Also known as Jessica Leigh Lebos, the Head Yenta is a wife, mother, writer, spoken word poet, West African dance teacher, community activist, amateur social scientist and former Bay Area resident, now living on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. She aims to break down stereotypes about Jews in general and Jewish mothers in particular. She changes her hair color frequently.
A few Jewish gems didn’t make it through the editorial Cuisinart, like how I invited her to Shabbos dinner (she and her friend Janice are coming this week) and this bombshell:
“You know, I never thought of Sylvia as Jewish.” WHAT.
Schlepping with Sylvia
WHEN I was a teenage anarchist sitting around my suburban bedroom plotting how to subvert the patriarchy without chipping my nail polish, I had a fabulous role model.
Sylvia did exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up: She spent her days clacking out opinionated missives at her desk and snacking on donuts in the bathtub with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.
She wore lipstick and a feather boa but rarely dealt with her hair. Her cats were smarter than most people, and she was not in the least bit afraid of Rush Limbaugh.
Let’s just say I saw more to emulate in Sylvia than I ever could in Farrah Fawcett.
It hardly mattered that she was a cartoon; Sylvia represented a woman who did and said and ate whatever she wanted, dominant paradigm be damned. As the kids say these days, she gave no fucks.
In spite of such bodacious outrageousness, Sylvia managed to infiltrate the masses. Her socially-conscious comic strip enjoyed a 40 year-run in the funny pages of over 60 daily newspapers across the country, causing subversive chuckles in big cities as well as unlikely places such as my suburban Arizona town and Savannah, GA. (Maybe you remember her trans fashion advice for Gernif the Venusian?)
My mother, a fan of both feminism and feather boas, also kept a pile of Sylvia’s bestselling compilation books in her bathroom, including Everything Here is Mine: An Unhelpful Guide to Cat Behavior and You Can’t Take It With You, So Eat It Now. I spent a lot of time sitting on the bidet and giggling.
Obviously, when another of my favorite sardonic sages, Jane Fishman, slipped the word that Sylvia creator Nicole Hollander was in Savannah, I plotzed. (Think a Jewish version of the Scarlett O’Hara faint.)
It’s been a hectic few months in Yentaland, and some readers may know that we lost my mother-in-law at Thanksgiving. It was a very long twilight for this sweet, special lady, and while her passing brings relief from her suffering, she will be greatly missed.
I look forward to peaceful meditations visiting with her at Bonaventure Cemetery, where she was laid to rest along the banks of the Bull River.
In Loving Memory of Marcia Sharon Lebos — Marcia Lebos was a wife, mother, artist and teacher who loved life and all its gifts. She died Thursday, November 26, 2015.
Marcia was born June 13, 1942 in Newport News, VA to Mr. Herman and Ruth Smith. She was the valedictorian of her class at Newport News High School, where she participated in Speech & Debate and edited the school newspaper. She was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Duke University, where she met her husband, Dr. Harvey Lebos.
The couple wed on June 14, 1964 and moved from Winston Salem, Miami and Tacoma, WA during Dr. Lebos’ medical training and military service. In 1974, they settled in Savannah, GA with their two sons, David and Mark. Marcia was very involved in the Jewish community, volunteering for numerous projects and leading musical programs for children at the Shalom School at Temple Mickve Israel.
One of Marcia’s proudest accomplishments was developing the docent program at the historic Mickve Israel, the third oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.
She earned her teaching certificate and taught French at several local schools, including Hancock, Myers Middle School and Windsor Forest High. Passionate about the language and the people, Marcia chaperoned several student trips to France and led the Windsor Forest French Club—many still remember her lively Bastille Day reenactments.
Marcia traveled the world with her husband, enjoying art museums and restaurants. She worked locally as a guide for Tauck Tours, sharing her knowledge of Savannah and its history. She was a member of the inaugural class of the Savannah College of Art & Design in the Interior Design program. She loved Virginia Beach and Tybee Island and spent many glorious afternoons walking on the beach and bobbing in the ocean waves.
She is survived by her husband, Dr. Harvey Lebos; her sons, David and Mark; her daughter-in-law, Jessica; her two grandchildren, Abraham and Liberty; her sister, Bobbie Horwitz and her husband, Ken; her niece and her nephew.
The funeral service will take place at Congregation Mickve Israel at noon, Sunday, November 29. Interment will follow immediately at Bonaventure Cemetery.
