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

Legends, God and Gold: A Review of Paris Lamb by Marcia Fine

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Wed, 22 Jul 2015 13:37:43 | by Head Yenta

51kotAn7HgL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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.

450mcbee-menorahLike 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.

Buy or download here, and be sure to post your own review!

stacks_image_1962(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?)



Camp Care Packages: More Baggage than Bonus?

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Sun, 19 Jul 2015 16:39:43 | by Head Yenta

1823lovedA 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.



I Sing a Song of the South—But I Ain’t Whistlin’ Dixie

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Tue, 30 Jun 2015 16:54:53 | by Head Yenta

[cross-posted from Connect Savannah]

scarlett+green+velvetWHEN 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.

And what will we do with all those retired flags?

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.



Shavuot in The Shadow of Isis

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Mon, 08 Jun 2015 15:58:32 | by Head Yenta

dscn0311-copy-1433432006An 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:

This would be my fifth visit to the shrine of Nahum, a prophet of the Israelite exile who famously predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the Assyrian Empire’s mighty capital, in the seventh-century B.C.E….Each time I walk around in this dilapidated structure I graze my fingers over the ancient stones and pillars, and at once I am transported to a different time, when Kurdish Jews still lived here, prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948.

On this most recent pilgrimage to the synagogue, a small part of me was nervous, but not due to fear; I felt that something was pulling me to go to the synagogue on Shavuot and reaffirm some semblance of a Jewish presence in a very Jewish place, 30 miles from the Islamic State — a symbolic act of spiritual resistance.

Read the whole article here.

Fascinating stuff from a brave scholar–though I think I’ll stick with cheesecake and comfortable couches for Shavuot!



Don’t Fall Asleep in Hebrew School

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Thu, 21 May 2015 17:09:37 | by Head Yenta

This poor shlub is surely enjoying some unwanted fame this week after10373947_10152784001662233_4685397027155974914_n rabbinical student Sruli Schochet posted this photo on Instagram:

“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.’
We didn’t have the heart to tell him…”

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.

Read the rest here, and congrats to all the 2015 Best of Savannah winners!



Finally, Chagall’s Paintings Set to ‘Hava Nagila’

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Mon, 11 May 2015 16:27:14 | by Head Yenta

Because one genius always deserves another, Marc Chagall‘s glorious paintings of Jewish shtetl life have been set to the gorgeous music of violinist Maurice Sklar.



Donate to JWI, Look Like A Mensch

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Wed, 06 May 2015 21:18:14 | by Head Yenta

ECardPreviewImageMother’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!

flowers2Enjoy, mom!



#ItWasNeverADress Creator and Former Yenta Youth Group Crony Demolishes Gender Stereotypes

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Mon, 04 May 2015 18:20:54 | by Head Yenta

bathroom-sign-gender-equality-it-was-never-a-dress-tania-katan-1Hopefully by now you’ve caught a glimpse of the reworked universal symbol everyone is talking about:

This graphic whipped through the interwebs this weekend with mentions in the New York Times, BoredPanda, the Today Show, HuffPo and about eleventy billion tweets lauding its brilliance.

What better way to “shift perceptions and assumptions about women” than to reveal the ubiquitous bathroom lady as the superhero she was all along?

The campaign was launched last week by Arizona-based software company Axosoft as PR for its Girl in Tech Conference and to promote more female participation in Science, Tech, Engineering, Art and Math, which is always a good thing.

But here’s my favorite kicker: #ItWasNeverADress is the brainchild of a certain Tania Katan, author, activist and the reason why Temple Emanuel youth group meetings in the 1980s were so much fun. She recently left her post as Curator of Performing Arts at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art to become Creator of Code at Axosoft, a surprising switch that shows just how creative and exciting the STEAM world has become.

Super proud to know this woman and watch her genius shine!

Watch Tania ‘splain the campaign here.



Peace Out Friday: Sending Love and Blessings to Baltimore and Beyond

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Fri, 01 May 2015 15:40:42 | by Head Yenta

53db6d364a6651948a4c3b6d461763c0What a week. Some of us are graced with the knowledge that we’ll have some peaceful hours with loved ones, save a soccer game or two. And maybe an annoying trip to Home Depot.

Others among us enter the weekend without respite from the injustice and inequalities that make their lives miserable.

As I light the candles later this eve (no, never on time), I’ll send up a Sim Shalom, the prayer for peace for all.

Kids always learn the happy, clappy version, but Julie Silver’s tune has always been my favorite; somehow, the somber chord progression gives this prayer the depth it deserves.

I love the translation below—we’re all in this together, friends.

A peaceful Shabbat and wonderful weekend to all—and may we hold compassion for all those who suffer.

(“Peace Hamsa” by Kansas City artist Laura Bolter.)



Yes #MarriageEquality ‘Cause I LOVE to Cry At Weddings

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Thu, 30 Apr 2015 13:30:52 | by Head Yenta

I TAKE my role as a wedding guest very seriously. In fact, I have a checklist:

Flat shoes, ’cause I like to tear up the dance floor once the giddy couple does their first twirl. I can usually find someone’s old aunt to join me in the Charlie Brown.

Also, a roomy purse to take home a slice of cake. Superstition says that if you sleep with it

Chela Gutierrez (l.) married Cody Shelley in front of God and everybody in a ceremony presided over by sometimes-minister Roy Wood.

