The Blind Eye Takes Over AZ and Beyond!

stacks_image_1962Shepping HUGE nachas for my mama, Marcia Fine!

Her engrossing and entertaining fourth novel, The Blind Eye: A Sephardic Journey, has been chosen as the winner in the adult category for ONEBOOKAZ, which encourages all Arizonans to participate in one giant book club.

What this means is that basically, my mother is the Oprah of Arizona.

Anyone can download a free copy of The Blind Eye from March 14-June 1, and I look forward to the many discussions about the Jewish history of the Iberian Peninsula with my desert peeps!

Here’s the trailer:

(If anyone is wondering how my dear dad is spending his time these days, how do you think that video got posted? 🙂 )

Also, look for her new book, Paris Lamb, to be released this spring.

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?

Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival this Sunday, Oct. 26!

The Great Fressing of Savannah takes place this weekend – here’s my piece in this week’s Connect Savannah:

ALL RIGHT, Savannah, are y’all ready to fress?

Any Jewish grandma would happily explain that “to fress” means “to eat with great gusto” in Yiddish. That same bubbe will also tell that you don’t need to know a shlemiel from a shlemazel to enjoy the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival, loxing up Forsyth Park this Sunday, Oct. 26.

This year over 10,000 noshers—some coming straight from church—are expected to descend on booths stretching from Gaston Street to the fountain for a variety of traditional Jewish and Israeli treats, from vats of matzah ball soup to sizzling potato latkes to garlicky hummus.

click to enlarge It wouldn’t be the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival without many vats of delicious and medicinal matzah ball soup. Photo by Becky Smith/Photos By Becky

  • It wouldn’t be the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival without many vats of delicious and medicinal matzah ball soup. Photo by Becky Smith/Photos By Becky

Speaking of tradition (any Fiddler on the Roof fans out there?), what began in 1988 as a tiny fundraiser for Congregation Mickve Israel has evolved into one of the city’s most beloved culinary events. Connect readers voted it their favorite food festival in 2013, and it’s regularly touted as a “don’t miss” on TripAdvisor.

It’s also a massive undertaking to feed 10,000 people, no matter how many machers are in the kitchen. (Macher = “person who gets things done,” usually while other people are sleeping.)

New congregant Risa Perl didn’t quite know what she committed to when agreed to take on the role of chair this year. She quickly found out it’s a full-time job, one she has spent every day working on since March —along with studying for her adult bat mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage.

click to enlarge shalom1-1.jpg

“Fortunately, I’ve had the help of about 300 volunteers, who have not only helped make this festival happen but have also made me feel like I’ve been part of this community for years,” says Perl, who moved from Port St. Lucie, FL to help her son adjust to life at SCAD.

She celebrated her bat mitzvah last month, and it turns out she’s a real balabusta (kind of like a macher to the 100th power): “I’ve actually signed on to chair the festival for the next four years.”

Perl and her crew have baked and braised and stuffed and rolled to make sure you won’t leave hungry, but this gathering isn’t just about the food. Here’s five more fabulous things you’ll find at Shalom Y’all besides the fressing:

5. Beer

Habersham Beverages owner Bubba Rosenthal has arranged for many kegs of He’Brew Beer, crafted by Shmaltz Brewing Company in Clifton Park New York.

“We’ll be right across from the kosher hot dogs—what goes together better than a hot dog and beer?” asks Rosenthal.

Be sure to toss back that to-go cup of He’Brew with the traditional Jewish toast to life—L’chaim! (Pronounced “Le-HIGH-im,” with a little throaty growl the second syllable.)

4. Bling

The Sisterhood Baubles booth collects costume jewelry and donated earrings, necklaces and other adornments all year long to raise funds for the synagogue and its various charitable activities. Treasures abound, from tasteful pearl-drop pendants to stars of David the size of a hubcap.

Please note that no one, but NO ONE, hoards flowered brooches like the bubbes in this town.

