Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Blessing on Your Head

Despite a New York Giants Super Bowl victory, the election of Barack Obama and some nice personal victories, 2008 seems to be hobbling toward a less-than ecstatic ending. The economy officially sucks, some guy coincidentally named "Made-off" pulled the greatest disappearing act since Houdini, pirates are terrorizing East Africa, Proposition 8 passed in California and violence has once again consumed Israel and Palestine.

Around this time last year, I did a pretty good retrospective post on 2007. If you're so inclined, you can reread it here and then shame me for failing to live up to my own resolutions and expectations for 2008. If you're in the mood for something completely different, read on.

Have you ever noticed that many Jewish women are preternaturally disposed to give out advice, solicited or not? In the newspaper, Dear Abby (aka Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips) and Ann Landers (aka Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer) dominated the advice columns. These identical twin sisters who had a joint Jewish wedding in 1939, had no problem telling the people of America exactly how to solve all their personal problems.

Meanwhile on television, Judge Judy Sheindlin has been delivering no-nonsense verdicts for more than 12 years... but I'm sure she still humbles herself on Yom Kippur each year.

Jewish women taking the liberty of dispensing advice has certainly not been restricted to the breakfast table and the living room. In the bedroom, few have given more advice than the diminutive Dr. Ruth Westheimer. A German Holocaust survivor who was injured while serving as a sharpshooter in the Israeli War of Independence, Dr. Ruth's radio and television shows have dramatically changed the sexual awareness and attitudes of the American public.

Then there's the whole subgenre of Jewish advice-givers with a romantic agenda - the shadchan (matchmaker). These gals have so permeated popular culture that Shoshanna's Matches advertises everywhere and Patti Stanger, the Millionaire Matchmaker, is about to start her second season on Bravo.

As another Jewish woman frequently called upon to offer advice to friends, I wonder what it is that makes some people predisposed to counsel others. In the past several months I've dished out sex tips to Orthodox Jewish girlfriends, helped a few folks network and chatted through many relationship dramas. More often than not, these discussions help me work out my own challenges as much as they (hopefully) enlighten my friends.

Still, that doesn't quite touch of whatever je nais se quois exists in the yenta gene. That breezy conversation about a taboo topic or off-hand remark about a better way to get the job done is not easy for everyone.

I would assert (appropriately enough), that Jewish women are more often raised to be direct and outspoken. We often have strong mothers and grandmothers who would much prefer honest confrontation to demure submission. Plus, how would we have survived 40 years in the desert, myriad pogroms, subtler persecution and the Barney's sample sale if we didn't have a strong bitch telling us what to do?!

Maybe it's my birthright to be bossy. After all, I'm an oldest child born to a mother who's also an oldest. Plotting out plans of action for others gives me good practice for future world domination and there is something about breaking down barriers that I find intensely exhilirating. Besides, what is a blog but a gigantic advice column? Who knows, 2009 could even bring a new feature here on Shtetl Fabulous (I'll take your suggestions for a title).

Happy New Year to everyone!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday Haitus

Here's one reason why television writers have it easier than bloggers... OK, two reasons. One, they actually get paid. And two, when the holidays come around and they don't feel like coming up with anything terribly witty, they just throw together a clip show.

I suppose I could have culled my past posts and relinked them for a Shtetl Shtick segment, but that's generally what I reserve for new year's and birthday retrospectives. Besides, with all the blogger carnivals I'm trying to worm my way into, it just seems repetitive.

Instead of giving you the best (or worst) of my own writing, I've decided to highlight a few holiday-themed stories that I've deemed truly fabulous.

First - you can always count on the folks at NPR to take a different angle on the holiday story. Today's All Things Considered featured a piece on the Major League Dreidel throw down, where else? The Lower East Side.

Also from NPR is this story about pimping Christmas and Fresh Air's Terry Gross interviews Erran Baron Cohen (Sacha's brother) about his new CD of reworked Hanukkah tunes featuring Y-Love rapping in Yiddish and a version of the Dreidel Song that Gogol Bordello would have approved.

Next, what's a New Year's celebration without a little bubbly? Thanks to the New York Times you can sip in style without breaking the bank with a selection of sparkling wines under $20.

Since Kwanzaa doesn't start until December 26, the media and blog outlets still are chewing on the fat of latkes and sufganiyot and probably won't get around to this oft-maligned holiday until after the Christmas insanity. If someone has a great Kwanzaa post - please share!

Finally, in a case of Big Brother working for the Big Guy, the Austin American Statesman ran this Associated Press piece about local police departments and community groups planting GPS devices and hidden cameras on public holiday displays to protect from theft and vandalism. Imagine the Baby Jesus at your local nativity scene or the shamash candle in the Chabad-sponsored menorah having a hidden camera implanted inside? Sorta makes me think of Stephen King's It.

So there you have it, a holiday round-up of a different sort. Not sure if I will take a full holiday hiatus this year. Depends on my weekend plans and what sort of hilarity comes my way. Until next time - have a great Chrismakwanzakah (and a merry New Year)!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

May Salvation Arise

"Yekum Purkan," literally, "May Salvation Arise." It's the start of two ancient Aramaic prayers recited every Sabbath in traditional Ashkenazi congregations, that ask the Divine to protect sages, rabbis, students and community leaders. The second prayer requests grace, kindness, physical health, sustenence, healthy children and more for all the members of the congregation. Some synagogues add in prayers for those who work on behalf of the community, for the soldiers who defends us and the secular leaders who make significant decisions.

In this time of economic uncertainty and fear, it strikes me that perhaps we've left out a very important group of people who make a profound impact on all our lives. Those who make financial decisions on our behalf. Sadly, the need for such an appeal came ferociously to the fore this week with the arrest of investment giant Bernard Madoff who reportedly bilked his clients for at least $50 billion.

What's made Madoff's downfall especially lethal in my own microcosm has been its disproportionate blow for the Jewish community. At least two private foundations devoted to the Jewish community have folded and another is in jeopardy. Famous Jews including Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg and NJ Senator Frank Lautenberg (who made a $350,000 gift to my own place of employment), were hit especially hard by the Madoff scandal.

Numerous Jewish institutions including Yeshiva University and Hadassah have been hit hard, as have communities from New York to Palm Beach. Likewise, real estate companies owned by Jews like Newmark Knight Frank, Rexcorp and Sterling Equities (all of whom have employees and executives involved with my particular nonprofit) fell victim to Madoff's seductive promises of returns. Read it and try not to weep here (The Forward) and here (The New York Times).

Ronald A. Cass from the Wall Street Journal does a much better job of portraying Madoff's ability to exploit intergroup trust with his recent op-ed piece and I won't try to top him. But I will try to put my years of Jewish education to some good use with the following meditation.

"A Prayer for those Who Make Important & Impactful Financial Decisions"
May salvation arise from heaven and bring blessing, long life, health, faith and happy children to those whose daily actions and judgments affect us all. Grant them wisdom, guide their hands and endow them with intelligence. Remove from them enmity, egoism, greed and the shameless pursuit of self-interest. May the Divine be for you a source of help and may your respect for humanity keep you from all evil-doing. And let us say Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wanted: Nice Jewish Boys

Not for me, I'm spoken for. But plenty of highly-regarded Jewish institutions might as well make this their motto as non-Orthodox American Jewish men abandon organized outposts of their faith in droves.

Earlier this year, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis released a study that demonstrated Jewish women outstrip Jewish men in many measures of identity including number of Jewish friends, solidarity with Israel and synagogue affiliation. A Boston Globe article published to coincide with the study revealed that 60 percent of rabbinical students and 84 percent of cantorial students at HUC-JIR, the Reform movement's seminary, are women.

The study also asserts that the halakhic observance of recognizing only matrilineal descent for children of interreligious couples further distances men from Judaism. Since their kids won't be recognized as Jews in any but the most liberal congregations, most intermarried men choose not to raise their children as Jews.

Overall, it seems that as women have been encouraged to assume leadership positions in Jewish communal institutions and ritual observance, then men have been pushed to the sidelines. Strangely, it reminds me of a Sex and the City episode when the characters wonder that as their gender roles have evolved and left them more empowered, where it leaves the men in their lives.

Is the feminization of liberal American Judaism simply the pendulum swinging to the other extreme in response to thousands of years of patriarchy? Do Jewish men now have to relinquish another bastion of masculinity?

As a prototypical third-waver, subscribing to the whole "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people," thing, I might be cheered by my Jewish sisters doin it for themselves. But I think that misses the mark.

Which is why I was pretty cheered and entertained to see this offered on a Hanukkah gift guide. Ranging in age from 23-33, the Nice Jewish Guys 2009 Calendar, begs the question, "What's not to like?" Here, we get a range of all the Jewish male stereotypes with a few curveballs for fun.

Daniel, 30 and a close ringer for Seth Rogen, loves Shark Week on Discovery and "never met a sandwich he didn't get along with." There's an investment banker dude for the Long Island JAP, an Upper West Side foodie for the balebusta and a wannabe Ari Gold perfect for the LA starlet.

