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.