So I was lamenting the dearth of Rosh Hashanah parodies on Twitter recently (do you follow @yoyenta? Please do!) and lo and behold, my mother sends me a link to this.
While it has nothing to do with the Days of Awe, it does involve deli meat, loquacious yentas and bored hipsters, so ya know, it’s super Jewish. I guess it’s funny.
But I kind of also wonder who we’ve become when a shivah — a gathering of mourners where, yes, there is usually some delicious snacking because nothing assuages grief like stuffed cabbage — is lampooned as nothing more than a comedic drive-thru window.
I know, I’m just sensitive, probably because sitting shivah for someone you actually knew and cared about isn’t all that fun. Maybe I just have low-blood sugar.
Here, watch my favorite Fountainheads’ Rosh Hashanah parody from days of yore while I go get a corned beef sandwich.
So, suffice it say, the Holocaust doesn’t usually make it to my Netflix list. I don’t get a lot of time to watch movies at all, and when I do, I prefer to be entertained, not distressed.
But a respected friend recommended the German film Phoenix to El Yenta Man, and he insisted we go. I couldn’t remember the last time EYM invited me out for a movie, let alone one with subtitles, so I had to. Also, he promised I could have a whole XL box of Junior Mints to myself.
I knew my fragile countenance would be protected from the very first scene. A car pulls up to a Swiss checkpoint right after the war bearing two women. The head of the passenger is entirely wrapped, save a pair of haunting eyes. The driver tells the English-speaking soldier, “She was in the camps.”
The soldier demands that she unroll her bandages, but instead of being subjected to the usual American-style gore, we see only his reaction to her wounds.
What follows is a masterful psychological thriller in the vein of Hitchcock, each scene measured with a balance of exposition and suspense. We learn that the patient, Nelly (played with such harrowing delicacy by Nina Hoss,) is a Jewish chanteuse who has narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis, but her entire family is gone. Her friend Lene (Woman in Gold‘s Nina Kunzendorf; no I haven’t seen it) helps Nelly recover from facial reconstruction surgery, though she does not quite look like her past self. Lene tries to sell her on a move to Haifa or Tel Aviv with her inheritance, but Nelly’s greatest urge is find her husband, Johnny.
It’s clear that she cannot accept her new self until Johnny validates her. Thing is, Johnny may or may not have been the one who betrayed Nelly in the first place. She finds him, but instead of recognizing her, he sees her as a good enough substitution to claim her family’s money. He’s obviously a cad, but the nuanced performance by Ronald Zuerfeld keeps us guessing until almost the very end.
Writer/director Christian Petzold doubles down on the mystery, disguise and deception, but ultimately, this film is about a woman’s reclamation of her identity in love and life. And because I really like happy endings, I felt tremendous joy in this film’s last rising moments.
Hope you’ll enjoy its limited run in theaters over the next few weeks, and perhaps it will make it to the Jewish Film Festival circuit. And don’t be afraid to add it to your Netflix list, even if your heart is as faint as mine.
Every Rosh Hashanah, my loaves of love turn into shriveled bricks of charcoal, in spite of nice organic ingredients, Sister Sadie’s recipe and a ton of good intentions.
For the life of me, I cannot figure out where I go wrong. When they’re baked goldeny beautiful brown, they’re still goopy in the middle. By the time the center sets up into something that doesn’t have the texture of snotty oatmeal, the top is a blackened sheet of death, which is a terrible way to bring in a new year.
Did I overgrease the pans? Undergrease? Too much baking powder? Is my convection oven anti-Semitic?
Whatever the case, 5776 is gonna be the year this yenta breaks the cycle of honeycake failure. I’m going to start with a new recipe, because even though Sister Sadie and I go way back, I have some serious suspicions that she may be a little senile.
It’s a fabulous excuse to use my mother-in-law’s neglected copper bundt pan, plus it includes directions for a glaze to cover up any burnt spots.
Savannah Bee Co.’s food photog and recipe development balabusta Jess Brannen has been contributing some other wonderful recipes to Joy of Kosher, though I’m pretty sure these Pintrest-pretty apple rosette thingies are beyond my baking skill set.
Lemme stick to tradition for now. I’ll let y’all know how the cake turns out next week — although you can probably guess if you see smoke streaming from the porch.