Ultimately, like so many other Jewish creations of the last 10 years (Heeb, The Tribe, Kehilat Hadar and JDub Records come to mind), the Nice Jewish Guys calendar shows that both Jewish men and women are not so much turning their backs on traditional institutions as they are making new ones. Today's young Jews have a completely different set of life experiences and a wholly different way of connecting to their Judaism and to other Jews.

I don't mean to be glib about the future of the Jewish people. I care deeply about having exciting, inspiring Jewish life available for my not-yet-existent Jewish children (male or female). Maybe the organized Jewish community would do better conducting fewer studies and spending more time and money on tearing down boundaries and making themselves relevant in today's world. Then the men and the women will come back.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Thrill is Gone

I was watching The Office tonight when I realized that something happens to television shows that is (shocking) nothing like it is in real life. While this episode was pretty good and juicy, I loved the show so much more before Jim and Pam together. Why is it that tv shows wherein the best dialogue and plot draw from sexual tension between the main characters suck once said characters get it on?

Don't believe me? Think about Northern Exposure. Great show before Maggie and Fleishman hooked up. But fast forward a half a season and the show is so awful, Rob Morrow leaves the show only to be replaced by Paul Provenza. No more jokes about trying to get a decent bialy in Juneau and definitely no more furtive glances between our two stars.

Of course, the patron saint of "will-they-or-won't-they" plot lines was Cheers, which featured not one, but two examples of the plot devise. Cheers avoided some of the doldrums of other shows because Sam Malone was such a pimp. First, we had the brawn versus brain chemistry between Sam and Diane. When that tension fizzled the producers and Shelley Long were smart enough to trade the less charismatic character and brought in Rebecca. Though after they got hot between the sheets, Cheers grew cold in its Thursday night time slot.

I'm undoubtedly neglecting other examples of this unfortunate side effect of sitcom character nooky that I'm hereby dubbing "The Third Season Slump." If you know of a show that proves my theory or can offer a corollary, please leave a comment!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Is Bitter Better?

The economy has officially entered recession (though I guess the pencil pushers say it started a year ago), today's temperature failed to top freezing and my comrades in the newspaper business took another devastating hit today as the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy. There are ample reasons to be utterly bitter these days and from this writer's perspective that might not be awful news.

Over the years, I've found that a general snark in my tone works for me. After all, my high school class voted me Most Sarcastic and I like my writing best when it's acerbic, biting, maybe even a touch angry.

Rage is an excellent motivator. So too its close cousin angst, which has an impotent connotation that often leaks into artistic outputs. Just look at the Smiths, the Cure, the entire Punk, Grunge and Emo movements. Huge proof for why bitter is the better worldview when you're trying to put out a record, poetry, a movie or even a blog.

So what to do when by some twist of fate you find yourself downright happy with at least part of your life? When all those cheery holiday wishes happen to fall on receptive ears and for once you don't want to throttle a Salvation Army bell-ringer, how can you write a Grinchy rant about another agonizing Christmas season as the lonely Jew?

Believe me, in this winter of our collective discontent, I am eternally grateful for a little sunshine, a few bright spots. The Heineken-inspired hijinks at a Chinese-Vietnamese wedding I attended this past weekend, complete with new friends and great pictures, make it damn hard to bitch and moan today.

But it all begs the question; in the face of overwhelming gloom when our nation needs a zaftig, fressing supersnark, has Shtetl Fabulous turned optimist? Or worse, a dreamy-eyed hack? Could a little happiness be my creative cryptonite? Probably not, but if you've got some good post ideas brewing or an item of general outrage festering in your pretty little head, please please send it along.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

They Feel the Heat, The Heat Between Me and You

Last night I had the opportunity to cook for someone, which was great because generally I cook only for myself and chow down in front of the TV (like I did tonight). My dining companion is a fellow fan of spicy food and so I liberally included Mexican flavors and various forms of heat-inducers into the meal. Cayenne and cumin on the roasted sweet potatoes; red pepper flakes with the sauteed spinach; and a healthy dose of enchilada sauce on the broiled tilapia.

As we sat feasting, I wondered what it is about spice and heat that entices so many people while it repulses many others. Derived from the chemical compound capsaicin, the heat of chile peppers is measured in Scoville units and ranges from the innocuous bell pepper to the raging habanero and naga jolokia. Known to alleviate pain, regulate blood sugar and stimulate weight loss, an over-consumption of hot peppers can lead to stomach cancer and some people can lose taste buds, but that hardly deters the devoted.

So besides a few medical benefits and risks, what is it about a temporary numbness in our mouths that leads some people to become "chile-heads" and others to run in fear?

According to those geniuses at Wikipedia, "When consumed, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are normally responsible for sensing heat. Once activated by the capsaicinoids, these receptors send a message to the brain that the person has consumed something hot. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and release of endorphins."

Hmmm... sweating, heart racing, endorphins? Sounds like a fun night to me.

Like those enamored of rare cheese, wine, scotch, die-hard fans of spice will go to great lengths to enjoy the thrill of the heat as it hits their mouths. What's different and rather wonderful about the pursuit of chiles is their democracy. A nice bottle of scotch can be damn expensive. But even at $3.99/pound at Whole Foods, most of us can afford a 2-ounce habanero. Various types of hot sauces routinely retail for less than $10 and if you plan it right, a little can go a long way.

The rush is also readily accessible and more socially acceptable than heroin or bungee jumping. Why bother with a sketchy dealer when you can just visit your local grocery store or farmer's market? Why risk death from sky diving when the worst you'll get from peppers is an ulcer? Besides, the chocolate companies have now figured out what the Mayans knew a few hundred years ago - chocolate plus chile equals awesome.

With its promise of cheap thrills, widely available fixes and a physical reaction reminiscent of an orgasm, it's almost harder to understand why anyone would NOT love a little spice in their life. Besides, with winter and an official recession upon us, we all could use some warming up.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hate to Write This

It breaks my heart to have to write a piece like this again, especially in the context of a fun holiday weekend at home with family and friends. However, hate and fear has once again shattered the act of hope and love, this time in India.

Terrorists launched multi-site attacks throughout Mumbai on Wednesday and now more than 150 people are dead. All these lives matter, but what has been particularly shocking and disturbing is the revelation that the Chabad House was targeted for violence and destruction. These are ultra-Orthodox Jewish emissaries whose task is to provide an oasis of Jewish observance around the world, and their locations are staffed by young couples eager to engage unaffiliated Jews, to offer basic Jewish amenities and to spread the word of the Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson).

Whether or not you agree with their politics, practices or observances is irrelevant at this juncture. The simple fact now is that at least 5 people - including the local rabbi and his wife - may be dead and their souls deserve the utmost respect. You can read about the whole story here.

One Chabad concept I find particularly powerful is the notion that the fulfillment of any mitzvah, or commandment, brings the whole world that much closer to spiritual redemption. That can be as extreme as adopting a strictly Orthodox lifestyle or as basic as being nice to those around you. Don't let these amazing people die in vain. Spend a few minutes today doing good. Help the elderly. Feed the hungry. Care for the sick. Hell, even stimulating the economy can be considered a noble deed in these times. Do anything you can to help prevent this from ever happening again.

May the memories of those who passed be for a blessing.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Let's Eat Turkey in My Big Brown Shoe

No doubt tomorrow afternoon's excursion to Newark Airport will inspire numerous blog topics for me, but for now I figured I'd rattle off a few items/people for which I am thankful at this moment in time.

Four hundred plus friends and counting on Facebook. Sure, it's a little trite and entirely too many people over 45 are joining, but there's something to be said for this cultural phenomenon. Since we all left our small villages and towns hundreds of years ago, we have lacked the ephemeral connections that near-daily contact provides. Now the mini-feed is our town crier and you can easily re-establish forsaken and lost friendships with just a few mouse clicks.

The Wii. It's been around for a few holiday seasons and it just keeps getting cooler. Now they have music, and as I learned tonight, guns! I still love the trampoline game and the balance exercises on the Wii Fit best but am willing to make some room in my Mii's life for more aggressive endeavors. Of course, owning a Wii might make that slightly more possible.

Chocolate. Indian food. Ethopian food. Chocolate-covered strawberries. Really good brisket. Turkey with stuffing and all the fixings. And honestly being thankful enough that I am in good enough financial shape to enjoy all these things. If you're looking for a great holiday gift PLEASE consider making a donation to your local food bank.
Garden Staters - click here for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
You don't have to be Jewish to give to Mazon, but it helps.
Or try the great folks at America's Second Harvest.

And finally I am thankful for the classic Adam Sandler Thanksgiving song. In case it's been a few years, relive the magic here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hola! Shalom! What?

In addition to my goal of completing the New York Times crossword puzzle without cheating or giving up and moving over to the Style Section, one of my life's ambitions is to be trilingual in Hebrew, English and Spanish.

Apparently, I'm not alone in making this resolution to shed my shameful American monolingualism - the good folks over at Stuff White People Like listed "Promising to Learn a New Language," at #115. While SWPL asserts this compulsion stems from some white man's burden or cultural imperialism, I think it's much more simple than that. Eavesdropping (OK, and maybe a little guilt).

