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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Anti-Semitism, Civil Society and Inappropriate Laughter

*The Yenta’s on a little vacay this week, visiting the Southwest mispocha, but please enjoy this week’s Civil Society Column from Connect Savannah. Chag Pesach Sameach to all  y’all!

When humanity fails, grim laughter comforts

Growing up Jewish, you learn to have a macabre sense of humor about the Holocaust.

It’s not that the systematic murder of six million Jews and four million Catholics, gypsies, gays and disabled European citizens is any kind of funny.

The unspeakable atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis happened barely 70 years ago, and yeah, it’s still too soon for a Comedy Central roast. (Unless Mel Brooks comes out of retirement.)

But when you shlep around this horrible history, an appreciation for the absurd helps lighten the burden. Grim laughter becomes a protective shell, a way to stay patiently amused when encountering idiotic claims that it never happened or having to explain to your classmates that no, you’re not actually related to Anne Frank.

It’s what caused guilty snickers during the 2013 Oscars, when Joan Rivers saw supermodel Heidi Klum on the red carpet and announced, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”

It’s why we recognize the sick hilarity of that scene in Nathan Englander’s bestselling What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, when a dinner party turns into an awkward game of “Who Would Hide Us?”

Melinda Stein passes on her mother's story to a new generation

Melinda Stein passes on her mother’s story to a new generation

It’s the reason I always giggle when local comedian and educator Melinda Stein performs her perky softshoe jig to demonstrate how her very existence is like dancing on Hitler’s grave.

I can’t help it; it’s just too rich how Melinda’s mother survived years of forced labor at the Skarzisko picric acid plant in Poland and met her father in a displaced persons camp after WWII. Melinda is now a grandma several times over, and there’s no more gratifying middle finger flip to the Nazis like a Jewish American family four generations deep.

Except when I cracked up over Melinda’s triumphant boogie last week, I got stared down by a roomful of somber seventh graders who looked at me like I’d just flashed my boobs at a funeral. Chastised, I know my gallows-type glee doesn’t always translate.

Melinda was leading a group of STEM Academy students through the One Soul: When Humanity Fails exhibit, to which any kind of laughter is an entirely inappropriate response. The multimedia installation at the Jewish Educational Alliance focuses on the liberation of the concentration camps by Allied soldiers, those first moments when the rest of the world learned just how evil Hitler’s “Final Solution” really was.

More than 500 middle-schoolers came through the exhibit last week for an intensely emotional experience that could never take place in the classroom. They filed through the photos and video footage with a grave maturity, the usual juvenile foot-shuffling and eye-rolling supplanted with wide-eyed silence. Some wept after spending time with one of Savannah’s last remaining survivors, Vera Hoffman, listening to her stories of being taken as a child from her Hungarian village to the Teresienstadt work camp in then-Czechoslovakia.

“This is such a visceral experience for them,” said STEM research teacher Patrick Lapollo. “They come back grim, but with a very different perspective on history.”

Many were shocked to learn about the existence of 27,000 black Germans, descendants of U.S. soldiers who defected after WWI thinking that the Rhineland was a more civilized society than still-segregated America. Rather than exterminate these expatriates in the gas chambers, Hitler sterilized them and exploited them as slave labor.

But it’s not gasps and tears that Melinda, Vera and the other volunteers hope to elicit from When Humanity Fails; it’s empathy—and vigilance. Much of the presentation focuses on the bravery of the “righteous gentiles” who hid families in their attics, adopted Jewish children as their own, or in the case of King Christian X of Denmark, shipped Jewish citizens off to safety.

“What would you do if the government started rounding up your neighbors?” asked U.S. Holocaust Museum volunteer Ina Altman of her group of teenagers in the JEA conference room.

Some vowed they would help. Others answered with sheepish honesty: “I would do what it took to protect my own family.”

That’s OK, kids; the point is to keep the discussion on the table. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good to do nothing, warned 18th century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who is also attributed with the adage that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

As a colossal example of what hideous savagery humans are capable, the Holocaust serves not merely as a point in history but as an admonition that it could happen again, anytime, anywhere. It does and has, to the Armenians and the Tutsis and Bosnian Muslims, entire peoples decimated because of their beliefs.

