Joining the Ranks of the Balabustas

Since I haven’t been chilling at the JEA Senior Lunch Bunch as of late, I’ve been needing an opportunity to get my fix of Savannah’s hilarious yentas.

Unforch, the mah-jong club doesn’t fit into my schedule, so I decided on the next best place to find hip, happenin’ Jewish ladies who call my (almost) 40 year-old punim a “baby face”: A Hadassah meeting.

Before yesterday, this is what I knew about

1. That it’s an international organization founded in 1912 to raise money to build hospitals and schools and scientific research facilities in Israel (including the colossal Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower that aims to serve and heal all citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity, to be dedicated in 2012.)

2. That Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman is its fabulous spokeswoman. (And while we’re here, a rousing “Mazel Tov” to Natalie on the birth of her baby boy on June 14! There has been a flurry of speculation on whether she and her fiancé, Benjamin Millepied—the man of a thousand feets—will raise their child Jewishly, BUT an absolute dearth of news on the child’s name and whether a bris took place on June 22. Has Nat—*gasp*—joined the ranks of the meshuggehneh intactivists?! Kinehora!)

3. That current Hadassah president, Nancy Falchuk, should have her own monument on Mount Scopus not only for the incredible job she’s done raising funds and awareness for the cause during her term but also for giving birth to Brad Falchuk, who in turn has given birth to the greatest TV show ever introduced to humankind, Glee.

4. That my favorite strawberry-haired Savannah yenta, Beezy, hits up my father-in-law every year to buy tickets to the local fundraiser even though my mother-in-law, a longtime member, can no longer attend. (Yes, OF COURSE he writes a check, because you don’t say no to Beezy.)

I never really thought of Hadassah as a place for me, ’cause let’s face it, I’m no big donor. In fact, I only joined this year because it was a requirement of Yenta Boy’s camp application. But after checking out the breadth of the projects and the commitment to compassion and peace, I feel like I’ve joined the ranks of a group of powerful Jewish women who get sh*t DONE. For 100 years come 2012, Hadassah has been a sorority of service—not such a bad place to put a few hours and dollars towards the greater good.

(I must admit I had a bit of wardrobe crisis deciding what to wear to my first Hadassah meeting. I’d been in my dreck gardening clothes all day and wanted something cool and flowy yet festive, but I thought my traditional African lappa might be too much for Beezy. I finally grabbed a zebra-print wrap dress my mother snuck into my suitcase on my last visit to Scottsdale. Turns out my fashion intuition was spot-on: Not only was I not the only animal in the room, but I was joined by a virtual safari of a leopard vest, another zebra in jacket form and a jungle motif that included a large red parrot. You can always count on the Jewish ladies to bring the wild.)

As part of my first efforts to my new cause, I must tell you that Hadassah is running a $100 lifetime membership special to celebrate its 100 year anniversary. Such a bargain! Many ladies are even making their daughters and granddaughters lifetime members to instill the spirit of service in the generations coming up. (Of course, this may prove to be a poor strategy later down the line when all the Jewish women under 40 are already Hadassah members, but it’s certainly beefing up the membership call lists now.)

So I encourage y’all to come join for life—animal prints are not required. Just our presence for now is enough to make a difference.

And if I find a way to get my Thursday mornings free, I promise to donate all my mah-jongg winnings.

The Giant Tome of Kvell

It always makes my stomach a little barfy when lists are published “proving” how Jewish people are smarter and/or more accomplished than any other group of people that inhabit the Earth.

Not because the disproportionate amount of Jewy names on Nobel prizes (23% of the total ever awarded) and powerful businesspeople lists (24% of Fortune‘s Top 25) gives fodder for the whole “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” mishegoss that Jews secretly rule the world. Or that such lists, found readily on nasty white supremacist web sites, feed the fuel of global anti-Semitism (jealous much, beeotches?) And it’s not even because the self-lauding of such fabulous feats displays a level of hubris that’s just in poor taste.

Sure, the numbers are there: 14.3 million Jews in a world of 6.23 billion humans = .00207% of the world population, yet we seem to be EVERYWHERE (except Wal-Mart.)

But the real reason it skeeves me out when someone started pointing out all the accomplishments of “the Jewish people” is because frankly, it just makes me look bad.