Who hasn't been at Disneyland or the mall or a subway car and wished he/she could understand whatever the people across the way were saying? Or wanted to talk mad shit about those same people without being understood? It would be MUCH easier if you and a friend or two could mutually speak a non-English language.

So why the need to speak two additional languages? Again, very simple. Spanish is perfect for the first application. Many other people speak it and being fluent would give me greater entree in many of life's venues - restaurants, the entire South and Central American continents and literally my own backyard. Besides, it's pretty simple to learn and I'm from Arizona where Spanish is a first language for a growing number of people.

On the other hand, Hebrew is perfect for my second eavesdropping raison-d'etre. Outside of Israel, certain sections of Los Angeles and the Upper West Side, not too many people speak it. Compared to the millions fluent in Mandarin, Hindi or Spanish for that matter, Hebrew speakers are pretty sparse. Plus, it's way easier to learn than my ancestral language of Hungarian and it makes those Sunday school classes seem less wasteful.

Unfortunately, these dual aspirations don't come with an instruction manual, community college courses are time-consuming and despite Michael Phelps's endorsement, my fluency might have evolved beyond Rosetta Stone. So what's an aspiring woman of the world to do?

One option is to watch copious television or movies in said language. But telenovelas and depressing Israeli movies don't really help with verb conjugation and the past participle. Mostly, I try to talk to strangers or the near-strangers in my office who speak either Hebrew or Spanish (or in one case, both). Native speakers are the best teachers and I'm generally able to coerce them to forgive my mistakes using my natural charm. It's a great way to make friends, though I recommend a little caution.

It might take me a while to achieve my goal, but I subscribe to the belief that the longer the to-do list, the longer God lets you live. Actually, I'm counting on that axiom, in any language.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Borscht or Bloomingdales

Mary-Ann and Ginger. Betty and Veronica. Mary and Mary Magdelene. Popular culture and Christianity are rife with examples of the virgin-whore dichotomy. Women are relegated into two camps. One is pure and innocent, placed on a pedestal without the taint of human touch. The other embodies pulchritudinous temptation (or in plain English is the village bicycle). There isn't much gray area in between and frankly, it's a lousy choice.

Lucky for me, I'm a Jewish girl and we tend to shy away from the whole Original Sin thing and we view sex as a healthy aspect of human relationships. That said, I have noticed that representations and conceptualizations of Jewish women tend to fall into two categories, eerily similar to the good old fashioned virgin-whore construct. Look around in movies, books and even many of your friends. They'll fall into one of two categories - the JAP and the Balebusta.

We're all familiar with the Jewish American Princess. You'll most frequently find them in their natural habitat, the mall, using daddy's credit card and whining. Herman Wouk coined the rather pejorative term and back in the day, 2 Live Jews even made a song about these entitled ladies. Generally portrayed as being uninterested in anything domestic, JAPs also get a reputation for being sexually withholding. Of course, New Jersey and Long Island host and breed the largest concentrations of JAPs and Fran Drescher is pretty much the poster-woman.

Then there's her polar opposite, the Balebusta. Perhaps less easy to lampoon, she is the Jewish equivalent of Martha Stewart, and her name literally means "homemaker" in the best sense of the word. She is earthy and voluptous, and how could she not be with those killer latkes she makes?! Unlike the goyishe Donna Reeds, the Balebusta rules her home, rather than submitting to her husband, and her moniker implies loving care and pride in her roost.

Confused? Here's a little comparison to help you out. The Balebusta makes kugel and brisket. The JAP makes reservations.

Sure, it's a bit nicer than being called a virgin or a whore, but it's still pretty limited as choices go. But in thinking about my friends and my own daily behavior, I think the reality is that there is a little bit of both archetypes in all women. Some of us master home decor projects but also sing the praises of ready rice. Others soldier through strife with astounding dignity and wouldn't know how to frost a cake if their lives depended on it. My own mother diligently sewed every Halloween and Purim costume but I have never seen her use a mop.

As someone who takes great delight in scoring a bargain and who just bought her first kosher, all-natural, 9.5-pound turkey and prides herself on delicious matzah ball soup from scratch, I mostly fall into the Balebusta crew. Of course, when it comes time to wearing that bargain, I will gladly throw on the heels and pearls and strut with the best of 'em. Maybe I'm just a very down-to-earth princess.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Ringing Endorsement of Festivus

Now that Halloween and the momentous elections have passed, American society has sprung into full-force holiday mode. A bevy of celebratory invites, toy sales and an extra helping of guilt have no doubt inundated many of you, dear readers. And if they haven't yet, just give it another week or two.

Sure, there are only 43 days to go before the big C, but that is still no explanation for the three dozen emails that jammed my inbox today and proved that no matter what you celebrate, people take the holidays personally. A friend's suggestion to give a large public party a reindeer theme, sent the non-Christian faction off on a bit of a tirade how even seemingly secular symbols like Rudolph, stockings, mistle toe and trees still have a Christmas connotation for those outside the nativity scene fence.

Had this discussion surrounded a private party, at someone's house, it probably would not have bothered me at all. If my friend wants to invite me to a Christmas-themed holiday bash, that's cool with me. Pass the egg nog and but don't expect me to carol. Likewise, when I hosted a Shtetl Fabulous Hannukah soiree last year, the whole gang played dreidel and ate latkes, but only the Jews lit candles.

One friend in the group asserted that religiously-based holidays should remain religious, the whole keep the Christ in Christmas thing. And while I'm no fan of Hanukkah Harry myself, I believe that if you're going to make a place for one faith in a party that is open to the public, then there should be a place for all faiths.

This is why I advocate for broader observance of the grand holiday of Festivus in the public square (no disrepect to Chabad's menorah displays, those entertain me profusely). Somehow a holiday where the ritual observances include adoration of an unadorned metal pole, airing grievances against loved ones and wrestling in feats of strength speaks to me. Maybe it's because many family gatherings often devolve into shouting matches anyway and by sanctioning these from the start, there would be no hard feelings. Or maybe it's because covering a paper towel roll in aluminum foil would be so much cheaper than a menorah (or a kinara or a tree for that matter).

I had always thought checking out everyone's individual family or ethnocultural holiday traditions were pretty much the biggest perks of the holiday season. Even though I've never really celebrated Christmas, I always dug those Swedish girls with burning candles on their heads. And observing Kwanzaa has been one of the coolest experiences of my life. I can't wait to find out what Danish gluck is from my friend and maybe I will bust out some cheese to celebrate Judith's beheading of the evil Assyrian general Holofernes.

Until then, deck the halls for some peace on earth over eight days because a great miracle happened there. Then reflect on the principles of Nguzo Saba and pour a libation and do whatever it is people do for Diwali, Tet, Carnival and more until it's time to do it all again next year.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

President for the iPod Generation Indeed

What appears below is a guest post from my sister, the Magyar McGuyver, who was similarly inspired by the election, albeit in a musical way. Because who doesn't love a trilogy?

For those who don't know me well enough, I am not only a hardcore Democrat but also a fan of specialized and event specific playlists.
Inspired by this historical election season I have compiled my Election 2008/Obama Playlist.
Several selections were chosen purely by title but all relate to Tuesday night's event.
Please to enjoy...

1. Movin' On Up - theme to The Jeffersons (the initial inspiration for the list and what I think Obama should have made his acceptance speech entrance to)
2. This is How We Do It - Montell Jordan
3. Whose House? Run's House - Run DMC
4.Don't Stop Believing - Journey
5. Ain't No Mountain High Enough - Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
6. We Art the Champions - Queen - to the Democrats
7. The Art of Losing - American Hi Fi (a dedication to John McCain and Sarah Palin)
8. Sex Machine - James Brown - because Barack is a little foxxy
9. Bust A Move - Young MC
10. Invincible - Ok Go
11. California Love - even though Prop 8 passed they still made it happen
12. Changes - David Bowie or Deftones depending on your preference
13. Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta - Geto Boys
14. Dirt Off Your Shoulder - Jay Z - because Obama is a little of a pimp now
15. Don't Stop Me Now - Queen
16. Faith - George Michael
17. The Fix Is In - OK Go
18. Forces of Victory - Gogol Bordello
19. Sweet Home Chicago - The Blues Brothers
20. Get Up And Boogie - Freddie James
21. Hallelujah - the badass EMF version
22. The House Wins - Ok Go - because the Dems dominate the House
23. I'm Not Crying - The Flight of The Conchords
24. It's a Long Way to the Top - AC/DC - because it was a long way there
25. Joy to the World - Three Dog Night
26. Let's Get Stoned - Joe Cocker - for the people of Massachusetts
27. Dance to the Music - Sly and the Family Stone
28. My Generation - The Who - because we Baracked the vote!
29. Politician - Cream
30. Play that Funky Music - KC and the Sunshine Band (he could have also made an entrance to this)
31. Ready or Not - The Fugees
32. So Sorry - Feist (my condolences to the Republicans)
33. Star Spangled Banner - Jimi Hendrix
34. Tuesdays Gone - Lynyrd Skynyrd - and isn't it a lovely Thursday
35. Volunteers - Jefferson Airplane - I feel for the poll workers
36. Shook Me All Night Long - AC/DC - I seriously thought I was going to have a heart attack Tuesday night
37. Heat of the Moment - Asia - the ultimate celebration song in my opinion
38. Cold Hard Bitch - JET - Sarah Palin anyone?
39. Don't Look Back In Anger - Oasis - get over it Republicans
And last but certainly not least...
40. Solid (Solid As Barack) - Maya Rudolf and Fred Armistes on Saturday Night Live

If you have any suggestions or additions for the Magyar McGuyer, just leave a comment and I'll make sure she gets it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The last two years have crystallized in an incredibly powerful way for me in the last 24 hours. The news of the country's decision to elect Barack Obama as our 44th President of the United States still sends shivers down my spine. It's hard to distill all my thoughts, feelings and ideas into a really coherent post and I know bloggers the world over have a tremendous amount to digest over the next few days. Here's my attempt at getting my head around this amazing time in our history.