3. Entertainment

From the first blow of the shofar (ram’s horn) that designates the commencement of the festivities, the stage around the Forsyth fountain will resonate with delightful music: Danielle Hicks and the Eight Ohm Resistance ought to wake up everyone’s appetites with a honeyed mix of blues, rock and reggae, which may inspire a spontaneous round of the hora.

They’ll be followed by the mellower sounds of the Savannah Philharmonic Trio (the bubbes always say that classical music is good for digestion.)

click to enlarge Danielle Hicks and the Eight Ohm Resistance will rev up the festivities along with the Savannah Philharmonic Trio. Photo by Blake  Crosby

  • Danielle Hicks and the Eight Ohm Resistance will rev up the festivities along with the Savannah Philharmonic Trio. Photo by Blake Crosby

Should you feel the need to work off some of that extra chopped liver later in the afternoon, the Maxine Patterson School of Dance will lead a session of Israeli folk dancing.

2. Culture, dahlink

The Shalom Y’all Food Festival is an opportunity to support and learn about the third oldest Jewish congregation in America, established July 11, 1733—just five months after General Oglethorpe staked out the city of Savannah. (Take that, you Northerners who think the only Jewish people in the South live in Boca.)

Housed in the Gothic architectural gem on Monterey Square, Congregation Mickve Israel remains a tourist favorite (TripAdvisor users rank it No. 6 out of 122 attractions offered in the city) as well as a vibrant part of the Savannah community. Its members support dozens of interfaith and social justice activities each year, including Congregations in Service and Backpack Buddies, which provides food to local schoolchildren over the weekend.

Should you have any questions regarding Judaism, theology and/or Star Trek, to stop by the new “Ask the Rabbi” booth, manned by Mickve Israel’s Rabbi Robert Hass.

“This booth wasn’t my idea at all,” admits Rabbi Hass when asked why he chose to offer his sagacious services at the festival.

“The decision was made when I offered to cook.”

1. Who are we kidding? It’s about the food.

People wait all year for a plate of those crispy, golden-fried potato latkes, served with a dollop of sour cream and spoonful of applesauce. Ditto for the deli sandwiches—served with your choice of corned beef, pastrami or tongue. Other savory dishes include tangy stuffed cabbage and Sizzling Sephardic Lamb.

Then there’s those sweet cheese-filled blintzes, or maybe you go in for noodle kugel, baked just right to get that crown layer of crunch.

Various sweets—including the rugelach ubiquitous in every bubbe’s cookie jar—are ready for your carbo-loading pleasure, along with 750 loaves of challah.

Buy food tickets at either end of the festival; each ticket is $1 and most items range from $3-$9. Everything is available to go, maybe for the sick friend who could use the medicinal benefits of matzah ball soup.

Speaking of soup, here’s the difference between a shlemiel and shlmazel: Both are real shmos, but the shlemiel is the guy who spills the soup and the shlemazel is the one who gets spilled upon.

But you, you’re the macher who gets in line long before both of them.

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?

 

 

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.

T-Shirt of the Week: Hamsas for World Peace?

hamsa_hand_3_shower_curtainI think y’all know by now how I feel about hamsas: They’re my favorite.

I’ve got one on my key ring, one above the kitchen sink, three glued to my dashboard, several hanging in my closet and one always, always around my neck. I love them so much I’m thinking of ordering this one for the bathroom.

It’s more than an aesthetic attraction: It’s a symbol before my eyes to remind me of all of life’s blessings at all times. I don’t know that I’m so superstitious that I really believe in its protective powers, but listen, dahlink, it can’t hurt.

