Yo, Yenta!

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.

Copyright Jessica Leigh Lebos - Published at YoYenta.com, part of the Jmerica.com Network

Dueling Passover Parodies: Six 13 vs. Aish HaTorah

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Mon, 30 Mar 2015 15:37:04 | by Head Yenta

To some, Passover might mean long seders and matztapation (I thought I made that up, but apparently not.) But bring on the boils, ’cause this Yenta only cares about one thing: It’s parody season!

Pesach 5775 brings us the miracle of not one but TWO fabulous Talmudic interpretations of Bruno Mars’ tushy shpilkiss-inducing “Uptown Funk”

First, those nice yeshiva boys Six 13 with the lovely a cappella skillz trotted out their version a few weeks ago.The breakdown of the plagues is super clever, and how rad is that matzah beach ball?

Then the boyz at Aish HaTorah slid in with their sizzling historical adaptation. Honestly, is there anything hotter than breakdancing tzitzit? Also, now I want a limo driver named Yankele.

So which one’s your favorite? Plenty of time to stew on it. Speaking of which, try the stewed apricots for that matzapation.



Mickve Israel’s museum makeover

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Tue, 24 Mar 2015 16:52:10 | by Head Yenta
  • Toby Hollenberg (l.) and Eileen Lobel look at almost 300 years of Savannah Jewish history. - JON WAITS/@JWAITSPHOTO Jon Waits/@jwaitsphoto

This week in the Civil Society Column:

THE RENOVATION of Savannah’s only Jewish museum holds important implications for all of us, even if you don’t know a knish from a kishke.

Listen, dahlink, this isn’t about theology or politics. And I’m not here to debate whether “Jewish” means a religion or an ethnicity or a secret ingredient that imbues regular chicken soup with magical powers. (My perspective continues to vary between a.) All of the above, but not all of the time b.) It depends; who wants to know? and c.) Oy, can we eat already? Pass the salt.)

Above all else, Judaism is a story, an epic tale that has survived pharaohs, pogroms and Hitler’s unspeakable evils, one intertwined with Western civilization. The tiny chapter written by Savannah’s Jewish community is not only unique, it’s essential to this city’s history—and its future.

It starts in July 1733 with Gen. James Oglethorpe, three months into his colonial experiment on Yamacraw Bluff. The good general had already lost a tenth of his troops to a mysterious marsh illness when the London-launched ship William and Sarah sailed up the river and requested amnesty.

On board were 41 Jewish pioneers, including Dr. Samuel Nunez Ribeiro, a descendant of Portuguese Jews expelled at the time of Christopher Columbus and forced to practice their traditions in secret. Dr. Nunez soothed those festering with fever and saved dozens of lives. Gen. O welcomed him and his band of freedom seekers as citizens of Savannah, granting them full rights and plots of land.

(Grateful as they must have been, you know somebody still kvetched, “We came across the ocean for this heat? And the bugs! What, we couldn’t find a nice place in New Amsterdam?”)

So right there, this act of tolerance and inclusion defined Savannah’s earliest days. Mickve Israel remains the third-oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.

“From the beginning, we were here,” reminds the timeline of the newly refurbished museum on the second floor of the Gothic synagogue on Monterey Square.

Indeed, American history is mirrored on every wall, from the portrait of Revolutionary War hero Mordecai Sheftall to the tasseled Chatham Artillery helmet worn by Chaplain Rabbi George Solomon. Original letters from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many more presidents congratulate the congregation on its major anniversaries—including one from President Obama on its 275th.

The installation also unblinkingly examines Jewish Savannahians’ roles on the losing side of the Civil War, documenting spy Eugenia Levy Phillips, whose sneaky efforts are credited towards the Confederate victory at Manassas. (Though being freed from Egypt is an important plot line in the Jewish story, some Southern scions ignored the cruel irony of owning slaves.)

Decades later, three Mickve Israel members became Juliette Gordon Low’s first Girl Scout leaders, and the museum chronicles congregational connections to the Mighty Eighth Army Air Corps and Tony-award winning play Driving Miss Daisy.