1. For many of my peers born after 1979, this is the first election we have voted in where the candidate we voted for actually won!

2. Michelle Obama is not the new Jackie Kennedy. The woman has a Harvard Law Degree. I think she will be more of a Eleanor Roosevelt/Hillary Rodham Clinton hybrid with a much better wardrobe and haircut. To have a woman with a formidable mind, who raises two young children and is an equal partner to her husband, all while sporting a fabulous look - I'm inspired!

3. How dare people boo at the McCain rally! John McCain fought a really tough battle and while I recognize their sense of loss, they have no right to then push their candidate into a corner defending Obama (again). I have to say that McCain's speech was very touching and brought a tear to my eye. He sounded like he did back in 2000 - when he may have been a really fantastic president.

4. I recognize that Barack Obama is going to make a few mistakes and I hope the country as a whole will be able to say that too. But none of those mistakes merit calls for impeachment, censure or assassination.

5. I would be remiss if I didn't talk about race in this post. As a white woman who encountered minimal racism until her adult years, I feel inept in discussing the ramifications of this election for the African-American community. So rather than fumble through it, I'll leave that piece to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his essay this afternoon on NPR.
Here's an excerpt... "But there is one thing we can proclaim today without question: that the election of Sen. Barack Obama as president of the United States of America means that The Ultimate Color Line has, at long last, been crossed. It has been crossed by our very first postmodern Race Man, a man who embraces his African cultural and genetic heritage so securely that he can transcend it, becoming the candidate of choice to tens of millions of Americans who look nothing at all like him."

6. As we celebrate today the obstacles overcome in the frontier of race, I cannot ignore the disturbing, frustrating and saddening results of many state ballot measures regarding gay marriage, including the nefarious Prop 8. Outside California, Florida, Arkansas and my home state of Arizona shamefully passed dehumanizing legislation either amending their state constitutions to ban gay marriage or limiting the rights of homosexuals.

In 40 years from now, though maybe sooner, as our country elects its first openly-gay president, don't we want to be there - crying tears of joy at the battles we fought? We have had an MLK to a lesser degree in Harvey Milk (biopic due soon), and our Oprah in Ellen. But where will our Jesse Jackson come from? Our Shirley Chisholm? Are we going to march on Selma? On Washington? This is our civil rights battle and I hope that 40 years from now, I can talk to a young person and tell him/her what I did when the call came.
Will you answer the call?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Friending with the Enemy: An Election Day Meditation

As we prepare for one the most-anticipated elections of the modern era in America, I wanted to invoke a political conversation that goes a little beyond Obama vs. McCain. Besides, I figured everyone reading this blog already knows my political proclivities.

In the real world, friendships are built on shared interests, time spent together and mutual admiration or respect. Meanwhile, in the Facebook world, something as simple as a five-minutes chat at an acquaintance's party is enough to establish a "friendship." Having sat across from one another in a crowded lecture hall or being ninth grade lab partners also is enough for two otherwise estranged people to establish a solid friendship based on frequent status updates and mini-feed stories.

So what happens when you learn a Facebook friend has political opinions so diametrically opposed to your own that you cannot fathom maintaining a friendship with them in the real world? Delete him was my all-too simple solution this week when a guy I went to high school with expressed his stauch support of California's Prop 8 via his status and profile picture.

For those unfamiliar with this despicable piece of proposed legislation, Prop 8's proper title is "
Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry" and states that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. Charming, huh? This after the California Supreme Court ruled in May 2008 that such statues violate the California Constitution under the equal protection clause.

The debate over allowing two loving people of the same gender to legally enter the bonds and to enjoy the rights of marriage has raged in California for decades. Governor Schwarzenegger has twice vetoed acts to allow same-sex marriage but in the five months since the Supreme Court ruling went into effect 16,000 couples have celebrated their human right to marry.

Activists on both sides have come out in full force and according to US News and World Report, "The campaigns for and against Proposition 8 raised over $60 million with campaign contributions from over 64,000 people in all fifty states and more than twenty foreign countries, setting a new record nationally for a social policy initiative and trumping every other race in the country in spending except the presidential contest." John McCain has publicly supported Prop 8, joining the Mormon and Roman Catholic Churches, the Orthodox Union, Newt Gingrich, a San Diego school district and an Asian-American group.

On the side of human dignity and liberty is the group Equality Now, whose supporters include Bill Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, America Ferrera, Samuel L. Jackson, the LA Times, California Teachers Association, Google, ACLU, NAACP, ADL and numerous faith groups.

What has made the fight over Prop 8 so disturbing has been the advertisements on behalf of its proponents. They have alleged that teachers will be allowed to educate about same-sex marriage if it is not expressly illegal. Hmmm... my AP History teacher made us read about murder in the Civil War. I don't think that made me think it was suddenly legal to kill people. Further, the Supreme Court decision protects religious policies and practices so no officiant would be "required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.”

We won't know until Tuesday (or Wednesday if we go to sleep early), the results of the Prop 8 decision. If you're reading this from the great State of California (the land of my illustrious birth), I implore you to vote with equality instead of bigotry, justice instead of hate, compassion instead of fear. And tell your friends.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Who Wants to be a Sexy Doughnut?

The slutty Halloween costume has become so de rigueur that girls as young as 8 parade around, begging strangers for candy in outfits reminiscent of princesses, cheerleaders and devils with bare midriffs and nascent cleavage on display. But to those of us in our 20s and 30s, the concept of using Halloween as an opportunity to dress as scandalously as possible is as trite as the cultural archetypes the costumes represent.

Plenty of pundits and morning talk show hosts have opined on the oversexualization of school and teen age girls in the past decade and I'm not going to try to top them here. What I will bring to this ghoulish party are my laments about being a more zaftig girl on this holiday that celebrates excessive candy consumption but only after squeezing into a revealing get-up.

Though I am sure both Tony Bourdain and Duff Goldman would find a doughnut costume incredibly erotic, it might pale in comparison next to my 115-pound friend dressed as a sexy nun. At a Halloween party last weekend, a similarly voluptuous friend complained that she had to put a layer on underneath her store-bought costume because she just doesn't go out in spaghetti-straped mini dresses that stop several inches above the knee.

To Party City's credit, the curvaceous among us can select from more than 20 costumes that are cute but significantly more modest than the standard adult female offerings. Gals with great gams can cover up more on top and the well-endowed can sport the girls while covering up elsewhere. But being a chubby, slutty witch still leaves something to be desired in the creativity department.

Maybe I was spoiled by my family's extensive costume trunk, but I pride myself on never wearing a store-bought costume. I much prefer to piece together everyday clothes with thrift store finds, hand-me-down accessories and maybe a purchased prop. Somehow, I believe that trying on a new identity for a night means I should have to put in a little effort.

Sporting outfits like last year's eponymous Shtetl Fabulous costume (that look inspired my blog's banner) or this year's undead 50s housewife generally guarantees I will never end up as one of several pirates or fairies at a party and I get to use a little imagination. It also means I might not get laid after one of these parties... unless he really likes Krispy Kreme.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Zamboni By Any Other Name

Having a common last name certainly has its advantages. People rarely mispronounce Jones or Young. And how many ways can you spell Brown or Jackson? There must be a type of serenity imbued in those who stride through life as Smiths, Rogerses or Hamiltons (or even Levys). Their teachers likely never stumbled on their names when calling roll and they probably got made fun of a lot less.

Of course, the downside of a well-worn last name comes when it's paired with an equally popular first name. I've heard stories of Brian Johnson's within the same university getting someone else's transcripts and such people are incredibly hard to Google. So it should come as no surprise that plenty of parents decide to give their kids rather unusual first names to balance things out.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon can be seen in Vice Presidental candidate Sarah Palin's own brood of bizarrely moniked kids. According to the Washington Post, the mother of Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig always wanted another son named Zamboni. Maybe if Obama wins, the governor can go back to Alaska and conceive at the Wasilla ice rink.