Most importantly, it serves as a token of peace: This symbol of God’s hand not only evokes the sacred feminine, but also represents common ground between Jews and Muslims: Writer Yaron Gordon explains:

The name “Hamsa” (“Hansa” in Sanskrit, or “Al Khamsa” in Arabic) is from the Semitic root word for five, and is a very ancient symbol in the Middle East…Some say that the Jews were the first to adopt the use of the Hamsa, as a protective amulet against the evil eye. Jewish lore sometimes calls the Hamsa the Hand of Miriam, referring to Miriam, the sister of Moses, or it is more generally called the Hand of God.The Hamsa hand is also a popular talisman with Muslims, who call it the Hand of Fatima, referring to the daughter of Mohammed. To the Muslims, the Hamsa refers to the five pillars of Islam.

Somebody tell Selena Gomez. (After Gomez’s uneducated pro-Hamas tweets, Supreme Yenta Joan Rivers eye-rollingly referred to her as “that college graduate.” Check the hilarious TMZ vid here.)

But let’s just be happy about today’s cease-fire extension. Perhaps by flooding the world with hamsas we can smother the hatred and violence. Or better yet, hold them up as “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” in solidarity for Christian our brothers and sisters in Ferguson, MO.

I say hamsas for everybody, regardless of religion. The only remaining question is: Up or down? According to Gordon, it depends:

With the fingers pointed up, the Hamsa symbolizes a “stop sign” to the adversary, in other words, for protection. With the fingers pointed down, the Hamsa symbolizes God’s goodness and blessings coming down to the wearer or to the room where it is hung. The interpretation of the Hamsa is for the individual who owns it.

Tattoo one to your forehead for all I care, as long as you’re willing to high-five with the rest of humanity.

Shavuot: The Forgotten Holiday

imagesIt’s time for Shavuot already? Errrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmm, I forgot.

I know, in past years I waxed on about my awesome holiday crafts and bragged about how the strawberries were bursting like I’m some kind of balabusta.

Well, this year the garden’s a little wilder and life’s a little messier. Sorry I’ve not gotten around to decorating my Shavuot table with peonies. Though Kveller’s Bethany Herwegh did and it’s simply lovely.

(I do so adore the Pintrest-y direction Jewish lifestyles blogs are taking! Even if makes me feel like the worst Jewish mother ever. I bet Bethany is a true balabusta who never forgets to replenish the Shabbos candles and has to use jack o’lantern votives scrounged from the junk drawer. *sigh*.)

You’ve got to admit, Shavuot is not the Jewish holidays cycle’s most thrilling point on the pinwheel. This year it falls into June, and with school out and everyone already in full-on summer mode and I’m more in the mood for margarita pie than I am for cheesecake.

But then my Jewish guilt gets all riled, and I go looking for a little Torah knowledge, since Shavuot is a harvest festival meant to celebrate the giving of the tablets to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Or is it?

Elon Gilad writes in Ha’aretz that with its uncertain name and twisted history, Shavuot might not even be a holy day at all:

In its earliest stages, during the First Temple period, Shavuot was an appendage to Passover, the first of the two major agricultural holidays. Shavuot marked the end of the festival (Atzeret) of the 50-day period called the Omer, between the harvest of barley – Passover – and the harvest of wheat.

During First Temple times, two loaves would have been baked out of that first batch o’ barley, brought to Jerusalem and used in a massive ritual he rightfully deems “complicated, bloody, and expensive.” Gilad explains that according to the Torah, the loaves were “waved before The Lord” with wine and “a complicated array of animal sacrifices.”

That kind of partying just simply isn’t sustainable, and the practice was wildly adapted over the years until somehow—and no one really knows, not even the most sagacious among us—we got to cheesecake and blintzes.

Gilad concludes with good-natured realism that while all-night study sessions that include the Book of Ruth are still the rage in the yeshivas, most less-than-pious Jews don’t get too fancy about Shavuout other than to eat some dairy deliciousness.

So maybe I shouldn’t feel so badly, sitting here with my peony-less table and my blintz-less freezer.

But now that I’m aware of my farblogence, I can’t stop thinking about Shavuot and its opportunity to absorb its compelling and confusing spiritual gifts.

Maybe I can work up a hankering for a pizza.

 

 

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.