Every year for the past decade, iconic musical leader and silver fox Craig Taubman has published a sweet little book of inspirations prior to the Jewish High Holy Days. Jewels of Elul is meant to help get us in the mindset of praying, giving and repenting during the extra-cleansing month before Rosh Hashanah, which I find super helpful because the whole New Year thing sort of sneaks up on me. (Maybe that’s why I always burn the honeycakes.)
Floored, y’all. Just floored. I can barely believe anyone takes the time to read anything I write, and I’m so humbled and honored that this tiny piece of my family’s experience has touched so many:
Learning How to Dance by Jessica Leigh Lebos
My mother-in-law’s mind is full of holes. She spends most of the day in a placid fog, a place where there’s nothing left to do but walk the dog and wonder what’s for dinner. Every time it’s chicken, she rolls her eyes and kvetches, “We had this last night!” No one argues with her anymore.The situation is undeniably tragic. She’s only in her early 60’s, has already suffered through cancer and a mastectomy, and her dementia has been diagnosed incurable.
Yet, her disease has set into motion a certain regeneration: Both of her sons have returned to Savannah to help care for her and to assume their roles as men alongside their father, who is finally learning to treat them like the mensches she raised. Her grandchildren — my kids — sit beside her and sing with gusto while she plunks out the same damn Disney song on the piano: “The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed…”
Whenever there’s music, she remembers exactly what to do. She snaps, she swings her arms; she’s particularly fond of jazz hands. This is endearing when “Funkytown” comes on the radio and she shimmies around the living room, less so when we’re in line at the grocery store and she sashays off in the direction of someone’s cell phone. My husband and I have made a family pact to never let her dance alone. Often we resemble a circus without a tent, a multi-generational band of spastic merrymakers getting down to the sound of the garbage compactor. Helping someone keep her grace doesn’t always look graceful.
We hold faith that God loves us so, and yet still, still, life hurts. Sometimes healing comes from accepting what is. Hope is learning how to dance with it.
Reading this a decade later, I tear up all over again. My mother-in-law, bless her, still lives and breathes, but the dementia has rendered her bedridden and speechless now for many years.
May all of us dance as long as we possibly can, and may the New Year bring us peace.
Thank you, Craig and Co., and I hope y’all will cherish these jewels as we head into 5776.
I KNOW. A movie about the last day of Jewish summer camp starring the favorite funny people of my generation has been streaming on Netflix for a decade and I’ve never once clicked there. A shonda if there ever was one.
A dear friend put it this way: “How is that even possible? You’re like, the Jewiest camper person ever. Plus you love Paul Rudd and will totally forgive him for Ant-Man.”
I dunno how this Jewish gem failed to hit my psyche in the last 14 years. Maybe because my kids were tiny needy dwarves when it came out, and it felt too weird to watch sexy teen movies while I was breastfeeding.
Or perhaps subconsciously, I did not want to revisit the social trauma of Jew camp, where I was the only girl did not possess a pair of Guess jeans.
All I know WHAS‘ status as a cult classic is fully deserved, and from now on when I don’t feel like having sex, I will tell El Yenta Man he tastes like a burger.
But I will tell you, I couldn’t even make it through a single episode of the new Netflix series. Am I the only one who thinks the asinine dialogue is boring and totally beneath this amazing cast of now-seasoned, highly successful comic geniuses? Apparently so.
Anyway, the most important part of this post is to note that tomorrow is MY kids’ last day of camp, and only the good Lord knows what kind of mishegoss they’ll get into because it’s pretty obvious no one will tell me unless there is blood or fire involved. (Though I’m anxious to see it Yenta Girl ends up being the camper that must be forced to shower.)
It’s also the tail end of adult-only time in Yentaland, a period that has been used to rip out the tile in the bathroom and sleep in the dust, eat popcorn for dinner and nothing for breakfast, let the dogs sleep in the bed and eat at the table, not reapply sunscreen, sleep naked because the dogs don’t care, drink three too many mojitos by 5pm and try to avoid the mobs following Adam Sandler around Tybee Island. (I’m not exactly sure what the concept of “The Do-Over” is, but I have great doubt that it will even be able to touch WHAS.)
It’s been awesome being able to dance in public without the kids around to tweet how disgusting we are, but I’m ready to have them home. I’m pretty sure they’ll make it back in one piece, unless of course, they are lepers.
My favorite part of Raiders of the Lost Ark, other than when Marion drinks the big Nepalese dude under the table, is the mystery of the ark itself.