But it's not just politicians or celebrities (they're a whole other category). I've seen startling evidence of what I hereby dub the "Kooky McDonald Syndrome" among my spawning peers. The last few months I have encountered an Ender, Jaxon, Finley, Lake, Stratton and Broc (and these are just the boys!).

What is it about human nature that leads to the Kooky McDonald Syndrome? Is it our deep desire to forge a unique idenity - schoolyard taunts be damned? With a one-of-a-kind name perhaps a person has a greater likelihood of making something of him/herself simply because he/she has had to overcome obstacles stemming from the name itself. Or is it because we just love to be the first ones to do something, i.e. the Christopher Columbus Corollary.

Though I have no idea what last name my own kids will have to endure (I'm not cruel enough to force hyphenation on them), I know my mother would disown me if I gave them any vocabulary words as appellations. Besides, with me as a parent I doubt they will need a name like Zamboni to be unique.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Unexpected Break

Looks like I might take an unexpected break from the blogosphere for a few days. I was mid-post last night when my computer crashed. Despite the best efforts of my friend who doubles as an IT troubleshooting guru, my poor Dell decided it was done working for the time being.

Hopefully, another techie friend of mine can make more headway in person and I will triumphantly return to blogging next week about any of the following topics: bizarre first names of non-celebrities, ethics: the next frontier in keeping Kosher, or the mysterious story of human feet washing up on the Vancouver shore.

In the meantime, maybe this is God's way of telling me to take a break or to sit at Barnes and Noble and write long hand all weekend.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Random Observations

I'm headed to the City this evening to spend a few days with my grandparents and to see some friends while I enjoy time off for the Jewish holidays. Since I won't have computer access and since my life is bound to be uber-crazy upon my return, I figured I would just offer a few random observations for your reading pleasure.

1. If I haven't said it already - The Great Schlep is the single funniest and most clever thing to come out of this interminable election cycle. See, I needed to add on that "clever" lest you try to say that Sarah Palin's incessant winking and general cougarism is funnier. Anyway, The Great Schlep recruits young Jewish adults to Florida to visit their grandparents (and other people's grandparents) and talk with them about voting for Obama. It includes a hilarious video from Sarah Silverman and proves the incredible power of the Internet to galvanize people around a cause.

2. I watched the new Rolling Stones documentary, "Shine a Light" the other night and was incredibly bored. The movie is essentially a Rolling Stones concert featuring an entirely-too-old Mick and Keith belting out their tunes one more time for the sheer profit it provides. Guest appearances from Jack White and Christina Aguilera were the highlights, the rest just seemed a little sad. The movie did demonstrate however, that Scorsese is the most nebbishy Italian ever.

3. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I have noticed lately that my single friends are an endangered species. Every week, at least 5 friends of mine celebrate some milestone and I have evidence on Facebook. Two friends had babies on Thursday, a college buddy got married on Friday and Sunday featured no less than one set of engagement photos, one set of wedding photos and one set of pregnant photos.
To my remaining single friends - please keep mentioning bad dates in your status updates and posting pictures of drunken cavorting. It balances everything out.

Hope these little vignettes satisfy your Shtetl Fabulous jones (if you had one in the first place) for the next few days. In the meantime, chag sameakh and enjoy Simchat Torah - the other Jewish St. Patrick's Day!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Proof of My College Minor

Whoever said getting a minor in film would be totally useless? Here's my second movie-related posts in a row; my U of A Media Arts professors would be so proud.

Earlier this week, I saw the newest teen dramedy that’s OK for Gen X adults to like too, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Based on a novel written by a guy from Short Hills, New Jersey and his gal-pal, N&N is about two jilted teens who find each other and a shared love of music over the course of one very long night in New York City. My company for the film was great and I enjoyed the witty sarcasm that has become the acting trademark of both Michael Cera and Kat Dennings. If you haven't seen it yet, read the NY Times review here.

Ostensibly, “Nick and Norah” aims to capture what it means to be a teenager at this precise moment in time. Like so many teen movies of the past, “American Graffiti” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” instantly come to mind, music plays an integral role in the lives of the characters as they ramble from one adventure to another, forging nascent sexual identities and testing the limits of their alcohol tolerance.

Where N&N takes a major departure from its genre is in its unabashed portrayal of one character’s Jewish identity. (Coincidentally played by Dennings who is Jewish and whose real name is Katherine Litwack. Sorry girls, Cera, who played Jewish characters in both Juno and Superbad, is of Quebecois/Sicilian extraction.) Back in the 1980s, Brat Packers were categorically WASPy and devoid of overt religious or ethnic markers. In the 90s, teen movies acquiesced to the burgeoning diversity of American high schools by adding the token black or Asian character who generally remained in the background and certainly never got the guy/girl.

Now as the first decade of the 21st Century is winding down, we increasingly see explicit representations of minority cultures in our films and television shows... at least for the Jews. Orthodox rabbi cum author cum radio personality Shmuley Boteach had a brief program on TLC called "Shalom in the Home" wherein he counseled families on overcoming problems. He also calls himself America's Rabbi, this when Jews are only 2 percent of the population. VH1 featured a documentary called "So Jewtastic" back in 2005, an entire episode of "Entourage" centered on Yom Kippur observance and a new book called, Cool Jew is billed as the Preppy Handbook for the Semitic set.

So it should have come as no surprise when Norah of Nick and Norah began expounding on her interpretation of tikkun olam (Hebrew for repairing the world) to her non-Jewish paramour. Who knew an 18th Century mystic and the cornerstone of every Jewish youth group would come together in film so post-modern that the hetero male lead is a member of a queercore band and everyone is in love with a band that borders on Howard Hughesian reclusiveness?

In the movie, people replace the pieces in the broken vessels central to the notion of tikkun olam. Therefore, romantic encounters in effect help to repair the world by bringing more love into it (even if that love is for a band named Where's Fluffy). Double mitzvah indeed!

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" may do little more for the Heebs than the Wailing Wall as blanket scene in "Garden State," but it's still a sweet film. And if it makes one Jewish kid in the audience feel a bit better about being a member of the Tribe, all the schmaltz seems worthwhile.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

When Climbing Out the Window Just Won't Do

You know her and you've seen her in action. From Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's to Kate Hudson's ethereal groupie Penny Lane in Almost Famous and Natalie Portman's character in Garden State, she is there with her zany outfits, upbeat personality and irresistible cuteness. She's the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and film critic Nathan Rabin recently coined the term to describe this particular subgenre of cinematic female who is adorable, giggly and apparently loved by brooding men. In an interview on NPR he said of the MPDG, "they don't live lives, they don't have careers. They just frolick and have fun."

Rabin goes on further to assert that these young women (yes, they are always young and always women) primarily exist to enliven the protagonist, inspire him to action and help him along with a wink and smile rather than persuing her own interests. She is the classic muse, free of complication or depth. Generally, the viewer either falls head-over-heels in love with the girl or spends the remainder of the film plotting her demise.

My first reaction to hearing the NPR story was relief - finally there was a name for my extreme dislike of every character Kirsten Dunst has played. Then, I began to think about if and how the Manic Pixie Dream Girls might really function in the world. Sooner or later, cuteness fades and government cheese is simply lousy for your complexion. Eventually even the white knight wants someone to take care of him and my guess is that MPDGs can't cook.

There are some variations on the theme. There's the MPDG with deep flaws like Parker Posey's alcoholic in Party Girl or Drew Barrymore's entire career (on screen and off). We have the reluctant MPDG such as Winona Ryder in Reality Bites who inspires two men and doesn't know what to do with herself. There may be a Manic Pixie Dream Guy like Duckie from Pretty in Pink or Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer in Rushmore.

As someone who would rarely be described as flighty, bubbly or fragile, I scoured my DVD collection and my Netflix queue for evidence of a counterpoint to the MPDG and I think I found her. She's Annie Savoy in Bull Durham. She's Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge in Vertigo. She's Frances McDormand or Janeane Garofalo in just about anything. She may not always get the guy or inspire a sonnet, but she frequently gets the last line. She is disarmingly real, multifaceted, unafraid of her own intelligence and confidence in her sexuality as a woman not a girl. At the end of the day, she doesn't even need an epithet to describe her. It's just not her style.

Though they sometimes irritate us, they inherently exist to endear us, which makes the MPDG incredibly hard to resist. Maybe it's because I relate more to the film's lead male who is a fellow writer, but I really enjoy watching Kate Hudson in Almost Famous. Not necessarily my all-time fave, but also never annoying. So who gets your vote for favorite Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Just Say Ohm

Forced by economics and scheduling to skip my beloved West African dance class for a few months, I grappled with how to fill the void in my fitness regime. I'd already been dabbling with yoga in the comforts of my living room and after a little research I settled on a yoga special - 10 classes in five weeks - at a nearby studio.