When we teach and learn about the Holocaust, we are reminded of that we are capable of both courage and cowardice, and that we must choose between them every single day. As the souls of the last survivors finally find their way home, the responsibility to remember and remind falls to those who have been encircled in arms tattooed with artless blue numbers.

Last Sunday, a lifelong anti-Semite and Ku Klux Klan leader showed up with a gun at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City and killed three people, including a grandfather and grandson. He yelled “Heil, Hitler!” from the back of the police car.

In spite of all our efforts, the hatred rages on. And so must we.

This week Jewish people everywhere are celebrating Passover, the retelling of how we were freed from slavery and stood up to oppression. Our Christian friends will tell a different story of redemption and resurrection. May all of our tables be graced with the presence of those we love and stories of those we’ve lost.

And please know that if I chortle indecorously, I’m only trying to fulfill the sagest of Talmudic decrees: “Live well. It is the greatest revenge.”

“One Soul: When Humanity Fails” is on display and open to the public at the JEA through the end of April.

Earworms = #EleventhPlague

Oy, remember those cute yeshiva boys with the nice voices who brought us this catchy Pesach ditty to the tune of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” last year?

C’mon, sing it: “Changin’ my pots and pans…gotta have Manischewitz for my prophet…I got haggadehs, lookin’ for the chametz…we’ll be munchin’ matzah…”

Well, the men of Six13 are baacccccck, this time changing up the lyrics to everyone’s favorite animated Oscar-winning animated movie (though personally, I didn’t think it lived up to the hype.)

Here’s your “Chozen” mash-up:

Little Yenta Girl is already driving us batty caterwauling “Let It Go” and “Do You Want to Build A Snowman” a hundred times a day, so I guess she can entertain the seder guests with the kosher versions.

DIY pantry pride

You know how some people are into other people’s kitchens or looking in medicine cabinets that aren’t theirs?

I’m a little obsessed with pantries.

Maybe it’s the fear of scarcity embedded in my Eastern European DNA, but having extra stock on hand brings a certain security to my domestic dream life. To me, there’s nothing more breathtaking than color-coded dry goods and cereals arranged alphabetically, extra ketchups at the ready and the dog food in its own special plastic bin.

If I come to your house, I will pretend to be looking for the bathroom just so I can catch a glimpse of your spaghetti shelf. When I am not pretending to work while shopping for shoes, I am looking at pantry porn.

I peek into other people’s pantries so often that my cousin Charles calls me “Larder Girl.”

That’s why this is a total embarrassment:

uglypantry

Ugly, sad pantry

That cluttery hot mess is my pantry, my very first real one after living in college dorms and crappy apartments and leeeetle tiiiiiny houses in Northern California that barely had enough cupboard space to hold a bag of rice and two dishes.

When we moved to Savannah, my very own pantry was a non-negotiable point for the realtor. But life got super busy real fast, and I never got a chance to paint it. Or remove the hideous shelf paper from 1978.

Before every Passover, when I make a pass at removing the extra pasta, cereal and other chametz-y items from my pantry, I swear to the Almighty that next year, I will clean it out and make it a shrine of gratitude to the bounty that is my life but right now God will just have to be cool with me throwing out the half-eaten bag of stale pretzels.

Well, the Lord Up Above must be just thrilled, ’cause this is the year I make good on my promise.

If I had known it would take three hours just to get everything out, I would have gone to the beach. Instead, I made some important discoveries:

1. Several cans of tomatoes that expired in 2009

2. Hideous flowered shelf paper from 1952 underneath the gross white shelf paper from 1978. Shelf paper has no shelf life. Who knew?

3. That I am a shopping bag hoarder. My bubbie would be so, so proud.

An abundance of shopping bags

An abundance of shopping bags

Next, I cleaned and prepped to paint. You can see the layers of history. And also Clarabell’s tushy:

Empty, sad pantry

Empty, sad pantry

One of the things that shocked me was just how much dang food I’d stuffed in there over the years and forgotten about. Honestly, how many surplus bags of sundried tomatoes does a family really need? I decided to make a couple of boxes of the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Hoping these beans, soup and sundried tomatoes make someone a pretty good feast

Hoping these beans, soup and sundried tomatoes make someone a pretty good feast

Then it was time for the makeover. I chose a bright yellow called “Goldenrod” for the paint, thinking that such a sunny color would cheer me up on the evenings when I would rather trim my cuticles with pinking shears instead of making dinner. El Yenta Man says I should have picked a different shade for the ceiling and the baseboards, but I was all, “Dude, it’s a pantry, not a dining room at our weekend ski chalet and besides don’t you have some laundry to do?”

