm in Sylvania. Knowing the rest of the conference will appear on golf carts momentarily, I spill out a rush of questions like chicken bones at the feet of a voodoo priest.

Though he studied at Howard University and worked at respected sites including Colonial Williamsburg, the 30ish historian approaches his discipline not academically, but as a folk heritage tradition. He remains itinerant, traveling and cooking and educating from the roots up.

“If I was interpreting at an institution or a museum, you’d never hear about me,” he declares, placing a three-legged skillet in the fire by its long handle.

Though corporate network types have come sniffing around his campfires looking for the next foodie star, Twitty’s not interested in being put in a box as “another black chef doing soul food.” His Jewishness also muddies any notion of simple marketability.

“People want uncomplicated narratives,” he shrugs. “That’s not me.”

I can relate. As a Jewish gal with a strong affinity for African dance, I ask about this African-American urbanite’s Jewish soul.

“Roads converge,” he nods sagely, explaining that he converted when he was 22.

“Judaism gave me insight on how to preserve something from generation to generation. It’s a leitmotif, the obligation of the transmission of Jewish culture. Therefore, my black identity and my Jewish identity are inextricable.”

Unlike this heretic, Twitty keeps a kosher home. But that’s not gonna keep him from Sallie Ann’s Lowcountry boil.

“Oh yes, I’m going to get down on this plate of trayf right now, forgive me,” he laughs, nimbly peeling shrimp from shell in less than a second flat.

We talk about the similar forced Diasporas of Jewish and African culture and the non-racial notion of “peoplehood,” a term often used in Jewish circles to navigate the ever-evolving balance between tradition and identity.

“We are but one race on this planet, but our ethnicities are the diversity,” he preaches.

“Our differences are valuable.”

That’s what feeds his passion to protect the culinary heritage of his ancestors. And he’ll kindly call out those who insist on fetishizing slave culture and cuisine—or worse, appropriating it without honoring its origins.

“Collards are the new kale,” he snorts. “Please.”

This, of course, brings us back to Paula Deen. He holds out hope that her people will contact him so he can bring her out to cook biscuits and hamhock around the fire, which y’all have to admit would make some good TV.

“I’m not looking for a confrontation,” he promises.

“I am about reconciliation, I want to have a dialogue. I want to get people talking about how it all fits together.”

With a shake of his wrist, the pan-fried veggies are done. They taste of smoke and spice and the air of the night, echoing with the presence of the enslaved people who likely ate the same dish near this very spot.

“Centuries of stories are contained in a simple meal,” reminds our host.

The golf carts appear out of the dark. It’s time to abdicate our private audience, and the philosopher chef launches into a new round of his fascinating schtick to the arriving group. We part with hugs and calls of mispocheh, the Yiddish word for family.

As Teri and I hitch a ride back with the rangers through the woods, it occurs to me that we’ve reached the Age of Meta: History informs the present as the inclusion of neglected narratives feeds back to our perception of the past. An enlightened future depends on how well we honor our own origins while holding others in the loop.

It’s a lot to chew. Can we ever learn to see ourselves as a peoplehood, each one of us a unique stew of culture and DNA, nourishing and nourished by the same complicated, multi-layered human story?

 

 

Out with a Cackle: Joan Rivers, 1933-2014

imagesOh, Joan, you, too?

Here we are still deep in grief over Robin and his tragically premature exit, and though our girl Betty Bacall stepped out gracefully last month at a ripe old age, the ache from that loss hasn’t quite waned.

And now we’ve lost another treasure who made the world a little less bleak, someone who never failed to help us giggle at the absurdity of it all.

Back when women’s career choices were housewife or secretary, you busted through the glass ceiling of TV comedy with a diamond-sharp wit and unabashed feminism.

You had us in stitches for 60 years—even as your were nursing stitches from all that cosmetic surgery. You could slay sacred cows on the red carpet and get away with flipping a manicured bird to anyone.

