Time for (Local) Honeycakes from Savannah Bee Co.!


A new improved honeycake for the Yenta? Photo by Jess Brannen for Joy of Kosher

Listen, we all know I have a honeycake burning problem.

Every Rosh Hashanah, my loaves of love turn into shriveled bricks of charcoal, in spite of nice organic ingredients, Sister Sadie’s recipe and a ton of good intentions.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out where I go wrong. When they’re baked goldeny beautiful brown, they’re still goopy in the middle. By the time the center sets up into something that doesn’t have the texture of snotty oatmeal, the top is a blackened sheet of death, which is a terrible way to bring in a new year.

Did I overgrease the pans? Undergrease? Too much baking powder? Is my convection oven anti-Semitic?

Whatever the case, 5776 is gonna be the year this yenta breaks the cycle of honeycake failure. I’m going to start with a new recipe, because even though Sister Sadie and I go way back, I have some serious suspicions that she may be a little senile.

I’m still about keeping it local, of course, so I’m delighted to have come across this recipe on the Joy of Kosher blog for Orange Blossom Spiced Honeycake, using honey from one of my favey local spots, the Savannah Bee Co. (Not local? Shop the site, or get the sticky goods from Modern Tribe.)

It’s a fabulous excuse to use my mother-in-law’s neglected copper bundt pan, plus it includes directions for a glaze to cover up any burnt spots.

Savannah Bee Co.’s food photog and recipe development balabusta Jess Brannen has been contributing some other wonderful recipes to Joy of Kosher, though I’m pretty sure these Pintrest-pretty apple rosette thingies are beyond my baking skill set.

Lemme stick to tradition for now. I’ll let y’all know how the cake turns out next week — although you can probably guess if you see smoke streaming from the porch.

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?



When Jews Owned Slaves

leadLiving in Savannah, GA, one can not really escape the horrid specter of slavery: I mean, if you are any kind of awake, you understand that this pretty little city, the South, this whole dang country wouldn’t be here if weren’t for the labor and skills of enslaved Africans.

While there may be reminders in Maya Angelou’s powerful words at the feet of nicey-nice memorials and clues in the thumbprints of brick buildings, the stories of these tortured men, women and children–let alone their actual names–rarely made it to the metanarrative of local history. But that is finally changing:

I wrote a cover story for Connect Savannah a few months back about how city archivists are using old records to document the local government’s participation in the slave trade. The results of the project are now available, providing primary sources for academics and anyone else interested in real history.

A recent article in The Atlantic by my friend Kris Monroe details the largest slave auction in American history that took place in Savannah in March 1859. Only marginally discussed on the trolley tours if at all, this terrible event known as “The Weeping Time” sold off 436 human beings and split apart hundreds of families. There’s a little plaque west of the tourist corridor that commemorates the Weeping Time, but few people outside of Savannah knew about it until Kris brought it to a national readership.

There’s also this piece by Susanna Ashton in today’s Forward that focuses on Charleston and explains why Savannah’s Jewish community–the third oldest in the U.S.–took a nose dive just eight years after it was established:

One important population influx took place in 1741, when a large contingent of Jewish families left their homes in Savannah, Georgia, to resettle in Charleston because trustees of the Georgia colony would not let them (or anyone else) hold slaves. The state of South Carolina, which had long embraced slaveholding, was thus a welcoming place for these families. By 1749, when Georgia rethought the ban and decided to allow slaveholding, it was too late.

Ashton’s article reminds that with the South’s historic Jewish communities comes a certain responsibility to the truth of that history: Much of the success and prosperity of those early families was built on the scarred backs of others. As a Southern Jew of more modest origins, I think it’s high time that Jewish communities researched the enslaved people who helped build the synagogues and businesses. Who were they? How can we remember and include them into our bigger story?
This weekend, Savannah is hosting The Slave Dwelling Project Conference, a gathering of academics and artists from all over the South who will discuss the preservation of slave history. Rumor has it that Kosher Soul chef and Afroculinaria blogger Michael Twitty may make an appearance, which would be a tremendous opportunity. (I’ve been trying to get him to my Shabbos table ever since his “Open Letter to Paula Deen” went viral!)
It’s an odd notion to consider for most of us, this Jews-owning-slaves business, considering our own past as slaves. Though it should come as no surprise for those with relatives who have been in America since the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even though I’ve scoured the family tree for any slaveholding branches and it’s come up empty, it’s times like this that I like to remind people: Hey, I married in.

Thoroughly Modern Abby: Savannah’s First Jewish Mother

44127092_132244189224-1In honor of Mickve Israel’s upcoming 281st anniversary, Yo, Yenta! is featuring guest blogger and all-around balabusta Phoebe Kerness.

THOROUGHLY MODERN ABBY: The story of Abigail Minis, founding member of Congregation Mickve Israel, business entrepreneur and independent woman.

Abigail Minis, one of the original Jewish settlers of the colony of Georgia and one of the original members of Congregation Mickve Israel, is considered to be one of the most foremost women in American Jewish History.

