Yard Pollution, Blue Lights And Other Holiday Acquiescences

giantmenorah‘K, so I have plan for all the baby Jesusi (words that end in “S” — so hard to pluralize) I’m planning to purloin from all the neighborhood nativity scenes: I’m going to dress them them in cloth diapers and little yarmulkes and arrange them all around this inflatable menorah* in my driveway. When my outraged neighbors come with their pitchforks and torches, I’ll tell them it’s an experimental performance art piece to foster community and understanding between the different faiths.

Wha’, you don’t think the deep South is ready for it? Maybe I should wait until my PMS passes and then string a nice line of environmentally-correct LED blue lights around the porch and call it a (holi)day.

Speaking of which, where do y’all fall on the subject holiday lights? Kosher or not?

When I was growing up, twinkling lights were as verboten at as our house as a Chanukah bush, or as my mother liked to say: SFG*. So it constitutes a fairly major rebellion that I’ve done the blue light thang since college; I just think they’re pretty and my children really love them. I don’t go batsh*t and drape things from the roof or anything, just a tasteful doorway/window display that adds a cozy glow to these deep, dark days of December. When the menorah’s lit in the window framed by blue, our home shines as bright as any meshugenneh’s with their flashing seizure-inducing displays.

I’m not saying I’m trying compete with the Christian tradition; it’s just nice to look down one’s block on a chilly winter night and not see a black hole where one’s house sits. Chanukah is the Festival of Lights, after all.

* “Strictly For the Goyim”

**I borrowed the image from Orienyenta, a Spanish-speaking, Asian Jewish single mom living in Miami. I know there’s at least one single Jewish doctor out there who might be interested in a tall, independent woman who can cook latkes and egg rolls…

Pastrami in the Park

When you see a priest in full collar standing in line for potato latkes, you know you’re at the Shalom Y’all Food Festival. Which is to say yesterday’s gastronomic festivities were a grand success along the green acres of Savannah’s jewel, Forsythe Park. The thousands of people milling about, smacking their lips proves once and again that the small Jewish community of Savannah is way more than chopped liver to the city at large.

I suppose those of you who live in places with strong Jewish centers might take an event like this for granted, but hailing first from Arizona and then the hippie netheregions of Northern California, I found it amazing that so many people turned out for matzoh ball soup and bagels. I snarfed dolmas and baklava at Savannah’s Greek food festival last weekend, and there was maybe a quarter the attendance. Federation staffer Larry Dane-Kellogg estimated that “Shalom Y’all” would raise over $30,000 for Congregation Mickve Israel; can anyone inform me of another temple fundraiser that surpasses that in one day?

I’ve intimated before that Savannah’s Reform Jews are some of the most assimilated around, likely because of the deep South’s suspicion of Jews back when the first Portuguese ones arrived back in 1733 and subsequent generations’ social and material ambitions. Today’s congregation is proudly under-religious, yet has such a strong cultural presence that clusters of African-American ladies in fabulous hats came to wait 20 minutes for strudel after church.

(By the way, Savannah does have a visible, if small, Orthodox community � black hats, wigs, with an eruv and everything � but I haven’t had occasion to have much contact since I decided to send my son to public school rather than the tiny Day school. And since the Jewish food festival wasn’t explicitly kosher, I didn’t see any tzitzit.)

So with the question of what defines Jewish identity always plinking around my mind, especially after reading last week’s prickly Jpost article about “Judaism-lite” by Ariel Beery and Esther’s related posts on My Urban Kvetch and Jewlicious, I understand that eating a corned beef on rye doesn’t make a person Jewish.

But there is definitely something about the food the relates to Jewish identity as well as Jewish pride. No, learning to love borscht won’t ever replace Torah study as Jewish education, but tasting it and sensing something familiar makes a person feel more Jewish. Until all of us errant Jews give up our assimilated lives and get serious about shul and mitzvot, it’s always going to be about the food.

Semite By Day, Redneck By Night

convergence2006I know you all have been waiting with bated breath to see if I used my journalistic stealth to find my way into Convergence 2006, a meeting of top Israeli dignitaries in the unlikely setting of coastal Georgia. You have permission to exhale, because in spite of my fast-and-free journalism skills and general farblongentness, I did manage to crash the concluding ceremonies Tuesday morning.

Unfortunately, the main thing I found out was how much I’d missed.

The first person I ran into was the moderator of the event, Kevin Cohen, an award-winning talk show host for WVOC out of Columbia, SC. He was kind enough to fill in the blanks of the press release and the local paper’s precoverage, which focused on the organizers’ controversial views of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. This caused Kevin to roll his eyes. “That wasn’t even mentioned here.”