Joan Alexandra Molinksky Rosenberg, you gave us loud Jewish women permission to be as loud and Jewish as we are because no matter how opinionated and obnoxious, we could never even come close to your unapologetic, gravel-voiced, Israel-loving, “oh no she di’int” divahood.

You mined your personal pain into productivity as well as profit, and as you once said, “People say money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you had enough money, you can have a key made.” Girl, I sure hope there wasn’t a single spot left on your big blingy Gucci keyring by now.

And while we mourn your passing so deeply, I find a certain comfort in the way you went out. Clearly, being under anesthesia while under the knife was something you found endurable if not enjoyable. I have this picture of you floating up above the surgeons, looking down at your body—practically bionic at this point but still, still mortal, no matter how much silicone or titanium or snake venom was inserted into it.

I imagine you saw all the TV series and the clips and the books and the TMZ hits you’d made, and maybe you could even hear the echo of all the snorts and sniggers and chortles and shrieks you’d caused to bubble up out of us over the years, a massive sound cloud of hysterical crows.

Up there on the quiet ceiling of the operating room, maybe you found a certain serenity that had eluded you for so long, even though its absence is what had driven you all these years. Maybe you saw your frail, 81-year-old body and shrugged, “Yeah, fuck this, I’m out, assholes.”

And then I like to think this happened next: With an almond-shaped red nail, you sliced through the silvery cord that binds all of our souls to this earth, gathered up your crazy fur coat, and headed towards the Great Beyond, cackling all the way.

images-1(To see how Joan Rivers’ comedy—and her cheekbones—evolved over the decades, check out The Hollywood Reporter‘s compilation of hilarious clips.)

Elvis WAS A Shabbos Goy (Sorry I Didn’t Believe You, Mom)

imagesIf you didn’t know, my mother is an amazing storyteller.

It’s not just her books that are riveting, but her basic family lore. Her grandmother’s escape from Warsaw, growing up in bohemian Miami Beach in the 1950s, how I knocked my front teeth out the first day of JCC summer camp in 1976all told in fascinating and colorful detail.

Sometimes, however, I suspect her stories employ a certain poetic license. Now, I’m not saying she makes things up, but she has been known to embellish, like when she tells people my literary genius was evident at an early age because I analyzed John Steinbeck when I was 4. (I was 7, and all I got out of it was that Lennie should not be around pets.)

I’m just saying this is where I learned that sometimes creatively interpreting the truth makes it way more entertaining, especially at the dinner table.

For my entire life, I’ve heard about how my grandparents had a friend who knew Elvis Presley as a teenager. Not only knew him, but actually had him come over on Saturdays to act as a “Shabbos goysomeone who can turn the lights on and off and turn on the over during Shabbat, when those acts are forbidden to observant Jews.

This is a great story, right? The King of Rock swiveling his hips through the livingroom on Friday night to flip the light switch? That famous pompadour crooning “Wise men say…” along with the kaddish? It also sounds totally unlikely.

For the decade-plus I’ve been a digital yenta, I’ve been combing the interwebs for corroboration to no avail. I am ashamed to admit I have assumed my mother was either unknowingly repeating someone else’s fiction or had confused Elvis’ love of all things Jewish with her own teenage obsessions. But still, a good story.

But lo and behold, lookie what’s on the Tablet Magazine’s Vox Tablet podcast today: An interview with Harold Fruchter, a Jewish wedding singer who grew up in Memphis in a duplex in the early 1950s. Fruchter’s father was a rabbi, and when the family needed someone to flick a switch on Saturdays, the nice young man named Elvis would come upstairs to help out.

Fruchter recounts how Elvis called his father “Sir Rabbi,” and that his mother bought Elvis cufflinks for his high school graduation. The Man Who Changed Music Forever borrowed his Jewish neighbor’s record player so he could listen to his first recordings.

Mindblowing! I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Mom. The part about me being a genius is real, too, right?

Listen to the 8-minute podcast here.

Do I Want to Know What You Think About Israel?

images-2A friend messaged me last week: “Dying to know what you think about Israel!”