The idea that the tablets handed down to Moses and other holy artifacts mentioned in the Torah could actually still exist in the real world always fascinated me, even if they didn’t necessarily harbor the power melt off Nazis’ faces.
Such missing links between religious doctrine and biblical archaeology is what drew me in hard about Marcia Fine’s latest novel, Paris Lamb.
The book opens with the mysterious death of a prominent archaeologist about to present information about a group of relics known as “God’s Gold”—a candelabrum, two silver trumpets and a sacrificial table taken from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. They’re later discovered in the Vatican, and now the Vatican wants to liquefy the value of the objects to pay for the mounting legal fees from lawsuits against pedophilic priests, but the gold items have to be verified before they can be sold at a high-profile New Yorkauction attended by the biggest power players in the world.
With the number one authority gone, it’s up to biblical archaeologist Michael Saunders to deliver the academic goods. But are the temple artifacts authentic after all? Fine weaves a brilliant mystery involving more competitive archaeologists, snobby bluebloods and greedy Chinese nationals.
Buoying the action is Michael’s inner story: First, his romance with a gorgeous Parisian shop woman and her native City of Lights brings brings luscious texture. Also, the secret his mother revealed before her death gives context to his interest in God’s Gold itself, deepening his connection.
It’s a meticulously researched and glorious read that takes us all over the world, from the arrondissements of Paris to the Old City of Jerusalem to the bustle of Manhattan, each city shining with Fine’s rich descriptions.
In the six summers my children have escaped the heat for three weeks of archery, Israeli dancing and hip-hop HaMotzi (OMG, what, where has the time gone?! Now they both now pack razors!) I’ve tried to keep the gift parcels cheap and under control.
I make them cheap and infrequent—two per session at most—and follow camp guidelines, no matter how much Yenta Girl tries to convince me that pulling out the stuffing in a teddy bear and replacing it with a Costco-sized bag of Sour Patch Kids then duct-taping it inside a tampon box is totally cool with her counselors.
I’ve resisted the parental peer pressure to up my care package game and shook my head at the wackadoodle Pintrest pins (gluing a vision board to the inside of the box? NOT GONNA DO IT.)
Last week, as we were getting the kids settled in (did I mention it was their sixth year? They basically threw their duffels out of the car while it was still moving and shouted “Bye love you OMG THERE’S SHOSHANA!!!”) I observed a whole new level of meshuggeh.
When I went to the camp office to check on their canteen balances (enough to buy them a lemonade at Tweetsie Railroad, but not so much cash that they buy out the souvenir shop) I saw several mothers hustling in giant shopping bags full of cardboard boxes and padded manila envelopes. Some had broken out a rainbow of Sharpies and were color-coding them with “Week 1” and “Please deliver before third Shabbat” or “Give only if she is still homesick by fourth day.”
Yes, in addition to making a fourth freaking trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy the correct moisture-wicking underpants for the camping trip, these moms had planned, shopped and arranged three weeks of care packages in advance. AND PUT CUTE STICKERS ON THEM. Maybe I’m just jealous at their organizational skills, but this level of micromanagement seems just beyond healthy parenting parameters.
The kids hadn’t even dirtied a pair of socks yet, and already there was a huge, smothering wall of love piled up around the Gayle the Nice Office Lady’s desk. And what about spontaneity, or letting the kids let them know what they need in that first whiny letter their counselors make them write? It’s like buying next year’s Chanukah presents in February and finding out it October that they won’t be caught dead in a stupid Harry Styles t-shirt.
I self-righteously kvetched my thoughts on this to Gayle, who nodded sympathetically. Then she dropped the main reason these parents shlepped their care packages to camp:
“Well, it saves a lot on postage.”
Why didn’t I think of that? Woulda saved me the $20 I just spent to overnight pair of wool socks and some fake mustaches. Damn it.
WHEN I was 10 or 11, summer in Arizona was horrendously boring and hot as hell.
To keep me from burning holes in the pool furniture with a magnifying glass and O.D.ing on Days of Our Lives, my mother handed me the biggest book she could find: The paperback edition of Gone with the Wind looked like a brick and weighed about as much, and I dubiously hefted it onto my lap.
It took me all of a week to devour all 1,087 pages, love-hating spoiled Scarlett as I pined for Rhett and sobbed for Melanie. The burning of Atlanta seared my heart, and for years I fantasized about making a dress out of the Venetian blinds.