The sensationalism of tearing down mosques to build a Third Temple may have made more interesting copy, but the real story here is the assembly of so many powerful Jews in one place. “This has been such an amazing event,” said Kevin, shaking his head at me for being so lame to show up at the end. “You’ve had members of the Knesset, IDF generals, representatives from [U.S.] Congress, all talking about Israel with intelligence and passion.”

The “star of the show,” according to Kevin, was Dr. Arie Eldad, who represents the Moledet party in the Knesset, is a former IDF Brigadier General and one of the world’s foremost burn specialists. Eldad’s beliefs that the creation of an Arab state would be a disaster, and that any more withdrawals would be a huge mistake, may not be very popular with American liberals, but many of the others echoed that the only way to peace is to stand its ground and not give up even an inch more land.

Other speakers included Knesset members Limor Livnat and Yuval Steinitz, the outspoken head of the Zionist Organization of America Mort Klein, media analyst and Sopranos-lookalike Raanan Gissin, Congressmen Jack Kingston and Joe Wilson, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Yehuda and IDF generals Giora Eiland, Eliu Ben Onn and Moshe Yaalon, who some where whispering could become Israel’s next prime minister. Even though security was tight, it was probably good that the event was tucked away on Huntington Island in the sleek and stunning Convention Center rather than one of Savannah’s more historic but higher profile locations.

The shibboleth for the conference was “facing claims and challenges of Israel’s Future in the Middle East,” which may reveal something of the attendees’ and speakers’ politics. This was no “let’s-say-a-b’rucha-for-peace” kind of crowd; both Israeli and American military experts spoke on the necessity of not only curbing Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but bringing down its current leadership by whatever means necessary.

The conference’s decidedly hawkish bent is part of the reason much of Savannah’s Jewish community — including Mickve Israel’s rabbi — distanced itself from the event. That’s a real shanda, since all Jews need to be educated about Israel, no matter what their opinion is of its politics. Sitting there in the sanctuary-like auditorium listening to experts clarify the reality of Israel’s fight not only against violent, irrational enemies but what Raanan Gissin called its “war of perception” in the world media, an already existing fire was fanned in my belly. Though I support Israel in my heart, I tend to shy away from discussions about its politics, because, frankly, I turn into flubber-tongued dunderhead and nine times out of ten start to cry out of frustration at my own and other people’s ignorance. So I’m committing myself to learn more about how to educate people about the truth of Israel calmly and clearly. (The Israel Project is a terrific resource for this.)

There was also a strong Christian presence at the event, whom organizer Orly Benny Davis called “our good friends.” I know there are some who reject the Bible Belt’s support of Israel because of its creepy Messianic implications, but I say whoever loves Israel is family, Jewish or not.

Yeah, I’m a bleeding heart liberal who wants everyone of all religions and races to put down the bombs and hold hands and dance a Persian hiphop hora to African drums. But the grown-ups know that it’s not going to be that easy for the Jews; never has been, never will be. The business of the Middle East is all of our business; whether you wear a giant Zionist ‘Z’ on your chest or you disagree with pretty much everything Israel does, American Jews, especially us lazy ones here in the South, cannot ignore her.

Am Yisrael Chai, yo. All in all, it was a rich day for this transplanted Savannah Jew. I returned to the other side of the river a changed woman, a more enhanced Semite. But I had to switch gears and put on my redneck hat right quick, because at the other convention center, country-fried rock icon Gregg Allman was tuning up. Falafel and peaches, baby —- it’s Southern Jewish life.

Photo of Orly Benny Davis and Raanan Gissin by John Carrington c/o Savannah Morning News.

Gastronomic Overload

pastramiAfter attending a chili cook-off and Savannah’s Greek Festival last week, I’m about ready for couple of weeks of quinoa and kale. But the rabbit food will have to wait until after this Sunday, Oct, 29, when the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival takes over downtown Savannah for its annual homage to the nosh.

Sponsored for the past 18 years by Congregation Mickve Israel (which, as my sweet, addled mother-in-law reminds me every time the name surfaces — bless her heart— is the third-oldest congregation in America), the day-long feast is a Savannah tradition for all hungry citizens, MOT or no. People down here may still think Jews have horns, but they can still tell you the difference between a kugel and a knish.

Formerly known as the “Hard Lox Cafe,” this orgy of latkes, blintzes, matzoh ball soup, brisket, bagels, rugelach, egg creams and every other Jewish delicacy (even tongue, blecch) is what would happen if we celebrated all our holidays at once. My mouth is watering, but I’m not sure my system can take it…better keep the Prilosec handy.

