Good Times in the Worst Sukkah Ever

Loyal readers know that I find Sukkot the most challenging holiday to observe. I love my garden, I love the harvest, I love fall, I love being outside, but when it comes to building shit, you’ve lost me.

Though I have a fleeting memory of making construction paper chains at the JCC preschool in Miami circa 1974, Sukkot was not something we Reform Jews brought home. As far as I can tell, carpentry skills fled our DNA as we evolved over generations to become doctors and lawyers and neurotic intellectuals. If God wanted modern American Jews to construct temporary dwellings actually worth dwelling in, the Torah would have come with blueprints.

Still, for years, I maintained the delusion that El Yenta Man and I would transform into tool-wielding architectural dynamos and slap together SOMETHING kosher enough to be consider a sukkah. It’s for the kids! I would say, dragging over our neighbor’s palm tree clippings. They can help! Then I realized that simply breaking down a cardboard cereal box for the recycling is too complex a task for almost everyone in this family, so I gave up.

Not that dwelling in a hut in the backyard for a week doesn’t sound like a blast. But a sukkah is more than just a secret clubhouse to enjoy a purloined stash of snacks and comic books; it has rules: It has to have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. It has to have a ceiling, but you have to be able to see the stars through it. It should be festively decorated with specific items like perishable fruits, which sounds a bug problem waiting to happen, especially since I tend to leave up the Chanukah banners until Passover.

But this year, Little Yenta Girl would not be satisfied with the Torah-sanctioned and perfectly lovely sukkah at our synagogue and begged and pleaded for us to make our own last Wednesday.

El Yenta Man can’t refuse his precious lovely much, so he said yes. At 45 minutes before sundown and no discernible dinner plans. With nothing more than a some bamboo poles, a broken drill and a stack of wild-patterned schmattas leftover from my African dance days. Let no one ever deny the deranged determination of indulgent Jewish parents.

First, we selected an area near the garden to make a square-like structure, as dictated in the Torah and the helpful, handy folks at Unfortunately, we had no way to secure the bamboo into the ground, so they kept falling over into the okra bed and onto my head. So we dug some holes, causing the chickens to rush over and scratch at the bed of fire ants we uncovered. Though the sukkah building was not going well, we did at least invent a new Sukkot dance that employs the choreographed spastic slapping of legs while hopping from foot to foot to avoid stepping in chicken poop.

At this point it was getting dark and tempers darker, so we gave up on “kosher” and settled for indigenous, leaning all the poles into each other. It’s inclusive, we’re celebrating the Native American heritage of our region, I explained briskly to our daughter, who looked doubtfully at the sukkah coloring sheet she brought home from Hebrew school and back at our teepee.

Then it was time to decorate: Yenta BoyMan chopped some giant philodendron leaves and leaned them against the poles while EYM draping the mismatched fabric like he was swaddling a giant baby. I started stringing okra and other half-rotting things from the garden until a worm crawled out of the butternut squash and I threw it all over my neighbor’s fence.

The result was a cross between something built by an Ecstasy-addled hippie at Burning Man and the saddest corner of a Somali refugee camp.

“It’s awful,” I said, thinking the dinner I was now expected to make out of penne pasta and wormy squash would pair really well with this disaster.

“A total embarrassment,” agreed EYM.

“I wish I had my Epi-Pen. We not sleeping out here, are we?” whined the BoyMan, obsessively checking the bottom of shoes for chicken poop.

But our girl clasped her hands and smiled.

“It’s perfect,” she declared.


More teepee than sukkah, but at least it’s there?

So we brought out blankets and some takeout burritos, and stared through the gaps in the animal prints at the heavens. The girl rushed back inside for a moldy lemon to serve as the etrog, and we gathered up some lawn clippings for a lulav. A happy peace settled over our little family as the philodendron leaves lifted with the first cool breeze felt in these sultry parts since April.

The dog wrenched herself out of her diabetic stupor and snuggled against our outstretched legs as the BoyMan stretched out on the ground pointing out the constellations to his little sister. EYM and I high-fived each other with the relieved enthusiasm of those who choose to celebrate simple accomplishment over obvious ineptitude. I relished the triumph that while we may be the most half-assed Sukkah builders in the history of Judaism, my kids would have at least one decent memory of a hut of their own.

We experienced a good 20 minutes of spiritual and domestic harmony until the dog mistook the purple blanket for a patch of grass and peed in the BoyMan’s hair. That inspired the second movement of the Yenta Sukkot Dance, a highly energetic solo of pulling the shmattas off the wall and flailing them about the head.

“It’s OK,” said Little Yenta Girl. “We’ll just wash everything and put it away for next year.”

Next year? Oy.




Yom Kippur and Synagogue Etiquette, Or, Sorry For Judging Your Shoes

imagesAs we dial down to the last of the Days of Awe, we Jews look a little closer at our motives and mistakes. We examine our souls like we’re cleaning out the cupboards of chametz with a scrubby sponge and some heavy-duty spray cleaner (non-toxic and environmentally friendly, of course.)

I haven’t had many moments in this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to reflect on my sins, but I did a little time in the garden yesterday, going over the past year as I weeded the okra.

Here’s what I have come up with so far: I am judgmental bitch.