On July 11th, 1733, she arrived in Savannah at the age of 32, along with the 40 other original Jewish settlers, on the ship the William and Sarah. She was accompanied by her husband Abraham Minis and her two oldest daughters, Leah and Esther.

Welcoming her in Savannah was a rough and primitive environment lacking access to the necessities of life. She devoted herself to her children. Over a period of 11 years, Abigail gave birth every two years, followed by her youngest child four years later at the age of 47. In total, she gave birth to nine children, five girls and four boys, and raised eight of them to adulthood.

Possessed of a hearty constitution, Abigail survived her pregnancies and births at a time when pregnancy death rates were high. When Abraham died in 1757, she went on to display fortitude of will and wisdom. Upon his death, Abraham stipulated Abigail as the executrix of his estate to insure that she had the wherewithal to support, educate and to bring up their children.

By the time of his death, Abraham had established himself as a successful planter and businessman. Abigail took over his businesses and doubled his fortune. She invested in real estate in and around Savannah. In 1764 she opened the Minis Tavern which was to become a highly successful enterprise.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, she convinced Royal Governor Wright to grant her and the children safe passage and protection in Charleston until the British were defeated. She hired someone to manage her affairs in Savannah in her absence. At the same time, she assisted the Continental army with money, food ammunition and uniforms. When the War ended she returned to Savannah, regained control of all her properties and businesses, again doubling her fortune and continuing to increase her real estate holdings.

Abigail Minis died in October of 1794 at the age of 93. She was survived by her five unmarried daughters and six grandchildren. Her sons had all predeceased her. She was way ahead of her time and would have been hailed as such by the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s. She was a single mother, a well-respected citizen and a shrewd business woman. To have lived to be 93 in the 1700’s was remarkable.

Although documentation is scarce that verifies that Abigail Minis’s family was active in Savannah’s Jewish community, it is reasonable to assume so. The Minis and Sheftall families, the only German Jewish families in the earliest days of the colony, were close in business as well as cultural background. Reverend Bolzius, the Salzburger minister who lived in Ebenezer and who had friendly connections with Savannah’s German Jews, commented on the strict tradition of the two German Jewish families.

Abigail Minis was buried in the Mordecai Sheftall cemetery and her husband and two of their sons were buried in the original Jewish Burial Plot in the area of the present monument at Bull and Oglethorpe Streets. Philip Minis, Abigail’s son, was the first parnas of Mickve Israel after its post-Revolutionary reorganization. Finally the ultimate confirmation: descendants of Abigail and Abraham Minis were connected with the Savannah Jewish community and Mickve Israel for about 260 years.

Mickve Israel’s Museum Committee wants to remind our congregants that, although women have not always held official positions of leadership in American Jewish congregations as they do today, women have always been leaders in our Savannah congregation.

Abigail Minis set very high standards for generations of Mickve Israel women who followed her. She was a true heroine of Congregation Mickve Israel and Savannah, one of the foremost women in the history of American Jewish life, and a thoroughly modern woman.


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 Savannah-Slany Torah Connection

I promised you another coincidental Torah tale last week, and this yenta keeps her word. It’s a perfect story to honor all the soldiers who fought in WWII and veterans everywhere:

Mr. Herbert Victor with the Slany Torah

Mr. Herbert Victor with the Slany Torah

We have a Torah in the ark at Congregation Mickve Israel that comes from a trove of over 1500 scrolls recovered from Prague after WWII. Known as “The Holocaust Torahs,” they had been gathered up by Czech Jews as the Nazis made their horrific way across Europe and stored in a “museum” for the Germans. Most of those brave souls perished in Terezin and Auschwitz, but the Torahs survived and were moved to London in 1964.

From there the Holocaust Torahs have been distributed to synagogues around the globe as part of the Memorial Scrolls Trust — “on long term loan,” explains MI matriarch and mameleh Phoebe Kerness in an article she wrote for the temple newsletter. The communities they once belonged to destroyed forever, the scrolls were adopted by their new stewards “with the stipulation that they play a prominent and meaningful part in the religious and educational life of the institutions responsible for their safekeeping and condition.”

Our Torah comes from the little Bohemian town of Slany, about 12 miles northwest of Prague, and was scribed in 1890. Indeed, it has played a prominent and meaningful part of Jewish life in Savannah since it arrived in 1968: The Slany Torah is carried through the sanctuary and read from every Saturday. It’s recently been refurbished and re-koshered in Florida, thanks to the efforts Phoebe and her husband, Jules.

But it wasn’t until last summer that congregant Kerri Rosen actually asked, “Where is Slany, anyway?”

The former synagogue in Slany, Czech Republic, now a police station.

The former synagogue in Slany, Czech Republic, now a police station.

And thus began the adventure: Historian and Sunday School teacher supreme Teresa Victor found that the Jews of Slany has been expelled in 1458 but returned a few hundred years later to build a prominent synagogue in 1865. That part of Europe was never particularly friendly to our kind, and the population declined by 1930. In 1942, the remaining 81 Jews in Slany were rounded up for the camps. There are no Jews there today. The former synagogue now houses the police department.