A Giant Scoop In My Own Backyard?

shalomy'allSo I’m perusing JTA on the off chance Madonna’s announced herself a mohel and has decided to give her new African child a bris, and instead I find little ol’ Savannah, GA smack on the “breaking news” column:

A number of prominent U.S. Jewish and Israeli leaders are attending a conference in Georgia organized by a woman who wants the Jewish temple rebuilt.

Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America; Limor Livnat, a leading member of the Likud Party; Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum; and Ra’anan Gissin, a spokesman for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are among those slated to attend next week’s “The Convergence Summit 2006, Claims and Challenges Facing Israel.”

The Savannah Jewish Federation, Hadassah of Savannah, and Israel’s consul-general in Atlanta are among the conference’s sponsors, but other local and national groups have decried it because of organizer Orly Benny Davis’ association with extremists who want to replace the mosques on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount with the Third Temple.

Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer, of the city’s Congregation Mickve Israel, said he would avoid it because Davis “has espoused ideas which qualify as religious extremism.” Diane Cantor, a former Savannah school board president and executive director of the liberal group Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, wrote in an Op-Ed for the Savannah Morning News that the conference “greatly concerned” her.

Man, my Jewdar needs some tweaking. I’ve passed by the JEA marquee advertising this event twenty times a day for weeks, but I just thought it was some Hadassah fundraiser to build another ORT school. I had no idea so many bigwigs would be so close by, discussing things too hot to talk about in Israel. I even missed the pre-coverage in the Savannah Morning News last Sunday.

My only hope now is to appeal directly to organizer Orly Benny Davis for a press pass on the grounds that I am the only Jewish blogger for many, many miles (although surely someone from Atlanta Jewish Life will make the ugly drive east.) Stay tuned to see if my charm and chutzpah get me into the Jewish version of the G8 summit…

The Economics of a Reform Yom Kippur

After such a light Rosh Hashanah service, I figured Yom Kippur services at Mickve Israel had to be fairly innocuous. Honestly, it wouldn’tve surprised me to see hors d’oeurves in the foyer. (Okay, that’s not fair. But at least a couple of congregants — one related to me, ahem! — felt morning coffee was perfectly justified.)

pimp daddyAnd just like every Reform Jew knows there will be some joker sucking on a peppermint in the next row, all Reform Jews expect to be hit up for money on the High Holidays. The congregation president’s self-conscious, I-hate-to-ask-but-since-I-have-y’all-here-for-once plea to fill the synagogue’s coffers is as familiar as the Aleinu in the Jewish world I grew up in. So when the parnassus (that’s what they call him here; why, I have no idea) got up on the bima to do his job, I did what I usually do, which is read the parts of the Gates of Prayer that that don’t make the cut into the service. Other people stared into space, some slept (maybe they were repenting, but c’mon, who drools when they daven?), some surreptitiously tried to move the gum they’d been chewing into a piece of paper without making revealing crinkly sounds. The parnassus droned on about the truly fabulous renovation that’s still carrying a half million debt; the congregation accepted it, just like they would accept the rabbi’s rambling sermon afterwards, because it is as much a part of the holy day as the truncated liturgy.

Then a voice yelled from the back pew “Excuse me, but this is the Day of Atonement! How dare you talk about money!” Everyone shook out of his or her stupor and turned to look at a short-haired woman shaking her fist at the back. “I am Jewish, but this is a disgrace! Shame on you all!”

The parnassus, who might’ve been putting himself to sleep with his own speech, stammered only slightly. “Well, thank you for your comments, ma’am. In any case, I know we all have college funds to fill, but —”

“No! Don’t you people know what this is? Moneychangers in the temple, hello?” The heckler grabbed up her purse and her companion and rushed toward the back door. But not before delivering this kicker: “I hope you all find Jesus!”

A small murmur went through the pews. The parnassus recovered admirably. “Well, I guess she probably didn’t leave tzedakah.”

He finished his speech and everyone went back to sleep. Except for the Yenta, who being a nosy little parker, followed the woman outside.

On the stairs, she was already explaining to another young yenta that she had grown up Jewish but had “found” Christ years ago. She had come to Mickve Israel with another Christian friend to “get back to their Jewish roots” but after this service, she didn’t feel that there was a place for her. “That’s just what I can’t stand about the Jewish people! They’re so clannish! So materialistic!”

When we pointed out that she had been welcome at Yom Kippur services precisely because this congregation is open to all — meaning, no spendy High Holidays tickets — the irony was lost on her. I told her I don’t know what they do at Conservative and Orthodox shuls, but I always understood that asking for donations is de rigeur for modern Judaism.