I come from a family of accomplished people—my mother is working on her sixth book, my father volunteers in third-world operating rooms and my Brother the Doctor basically saved ten lives this morning before I finished my tea. As the perpetual underachiever of the lot, it is not helpful to be reminded how statistically, I should have made millions in real estate, invented a new molecule, donated a children’s hospital and rocked out a couple of blockbuster movies by now. It’s a LOT of pressure to swim in this gene pool, people. I don’t need any added stress. (And maybe I’m not the only one, since Jews are also found in therapists’ offices in large numbers, dealing with neuroses.)

However, when Steven L. Pease’s The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement: The Compendium of A Culture, A People and Their Stunning Performance arrived at my door, I could not help but shunt aside my slacker swagger to make room for some serious kvelling. Literally, since there wasn’t actually room for me and this book to be in the foyer at the same time.

The size of a challah on Prednisone, or say, a supersize mandelbrot, this is 622 pages of dizzying, exhaustively-researched awesome. It’s an encyclopedia of Jewish exultation, a magnum opus that spotlights Jewish involvement in almost every aspect of modern civilization. From military to civil service to sports to philanthropy to Broadway to Hollywood to high-tech, there’s an entry for some enterprising Einstein or Feinstein or Weinstein or Koufax or Rosenwald or Gershwin or Guggenheim. And don’t forget the bad guys, too—oligarchs (Russia’s Mikhail Khordorkovsky) and mobsters (Lansky) and spies (Rosenberg). There’s even a paragraph on Jewish pirates.

In his introduction, Pease, who is not Jewish, respectfully declares a lifelong affinity for Jews, beginning with sympathetic horror as post-WWII photos of concentration camps were released, followed by cheers for the underdog as the state of Israel fought for its independence and continuing through his years as a student at Harvard and career as a venture capitalist which were populated by Jewish roommates, partners, employees and friends. He took on the task of cataloging Jewish (over)achievement in order to fill his time while caring for his sick mother, but it was writer Rabbi Harold Kushner who charged Pease with figuring out WHY Jews have racked up so many accomplishments since breaking out of the shtels in the late 19th century. (Pease uses the term “Jewish Emancipation” to mark the move from oppression to assimilation in Eastern Europe.)

Rather than simply an almanac of names and facts, The Golden Age provides a outsider’s analysis, piecing together history and speculating how certain factors figure into certain individual’s success. In the end, Pease decides it’s not DNA or racial superiority or a special stamp from God that has levied so many Jews to high levels of success and service but participation in a culture that values education and an adaptable religious doctrine that both adheres to tradition and is open to change. This combination of adaptability and observance is also what has stirred the pot of hatred in our neighbors through the centuries.

The last chapter muses whether the swift rise of Jewish accomplishment will stagnate and fade as intermarriage, complacency and “á la carte” religion dilute what was once a necessarily cloistered culture. I wonder if in the coming years the emphasis of education in India and Chinese culture will create a more competitive global setting that inspired people to make lists of Patels and Huangs.

Rabbi Kushner calls The Golden Age “a book to strengthen one’s pride in being Jewish,” which of course it is. But in the wrong hands, it will surely be used as textbook for conspiracy theorists who will look at the numbers of corporate CEOs and won’t appreciate Pease’s thoughtful examinations. It probably isn’t going to debunk the sick myths about Jewish world domination. But it is nice to have this particular perspective of history all in place where our children can read, saucer-eyed, about the marvelous triumphs (and trials) of their ancestors and elders.

Though maybe I won’t leave it lying around lest mein kinder shoulder the undue pressure of thinking they’re expected to win a Nobel Prize. Then again, maybe one of them will find the cure for neuroses?

Gabby’s Going Home; Anthony’s Going Down

A whoop of joy for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who has been released from the hospital after being shot point-blank in the head last January in Tucson.

She’s talking and walking and—most importantly—smiling, but experts warn that her “rosy recovery” from skull surgery is nowhere near its end and that brain injuries like hers rarely heal completely. Sending up a Misheberach healing prayer for the best outcome possible.

The shooter, Jared Loughner, who also killed six others and wounded 13 more, has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. I suppose he gets a Misheberach too—if only so that justice can be meted out.