I knew I’d be called out sooner or later. I’m aware I haven’t posted anything about Israel here or on Facebook, not even to share particular articles that have helped me gain a better understanding of what’s been happening in this latest go round of insanity and violence.

(Now that we’re here, however, this one is particularly enlightening.)

Mostly, I’ve stayed quiet because I don’t feel like I have anything useful to add. There are many people with brains far bigger than mine weighing in on the IDF’s excessive force, Hamas’ misappropriation of humanitarian aid and dead children all over the place. Plus, I just don’t have the stomach to go keyboard-to-keyboard in the comments section of obvious anti-Semitic and historically erroneous propaganda.

Let’s face it: Nothing coming out of a computer in Savannah, GA is going to lift a blockade or neutralize rockets or talk sense into anybody halfway around the world. The world is better off with my hippie peace prayers, said and felt sincerely for every person, everywhere.

But if I’m being really honest, I haven’t jumped into the increasingly hostile conversation because I don’t want to lose any more friends. Back in California, I once almost ruined a four year-old’s birthday party by arguing Israel vs. the Palestinians with one of my neighbors. Another time I also threw a plate of falafel back at some asshole in the middle of my neighborhood’s community festival for selling to me with a note attached to the plate that said “Free Palestine from the Israeli Nazis.”

These confrontations made me so angry I could barely speak. They also made me afraid. These were people who screamed in my face about burning rubble in Gaza and then condoned the vandalism of an American synagogue as understandable retribution. They were anti-Semitic but wouldn’t admit it, condescendingly “explaining” that “I don’t have anything against Jews, I just think Israel is evil.”

Living in the South for the past eight years, I’ve gotten used to a more benign, even welcoming attitude towards Israel, which creeped me out at first and still makes me nervous since it often seems attached to an evangelical agenda.

Truth be told, I’m just not interested debating Israel’s “right to exist” or its right to defend itself. Nor am I interested in doing a ring-around-the-rosie dance to usher in the End Times.

My thoughts on Israel? I am amazed at how a few kibbutzniks have turned a dusty sliver of land into a bustling, fruit-bearing economic nexus in a mere 65 years. I am astounded how Jewish people have created a democracy among hostile neighbors after being decimated in the Holocaust (actually, “decimated” is an understatement, since it literally means to annihilate a tenth of the population. The Six Million killed in WWII were a full third of the world’s Jewish population.)

I am grateful for the advances in technology and medicine that come from Israel’s laboratories (your cell phone? Invented in Tel Aviv.) I am humbled that even in times of war, Israeli doctors treat their enemies.

I’m also definitely not someone who thinks Israel can do no wrong. I think the right-wing settlers and their anti-Arab vehemence are an embarrassment. I think the situation in Gaza—and the West Bank, which will eventually play in—is complicated and convoluted and sad.

Still, when I see other Jewish people posting anti-Israeli sentiments and then read about the looting and intimidation of Jewish businesses and college students in Paris and Belgium and Boston, I want to ask, “Do you think they don’t mean you?”

When I see the posts that portray the abject, undeniable suffering of the people of Gaza that fail to make mention of Hamas’ use of Palestinian children to build tunnels so they can kill Israeli kindergartners, I want to cry out with the injustice.

When I see that a synagogue in Miami was covered in swastikas this morning, I have to put aside my fear of taking sides. That the world would respond so quickly with anti-Semitism only strengthens the reasoning and resolve of the Jewish state.

I stand with Israel, always and proudly. My heart goes out to all who are in pain. I’ve also had enough of the hateful one-sided posts that portray Israelis as brutal and Palestinians as victims. Yes, they are victims—of a fundamentalist terrorist regime that would sacrifice every one of them to destroy Israel and America. Anyone who has seen the tunnels and rockets can no longer deny that Hamas leaders are lying when they claim they want peace.

I like to think I’ve curated my friend list with intelligent, compassionate people, and I don’t have to agree with them all the time. So far, I haven’t defriended anyone for their sympathies. But I am going to start commenting and sharing some of the thoughtful, factual posts that present the truth about Israel.