The crown jewels of the permanent exhibit are its oldest: Two deerskin Torah scrolls that date back to the 1400s, gallantly protected through the tumult of the centuries and now professionally archived under bulletproof glass courtesy of North Carolina-based Studio Displays, Inc. One is still used on holy occasions, though thankfully the ancient circumcision kit is not.

click to enlarge The crown jewels of the permanent exhibit are its oldest: Two deerskin Torah scrolls that date back to the 1400s - JON WAITS/@JWAITSPHOTO

  • Jon Waits/@jwaitsphoto

“We have all of these wonderful artifacts, and I’m thrilled to see them displayed professionally,” says Jane Feiler, who with her husband, Ed, collaborated with the late David Byck, Jr. and architect Henry Levy on the original museum in the 1970s.

Already one of Georgia’s top Trip Advisor destinations, the upgrade was made possible by beloved local attorney Alan Gaynor, who passed in 2010. Member Greg Mafcher volunteered to manage the project, and committee members Toby Hollenberg, Eileen Lobel, Ellen Byck, Herbert and Teresa Victor, Jules and Phoebe Kerness and Rabbi Saul Rubin went through the 400+ items piece by piece, parsing the tsotchkes from the treasures.

“We didn’t throw anything away,” promises Toby. My bubbe—who escaped from Poland in the 1930s and saved every scrap of paper because “you never know”—would be very relieved.

But my bubbe would also be wringing her hands over the news right now. Anti-Semitic violence and vandalism has surged across Europe in the past year, from the massacre at a kosher supermarket in Paris to the shooting of a security guard at a synagogue in Copenhagen. Even as Pope Francis and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemn them, the alarming rash of attacks on Jewish people, businesses and synagogues continues. Writer Jeffrey Goldberg asked in The Atlantic last week if it’s time for Jews to leave Europe for good.

Here in America, the FBI reported in 2013 that 62 percent of anti-religious hate crimes target Jews. Every day I see Facebook acquaintances conflate their criticism of Israeli politics with prejudice and hatred. The vitriol has shaken my conviction humanity has learned its lessons from the Holocaust—which wiped out not only a third of the world’s Jewry but millions of Catholics, gays, disabled citizens and people of color barely 70 years ago.

Next week, Jewish and Christian families around the world will gather to celebrate Passover and Easter, each with its themes of renewal and freedom. My family has always encouraged a macabre sense of humor, and my brother broke us all up at last year’s seder table with a joking game of “Who Would Hide Us?” This year, it doesn’t seem so hilarious.

Perhaps when we open the door for the prophet Elijah, we will keep the door cracked to remind us of how many people in the world still need amnesty, and how lucky we are to live in a country where our rights were written in from the very beginning.

As Jewish history brims with tragedy at every turn, here in Savannah it is far outweighed by triumph. Curated on Monterey Square is not simply preservation of the past, but a hopeful testament for a future where diversity of all kinds is honored.

Savannah’s Jewish story is just one example of how the principles of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion beget strong communities.

If you believe those principles are the path to healing our city, our country and maybe even the whole wide world, then it’s your story, too.



The Blind Eye Takes Over AZ and Beyond!

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Wed, 11 Mar 2015 13:20:25 | by Head Yenta

stacks_image_1962Shepping HUGE nachas for my mama, Marcia Fine!

Her engrossing and entertaining fourth novel, The Blind Eye: A Sephardic Journey, has been chosen as the winner in the adult category for ONEBOOKAZ, which encourages all Arizonans to participate in one giant book club.

What this means is that basically, my mother is the Oprah of Arizona.

Anyone can download a free copy of The Blind Eye from March 14-June 1, and I look forward to the many discussions about the Jewish history of the Iberian Peninsula with my desert peeps!

Here’s the trailer:

(If anyone is wondering how my dear dad is spending his time these days, how do you think that video got posted? :) )

Also, look for her new book, Paris Lamb, to be released this spring.



A Very Classy Purim

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Thu, 05 Mar 2015 16:32:55 | by Head Yenta

HamantaschenLast night the Yenta crew went Whole Megillah for our favorite holiday!

Purim commemorates Queen Esther’s badass rescue of the Jewish people from the conniving Haman, and somehow that’s become a fabulous excuse to dress up and drink.

I didn’t break out the turban this year and El Yenta Man didn’t come in drag, but hilarity still ruled as we groggered and grogged the night away.

I mean, when your rabbi pays homage to the late, great Leonard Nimoy while dressed as Gonzo from the Muppets, that is a party.