Even if the congresswoman recovers enough to tap dance, it appears unlikely that she’ll be returning to Washington anytime soon—though her loyal staff reminds us that the only “official timetable” for deciding whether she will run for re-election is May 2012, when the petitions are due.

So that’s one less Jewish Democrat in the House. And according to the interwebs, it’s soon to be two:

After all his blustering, Anthony Weiner is reportedly going to step down from his congressional seat after weeks of overblown media coverage about his weiner shots sent to a passel of women who are not his wife.

According to the link, Weiner was “undone” not by the hollering of Republican blowhards or outraged constituents about his scandalous Tweets himself in his underpants but by hypocrites in his own party who threatened to “strip him” of his committee assignments if he didn’t resign. Such a shanda.

Look, I’m not defending his douchebag behavior or saying that his pregnant wife shouldn’t sue his pants off (er, I guess they’re already off…oops). But for those of us Americans who value having an outspoken, liberal representative in Congress who isn’t afraid to throwdown when it comes to health care, National Public Radio and tax cuts, Weiner’s resignation is a loss.

Yeah, he might be dog—but he’s been a watchdog. And we need more of those than ever.

Breaking Out of the ‘Chood

Summer has begun, which means there are little yentas all UP in the big one’s bidness, keeping me from sitting at the computer with incessant whining earnest pleas to go blackberry picking and dress up the dog in American Girl clothes.

While I figure out how to stay awake past their bedtime, please enjoy the spankin’ new video for “Proud to Be” from Savannah’s own kosher hiphop maestro, Reuben “Prodezra Beats” Formey (check the official Yo, Yenta! interview here.)

Was that the B.B. Jacob sanctuary, brother?! Also caught a cameo of the newest (? maybe middle) Formey daughter—a sweet little angel in pink.

Rumor ’round the eruv is that Prodezra Beats may be moving along to a bigger music scene—I’m sorry to see Savannah lose its hip-hoppest Jew, but if that’s what it takes to realize the dream, so be it. Proud to BE a fan, yo!

Thursdays with Marcia

It’s Thursday, and for the past five years, that’s meant lunch with my mother-in-law.

I used to write about how we used to kibbitz with the seniors at the JEA—good times. Even as my MIL lost her ability to speak, then walk, then feed herself, we would still roll her up to our usual table and tuck in for some chicken and what was once broccoli. El Yenta Man would flirt with Beezy and the other ladies while I’d sneak into the kitchen to rummage for the Texas Pete’s. We’d take turns feeding Marcia and dabbing her chin. She’d developed a habit of leaning in her wheelchair, and one of us sat on either side of her to prop her up with a pillow. Sometimes she’d nod off before dessert.

A few months ago I came to suspect we were doing this more for ourselves than us. Marcia was well past expressing herself at this point, but one day I looked over and she just looked miserable. Maybe it was the broccoli, but I interpreted her furrowed brow and clenched fist as discomfort. El Yenta Man and I had always vowed to help her keep her dignity, and I realized that being fed in public—even among understanding, kind friends—wasn’t in keeping with that promise.

El Yenta Man used to meet me at the JEA from work, and it had also become too difficult for me to lift her in and out of the wheelchair by myself. I hate admitting that. I want to have unlimited strength and patience and good humor. Yet we all know that nothing, but nothing, in this life is unlimited. Except love. Of course.

So here’s a shoutout to my Senior Yentas—those bedazzled and hilarious women in their late 80’s and 90’s (!!) who guffaw over dirty jokes and squeeze my hand—Beezy and Anita and both Bernieces and Miz Dorothy and Lynn and especially Mickey, who likes to shriek “Gawddamit!” in a little girl’s squeal when there’s no Thousand Island. I miss y’all tons and promise to pop in sooner than later for a visit.

And a wink and an flash of my ankle to the men’s table—shrunk to no one the last time I was there: May you all rest in peace and joy.

And a deep bow of gratitude to the kind people at the JEA who set up the lovely tables and prepare the food: My partner in Texas Pete’s worship, the ebullient Marcia Silverman and her lovely daughters. Ben Bloom for revving up Bingo like nobody’s business. Adam and Lynn and all the rest of the Federation folks who keep that big, giant building churning with life. Thank you.