If anyone feels the need to defriend me for that, I completely understand.

 

Nits, Rats and Poison Ivy: A Trifecta of Repugnance

Once upon a time back in 2006, I wrote a post called “Mold, Diarrhea and Escargot,” a detailed and repulsive summary of the grossest and most disgusting day in the life of any Jewish mother, anywhere, ever.

That day has now been eclipsed by a perfect storm of biblical afflictions that probably should win some type of award except that I don’t want it commemorated in any form or fashion. However, if you want to buy me a sympathy drink after reading this, I won’t turn it down.

First, when we dropped the children off at their lovely, green Jewish summer camp, the cursory nurse check revealed three tiny little white blobs on my daughter’s heads. I mean miniscule, tiny flecks that could have been dandruff or remnants from a spitball fight she had with her brother. But when the nurse pointed at them, I knew. NITS. Lice eggs. Lousy. Literally.

I tried not die from shame since I know that having nits or lice doesn’t mean you’re dirty or that you are a bad person. It’s pretty common among kids these days, though I had never had to deal with it before my daughter’s Girl Scout troop has passed them around for an entire year (if there was a badge for nits, we’d OWN it.)

I don’t know how or where she got them this time, but I was not real thrilled to douse her head in chemicals once again. It turns out the poison doesn’t work anyway, because apparently regular lice has mutated into a super organisms that are taking over the planet. I took the nurse’s advice and combed and combed through the girl’s hair with tea tree oil under a bright lamp; I did the same to her brother just in case. And El Yenta Man’s. And mine. We were up past midnight combing through each other like baboons. I didn’t spot any bugs, and everyone got a clean bill of health the next day.

But STILL. We are the NIT family. The nurse was so kind and sweet, reassuring us that we weren’t the only nit family, and that she would quietly check Little Yenta Girl from time to time to make sure those little buggers stay away. If they don’t, I’m sure I’ll get one of those “Hello-this-is-Camp-nurse-it’s-not-an-emergency-we-just-wanted-to-let-you-know” types of calls.

In the meantime, while the kids are enjoying themselves, prayfully nitless, El Yenta Man and I have been enjoying even more revolting adventures. After reveling in a lovely childless dinner out on our first evening alone, we returned home to thinking that we would, *ahem*, make the most of our aloneness. Except we weren’t alone.

As EYM went to grab a water from the pantry, he found a bigass rat in there, that was, in his words, “clamboring all over the sugar and shit like Templeton from Charlotte’s Web.

Again, if shame could kill a person, I WOULD BE DEAD ALREADY.

How. Could. This. Happen. TO ME? My pantry is so freaking clean you can eat off the shelves. I even finally got the Tupperware tub for the dog food.

Except that there was a RAT eating the pistachios, which means I am a horrible housekeeper and all-around terrible balabusta. And basically useless, since all I could think to do was scream and swat at it with the broom.

EYM grabbed the BB gun and started shooting up the place, tiny metal balls bouncing off the tile floor like we were surrounded by enemy fire in Vietnam. Fifteen minutes later, my beautifully organized pantry lay in ruins and we’d pulled out the sideboard, the baker’s rack and the refrigerator. EYM had the gun pointed on it as we slid the wine cooler back for its last stand, but at the last minute I begged him not to kill it. I opened the door and it scuttled out, tail dusted in Whole Foods organic flour.

I had just started putting everything away when I heard my husband whisper, “Oh no.” He was staring at a long cardboard tube on top of a pile of potential art supplies hoarded by Little Yenta Girl. The faintest of scratching sounds emanated from it. “Oh no NO NO NO.” He climbed up on top of the sideboard, peered into the tube and screamed like a little girl.

YES OMFG ANOTHER RAT.