Images of a svelter, super toned me swirled in my head as I drove to my first class. Having really only done "power" or vinyasa yoga, I figured this stint would replace a few cardio sessions, including the dance class. Much to my surprise, this studio specialized in Iyengar yoga, a style differentiated by its copious use of props in poses, meticulous attention to pose detail and its non-flow style. I instantly experienced buyers' remorse and mentally ran through my calendar as I tried to figure out if I could fit in cardio at my regular gym and hour-long yoga classes. Sure, it was the absolute antithesis to yogic principles like mind-body harmony, but what can I say, I'm a little Type A and I wouldn't mind losing a few pounds.

Throughout that first class, I felt awkward folding Mexican blankets to a new degree of precision, threading my body around a folding chair, holding a foam block between my thighs and stretching out over ropes. I yearned for the intense sweat sessions my dance class provided and I agonized as to how I would burn the remaining calories.

As the weeks went by, I Outlooked my yoga classes and made them work with time at the gym or hitting the pavement. I also let go of my apprehensions and threw myself into a totally different way of exercising my body. Did you know twists improve digestion and have the same effect as ab work? Did you know inversions improve circulation and get your heart beating fast, just like cardio?

Besides these factoids and a bit of Hindi, I learned all kinds of new tricks (like putting my palms together behind my back with the pinky fingers on my spine and the backs of my hands cupped by my shoulder blades). I improved my flexibility, balance and posture and even saw a bit more muscle tone in my calves, stomach and upper arms.

While I don't know if I will ever be able to sit and meditate for hours on end, I did acheive sufficient inner peace to write this post without deviating into satire and I found the unending depth of yoga to be incredibly comforting. Everyone has his/her place in every pose and every pose has the infinite capacity to challenge you. Just as I reveled in mastering shoulder stand, my teacher introduced a new variation that rocked my world. Namaste indeed.

Monday, September 29, 2008

5769 Rosh Hashanah Blogger Carnival

Just in time for 5769, it's the first-ever blogger carnival sponsored by Shtetl Fabulous. Whether you're a contributor, a frequent commenter, a new visitor or a loyal fan - welcome!

About a week ago, I put the call out for submissions just in time for Rosh Hashanah. The suggested topics included: forgiveness/teshuvah, new beginnings, sweetness or hope. What appears below is a motley collection of blog posts humorous, penitent, comtemplative and irreverant. Read them all or pick your favorites.

No matter what you choose, may we all enjoy a New Year of happiness, health and blessing. Shana Tova!

Random Babbles pauses for some serious reflection about the need to ruminate.

A love letter to the darker side of sweets at Haute Chocolate.

Liz has shpilkes and an Atkins dilemma.

Sweet Rose tells her story of literally becoming one who returned to her roots.

The ladies at Ima Shalom do a little repentance, blogger style.

From the Jewess archives, a little Torah for your day.

My girl Worrier Poet figures everyone’s a little Jewish on Rosh Hashanah so why not blog about it?

Hadassah Sabo shares her innermost thoughts about the Days of Awe.

Jordan and the Jewesses with Attitude over at the Jewish Women’s Archive mark the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and returning to New Orleans.

Frum Satire offers bloopers and questions the high cost of being Jewish, especially during the high holidays.

Finally, yours truly takes on the ironies of Rosh Hashanah’s culinary traditions.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Seasoning of the Season

June Cleaver as it may sound, much of my preparation for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday has come in the form of cooking for a dinner party I'm throwing. My freezer is jam-packed with kugel and honey cake and my weekend plans revolve around making tzimmes and grocery shopping.

While it might sound like a trival and impious way to get ready for a holiday where we ask God to keep us alive for the coming year and forgive our sins, food ranks pretty high in my overall Jewish identity. I keep kosher to a certain extent, I pride myself on my matzah ball soup and I have the kosher BBQ joint on speed dial.

In all the measuring, slicing and mixing of the last week, one flavor dominated throughout the recipes - that of sweetness. If we associate anything with Rosh Hashanah at our dinner tables, it's the stuff of toothaches that unites us all. From apples dipped in honey to raisin and date-laden breads and umpteen desserts, it seems the more grams of sugar we consume, the more likely we are to have the sweetness jump off the table and into our lives for the coming year.

This comes of course, in razor-sharp contrast to the prayers we chant in the synagogue before, during and after Rosh Hashanah (especially as we mentally prepare for the solemnity of Yom Kippur). During these Days of Awe, we recognize our smallness in the universe, admit to an alphabetic litany of sins and pray that God the King preserves our lives for the coming year. It's not exacty easy.

Rosh Hashanah's sweetness also provides a culinary foil to other Jewish holidays similarly obsessed with food. On Pesach, bitter herbs and salty water rule the seder table as we imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt. Each Shabbat, we sprinkle challah with salt, again remind us of life's hardships and the setbacks the Jewish people have suffered. And then there's at least six fast days when we plain don't eat.

Achieving balance in life seems more a Taoist principle than one associated with the religion of Abraham who was asked to sacrifice his long-awaited son or Jacob who literally wrestled an angel. But I truly believe that in the development of Jewish customs (and especially the food traditions), we found a way to balance the hard with the easy, the bitter with the sweet.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy, healthy and sweet new year! Shana Tova!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Call for Submissions

I am looking to put together a blogger carnival/haveil havalim just in time for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). If you want to be a part of it, please send me a permanent link to one of your blog posts about any of the following topics: forgiveness/teshuvah, new beginnings, sweetness or hope.

For those unfamiliar, a blogger carnival is a big collection of links to other bloggers' posts about a specific topic. It's a great way to get free publicity and lets you know who's out there that you can cross-link to. Since one of my big ambitions for the coming year is to better promote my blog and to write more, I figured this was a great way to start.

I'll put all the links you send me together and will post it probably on Monday right before the holiday. If you can send me your link or just put it in a comment here by Friday, that would be best. Shana tova u'metuka! (A happy and sweet new year!)

Friday, September 19, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid

Margaret Mead famously said (perhaps even on this blog before), "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Normally, we trot out ol' Marge to inspire us to achieve great things in the face of adversity. Climbing Everest, launching an inner city education program, joining the Peace Corps, that sort of thing.

But lately I've realized that her quote is also incredibly relevant in far more nefarious circumstances such as the rather alarming financial crisis we've witnessed in the last few weeks. Who knew a small group of mortgage retailers, committed to profiting through exotic lending practices, could profoundly change the entire global economy? And yet the situation has snowballed from several thousand people defaulting on their mortgages to the ruinous collapse of venerable institutions, the government buyout of the world's largest insurance company AIG and the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history (Lehman Brothers, founded in the 1840s by a group of Jewish immigrants from Bavaria was purchased by Barclays in a move that probably saved us all from an even greater tailspin).

Amidst tremendous fear-mongering and one of the worst days in the stock market's history, I genuinely hope I have found some silver lining. Since the 1980s, the United States has coasted into a pretty comfortable position on the world economic scene. We rose to our zenith of power and grew haughty, satisfied, complacent. What we sacrificed for the seat on the throne was the potent brain inside the crown. At one point in history, the American mind drove progress. Now that too has been outsourced.

Perhaps this crisis holds a blessing inside. As the old ways prove problematic, we innovate. When we have nothing left to lose, we are not afraid of failure and we take the dramatic risks that are often required to truly shift how business is done. Call it shakabuku, "the swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever." Call it market correction. Personally, I call it the necessary wake-up call America has been waiting for since Roger and Me.

I don't know if the amazing discovery will come from the emerging green collar workforce, a public university lab or some kid's basement. All I know is if our country is as great as the candidates want me to believe, then a pretty remarkable fucking change can't be far away.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Art Imitates Life Imitates Art

In Baltimore this past weekend, I had the chance to attend a friend's kiddush (Saturday late morning/early afternoon party for the gentile folk out there) in honor of their new home and baby. It was great to see some of my old Pikesville and Park Heights JCC friends and the free food and beer weren't bad either.

Then, through the haze of sheitel-wearing women and black-hatted men, I spotted someone who looked strangely familiar. I'd actually never met the man in question but I recognized him instantly - it was Frum Satire - a fellow blogger and Facebook friend who I'd only ever encountered in the virtual world. Here he was in the flesh, looking and acting exactly as I'd imagined.

We exchanged the basic pleasantries and URLs, then got to that favorite pastime of Jewish Geography. Both of us being nothing if not fierce competitors in blitzkrieg rounds of this game, we found ourselves mutually knowing half the room, including the brother/sister duo I'd come to the party with. This despite the fact that neither of us currently lives in Baltimore.

The encounter got me thinking about what happens when the real world and the blog world collide. I knew so much about this guy - where he lives, his passion for the outdoors, his wit on idiosyncracies and hypocrises in the Orthodox community, etc. and yet I had never met him. He's also sent me 42 visits in the past month, so our readers at least have something in common.

It astounds me how much we are willing to reveal about ourselves and our innermost thoughts to a universe of people who may only know a fraction of the truth about us. What conclusions do they draw without hearing our voices or knowing our pasts? Should the bloggers among us censor our posts in order to give a better representation? And perhaps most critically - what implications do our online personas have when they encounter each other in daily life?

