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
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Mon, 31 Aug 2015 19:51:36 | by Head Yenta
Listen, we all know I have a honeycake burning problem.
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.
I’m still about keeping it local, of course, so I’m delighted to have come across this recipe on the Joy of Kosher blog for Orange Blossom Spiced Honeycake, using honey from one of my favey local spots, the Savannah Bee Co. (Not local? Shop the site, or get the sticky goods from Modern Tribe.)
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.
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Tue, 11 Aug 2015 18:58:16 | by Head Yenta
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.)
I had the honor of writing a jewel for the very first book (linked here, or scroll to the bottom of this post) and have delighted ever since in the sweet shorts contributed by many wise souls, Jewish and not. (Hey there, Dalai Lama, hey…)
For round 11, Craig asked his legions of fans and followers to submit their favorites, a precious necklace of crowd-sourced gems, if you will: Jewels of Elul: Ten Years of Inspiration is available starting this Friday, Aug. 15, otherwise known as the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, and will come right to your inbox if you like.
The 29 shorts feature Elie Weisel, Anita Diamant (The Red Tent, y’all!), a whole bunch of rabbis including David Wolpe and Rami Shapiro, Pastor Rick Warren, brilliant feminist filmmaker Jill Soloway, Mary J. Blige, Arnold Schwarzenegger…and me.
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.
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Tue, 04 Aug 2015 15:01:25 | by Head Yenta
So, embarrassing fact: I just watched Wet Hot American Summer for the first time last week.
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.
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Wed, 22 Jul 2015 13:37:43 | by Head Yenta
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.
Like Spielberg’s ark, the artifacts Fine presents in fiction are based in history, by the way: The Arch of Titus shows the Romans carrying them away from Jerusalem, and there are many accounts of witnessing the presence of Jewish ritual objects and manuscripts in the Vatican, though no Pope has copped to it yet. Perhaps the friendly Pope Francis will be amenable to negotiations if any of it’s true?
In the meantime, Paris Lamb gives us a chance to wonder what might happen if such legendary objects found their way to the modern world, though—spoiler!—no one’s face melts off.
(Of course, most of y’all know that Marcia Fine is not only an accomplished speaker and writer, she’s also my mom. But what’s a little kvelling between friends?)
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Sun, 19 Jul 2015 16:39:43 | by Head Yenta
A couple of years back in a post called “Camp Care Packages or Parcels of Dysfunction,” I mused on the possible insane implications of overthinking a padded envelope of Mad Libs and temporary tattoos.
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.
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Tue, 30 Jun 2015 16:54:53 | by Head Yenta
[cross-posted from Connect Savannah]
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.
And what will we do with all those retired flags?
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
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Mon, 08 Jun 2015 15:58:32 | by Head Yenta
An interesting article in today’s Forward by friend Benjamin Kweskin, who used to plan programming at the Savannah JEA few years back and has moved on to far more exotic adventures:
“Praying at a Jewish Tomb in the Shadow of Isis” recounts his recent trip to the ancient Kurdish town of Al-Qosh to celebrate Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and usually celebrated by eating delicious dairy and praying all night long.
Ben decided to up the ante by visiting an 2500 year-old synagogue in a mountaintop village thrillingly close to ISIS HQ:
Fascinating stuff from a brave scholar–though I think I’ll stick with cheesecake and comfortable couches for Shavuot!
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Thu, 21 May 2015 17:09:37 | by Head Yenta
“So we were at the Walmart in Bentonville, AR, buying some food and we see this guy with a massive arm tattoo. Shmueli Newman asks him if he knows what it means. ‘Yes,’ he proudly says, ‘it means ‘strength’ just like my name. I got it while I was in the military.’
Listen, I can barely follow the V’ahavta without transliteration, but even I know that guy’s arm says “matzah.” But only because of the vowels.
As Schochet noted in the comments on his post: “Let’s just say, there is a white guy in Arkansas walking around with the Hebrew word for ‘cracker’ on his arm…and he doesn’t know it!”
Listen, I’d be hardy-har-har-ing along with the rest of y’all, if only I hadn’t made my own egregious grammatical mistake this week: In this week’s Connect Savannah profile of Best Clergy of 2015, I somehow managed to spell my own rabbi’s name wrong–IN ENGLISH.
It’s been fixed online, but print is well, printed. But let’s talk about the irony of a Jewish person elected as the favorite person of the cloth in a city steeped in Christianity:
SAVANNAH’S Jewish community may be America’s third oldest and one of its most storied, but it remains a fact that synagogue dwellers will always be a tiny minority in this city. Yet out of all the pastors, reverends, ministers and priests preaching the Good Word out there, y’all somehow elected a rabbi as the favorite clergy of 2015. Perhaps it’s a testament to Savannah’s accepting climate, or maybe you’re all secret gefilte fish fans.
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Mon, 11 May 2015 16:27:14 | by Head Yenta
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Wed, 06 May 2015 21:18:14 | by Head Yenta
Mother’s Day is coming up fast, and while I kvell and kvetch about my own state of motherhood in this week’s Civil Society Column, I can’t forget to give props to the woman who birthed me.
I can’t give her a bouquet from my own garden because 1) we live 2000 miles apart and 2) the stupid chickens ate the zinnias and 3) my mother is allergic to certain flowers, but I can’t remember which ones.
So I continue my yearly tradition of the next best thing:
For half the price of some hothouse wax job, the Flower Project of Jewish Women’s International sends out an instant e-card to your favorite mama and uses the funds to bring fresh flowers to domestic women’s shelters all over the country.
Each $25 card shows your mom what a mensch you’ve become by thinking of others, and you still have plenty of time to get it done, in case you happen to be super busy.
It’s ingenious—all the flowers for Mom, but none of the sinus problems!