EYM actually shot the bb gun into the tube (not recommended), and a bionic rodent performed the terrifying ninja feat of climbing UP out of the cardboard tube, across EYM’s feet and out into the dining area, trailing tiny drops of blood on the wood floor. EYM finally cornered it in the girl’s bedroom, but not before ransacking the place, pulling the mattresses off the beds, pulling out drawers, flinging finger puppets and toys around the room and turning her room—which yes, I just cleaned and made all pretty for her when she came home from camp without nits—into a war zone that looks like it had been hit with rockets by Hamas. (Oh shit, sorry. Too soon? It’s been a terrible week for so many. Prayers and blessings for safety for all.)

The second rat was not as lucky as his compadre; he died after taking about 50 bb’s to the body (a la Willem Dafoe in Platoon) and couple of butts from the gun. Even though he kills and guts fish, regularly, EYM was terribly traumatized at the violence of it all, and I heard him apologizing the rat as he finished him off. It was really awful, y’all. I still haven’t been able to go in there and clean up.

To top it all off, both El Yenta Man and I are suffering from a wicked, weeping, itchy, full body-swathing case of poison ivy, probably from consoling ourselves with too much alone time in the backyarden.

A trifecta of the most disgusting things ever, all in one week. If you can top that, I would really, really like to know.

 

Who is like you, Friday Night Live?!

com_friday-night-light_062014_539_332_c1Y’all know I am a Craig Taubman groupie from way back, and it saddens me that the Silver Fox recently retired from leading the epically joyous Friday Night Live services at Temple Sinai in Los Angeles.

I’m sorry I never got to attend, though 2007’s Hallelu in Atlanta was a small taste of Taubman’s wonderful musical and communal legacy.

By all reports, the last gathering blew off the roof, including this truly rockin’ rendition of “Mi Chamocha” featuring New Orleans clarinet riffs and a killer rap from hiphop’s Jewish heart, Kosha Dillz:

I’m pretty sure rapping would cause considerable plotzing among regular Friday night congregants of historic Congregation Mickve Israel, but maybe Craig and Kosha would consider a reunion if they’re ever down Savannah way?

Throw Out the Lox! Vita Smoked Salmon Recall

218Well, here’s every Jewish mother’s worst nightmare:

The package of lox (or as I’ve heard it referred to, “smoked salmon”) I bought at Publix last week for some nice bagel sandwiches to take to a beach picnic has been recalled for the presence of a certain vile bacteria.

According to an email from the Georgia Dept. of Agriculture received yesterday:

Vita Food Products, Inc. of Chicago, Ill., is notifying the public that it is recalling 1,878 pounds of Vita Classic Premium Sliced Smoked Atlantic Salmon due to possible contamination of Listeria monocytogenes, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems.

The email did not mention the also common symptoms of stomach cramps and diarrhea. Gross.

The product was sent to Hannaford stores in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, H-E-B stores in Texas, and Publix stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina beginning on April 7, 2014.

Yep yep, Publix. In Savannah, Georgia. At Twelve Oaks Shopping Center, to be precise.

The packages are vacuum sealed, black in color and bear the Vita logo centered at the bottom. Product from this lot can be identified by a SELL BY AUG 17 2014 date and lot number 00764B, which can be found on the right side on the front of the package. The 4oz size of this product is the only size subject to this recall.

All of the above. Darn.

Well, that sucks.

A shame this alert went out the day AFTER Little Yenta Girl and I ate the sandwiches.

After an evening of a rumbly, unhappy tummy, I managed to, erm, expel the offending Listerical mononucleuses or whatever those little fuckers were.

My girl’s digestive reaction was not quite as fast, yet she appears to be much better after a day of seltzer water and a double dose of probiotics to help her gut’s good bacteria kick out the interlopers.

Vita is offering a refund for the contaminated yuck lox if I sent it the product label, but that would have required touching it and no, just no. Anyway, the minute I got the email alert and discovered it was a match, I made Yenta Boy take it from the fridge with a paper towel, wrap it in two plastic bags and throw in the outside trash can.

But now our favorite protein snack will be tainted in my mind. Maybe not forever, but there’s something about diarrhea that turns a person off.