The Rotten Tooth in Emory’s History

Dr. Howard Black

Dr. Howard Black

Dr. Harold Black talks about the rotten tooth in Emory’s history (Reposted from connectsavannah.com):

There it is again, the stabbing nerve pain.

I’ve got this crabby molar in the left side of my mouth that I’ve been ignoring for some time. I find myself avoiding hot and cold liquids, meats that require more than cursory mastication and anything with seeds. My diet has basically been reduced to white wine and baby food.

Last week after a piece of hard candy practically sent me into convulsions, I bit the bullet (oh god, it hurts to even think that expression right now) and made an appointment with the dentist.

Though I’ll have to wait until next Friday to sit in the reclining chair of Dr. Harold Black, I have high hopes that he can wrangle my dastardly denticle into submission. After all, he’s been practicing dentistry in Savannah longer than many of us have had teeth — 55 years, in fact, and yes, he still has all of his. The walls of his practice at Morrison Dental Associates teem with certificates and fellowships, and he’s a coveted speaker at professional dental societies all over the southeast. (I hear those Southern Academy of Periodontology seminars are epic.)

Like many Jewish young men of his generation, he was strongly encouraged by his parents to go into medicine, which combined service to others with a nice living to support one’s elders.

A star student at Savannah High and at Emory College in Atlanta, the young Dr. Black was inspired go into dentistry by his Romanian grandmother, who witnessed some terrible dentures in her Old World shtetl and used to admonish him in Yiddish, “You need to make the teeth!”

But this Savannah-born master of the mouth mirror might not have donned his white coat at all. Black entered Emory’s dental school in 1955 under the heinous tenure of dean John E. Buhler, who cultivated a climate of anti-Semitism so pernicious that 65 percent of Jewish dental students were either flunked out or made to repeat years between 1948 and 1961.

Though racial discrimination ran rampant in all corners of the South, Savannah’s historic Jewish community was mostly protected from prejudice suffered by their Northern and Midwestern counterparts, or, God forbid, their persecuted Eastern European brethren. Even in the years after the Holocaust, young Black couldn’t understand what was happening, let alone why.

“Growing up, we didn’t even know what anti-Semitism was,” shrugs Black, whose father was one of the founding members of Savannah’s Bnai Brith Jacob synagogue.

During Buhler’s “reign of terror,” prospective dental students had to check a box on their applications categorizing them as “Caucasian, Jew or Other.” Buhler and cohorts hurled epithets at the Jewish students and told them “they didn’t have it in the hands” to become dentists.

One semester, Black was accused of misplacing a tooth model and stayed up all night to carve another one — only to find the next morning that the missing tooth had magically reappeared.

“We were harassed on a daily basis,” remembers Black, now a vivacious white-haired gent who will celebrate his 79th birthday this year.

Because not even Führer Buhler could argue with his stellar grades, Dr. Black was one a handful of Jewish students that graduated in four years. But many of his other Jewish classmates, all at the top of their undergraduate classes, received expulsion letters for failing marks. And because of the shame of failing out of a heralded school like Emory, none of them shared the injustice with each other, allowing the abuse to go unchecked.

“I never spoke of it to anyone,” confesses Perry Brickman, who was kicked out of the dental school in 1952. “I didn’t even tell my wife until many years later.”

It wasn’t until Brickman attended a retrospective of Jewish life at Emory (which, apart from the decade at the dental school, appears to have been incredibly diverse and vibrant) that he realized his suspicions that Buhler had strategically tried to push Jewish students out were real.

The Anti-Defamation League had documented Buhler’s evil shenanigans for Emory’s administration, and he quietly resigned from Emory in 1961 — though he likely continued his bullying behavior through the next decade as dean of the Medical University of South Carolina dental college.

In spite of the ADL’s triumph, there had been no recourse for the students he’d affected; most of them still didn’t realize they had been victims of systemic and strategic bigotry. Brickman began tracking down his former classmates in 2006, filming his interviews with them about this little-known scourge in Emory’s history. His footage inspired the 2012 documentary “From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory’s Dental School History,” screening as part of the Savannah Jewish Film Festival this Sunday, Jan. 26.