Now Thursday lunches are spent around my in-laws’ kitchen table. Sometimes El Yenta Man grabs takeout, sometimes we make bologna sandwiches on leftover challah from last Shabbat (yes, it’s a little stale, but we have survived dead broccoli, m’kay?) We kibbitz with Britannia, who’s been caring for Marcia on weekdays since she was still dancing in the aisles in the grocery store and singing to the moon. Britannia is part of the family now, and we sit and kvetch about our kids and our husbands while Marcia sips watered-down grape juice from a straw and looks at both us like she’s very glad she has no idea what we’re talking about. I took this photo this afternoon.

One day, maybe in a year, maybe in five, maybe even ten given Marcia’s relative good physical health and gentle stubbornness, I’ll have Thursdays free again. I would say I don’t know what I’ll do with myself but I’m pretty sure I know where I could volunteer my broccoli-steaming skills.

Super Cheesy

Sure, this could be a post about Anthony(‘s) Weiner. I must be teetering over the edge of a hugely un-hip middle age, because all I could think about yesterday during Breitbart’s sadistic unveiling and the congressman’s teary, embarrassing press conference was “Oh, his poor mother.”

Why must it be so difficult for people in committed relationships—not only high-profile politicians with ambitions—to comprehend that sending nudie photos to anyone other than your partner is NEVER a good idea? What kind of idiot DOESN’T think that they will not get caught?

Damn, even sending mildly suggestive photos to your OWN spouse warrants a level of technological stealth. I found this out yesterday when El Yenta Man thought it would be ha-larious to send his own Weiner-ish text while Yenta Boy was playing Angry Birds on my iPhone. Fortunately, I snatched the phone before he got a good look, and as far as any of you know, that was Daddy’s elbow wrapped up in an Ace bandage after a cortisone shot.

But ya know, there’s bad cheesy and good cheesy. And it’s that time of year for the good cheese: The holiday of Shavuot starts tonight, which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It takes place exactly seven weeks after Passover, and the connection is significant because while Passover “freed us physically from bondage, the giving of the Torah on Shavu’ot redeemed us spiritually from our bondage to idolatry and immorality.”

The way to celebrate is to stay up all night discussing Jewish texts—it’s traditional to read the Book of Ruth, perhaps in part because of all the images of barley and crops and fields that remind us how summer is starting to push out all the goodies in the garden. The food component of the holiday (we are Jews, and there is ALWAYS a food component) is to mack hard on dairy dishes: Since this is the day the laws of kosher eating were passed down, the Israelites present were all, “what do you mean, we gotta do what to the cow now before we eat it? And we gotta sterilize all the knives and sh*t? Forget it, we’ve having bean and cheese burritos for dinner.”

Um, wait, that might have been me. And in case you hadn’t figured it out by now, you should in no way take me as any kind of halachic source. Better you should do some real research.

Anyway, tonight’s the night to get your blintz on! And your cheesecake. And yer fondue, ice cream sundaes and Sepharic burekas (which I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting, but one day I will and there will be a scarfdown.) No, NOT a holiday for the lactose-intolerant.

And what about the other cheese? Poor Anthony, he’s made a terrible mess of moving his, hasn’t he? Next time he decides to post some cheesecake pictures of himself, they’d better be to his wife.

Literary Yenta

I normally try to abstain from mixing writing gigs (and metaphors), but this piece appeared a few months ago in the literary edition of the awesome art journal OUTLET and I wanted to share it with a bigger audience. I’m real proud to be a part of such a stellar issue—you can download it for free!

Morning Commute of a Misanthrope

By Jessica Leigh Lebos

When I was much younger than this, I had a bad habit of hating my life. Fortunately, the more of it I lived, the more miraculous I understood it to be—that I, along with every other animate creature in this world, am moved along by a common pulse that drives every heartbeat and breath. Compared to the majesty of this force, even my most existential frustrations are ridiculously insignificant. Falling in love and becoming a mother practically cured me of my cynical navelgazing, and rather than despising myself and others for all the things we are not, I mostly view humankind as a collection of mentally-challenged pets, worthy of compassion and usually in need of help.
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