In the meantime, we’re going to stick to hummus. Or maybe not. Dammit.

 

Here’s Your Prostate PSA

EYM**WARNING: This post gets super personal in an Osmosis Jones kinda way.

This is El Yenta Man.

He’s quite a handsome devil, nu? Even though he leaves wet towels on the floor and still loads the dishwasher like a monkey after 16 years of marriage, I’d like to keep him around. Jewish husbands who can cook and like a zaftig tuchus are hard to find.

A couple of years ago during one of his regular man check-ups, his doctor found a lump on his prostate. (Past 40, us ladies get our boobies smashed for our yearly mammograms; the dudes get buggered with a rubber glove.)

As you can imagine, we were a bit alarmed. While a prostate is a useful piece of male anatomy that helps make the babies, much like its owners it can get increasingly irritating and enlarged as it ages. Often, as in one out of seven bodies, it can develop cancer.

Thankfully, prostate cancer is not life-threatening and easy to treat if caught early. Since it’s so common, it is a popular topic among dudes of a certain age, right behind Salma Hayek and whether goatees are still working if they’re gray.

But because El Yenta Man doesn’t do anything the normal way, his lump has to be different than all the other prostate lumps. His lump has to be special, not a regular tumor that doctors deal with decisively and swiftly and then everyone goes back to playing golf on their iPhones.

Nope, EYM’s lump had to develop within the walls of the actual gland, a condition so rare that there are only a handful of documented cases and no real treatment protocol. It’s official name is a Prostatic STUMP, as in a Stromal Tumor of Unknown Malignant Potential. Totally sounds like the RUOS in the Princess Bride, does it not?

We’re not real good at taking things seriously around the Yenta house, so we named it “Stumpy.” Of course, Stumpy the Tumor is as unwelcome a guest as a giant rat, and the extermination process is, well, radical. The problem with Stumpy is that he could get real troublesome real fast, or he might just hang out in EYM’s epithelial wall doing absolutely nothing forever. None of us want to play Russian Roulette with a quiet tumor, but since the surgery comes with risks of its own, EYM didn’t jump at going under the knife in such a sensitive area.

Thus began a journey to figure out whether–or when–to evict Stumpy. Feeling limited by the medical options in Savannah, EYM tracked down the No. 1 prostate expert in the country, Dr. Peter Scardino of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. It just so happens that Dr. Scardino is a good ol’ Savannah boy himself, and EYM was able to score an appointment in Manhattan in the summer of 2012. In spite of all the hysterical opinions both professional and amateur regarding my husband’s prostate, Dr. Scardino calmly told us to “wait and watch.”

So we’ve waited, but it takes some complicated and expensive equipment to watch a prostate. Last week we flew back to NYC for some time with Dr. Scardino’s new MRI machine (much kinder and gentler than the previous model, which makes a vaginal ultrasound look like a freakin’ spa treatment.) When the digital photos came up, we were at that computer screen like it was the Game of Thrones finale.

Our first real look at Stumpy revealed that holy cow, he’s a lot bigger than we thought. I mean, you could see him quite clearly as the tech rolled the arrow around, hanging out right behind EYM’s bladder. But here’s the good news: He hasn’t changed much since the last time Dr. Scardino checked him out.

What that means is no surgery. For now, anyway. And another trip to NYC in a year. Which is actually pretty fabulous. Thanks, Stumpy.

But the prostate, it is no joke. If you’ve got one or you love one, go get it checked.

Ten Years a Yenta

Last week marked a special anniversary here at Yo, Yenta!: A whole decade of existence under my borscht belt.

Back in 2004, I hadn’t heard of a blog until my Bro the Doc and his buddies at Primetime Amusements decided to dip their toes into the Jewish dating site pool. Turns out it was more of a lake with room for only one behemoth-sized creature, but I have Jmerica.com to thank for providing me a platform in the then-burgeoning bloggy world. The internet has gotten faster, scarier and grown up around me like an L.A. freeway, yet somehow, I am still queen of this domain. (Congrats and much mazel to my homegirl Esther Kustanowitz and My Urban Kvetch, celebrating her 10th blogiversary this year, too!)