The Internet provides incredible opportunities to create new identities, but no protocol exists for reconciling and consolidating them into one person. From the guy or girl who in no way resembles his or her online dating profile photo to the posturing blogger who readily demurs from conflict offline, we risk shadowboxing when we try to pin someone down and then stumble upon them at a party or the store.

Perhaps a philosopher lurks among you, dear readers, who can better explain why we often feel more secure divulging our feelings to everyone rather than just one specific person. Until that comment appears, I'll be reading others' blogs and looking for inspiration.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Purity of Essence

In Stanley Kubrick's 1964 masterpiece of absurdist war humor, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper launches a nuclear holocaust in part because of his obsession with purity of one's essence. Granted, the good general feared the effects of communist floridation plots on Americans' bodily fluids, the fear apparently resonates with many today.

At this year's MTV Video Music Awards, host Russell Brand belittled some nominees' choice to wear "promise rings" as a symbol of their pledge to abstain from sex prior to marriage. With the country caught up in the throes of Bristol Palin, Jaime-Lynn Spears and countless other not-cute and not-white pregnant teens, naturally any aspersions cast on virginity have raised eyebrows. Brand took aim primarily at some band I've never heard of called The Jonas Brothers (or maybe I knew these guys when they were called Hanson?), but other tween musicans including Jordin Sparks rose immediately to their defense, stating "It's not bad to wear a promise ring, because not everybody — guy or girl — wants to be a slut.”

Oh, so we're back to the virgin-slut argument, are we? Seems like the only thing that's shifted since the time of Eve in the Garden of Eden is that now boys can be sluts too. Far be it for me to judge people whether their sexual activity rating falls into the often, sometimes or never categories. What does bother me is this perpetual association between virginity and purity.

Luckily, I'm not the only one who thinks this whole issue just thrusts teen sex into the spotlight like an Eastern European exchange student at the senior prom. Check out this article from MSN in defense of being like a virgin... then come back and finish reading my post.

OK, you're back? Anyway, aside from the makers of Dove soap, who gets to make up the rules between what is pure and what isn't? Can a mass murderer who has never had sexual intercourse be considered "pure?" Can he/she still wear a promise ring all the way to the electric chair?

Further, what is it about the act of sex that somehow robs one of a pure mind, an unblemished body, a chaste spirit? Where and when did our culture decide that the very act of perpetuating the species was synonymous with defilement? Personally, I cannot accept that an expression of love (or even a mutual satisfaction of desire) has the power to corrupt me. Isn't my mind stronger than all that?

Unlike beauty, purity lies in the soul of the owner, not the eyes of the beholder. I find it incredibly hard to believe that the upshot of this debate over whether one wears a promise ring (and actually holds to the promise) or whether one engages in sexual acts prior to marriage does anything for us except create more rancor and debate. I don't mean to sound Calvinistic, but aren't we rendered somehow impure from the first crush? Further, how can anyone's true purity be ascertained? Is there a Facebook application?

I know I've asked far more questions in this post than I normally do, and I know they're mostly rhetorical. Hopefully, we'll someday evolve to think of purity in the same way.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Nu Mamelah?

For someone whose blog title features a Yiddish word, I've had a rather ambiguous relationship with the language. Wikipedia defines a shtetl as a small town with a large Jewish population in pre-Holocaust Europe. While my hometown would be more aptly described as a Mormon shtetl, being from the suburbs versus the city (aka ghetto), shtetl fabulous nonetheless seemed like a good choice to describe myself.

Starting back in the 10th Century CE, Jews in Germany began mixing Hebrew with the local Rhineland dialects to create their own language. They used Hebrew letters and a mostly German vocabulary to build Yiddish and it spread throughout Eastern Europe, reaching its peak from the 18th to the early 20th Centuries.

Once considered a dead language, you can still hear plenty of Yiddish spoken in the Orthodox enclaves of Brooklyn, Monsey, Lakewood, Bnei Brak and Montreal. But with the recent rise in Jewish cool, more liberal and secular young people are digging up the etymologies of words like "bagel," "nudge," and "deli," and coming up Yiddish.

While I love Mel Brooks, I'm all for rediscovering one's heritage and I'm guilty of peppering my speech with ample "shlepps," "schmucks," "tzatchkahs," I have mixed feelings about Yiddish.

My father's family came from Lithuania and Russia before WWII and spoke Yiddish regularly. But my mother's side, who I more strongly identify with, came from Hungary and lived very assimilated lives before the War. They didn't speak Yiddish and neither did millions of other Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe.

However, Yiddish has so fully permeated American Jewish culture, that my mother still bought me a comprehensive collection of Yiddish magnetic poetry that any visitor to my apartment will confirm plays a dominant role on my refrigerator. Do I know what half of the words mean? Meh. Maybe half. Could I actually read a sentence written in Yiddish? Doubtful, even though I can read and speak modern Hebrew.

We have romanticized the experiences of the Jewish community on the Lower East Side and of the now mostly-abandoned Jewish communities of Eastern Europe where Yiddish flourished. Yet these were hardly good ol' days. On the LES, we lived in squalor and many of went to early graves, the victims of rampant disease and sweatshop disasters. Even worse, Jews in Russia and Poland faced pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust where millions of Yiddish speakers left this world like sheep to the slaughter. Do I really want to embrace a language that represents modern Judaism's darkest hour?

Then there's that tricky issue of geography and deciding whose past we're choosing to embrace when we speak Yiddish. Even it its peak, Yiddish was hardly universal and for some could represent another division in our global Jewish community. Maybe Hebrew is the better choice as the common language of prayer.

Hollywood has always had a fondness for the expressiveness of Yiddish and plenty of movies and television shows feature Yiddish phrases, including Mike Myers' "Coffee Talk" charater Linda Richman. Even non-Jews love Yiddish - just check out the Spiderman comics, Emmy-award winning musical "In the Heights," and several episodes of The West Wing.

In the Esperanto-esque dialects of our modern lives, we can all make a little room for (and a little peace with) Yiddish. We might not go out and read untranslated Sholom Aleichem or sign up for a seder in Williamsburg, but maybe we can be unafraid of calling the guy who cut us off in traffic a putz. Or replacing our homeboys with landsman. Or even kvelling that Barack Obama's acceptance speech gave us shpilkes. Zayt Gezunt.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sarah, Gustav and Me

Though it didn't come to me over text message, as soon as I heard about John McCain's pick for the Republican Party's vice president, I knew I would have to blog about it. Apparently he thought all those women who were disappointed about Hillary losing would gladly go to the Dark Side because their first choice had a vagina and now this team has a vagina - Hooray!

I admittedly struggled with a focus for my analysis. Should I talk about her sartorial decision to sport a beehive worthy of former Texas Governor Ann Richards and her totally awesome glasses? Maybe I could use her children's unusual names (Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig) as the perfect framework for a rant on the utterly-stupid names people give their kids? I could even reimagine her live as a bad chick flick, but alas, Maureen Dowd beat me to that one.

Then this afternoon, like manna from liberal heaven, I got my answer. Just as the Republican National Convention kicked off, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (aka our favorite new Vice Presidential nominee), announced her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant and due in December. As only the parent of a knocked-up teenager could, Palin and her husband issued the following statement: "Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned. We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents."

Yeah, she might be beautiful, but you also forgot some other choice adjectives like dumb, possibly ignorant of her own reproductive system and if the rumors are true, already a parent (according to some sources, 6-month-old Trig is Bristol's son that Sarah is raising as her own a la Jack Nicholson). And of course, Bristol will be marrying the equally-moronic sperm source in a ceremony that probably won't have the same understated luxury as Jenna Bush's recent nuptuals, but will certainly be more entertaining.

What has our country come to when shotgun weddings have made it within a few bullets of the White House? It's an incredibly ironic finish to W's reign of terror on comprehensive sexual education that his own Party has selected a vice presidential nominee whose own daughter clearly missed contraception day at the Wasalia High School. NOW and Planned Parenthood could not have asked for a better twist of fate. I mean, what's scarier than a woman head of state who doesn't even support her own daughter's right to choose?

Now from Alaska to Louisiana and the storm that thankfully wasn't. Or at least wasn't as bad as it could have been. It seems that Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast at a more glancing angle than models initially predicted and the damage to New Orleans has been minimal. Unfortunately, the coastal communities in Cajun Country have suffered the double whammy of fierce winds and vastly-depleted barrier islands.

In the three years since Katrina, we have all heard stories about rebuilding efforts, FEMA trailers, levee repairs, more sophisticated emergency response systems and returning culture. What has not been discussed extensively (even with all our new attention to being "green") is the devastating and near-total loss of marshes, swamps and those all-important barrier islands. Due to damning of the Mississippi River, the aforementioned levees and oil drilling in the area, essential soil deposits have disappeared, taking grasses and wetlands species along with them into the ether of extinction.

My thoughts and prayers are with those waiting out the storm and with those still rebuilding, even now, from the damages of Katrina. I remember being glued to my television in late August and early September 2005, aching inside and mourning a city I'd never visited. Close your eyes and think back to those images - looters (or foragers depending on your skin color), humans crowded into stadiums like animals, people stranded on rooftops, one of America's cultural and culinary treasures brought to its knees before the awesome power of nature. Luckily, Gustav had a much smaller ax to grind and if it refocuses our attention on the story of New Orleans, then maybe it's all worthwhile.