This did not console her. “These are the End Times, people!” (I swear, I could hear the capital letters.) “Israel is surrounded! You all need to come to Christ and be saved!” And then she and her friend, who was obviously mortified by this her friend’s very un-Christian behavior, walked off across Monterey Square.

By this time folks were trickling out of the sanctuary, using the end of the parnassus’ unexpectedly dramatic half hour to escape the rabbi’s upcoming sermon. I reported what had happened and in typical Reform fashion, the reaction was mild.

El Yenta Man laughed and said “I don’t need to find Jesus. I know exactly where he is, thanks.”

Dr. Doris Greenberg, a longtime family practioner and congregant, snorted and said “Let her go over to the Jews for Jesus place on Abercorn. See how she feels when they ask her for her ten percent tithe.”

Here someone disrupted the holiest of days, and people made jokes. No one called the police, no one got too upset, no one even suggested that the doors be closed to non-members next year. I suppose some might interpret this as apathy, but instead I saw something else in this congregation that I’ve been judging as too casual and unobservant: Everybody I spoke to wished the Jesus intruder well on this day of forgiveness. This congregation may only wear yarmulkes half the time and attend synagogue infrequently, but at that moment, it seemed to understand the gist of being Jewish. Let’s hope they thread that understanding to their checkbooks so the parnassus can keep it to under fifteen minutes next year.

Note: The graphic, borrowed from fancydresscostumeshop.com, is NOT what the parnassus was wearing. But maybe the congregation wants to add a little something to the tzedakah box to get him this for next year’s speech?

When Football Is the State Religion

dawgsyarmulkeYou know you live in Georgia when the hot topic at Kol Nidre services is not “So many sins, only one day to atone!” but “How ’bout them Dawgs?

Even high school football is huge at shul; El Yenta Man couldn’t keep himself out of the next pew when he found out it held the quarterback of his alma mater team. “A Jewish quarterback, how ‘ bout that?” he kept saying with with a grin, well after the first tones of the choir. Sure, it’s a pretty big deal at a school as WASPy as Savannah Country Day and probably had something to do with it being the first year the private school closed on Yom Kippur. But still, I had to give him the Yenta version of the “church pinch” (a swift flick to the back of the head) when the rabbi gave us the stinkeye. “Eh, he’s a Windsor Forest fan, anway,” whispered El Yenta Man, rubbing his keppe.

For whatever reason, Jews can’t get enough of football in the South. Check out these meshuggenehs — a whole team of high school Jews in Texas who can’t wait to suit up. (Hat tip to Jewlicious.) Oy, boys, watch the orthodontia.

Georgia Bulldogs yarmulke available at LidsforYids.com.

Southern Services

mickve israelA new year brings new experiences, so I attended Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Mickve Israel on Monterey Square in Savannah (if you’re a Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil fan, this should mean something to you.) It’s quite an impressive building, isn’t it? It’s as stunning on the inside as out, all naves, arches, towers and stained glass. Plenty of non-Jews visit and tour the grounds. In fact, while crossing the square to the entrance, you’d best take care not to get run over by a tour bus.

Mickve Israel is the Reform flavor of the city’s three congregations; the others, Conservative Agudath Achim and Orthodox Bnai Brith Jacob, are known respectively as “A.A.” and “B.B.” and don’t have nearly as dramatic digs or the swank downtown location. Maybe it’s because Mickve Israel was the first congregation in Georgia, founded by 42 Portugese and German Jews in 1733 — making it the third oldest congregation in America. The history of the people and the building (including a recent multi-million renovation of the social hall and Hebrew school) evokes much pride among congregants and locals alike — Mickve Israel is truly an icon in a city full of architectural gems.

When El Yenta Man and I were dating, I flew over for a December visit while he was taking a break from grad school and took a tour of the synagogue, where his mother was a docent. Standing at the back of the sanctuary with the soft winter light glowing through the famous windows, I was startled by the sudden knowledge that I would stand in this same spot in a wedding dress, and that this cute guy I’d been seeing for the last six months would be waiting for me under the chuppah. The wedding was nine months later, and no one seemed to mind at all that it wasn’t in Scottsdale.

But (yes, there’s a bit of a kvetch coming) sitting in services Friday and Saturday I began to question whether this congregation is my spiritual fit. I mean, it should be; my husband was bar mitzvahed there, I got married there, for heaven’s sake. It’s absolutely gorgeous and the people are kind. Yet, I found myself distracted from the liturgy by the pointy windows and pastel glass — and especially the choir. And the organ. Which were hidden in the back balcony rather than on the bima, giving the effect of mysterious voices singing “Aveinu Malkeinu” from the ether.