The selection of shelf paper does not appear to have improved in the past several decades, but I found a fake walnut wood print that reminded me of a Martha Stewart magazine spread I saw while I was getting my last mammogram. If you are not aware, contact paper was actually developed by Joseph Goebbels and really ought to be illegal for its ability to incite massive amounts of suffering. Little Yenta Girl was enormously helpful in unwrapping my face from the sticky sides before I suffocated to death.

Together we watched the paint dry and arranged everything just so, leaving out some empty boxes for whatever chametz remains come Sunday evening. (On a related note, there will be cereal for dinner all week, folks!)

Now look at my pretty pantry!

Happiness is an extra bottle mustard

Happiness is an extra bottle mustard

Are you not impressed? Here’s another view:

prettypantry

The shopping bag drawer now only contains enough shopping bags for a small army instead of the entire battalion of those Chinese Terracotta soldiers.

Maybe no one will go meshuggneh on Pintrest about it, but a grand improvement, no? I even installed hooks for the broom and everything. (Fine. They were stick-on kind. But STILL.)

And next year, I’ll get around to putting the dog food in its own container. Promise.

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!

Chicken Three Ways: Goopy, Porny and Mine

This week the internet went apesh*t after Gwyneth Paltrow announced that she and her husband/twin/rock star Chris Martin are separating, or rather “consciously uncoupling.”

The news made me quite sad, as those of us married folk know it ain’t no fairy tale. If the gorgeous tall blond people with all the money can’t keep it together, what chance do us common folk have? So far El Yenta Man and I always manage, but I would not judge what goes on in another couple’s marriage.

However, the way some jerks behave during their divorces certainly brings on the stones, and I say we gotta respect Gwyneth and Chris for doing their best to act like grown-ups during this process. While “conscious uncoupling” may sound like the pretentious mishegoss everyone’s always accusing her of, I agree with Jen Lemen’s view that our society can offer more options than devolving into “bitches and ogres” as a union dissolves. (Read her insightful piece at Medium.com.)

images-1Gwynnie honors her Jewish roots, and it makes sense that she would post a chicken recipe on Goop.com during this tumultuous week. Actually, she posted three, because she clearly suffers from some type of overachiever complex. (There must be some guilt there, having inherited the blond hair and the long leggies AND the cooking talent.)

Jewish mothers know that chicken is the original comfort food. There’s something just so nurturing and nourishing about a plump little bird in the pot. I also theorize that our Jewish ancestors weren’t so much hunters as thinkers, and eating more fowl than red meat evolved for us because raising chickens so much less gross than skinning and gutting a deer. (Not that I’ve had the courage to sacrifice one of my menopausal layers just yet.)

Of course, it’s chicken soup that our people are famous for. Speaking of honoring one’s Jewish roots, everyone’s favorite Naughty Jewish Boy James Deen recently posted his recipe for Ramen Matzah Ball Soup as part of his James Deen Loves Food series at Woodrocket.com.

While James is always a cute hoot, I must recommend a Hebrew school refresher—dude got the Exodus story all kinds of wrong. (If cussing and nudity in the border ads makes you nervous, check out the interview and printed recipe over at Heeb.com.)

Me, I prefer my chicken soup with classic balls. Here’s my tried-and-true recipe, guaranteed to heal heads and hearts:

Yo, Yenta!’s Chicken Matzah Ball Soup

1. Start with a whole, cooked chicken. You can bake your own (2+ hours at 375*) but we prefer to buy one of those fancy organic ones from the market, already roasted and spiced to perfection. Pick off the meat and set aside for tomorrow’s sandwiches.
2. Break apart the bones to get to the marrow. The more the carcass resembles something mauled by a wild animal, the better flavor for the soup. If getting in touch with your inner wolf seems distasteful, give thanks you didn’t actually have to kill and defeather the bird.
3. Boil the hell out of it. Toss the bones in a full pot of water with a bit of skin (the chicken’s, not yours) and let it reduce itself down to an couple of inches. Fill the pot again and repeat two or three times until the broth becomes a shimmery golden color that smells like heaven.*Shortcut: If you have minutes instead of hours, plop in some Better Than Buillon for a nice strong broth.
4. Add a chopped onion, three or four sliced carrots and five or six celery stalks. But make sure you scoop out the bones beforehand with a slotted spoon. Add salt and pepper to your liking (don’t get insane about it, though; you can always add more but you can’t take it out.) Simmer, simmer, simmer down now.
5. Here comes the schmaltz! Prepare the matzo balls by beating 4 eggs, 2 tablespoons. of chicken fat (skim it off the top of the broth), a few pinches of finely chopped parsley. Add one cup of matzo meal and a pinch of salt. Mix well and refrigerate for 20 minutes, or until you can stand it anymore.
6. The secret to fluffy matzo balls is a gentle hand. We’re not hard-packing snowballs for maximum density here. Pretend you have your bubbie’s arthritis. Drop in boiling broth, which should be roiling with vegetables. Simmer under a lid for 20 minutes.

Enjoy with friends and neighbors. If your sinuses and sadness don’t clear after the first bowl, I recommend mainlining it.

Watch “The Story of the Jews” on PBS or Your Mother Will Plotz

In the last week, I have received numerous e-mails from BOTH of my parents expressing great concern that the Yenta family watch Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews.

pPBS3-18058099dtParts one and two of the five-part miniseries premiere tomorrow Tuesday, March 25 on PBS (check your local affiliate) and apparently if I don’t put our tushies on the couch for it, there will be hell to pay.

Well, not Hell, since Jews don’t believe in all that. (Unless, of course, they want to.) But my folks only noodge when it’s something fairly important, and I don’t like to disappoint them.

“I know it’s a weeknight, but maybe you’ll let the children watch a few minutes…” writes my mother in a style the rest of the family refers to as her Power of Suggestion tone.

Dad goes for more a direct tactic, as in “Your dead grandparents would be very happy, if in fact there is an afterlife and they could know of such things.”

Actually, I don’t need any guilt trips at all to defer my Parks & Rec Netflix viewing for this epic documentary, although some people I’m related to (*cough cough*) might consider it the T.V.-viewing equivalent of a museum full of Torah pointers.

Lushly filmed at archaeological sites, medieval synagogues, Venetian ghettoes and Palestinian neighborhoods, it promises to present Jewish history in relate-able, relevant terms as well as in the context of modern culture itself.

“What ties us together is a story, the story kept in our heads and hearts,” says Simon Schama in the preview.We told our story to survive. We are our story.”

It’s a salient timing as we’re readying ourselves and our homes for our Passover seders on Monday, April 14, when we will tell one of the most important parts of the Jewish story over five courses, four cups of wine, several songs in Hebrew AND Yiddish and still have to do the dishes. Maybe this will bring a little clarity to the table.

If you need more intellectual coercion, check out Adam Kirsch’s lengthy but insightful review on Tablet.com. He makes the case just upon the visuals alone—even as he points out that as a religion without icons but plenty of tsuris, there aren’t that many grand edifices to revere:

“There is no Jewish Notre Dame,” Kirsch writes wryly.

He is also clear that the series does not “ignore” the Holocaust nor does it let it “dominate” this narrative, which may be a relief for those who are learning—with great respect—to define their Jewish identity as more than Hitler’s victims. Our story—and whether you’re Jew, Christian or Muslim, this is indeed your story, too—is bigger, bolder and more beautiful than that. Plus, it’s nowhere near finished yet.

So, yes, Mom and Dad, we’ll be parking it on the faux leather sofa tomorrow night under the Harry Potter throw blanket. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty excited about it.

And not just because it makes me feel less guilty about abbreviating the seder.

 

 

Naughty or Nice, Everyone Loves Some Jewish Boys

Y’all know I just love the Nice Jewish Boys calendar. Who can argue with 12 months of mensch?

slide_341952_3532570_freeBut there are some who like their tribal dudes with a lil’ more…naked. That’s the concept behind Naughty Jewish Boys calendar, billed as “an unorthodox idea whose time has come.”

I’m about as unorthodox as it gets, so I’m full ON BOARD with “the desire to see Jewish men regarded as sexy instead of merely as a good catch cuddle-buddy.”

Playwright Duncan Pflaster (himself not Semitic in the least but a true appreciator of the sexy Jewish men, according to the New York Post) has already cast a slew of Hebrew hotties from an ad placed on Craig’s List, but I can think of a few others, not to mention my own verrrry wicked El Yenta Man.