Gonzo Rabbi

Gonzo Rabbi

Unfortunately, the kids didn’t think so. Yenta Son barely met the family costume requirement by ruining my eyebrow pencil. Nonplussed

The addition of blanched green beans, however, greatly enhanced his look.Stringbean mouthLittle Yenta Princess kept it classy, as always: PrettySome people think Purim is a children’s holiday, but that’s ridiculous. We’ll be dressing up long after the kids are grown, and I hope we look as good as the Hofsteins:MichaelMarian

We missed the kid version of the Purim shpiel Sunday, so I was soooo glad Miss Piggy and Kermit reprised their roles: PiggyKermitEl Yenta Man wishes I would bring the pink flask every time we go to synagogue. Yenta Princess does not approve.

EYMflask

As he read from Mickve Israel’s 600+ year old Megillah — the oldest in the Western Hemisphere — Rabbi Gonzo reiterated that a warped sense of humor has been the key to Jewish survival for 6000 years. It sure isn’t because we blend. Megillah

Purim sameach and boundless silliness to all y’all!

YentaEMYclose

 

 



Manischewitz announces Non-GMO Matzo!

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Fri, 23 Jan 2015 13:35:53 | by Head Yenta

320f527614308ec071a37bed938fe627On all other nights, most Reform Jews eat whatever the hell they want.

But on Passover, we abstain from fluffy breadish products and suffer with matzo not only to honor our ancestors, but perhaps to lend a bit of consciousness to our consuming to the rest of the year.

While the Yenta family does not keep strictly kosher (El Yenta Man has to cook his shrimp on the grill), we do try to keep our food as local and non-Monsanto-stained as possible, so I’m very excited at that this news:

Massive mazto maker Manischewitz has announced a whole line of non-GMO Project Verified foods for our Passover tables this spring. The list includes pretty much everything but the gefilte fish:

  • Matzos
  • Matzos Thin Tea
  • Matzo Meals
  • Matzo Farfel
  • Matzo Cake Meal
  • Organic Matzo
  • Organic Spelt Matzo
  • Whole Grain Matzo Farfel
  • Whole Grain Matzo Meal
  • Whole Wheat Matzos
  • Unsalted Matzo

If you’re not familiar with the debate over genetically-modified ingredients–aka GMOs–have a look here.

It seems to me that ALL food that is genetically modified–and we’re not talking about old-fashioned cross-breeding–ought to be considered unkosher for its insidious dicking with God’s perfect genome, but hey, I’m no rabbi.

But I do know that come April El Yenta Man is going to soooo happy about his non-GMO organic spelt mazto brie!

 



Welcome to 2015: Southern Living names Michael Twitty a Changemaker

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Tue, 06 Jan 2015 15:56:49 | by Head Yenta

Listen, when I moved to the deep South from the hippie nether regions of Northern California, I had some serious slaps upside the head.

First, boiled peanuts. Also, the weird thing the South does with marginalizing and often outright ignoring its history of slavery.

And then there’s the secret social code.Other than reading Gone with the Wind when I was 10, I really had no blueprint on how to fit in, and I sure as shit wasn’t gonna make anything pretty to wear out of the curtains.

These days, I feel pretty good about being a Southerner these days. I write a lot about pervasive and persisting socioeconomic and environmental issues in the Civil Society Column for Connect Savannah. I’ve documented some of my misadventures in Confessions of a Hapless–But Not Hopeless–Southern Belle.

And I have to say for the most part, my experience of the last few years is that the South has as vibrant a progressive and hip momentum as anywhere, only with better side dishes.

michael-twitty-lI mean, when Southern Living — the favorite magazine of steel magnolias for over a century — names a black, Jewish renegade slave historian as one of 50 People Who Are Changing the South in 2015, you know change has already come, nu?

Check it out:

This year you might see food historian Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria camped out at landmarks across the South re-creating historical meals with local chefs—one of the many ways Michael is preserving African-American foodways in the region. Be on the lookout for his forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene, which documents his personal journey exploring the connection between food and history from Africa to America.

I had the honor and joy of hanging around the fire with this visionary a few months ago, and I’m so pleased to see him included on a Super List with The Bitter Southerner, feminist beermakers and an Avett Brother.

Mazel tov, Michael!

 



Merry Christmas from Yo, Yenta!

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Thu, 25 Dec 2014 16:23:41 | by Head Yenta

If anyone needs me, we’ll be at the 1pm showing of Into the Woods and eating crappy dim sum. Merry Christmas!



Please Ms. DJ, Spin Us a Lil’ Chanukah

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Tue, 16 Dec 2014 17:50:48 | by Head Yenta

Oooh oooh the countdown is ON!