So combined with the gothic interior and the un-tradition of most men not wearing yarmulkes in the sanctuary, it seemed…almost…churchy.

And I can completely understand it: This is a congregation that has thrived in the deep South, probably because it tries hard to get along with its Christian neighbors. It has taken Reform Judaism to a practically painless level; services were under two hours and mostly in English. It was the kind of High Holy Days ritual that the people interviewed in today’s JTA article about Jews who don’t attend services might enjoy rather than epic, “boring and incomprehensible” sessions that turn off so many young Jews.

By scaling back on some of the spiritual traditions that have little meaning for folks whose families have lived in the South for four or five generations (and therefore have little connection to the “Old Country”) but promoting a strong cultural presence in the larger community, this congregation is phenomenally successful at giving Savannah’s Reform Jews a positive identity and a beautiful place to pray comfortably.

I suppose that’s it: I think maybe I need a little more pain in my prayer. I need a mournful “Mourner’s Kaddish,” I need people belting out “Adon Olam,” I need a shofar blower who turns red and spits. I always feel that I don’t know enough about the Torah and the rituals (the food — that I know) and it felt very weird this Rosh Hashanah to actually miss this parts of the liturgy that were left out. Could it be that I’m becoming more religious in my old age or is this motivated by guilt? Did anyone else experience a dearth of spiritual connection at services this year? Did you go at all?

Cleaning Lady Ethics

cleaningHow many of us had a housekeeper growing up? Of course, it was your mother who hired her, but she washed our clothes, vacuumed up our pencil shavings and scrubbed our shmutz rings from the bathtub. Do you know if she got fair wages or felt exploited? Do you know if your mother felt awkward having someone else to do the family’s dirty work?

Alice Alexiou’s piece for Lilith (available through JTA) reveals the dirt on Jewish families and how they treat the help. While some remain unaware of their own inherent classism and snobbery, some are beginning to champion domestic workers’ rights. It’s a really good read; take the time and see if it piques any guilt, or maybe just a memory of the woman who always put your brother’s socks in your underwear drawer. Continue reading

The Sound Of Many Yentas Flapping

Just so you know what you’re missing at the Jewish Family Services senior lunch, here’s an excerpt of yesterday’s conversation:

Beezy, who deserves the title “Head Yenta” far more than I: “Oy, dahlink, where are your sleeves?”

Me, looking down at my H&M tank top and realizing I should have worn something more modest to a religious old persons’ gathering instead of worrying about pit stains: “Eeep, do you think I’ll offend anyone?”

Beezy, motioning towards the men’s table across the room: “Ach, they can’t see you anyway. I meant I could never wear such a thing anymore. Y’know, this.” She reaches under one arm and gives herself a pinch.

Dorothy, who we’ll crown Lieutenant Yenta: “That’s nothing. Look at this!” She holds up her 89-year-old arms and swings them to and fro, the jigging flesh visible beneath her blouse resembling nothing so much as wet laundry swaying in the breeze.

Beezy: “Oh, yeah? When my grandkids come over, they all ask ‘Bubbie, who let the air out of your arms?'”

Cackles all around.

Anne, of the fabulously manicured hands, waves them dismissively: “Pshhh! You ladies have obviously never seen my Hootchie Kootchie Man dance.”

Mickey, 90 years old with a tiny little girls’ voice, claps her hands like a tiny little girl: “Yes, Annie, show them the Hootchie Kootchie Man!”

Anne, turns to me and nods, raises up one arm clad in turquoise polyester and grabs a handful of skin, forming an ersatz face. “Hootchie, hootchie, kootchie, kootchie!” As she shimmies in her chair, her arm does in fact resemble a dancing man. The entire table explodes into hysterical laughter, then dissolves into coughing fits. “My grandkids just love that one. Every time they visit I have to do it four or five times!”

At this point I have surrendered to the surreality of this situation and I say: “It’s a shame you don’t have a tattoo; you could charge for that. Or at least get a spot on Jay Leno.”

More cackling, more coughing.

Larry, the JFS coordinator comes over to see what a bunch of old women could possibly find so funny. “What’s going on here?”

Mickey, who has a high-pitched giggle that matches her sweet, tiny voice: “Show him, Annie!”

Anne: “Hootchie kootchie, hootchie kootchie!”

Larry, who moonlights as a jazz radio DJ and has probably never seen such ribaldry on his day job: “That’s…that’s very entertaining, Anne. But y’all need to calm down before the men’s table starts in with their tricks. I promise you don’t want to Morty Solomon to start with his ‘pull my finger’ routine.”

Beezy: “Hey Morty! Get over here!”

Who knew arm flap could provide such joy to people? Screw tricep curls, yo.