Between GWTW and repeated viewings of the adorable Myrtle Beach chick flick Shag at the local dollar theater, I formed some rath-uh romantic notions about the South in my youth.
By the time I met the surfer from Savannah who would become my husband, however, I had also acquired also a comprehensive liberal arts education that put me eye-to-eye with the true bloody history of the Civil War and the hard-earned legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, fermenting a passion for social equality and filling in the gaps of my imaginary petticoats. I married into the South with my eyes wide open, ready to embrace its complicated charms and difficult paradoxes.
As any wise person will tell you, marriage ain’t all about the romance, dahlin’.
As an outsider, I knew I’d never be considered a real Southerner no matter how deliciously I fry my okra (it’s all about the coconut oil, y’all). Such tacit acceptance has always been fine by me: As a Jewish hippie chick, I figured I was absolved from the past’s persistent evils, as though I could line dance and swill bourbon with the South’s fun-loving side and tiptoe away when it gets all blackout drunk and waves its guns around. I could be up to my earlobes in it, but not of it, so to speak.
I think that changed forever last week. We were at a wedding in upstate New York when the horrific shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church hit the news, ripping off the gauze on a wound that still seems to fester as deeply as it did 150 years ago. It can be argued that the South’s racial issues aren’t any more or less intense than the rest of the country’s—the most violent cases of racial unrest in modern history have taken place in the Midwest and Southern California—but slavery’s painful legacy remains embedded in its soil, in its history, in the heritage some of its citizens champion so fiercely.
I felt the backlash as we introduced ourselves to the other wedding guests and told them where we were from. There was an exception when one person asked excitedly, “Georgia? Did you see the zebras running through the streets?” I had to explain gently that last month’s flooding incident involving the escaped zoo animals actually took place in the country of Georgia, “like, near Russia.” She seemed very disappointed.
Mostly though, I watched eyes frost over warily, as if I was going to break out a Confederate flag bikini and an AK-47 and start spitting tobacco juice all over the furniture.
It was real strange to be judged as Southern. I mean, I did not put a boiled peanut in my mouth until I was well into my 30s. I birthed my babies in California with a doula and a bottle of Rescue Remedy. I was born in freaking New Jersey, for criminy’s sake.
Wait, y’all have got me all wrong! I wanted to shout. I am not responsible for this hot mess!
Instead, a surprise entered my heart: I found myself defending the South. Maybe I was just rebelling against the Yankee snarkiness that assumes everyone below the Mason-Dixon line has a double-digit IQ and a fried Twinkie in the glovebox. But I could not let my chosen home be reduced to the actions and attitudes of a few violent, inbred cockroaches.
Hackles raised, I spoke passionately about the joyful diversity of my kids’ public schools. I described the miles of forest and marsh, the kindness of strangers, the humble goodness of a paper plate of boiled shrimp caught in one’s own castnet.
Granted, I live in a lovely city with a racially-balanced city government, an organic farmers market and a thriving arts scene, a little bastion of progressive thinkers and educated transplants. It also helps that we’ve got The New York Times fawning all over Savannah like we’re the most covetable girl at the cotillion. (Three articles in two weeks? Any more of this courtin’, honey, and you’re gonna have to put a ring on it.)
Absolutely, Savannah is a precocious exception to the South that regularly sells out its natural resources to the highest bidder and still refuses to expand Medicaid benefits to millions under the Affordable Care Act no matter what SCOTUS says about subsidies.
This is the only South I know: One where for every Confederate flag on an F-350, there’s an Obama sticker on a Prius. Where there are more people authentically concerned and engaged with economic equality and social justice than any place I’ve ever lived.
The South I laud is the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a seat of the national food justice movement. It is where, in the wake of horror and death, we stand up, link arms and march together, black, white, brown, young, old, straight, gay, trans, and everyone in between.
To this adopted daughter, being Southern is to own the good, the bad and the ugly and work for better. It’s a bittersweet row to hoe, which is probably why we put so much goddamn sugar in the tea.
The Confederacy’s been dead and gone a long time, and even the most delusional debutante must know deep in her bones that South ain’t rising again, no matter how much starch it put in its white hoodie.
But as God as my witness, how I do believe that this South, our South, can and will rise above the ignorance and the corruption, heal the wounds and show the rest of America what forgiveness, perserverance and gentility really mean.