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.