I’ve got the frying pan ready and the non-swastika wrapping paper bought and enough candles to burn a hole in the roof. But I just cannot light the menorahs without a Chanukah video round-up (even if Ha’aretz got there before me this year!)

Here are Yo, Yenta!’s top picks for 2014’s Festival of Lights:

This one, I love, tired old tunes and all! Such mensches, the men of Shir Soul, with their non-competitive, color-coded dreidel playing and gorgeous harmonies!

 

This one, I’m feeling a little “meh” about. Why my beloved Maccabeats gotta parody a tune that already gives me the retchies? Of course Little Yenta Girl just adores it and has been singing it non-stop, which is better than hearing her croon about her tushy (a la the original) in the shower. (BTW, “neis” means miracle.)

And THIS one, well, I’m not sure. At first, I dismissed this “Jew Girl Rapper” and her “JAP RAPS” with the references to stereotypes about money, allergies and big noses.

But she a certain facility of language (those with dainty ears: she cusses A LOT, a quality I personally find super-endearing), and her breakdown of the Maccabee story kicks ass. (Although I’m pretty sure bubbe is sitting shivah over her Yom Kippur, Bitch.)

But always, ALWAYS, it’s the Sephardic-flavored “Ocho Kandelikas” that get the Yenta house grooving. Here’s a jazzy rendition by house favorite Pink Martini:

Chappy Chanukah to all y’all and here’s to a season of light and love! xo Yo, Yenta!



Really, What Would Chanukah Be Without Swastika Wrapping Paper?

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Tue, 09 Dec 2014 15:34:18 | by Head Yenta

walgreensswastika-wA SoCal bubbie got an icky surprise when perusing the Chanukah endcap of her neighborhood Walgreen’s this weekend:

Cheryl Shapiro was admiring a silver and blue roll of wrapping paper with her grandson when she realized that the blocky modern designs really, really looked like swastikas.

Like any good Jewish grandma, she expressed outrage and demanded that all the rolls be removed.

“I came home and I spoke to my rabbi. He couldn’t believe it,” Shapiro told her local NBC News affiliate. “I’m still very upset about it, that something like this could be on the market.”

The origin of the design remains a mystery, but expect Walgreen’s to come out with an apology later today. (Guess they’ll have to pull those all those yellow star garlands, too?)

I’ve been staring at the photo all morning, and I’m torn. On one hand, I’m thinking some graphic designer in Bangladesh had too much chai tea and simply got a little too aggressive with his M.C. Escher aspirations. Then again, swastikas.

We Jews tend to be sensitive to such things, but professional provocateur Perez Hilton says it’s up for discussion.

What sayeth y’all, Yenta folk?



No Mensch on This Bench

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Mon, 01 Dec 2014 19:39:31 | by Head Yenta

mosheMeet the Mensch on the Bench, the circumcised answer to the manipulative, passive-aggressive Elf on the Shelf phenomenon.

Apparently some Jewish families have been suffering from “Elf Envy.” And because this is America, some schnorrer enterprising gentleman is getting rich because no good parent would deny their precious child another tsotchke.

C’mon, Yenta, you’re saying. You’re just bitter because your kids are too old to fall for the “behave yourselves or the mensch won’t bring you prezzies” nonsense.

You may be right. Perhaps I’m becoming an alterkocker in my 40s. For reals, I’m so old school I still spell Chanukah with a “C.”

I admit, the book that accompanies this little man actually looks kind of cute and somewhat redemptive in its moral tale.

And I guess it makes little Jewish kidlets feel good that even though Santa’s not freaking coming ever, at least there’s a stuffed midget moving around the living room. He might even be useful if he can clean wax out of the menorahs.

But I don’t like contrived, million-dollar ideas masquerading as “new traditions.”

Whywhywhywhy us Jews gotta be all “Let’s Christmas up Chanukah” all the time? Why do Jewish kids need a Mensch on the Shelf, or his less flashy Israeli cousin, The Maccabee on the Mantel?

Look, I’m all about flashing up ancient ritual. I understand the need to create a sense of belonging however we can in Judaism, and I fully support creative appropriation of decor, within limits. (Blue lights around the palm tree in the front yard? Cool. Decorating any type of indoor foliage. HELL NO.)

I just think it’s difficult enough to cultivate healthy Jewish identities from the roiling stew of nationalistic idealism, capitalistic brand brainwashing and plain old family weirdness.

On the other hand, Blue Velvet Cupcakes? That I can get behind.