Chela Gutierrez (l.) married Cody Shelley in front of God and everybody in a ceremony presided over by sometimes-minister Roy Wood.

under your pillow, you’ll dream of your future spouse. I already married my Jewish McDreamy, but I do like my late night snacks in bed.

By far the most important thing to bring to a wedding is a lot of tissues. Witnessing two people declare that they’re in it together for life—even when the toilet clogs and somebody burns dinner at least once a week—always pushes my happy-cry button. And McDreamy doesn’t like it when I wipe my nose on his yarmulke.

For sure I shed some extra tears at the recent nuptials of Cody Shelley and Chela Gutierrez. Not only were these two lovelies totally made for each other, the ceremony had the distinction as my—and many of the other 250 or guests’—first gay wedding.

The scary storm clouds skedaddled at the last second to reveal a glorious, honey-glow afternoon, as clear a sign as any that the heavens were completely on board.

While they had to get their official marriage license across the border in South Carolina (more on that irony later), Cody and Chela—the communications director at Tybee Marine Science Center and one of Savannah’s Fire Dept.’s finest, respectively—exchanged vows April 18 at Juliette Gordon Low Park in front of a diverse crowd of friends, family, co-workers and cohorts.

To be honest, it wasn’t so different from any other wedding, other than that the betrothed each danced down the aisle to the raucous beats of the SCAD drumline. (Pachelbel’s Canon in D is for straight people and Muggles.)

Service Brewing, the Beer Growler and Five Point Beverage kept the suds and bubbles flowing. There were Pinterest-perfect details like Madame Chrysanthemum‘s fuschia feather bouquets and the pink souvenir koozies emblazoned with “C + C”. The homemade lasagna buffet was followed by a rose-festooned cake, courtesy of Cody’s mom, Diana Shelley. (“No pizza in sight,” somebody snickered.)

As internet-ordained minister Roy Wood (“I bought the collar online, too!”) reminded that we were gathered here today for a purpose “both spiritual and of the earth,” I felt the familiar tears of joy rise.

The event may have been monumental in its political significance, but in that tranquil moment under the shimmery pines, it was simply two people promising to share bathroom towels forever.

Still, when Roy declared, “I now pronounce you ‘Wives for Lives!'” I couldn’t help but bawl out loud for the sweet justice of it all.

I wasn’t the only one clutching a bouquet of wadded-up Kleenex.

“Even though we don’t want to make it a big deal, it is,” sniffed artist and landscape architect Lisa Watson, dabbing at her eyes.

For those who grew up in a time when “gay” was something discussed in hushed, disapproving tones, Cody and Chela’s wedding represented a welcome shift in the direction of cultural enlightenment.

(On a related note, Gay Savannah’s Tybee Rainbow Fest takes over the island this weekend.)

“I think it’s so wonderful,” kvelled liberal maven Miriam Center, marveling at the sea change towards the normalization of gay marriage in the last decade.

“They are great girls and deserve all the happiness in the world.”

Most of us feel exactly the same way. The latest poll shows that 61 percent of Americans believe gay marriage ought to be legal, and the same amount agrees that state bans on same-sex unions should not be.

Georgia remains one of the last 13 holdouts still clinging to its puritanical petticoats as the rest of the country flips a double-bird at pathetic prejudices cloaked as “religious freedom.”

How South Carolina—where it is still illegal to make moonshine or, if you’re under 18, operate a pinball machine—became more progressive than us remains baffling.

This week the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional, and it’s looking pretty good that the feds will overturn those discriminatory overtures. Attorney General Sam Olens has said that Georgia won’t fight the supreme edict, though I’ll bet my best Ginger Goff flats that legislation akin to the now-strangled SB 129, aka “the religious liberty bill,” will rear its vituperative snake head in the next session.

For those of us who understand that the most important part of the phrase “liberty and justice for all” is the last two words, marriage equality certainly intersects with civil rights. But Cody is surprisingly thoughtful about whether the fight for it is as paramount as society’s other scourges.

“On one hand, the debate is a distraction from issues of systemic violence and injustice. For me, it’s hard to scream about my right to marry while immigrant children are being deported, trans kids are killing themselves, and the school-to-prison pipeline incarcerates generations of black men,” she muses.

“On the other hand, I’d rather confront those inequalities with a wife by my side. And I damn sure want the same legal rights as the next married couple.”

For now, without the same legal protection, tax benefits and parental rights afforded hetero marriages, Cody and Chela’s union remains symbolic in our home state.

But symbols hold power, and these women showed tremendous courage and generosity by inviting what seemed like half the town to what they called their “big, fat, gay wedding.”

“Our decision to have it in the first half of 2015 was based solely on the upcoming Supreme Court decision,” says blushing bride Cody. (Her sparkling spouse Chela admits all she cared about was getting to dance down the aisle to the drums. That, and getting the girl.)

“I’m proud to have been the first gay wedding for so many friends and families. I hope the experience has a ripple effect throughout our lives and brings even just a few more people to the side of equality and love.”

I hope so, too, and that it translates not only to wedded bliss but to the resolution of injustice for all.

I also hope the SCOTUS ruling means I get invited to a lot more weddings.

But I’m definitely going to need a bigger purse.

Cross-posted from this week’s Connect Savannah.