For reals. I like to think I’m a tolerant, peace-loving earth mother who welcomes everyone into my muumuu of organic cooking and DIY spirituality, but I have critical streak as wide as RuPaul’s bald spot. It’s mostly reserved for hypocritical morons who try to impose their morality on women’s bodies, but I realized while I was picking bugs off the squash that I am totally guilty of turning my Stink Eye on my own people.

I am talking about Synagogue Etiquette. I have developed a certain idea about how you show up to Temple, and I spent a nice chunk of last Thursday’s service eyeballing people who IMHO were not observing the basic threshold of decent behavior and/or attire.

Yes, I should have been focused on the liturgy or at least sounding out the Avinu Malkaynu without the transliteration. But instead I started obsessing over the following choices made by my fellow congregants, keeping up a rude inner dialogue:

Denim. People, it’s a house of worship. Find your way to the back of your closet and extract something other than what you wore to the Sand Gnats game last night.

Sequins. Unless you are under 8 years old or over 80, you look like you’re going clubbing with Lady Gaga. At no point during the service will the black lights come on and rabbi bust out with turntables on the bima.

Flip-flops. No matter how much modern culture devolves, my feelings on this will never change: They’re shower shoes and don’t belong in public. Let alone in the same sanctuary with the fabulous 95 year-old balabusta rocking the sequins.

Cell phones. Seriously, you need to be told? Totally busted the guy behind me checking the Yahoo news scroll during the Amidah. WTF? And btw, Torah trumps football scores (yes, even if Georgia is playing, El Yenta Man!)

Chit Chat. Maybe you’re not riveted by the rabbi’s sermon, but some of us are trying to pray, or like, think about shit. I’m not gonna take an ad out in the paper or anything, but SHHHH. Also, the Talmud says God will strike you dead. Or worse.

See? I’m a terrible person.

As much as we’re supposed to ask God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, we’re also supposed to make peace with our fellow humans in order to be written into the Book of Life for another year.

So I’ll make a deal with you, fellow Jews. Maybe y’all could forgive me for judging you and maybe you’d consider not wearing stupid stuff and talking in shul and we can all have a blessed Holy day and an easy fast.

But we’re all human, so no guarantees, right?

‘Cause it might look like I’m sitting there davening along with the V’Havta but I’m probably just whispering “Why does that assh*ole keep putting his feet on the back of the pew?”




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.

Dear God, It’s Me, Yenta

105781Dear God ~

Happy Birthday and congratulations on another year in the history of the world! We’ve had a couple of close calls with the superstorms and the psycho dictators with nuclear weapons and all, but hey, it’s all still here, right?!

On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, which is like secular New Year’s Eve except that instead of partying with friends we’ll spend time in synagogue asking for forgiveness for being stupid humans and trying to contain the shpilkes of Little Yenta Girl (who is no longer so little) as she drums out that infernal Cup Song on the pews. Which is to say it’s nothing like secular New Year’s Eve.

We’ll eat apples and honeycake that I will probably burn this afternoon because being farblonget is what I do. We’ll cast bread crumbs in the river to represent out sins. We’ll listen to the shofar crack the silence and let the hum move through our bodies.

We’ll chant “B’Rosh Hashanah yika-teyvun, Uv-yom tzom kippur yey-chateymun” — on Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed  and pray that we’re praying the right way so we’re written into the Book of Life for another go ’round.

I hope you’ll overlook my lameness as far as the other Jewish traditions go, like eating chicken parmesan and lighting the candles late. And, also, bacon.

As a Jew, I also know I’m supposed to put the dash instead of the “o” to show respect for Your name, but since “God” is just a word in a language that didn’t evolved until waaaaay after the Torah was written, it’s not really Your name anyway, right? There’s so many names in Hebrew, and then all the other names in other languages, too. So I couldn’t use your ACTUAL name in vain even if I wanted to. Which I wouldn’t (on purpose,) because (mostly) I try really hard to be a good, decent person. Also, I’ve read a few things about what happens when people piss You off.

But using the dash instead of the “o” makes me feel like a poser. Like I’m trying to pull off that I’m more religious or spiritual or observant or righteous than other people, and that’s bogus. I dunno, I kind of think that You’d rather me examine the deeper motives of my choices than pretend like dicking around with punctuation makes me holier than thou (or Thou, as the case may be.)

But God, You and I talk way more often than a couple of days a year, mostly when I remember to stop kvetching and gossiping and obsessing and remember You. I might have already told You this already today, but I’m glad and grateful that my children are healthy and kind, that my parents are setting an amazing example of how fabulous elder life can be, that my work moves forward (even if none of the thousands of columns and articles and blog posts have added up to a book) and that I’ve maybe been able to help others a little bit, even in the boring, quiet ways that don’t bring recognition or even thanks.

I’m especially happy to have settled on the belief that it’s notsomuch the law-following and pious prayer that makes me a good Jew but the compassion for others, the wide-eyed awe of Your Creation, the shoulder-to-rock work of making the world a better place in the way that we can, even if it’s just sharing a piece of burnt honeycake with my neighbors.

So, no dashes, no dicking around for 5774. Just me and You, God, and all the rest of us looking for meaning in the bright spark of time between birth and death. Let’s do this.

Mad respect, yo, and thank You for it all. Whatever Your name is.