Except we may never get to usher in Chanukah with this bare-chested bearded babe or any of the others, ’cause the Nice Jewish Guys have sent the Naughty ones a cease-and-desist letter for copyright infringement. Nice Jewish Guys calendar founder Adam Cohen charges that the naughty version confuses consumers; Pflaster says he’s just trying to break down the stereotype.

Boys, boys, boys! Can’t we all just along? Eye candy for everyone!

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!

My Cleaning Lady Has A Nicer Car Than Me (and I’m OK with that)

imagesBetween all of our hustling, El Yenta Man and I blessed to make a decent living at the moment.

We’re able to pay our bills, buy organic milk and have enough left over to take the family out for sushi once in a while. Thankfully, there are grandparents who provide extras like summer camp and piano lessons, so our kids can feel privileged while we remain solidly middle class.

Living within our means was a hard-learned lesson, and we maintain some thrifty habits to keep ourselves in the black: We have no credit card debt (made much easier by the fact that we don’t have any credit cards). We fix things ourselves. We reuse every plastic baggie until it shreds. Also, I am bargain-hunting, thrift-shopping, sale-sniffing queen (I know my bubbie would be proud!)

We don’t have a car payment because he drives his mom’s old Honda and I drive a 14-year old beige minivan bequeathed to me cheaply by my cousins who moved back to Jerusalem in 2005. (Here’s an in-depth description of The Absurdivan.)

It’s not just about the expense; it’s about the conscious consumption—as I get older, I just don’t want as much stuff, especially cheap crap made in overseas factories that exploit workers and flood the market with items no one needs. (Not that cheap disposable crap is avoidable; I just feel horribly guilty when I buy it.)

So the idea that I would have a cleaning lady seems ridiculous, right?

Most of the other Jewish mothers I know—including my own—don’t think a thing about hiring a woman—almost always of Hispanic descent—come dust their shelves and mop their floors once or twice a week.

But I have never been able to bear the following: 1.) admitting that I can’t keep my own house clean  2.) admitting I can’t pay someone ENOUGH to scrub the mold out of my shower.

I’ve never been comfortable hiring someone else to do my dirty work. When my first child was born, my mother wanted me to “hire some help.” A lovely woman named Bernadita came and cleaned our tiny apartment twice while I wrestled with the breast pump. When I found out she had a baby at home the same age as mine, I was overcome with shame and guilt. I found Bernadita another family to work for, and from then on, I handled the scrubbing myself in between freelance jobs.

Well, not myself. When I started working full-time, my husband and I split the cleaning down the middle: He did the hideous bathrooms, I did everything else, which was completely fair as far I was concerned. (Everyone has to fold and put away their own laundry.)

But in the last few years, EYM started his own business, and he’s gone a lot more. I work out of the house more than ever. The kids keep their rooms pretty tidy and can perform simple tasks like sweeping and vacuuming, but the wielding a toilet brush appears to be out of their skill set. Our bathrooms had come to resemble dripping mold caves that may or may not harbor chupacabra nests.

And the resentment grew faster than the mold: Neither EYM or I felt like it was our job to take care of it since we were both exhausted at the end of the day. We figured out that paying someone to do it for us every two weeks was the equivalent on one and half hours worth of work between us—Hello, SOLD.

But I still had a difficult time with the exploitative aspect of hiring someone who has her own family to take of and her own house to clean, complicated by the fact that she is living out a version of the American Dream that’s much different from my own.

After asking around for months, I’ve finally found Diana. She’s a single mom originally from Juarez, Mexico, and she’s very patient with me when I practice my Spanish.

She showed up the first day in a nice, newish minivan that was MUCH nicer than mine, wearing brand-name sneakers and a big smile. She’s built up her business to employ seven or eight women from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and is busy five days a week. I’ve not asked what she pays her mujeres—for all I know she’s
holding their birth certificates in some indentured servitude ring—but they always seem happy when they arrive every other Tuesday, whistling as they bring in their buckets and mops.

It’s still new, but so far I’m pretty happy with the situation. Rather than exploiting someone who can’t—because of her immigration status or lack of education—find different work, I feel like I’m supporting a woman in her business.

Plus, I can finally take a shower without wearing shoes.