Ms. Victor also discovered that in March 1945, the Eighth Air Force of the United States fought a bloody battle near Prague, bringing down a B-17 bomber over Slany and killing eight airmen. Here comes the meshuggeh part:

This plane came from a squadron known as “The Mighty Eighth,” founded in Savannah and referred to as “the greatest air armada in history.” The Eighth’s soldiers earned 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, 850 Silver Stars, 7,000 Purple Hearts 46,000 Air Medals — and also suffered half of the entire casualty of the entire war. All were American heroes, and eight of them began their last journey from right here in Savannah, Georgia to die fighting in the town of Slany.

The temple contacted Mickve Israel bar mitzvah boy and former El Yenta Man compatriot Jeffrey Young, who defected from Savannah for Prague after college and has been living la vie bohème ever since. Young took the ten-minute trip to Slany and found the memorial built from the wreckage of the plane that reads “In memory of the crew of the American B-17 bomber shot down at this spot on 2 March 1945.”

The Slany memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, based out of Savannah, GA.

The Slany memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, based out of Savannah, GA.

Our rabbi Robert Haas traveled there this summer to see it, and all of us are marveling at the serendipity: Savannah honors its Slany Torah, and Slany honors Savannah’s fallen soldiers.

This Saturday for Veterans Day weekend, Mickve Israel is holding a special Shabbat service at the sublime chapel at the Mighty Eighth Museum (which happens to be one of the most stupendous installations in the land.) The Slany Scroll will be there; reservations are required.

So how’s that for interconnectedness? Some may call it coincidence, others the work of the Divine. All I know is that the next time Little Yenta Girl is called up to undress the Slany Torah, her hands had better not be sticky.



The Divine Miz Sandra…in Savannah

So a bit of excitement in our sleepy Southern hollow on Sunday: Club One hosted the one and only Sandra Bernhard, she of caustic wit and slicing profanity, a woman with so much sexy chutzpah that God gave her extra big lips which which to share it.

I’ve been a fan even before she starred as a psycho stalker in The King of Comedy in the early 80s…oh you don’t remember? Here:


So deliciously neurotic and amazing, nu? Both our dads were doctors in Scottsdale in the 80s, and my mother was always very impressed that Sandra got her manicurist’s license and did nails while she was trying to break into comedy. I assumed this was a backhanded way of telling me to quit brooding and smoking cigarettes like it was my job and actually get one.

Did you know Sandra could also sing? Listen to and love her soulful rendition “Midnight Train to Georgia.”

I’m pretty sure Sandra was not singing ANYTHING wonderful about gaddamn Georgia when she arrived in town late Saturday night and found that she had been booked into a crap hotel next to the bridge. Not befitting of a celebrity diva, indeed!

No wonder she pronounced Savannah “a total shitshow” in the first five minutes of her act. No one should take that personally, by the way, unless you work at the Sheraton Four Points on MLK Blvd.

Other than that, she seemed happy to be here, even if it was playing to a half-full room at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I don’t know who thought the early bird dinner hour in the convalescent home was the best time to book someone as electrifying as Sandra, but I secretly enjoyed it because, ya know, it was a school night and all.

She riffed on feminism, skanky Miley Cyrus, being a gay mom and the inane injustice of reality TV (Best line: “There’s no room for talented people on television.”) Her impressions of other celebrities were dead-on — she’s got Patti Smith’s rugged cool down pat. Her performance style is so natural and fun, I felt like I was listened to my BFF regale me with details from Jane Fonda’s 75th birthday party.

Just a coupla Jewish girls from Arizona

Just a coupla Jewish girls from Arizona

She ended the show with an epic rendition of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” and then signed merch, as professional and accessible as an international superstar could possibly be.

By the way, Girlfriend is 50-fucking-7. Does she not look INCREDIBLE?

After the show, we kibbitzed with one of Savannah’s own loveliest ladies, Lisa K, as well as writer power couple T Cooper and Allison Glock, in town to write a travel piece about Savannah (I did my best to point them away from less shitshow aspects of the Hostess City.)

Then Bobby Z, an international supastar in his own right, invited us all out to an organic dinner (Sandra only does farm-to-table) and some dizzying rounds of Jewish geography.

But the height of the evening (for me, anyway) was when Sandra’s fabulous road manager Joe wondered aloud if anyone might be able to drive them back to the hotel.

“Why yes,” I said, kicking El Yenta Man under the table. “We’d be DELIGHTED.”

“Are you sure there’s room?” asked Joe, looking at me over the rims of his glasses and motioning to Mikey the piano player and the others.

“Oh yeah. I have VAN,” I nodded.

El Yenta Man jingled the keys and we all walked down the quaint cobblestone street.

And then this happened:

Yenta photobomb: Sandra Bernhard goes for a ride in the Absurdivan

Yenta photobomb: Sandra Bernhard goes for a ride in the Absurdivan

I’m sure she’ll get those nice navy pants she was wearing drycleaned of diabetic pug hair. But I’m never vacuuming out the Absurdivan again.