Family Yenta, Tybee Island, 2004

Family Yenta, Tybee Island, 2004

At the time I was a freelance writer in the most expensive county in California with two small kids. (Here we are circa 2004 visiting Tybee Island, GA, the native stomping grounds of El Yenta Man. Little did I know I would be living in the deep South just a few years later.)

I was not only grateful for the gig, but for the opportunity it afforded me to explore Judaism on the Internet. At first, I did a lot of snarky J-celebrity postings (remember Britney and her Zohar?!) but over the the years the space has become more about about this thing called “Jewish” and how to do it, whether it’s a birthright or a choice, a practice or a state of mind, a people or a heritage or a religion or a recipe or all of the above.

A whole decade has passed, and figuring out what it is to be a Jewish mother still feels important and interesting. I have always been determined to raise my children Jewish on my own terms, not by blindly following laws that I didn’t really feel beholden to nor by simply dropping my kids off at Sunday School and expecting little rabbis to happen.

I’ve filled in the gaps of my suburban Reform Hebrew school education with sites like MyJewishLearning.com and Aish.com. I’ve learned about crazy traditions like kapores and discovered the wonderful world of kosher gospel. I’ve been honored to meet modern Judaism’s musical superstars and spend time with the hilarious seniors and survivors of my community. I learned how to cook shakshuka and blintzes and make mezuzot out of dry cleaner hangers (but building a decent sukkah continues to elude us.)

In 2006, we moved across the country to Savannah, GA. My field study of the particular and peculiar practices of the Southern Jew continue to fascinate me. (And y’all, I hope. One day soon I’ll share my recipe for Mint Jewleps.)

Since then, I’ve shepherded five classes of kindergarteners for Shalom School. I’ve been lucky enough to gain an amazing sister-in-law, who’s only been Jewish for a year but already cooks way better matzah brie than me. My mother-in-law still continues to exist on this side of God’s delineation between heaven and earth, reminding me how strong the desire to live is and how every day is a blessing. Last year, I reached a huge milestone in the life of a Jewish mother, our son’s bar mitzvah, and I was so humbled by the genuine joy of celebrating with our family and community.

The past decade has all added up to a messy, loud, unorthodox Jewish life, full of contradictions and new twists on tradition and the occasional piece of bacon. I may not look or act like any other Jewish mother anyone else has ever seen nor any rabbi would probably approve of, but I think I do my ancestors proud by lighting candles on Fridays and shepping nachas when the kids make poetry out of the Yiddish refrigerator magnets. The Yenta house may not be close to kosher, but it’s full of love and faith and laughter, and I really do think that counts.

Of course, one of the hallmarks of being Jewish mother is a sense of low-level, residual guilt about all the things that still need to get done. I still haven’t written a book or memorized the Havdalah prayer or um, put away the Passover dishes. You should see the pile of laundry rising behind me like a hungry golem.

But I have no plans to go anywhere, even though I really do need to update that photo up top. In the next ten years, I hope Yo, Yenta! will continue to be a place for all the Jewish and “Jewish-ish” mothers and fathers — the ones by birth and ones by choice, the interfaith ones, the straight the gay, the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi, all of the colors and all of the stories, the ones looking for wisdom and those with wisdom to share.

It’s about bringing as much neshamah (soul) and ruach (spirit) to this party on Planet Earth, to raise our kids to be mensches, to shine our God light bright.

I may be no closer to defining what a Jewish mother is supposed to be, but it’s been a real gift to keep making it up as I go. I do know that there’s room for all kinds of rituals and beliefs, and I hope to show in my own bumbling way that a family doesn’t have to practice Judaism perfectly — or even exclusively — to have a vibrant, joyous, Jewish home.

Much mazel, nachas and love to you and yours ~ Yo, Yenta!

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