A reproductively-gifted governor/governor's daughter and a Category 2 hurricane might not have much more than chronology in common. One is H.L. Mencken's wet dream and the other is just wet. One brings lots of wind and the other is full of hot air. One is... oh, you get the picture. Now if you'll excuse me, there's a No Reservations marathon on tv.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since early August, you know that almost as soon as the Olympic flame was lit in London, all television cameras turned to Denver as the Democratic Party convened their quadrennial convention. Since I get a bulk of my news from a bizarre combo of NPR and the Daily Show, I've admittedly been a touch behind on the substance and mainly just getting the hype from Matt Lauer as I brush my teeth in the morning.

For the first time since I've been eligible to vote, there is actually a Democratic candidate who has captured the national imagination and certainly many people of my generation. I have friends who sport "Change we Can Believe In" bumper stickers and others who have participated in voter registration drives on his behalf. Yet, I've stood at the sidelines, hesitant to put my trust in any politician and never one to be a "cheerleader" or "joiner."

But after reading several Facebook status updates that professed crushes on Michelle Obama, I finally decided to check out what she (and he) had to say. "It's time we listened to our hopes instead of our fears," cried Michelle as she spoke about her childhood on the South Side of Chicago and her blue collar roots. "It's time we stop doubting and start dreaming," she urged as delegates cheered her on.

OK, reasonably inspiring, but what else ya got? Well tonight Bill Clinton told me to "believe that America must always be a place called hope," and I gave in.

Fascinated by the promise of an entire social calendar for my Labor Day weekend filled with Barack Obama events and in the interest of “blog research,” I reluctantly signed up for an account at

Instantly, I was presented with a range of activities including convention speech watching parties, canvassing at my local farmer’s market, bike races and even a group garage sale where proceeds go to the Obama campaign. If I were a more Gonzo blogger (or if I were getting paid for this), I might make a bigger effort to cruise over to the Morristown Green on Sunday morning.

Still, I lingered on the site to see what Barack had to say to Jewish Americans, Latinos, Environmentalists and Kids. I found designated bloggers and content for every subsection of society, with of course some room for error. A woman profiling a delegate from Iowa noted that even though Kathy suffers from Fiber Malaga (aka fibromyalgia) she's still out there campaigning.

More than any other candidate in American history, Barack Obama (or his strategists) has figured out how to harness the power of the Internet - providing links to 16 social networking sites, recruiting volunteers and in a stroke of pure genius revealing his pick for vice president via text message. He has captured the youth vote (in theory) more than any presidential candidate since JFK. Could he be my generation's JFK? Does he risk becoming victim to the same fate as this antecedent?

As I pondered all of these messages, speeches, events and ideals, my cynicism got caught up in the momentousness of the convention. For the first time ever, America has selected a black man for their major party candidate. We all have a chance to watch history and maybe a little progressive change in the making. And while that might not make me a wide-eyed optimist or a clipboard-carrying activist - it has given me a little something to believe in.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Hundredth Post

Hard to believe, but I've managed to reach the milestone of my 100th post on this site. Thanks to Blogger, I'm able to track these things and indulge my neuroses at the same time. Like a tv sitcom doing a flashback episode to celebrate an arbitrary goal, I've decided to mark my centennial with 10 sets of Top 10 lists. Consider it the Pilates way to celebrate... or accept that I just couldn't come up with 100 of anything. Enjoy.

Top 10 Reasons to Blog
1. Shameless self promotion
2. It’s what people do in their 20s
3. Something in common with David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell
4. Unedited creative outlet for all my rants
5. Practice for my future career as a travel/food/dating/race/religion writer
6. Cheap way to entertain myself ad nauseum
7. Telling people I’m a writer sounds much more interesting
8. Chance to meet new people, virtually
9. Otherwise wasted journalism degree
10. How else would I have been nominated for the Hot Blogger Calendar?

Top 10 Countries of Origin for Visitors to Shtetl Fabulous (in ascending order)
1. Japan
2. Belgium
3. Romania
4. Germany
5. Italy
6. Israel
7. Australia
8. United Kingdom
9. Canada
10. United States

Top 10 Things I Think Should be Outlawed
1. Those damn shirts that make me look pregnant and are still in stores!
2. Cute bartenders having girlfriends
3. Any employer policy that gives people fewer than 3 weeks of vacation
4. Astroturf and the designated hitter rule (Jared, are you reading this?)
5. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
6. Really bad movies
7. The electoral college
8. Shoes not universally coming in wide widths
9. People who dress up their pets
10. Using the word “nigger,” oh wait – the NAACP already did that

Top 10 Adjectives People Use to Describe this Blog
1. Awesome
2. Hip
3. Sage observations
4. Love your blog! (not an adjective, but oh well)
5. Sassy
6. Cynical
7. 100% kosher
8. Great
9. Totally rocks
10. Hysterical

Top 10 Favorite Keyword Searches that Led People to My Blog
1. “Recycle code safety today show.” This person spent more than 6 minutes on the site
2. “29 and pregnant” OR “29 with student debt pregnant and alone”
3. Chocolate living room
4. “Shtetl fabulous,” “shtetl Passover,” “Jewish food shtetl,” “shtetl hunter,” “shtetl wedding,” or my personal favorite, “wig shtetl.”
5. “Stop being monolingual.”
6. “I choose my choice.” Some version of this Sex and the City quote brought me more viewers than I ever could have imagined.
7. “Schmaschmortion clinic.”
8. “Eating lamb and heartburn.”
9. “Esther versus Vashti.”
10. “Fabulous fuckers.” You knew that would be the best, right!

Top 10 Blogs I’ve Discovered Through Blogging (not including friends’ blogs)
1. Ima Shalom
2. Frum Satire
3. Blognut
4. Shpilkes
5. Stuff White People Like
6. The Jew and the Carrot
7. Superfluous Juxtaposition
8. My Urban Kvetch
9. Jewcy
10. Random Babbles (OK, so I know this guy, but what can you do?)

Top 10 Places I’ve Eaten
1. Chola (NYC)
2. Tin Shed Café (Portland, OR)
3. Kumanets (it’s that traditional Ukrainian place we went to in Odessa)
4. Beyond Bread (Tucson)
5. 8 ½ (NYC)
6. Tie: Mamoun’s (NYC) and any falafel place in Jerusalem
7. Plaza Café (Santa Fe)
8. Pix Patisserie (Portland, OR)
9. Zemam’s Ethiopian (Tucson)
10. The Helmand (Baltimore)

Top 10 Comments on My Posts (thanks for making it this far!)
1. “A fantastically clear statement about the blatant lobbying against abortion.” From Subtle Mother Fuckers on December 3, 2007
2. “I've always operated under the impression that a bite of someone else's food doesn't count, calorie-wise.” From Food Magic on May 27, 2008
3. “Shameless self promotion is the only way to get hits.” From Shameless Self Promotion on April 25, 2008
4. “Wait, it’s not about Mitt Romney? Damn!” From Stormin’ Mormon – Believe the Hype! on February 9, 2008
5. “I get a huge kick out of reading the columns in Cosmo about what guys really think.” From When Harry Met Sally it was Love Actually…on October 23, 2007
6. “I am sure you get a kick out of the fact that I wrote in your yearbook that you had BETTER go to the reunions and now I'm not going!” From It’s the Final Countdown on June 1, 2008
7. “You sound like the Jewish Carrie Bradshaw...Sex in Morris County.” From A Year in the Life on July 11, 2007
8. “True, but it can also be a blessing to keeping friends in other areas up to date on your life.” From What I’ve Learned After 28 Years on Earth on January 8, 2008
9. “It's like the female version of Adam Goldberg's character in ‘The Hebrew Hammer.’" From What Shtetl Fabulous Looks Like on July 15, 2008
10. “If I am on a date I throw them 5 bucks, other wise they get a dollar- I just remove my yarmulke so I don’t start a pogrom.” From It’s Not Easy Being (Without) Green on May 13, 2008

Top 10 Comedies of All Time (but it could totally change in 5 minutes)
1. Bull Durham
2. The Philadelphia Story
3. 40 Year Old Virgin
4. Best in Show
5. Rushmore
6. Some Like it Hot
7. Juno
8. Little Miss Sunshine
9. Moonstruck
10. Blazing Saddles

Top 10 Challenges of Writing a Blog
1. Coming up with shit to write about
2. Risking your mom knowing too much about your sex life
3. Worrying that your mom is your only reader
4. Getting mobbed by legions of adoring fans and the paparazzi
5. (If I had a laptop) Becoming one of those people at Starbucks
6. Coming up with shit to write about
7. Losing some of your anonymity
8. Forgoing sleep to write a blog that does not provide any income
9. Debating how much to reveal about friends, dates, family
10. Writing ten different top 10 lists without going cross-eyed