He found that though burdened with such humiliation in their early careers, the accomplishments of these men are, as my own yiddishe bubbe would put it, nothing to sneeze at:

Brickman—*ahem*, Dr. Brickman—went back to his home state, enrolled in the dentistry program at the University of Tennessee (where he graduated fourth in his class) and enjoyed a long, happy career in Atlanta. Some, completely disenchanted with the discipline, went on to law school at Harvard and Columbia.

Others went into traditional medicine, like Savannah gastroenterologist Dr. Bucky Bloom, who will join Drs. Black and Brickman at the Q&A after the film screening.

“They told Bucky he didn’t have the dexterity to be a dentist,” scoffs Dr. Black, shaking his head. “Can you believe that? He was offered a surgical residency in Miami!”

After his time at Emory, Dr. Black returned to Savannah to marry the lovely Charlotte, with whom he raised five children—all successful professionals, though he is especially proud that they’ve produced 12 grandchildren between them.

“The experience made me a little bitter, but it did make me stronger,” he says, though there is not a trace of acrimony in his twinkling eyes.

Emory issued a public apology for Buhler’s actions at an emotional event in 2012, acknowledging this stain on its otherwise exemplary history of tolerance. Dr. Black reports that many of the men—now in their 70s and 80s—cried, lamenting that their parents weren’t there to hear their sons vindicated.

When it comes to Dean Buhler, I’m reminded of an old Yiddish curse: “All his teeth should fall out except one—so he can have a toothache.” Who knows if that came to pass, but he was reportedly forced to retire in 1971 for health reasons and died in 1976.

As for my own maligned molar, Dr. Black assures that he can take care of it but chastises me a little for waiting so long to see him.

“You’ve got to catch decay early or it can cause big problems,” he scolds good-naturedly.

Sound advice from someone who speaks from experience on so many levels.

I Wrote In the Torah and It Didn’t Explode

soferYesterday the entire Yenta family got near a Torah with some ink and it was not a disaster.

A nice (and anonymous) philanthropist has bought our congregation a brand new Torah to add to the collection of historic scrolls. (Because they’re kind of like cute shoes; no matter how many you own, you always want more.)

As tradition dictates, the Torah’s scribe–called a sofer–left a handful of letters blank. For a small donation, anyone can help “complete” the Torah, even not-s’-kosher heretics like us. (We did, however, wash our hands.)

Rabbi Yochanan Salazar of the traveling Torah crew Sofer On Site (who knew?!) came from Miami to aid our congregation in this most holy endeavor. The section left open was the very end of Exodus, which discusses how the Jews are to set up the Holy Tabernacle to house the Ten Commanments tablets. Rabbi Salazar gave us a quick lesson on the various interpretations of parsha Pekudei, but I was so excited about getting to draw in the Torah that I retained none of it. (Thankfully, there is this internet thing.)

As you can see above, the family inked in a “tav” that was outlined by using a turkey feather cut in a specific way that only draws the outline of the letter. Yes, an actual feather. I’m not saying that all things Jewish can be seen through the lens of Harry Potter, but Rabbi Salazer did kind of remind me of a young, Ecuadorian Dumbledore.

I kind of thought you had to be a rabbi, or a least be able to read Hebrew without the vowel symbols, to write in the Torah. Turns out this divine task actually the last of the 613 Commandments, though the literal text dictates that every Jew is supposed to write out his (of course, it does not mention her) own Torah at least once in this lifetime. Rabbi Salazar says it takes like ten months to write a whole Torah, “maybe a year if you’re lazy.”

Ain’t no one ‘cept the soferim got time for that. But just to lay out just a little ink was quite cool. Meshuggeh to think that Little Yenta Girl might read from this very Torah at her bat mitzvah!