Fifteen Religious Jews Jumping in a Lake

Fifteen religious Jews jumping in a lake. That sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?

But it isn’t. It is was what I saw the other day.

Imagine you’re taking a walk along a remote dirt road on the south side of a lake in rural Maine. You notice it’s green everywhere, the air is fresh; it smells of moss and moist earth.

Suddenly you hear a car approaching, the way tires sound on a pebbly road, and you prepare to step over to the side as what you now notice is a van, no wait, two vans with New York plates approach.

As the vans pass you, you see that they are full of young, religious Jewish dudes, with their payot or side curls flowing freely, and their black kippot or skullcaps propped loosely on their more or less shaven heads. The driver, a pimply, blond, round faced guy leans out of the window with a cigarette between his lips.

They slow down and ask us if we know of any public access here; they’d like to swim. My friend, who is also Jewish, but to them looks like just a “regular” guy (jeans, t-shirt, a cap) walks over to the window of the car, leans in and assesses the peering dark eyes, the cramped in young male bodies, and says “Shalom aleichem!” This startles the driver greatly, who exclaims, incredulously, “You’re Jewish!?”

They think they are the only Jews in Maine.

After a few introductory remarks, just to eliminate all doubt of imposture, my friend leans in again and says, in the tone of loving zayde or grandfather, “Come out here guys, so I can see you!” whereupon they all gladly pour out of both vans and begin to gather chaotically around us. Some have towels slung over their shoulders, they are all wearing tzitzit, the required fringes that hang down from their everyday undergarment, casually and loosely worn over white t-shirts. One guy is wearing a dark, blue terry cloth bath robe.

There’s laughter, questions, some light up cigarettes, others pace nervously between the cars, some smile at me while yet others shy away from my gaze when we answer their inquiries about where the best spot to swim might be. They tell my friend to come join them for davning – prayers – at their camp in the next town over, and stick a note in his hand with their phone number scribbled on it.

We know well where a great spot for swimming is. We direct them. We point and explain. As they climb back into the vans, they thank us, and we hear laughter and excitement as the drivers struggle a bit to turn the vans around on the narrow dirt road, and then they honk as they drive off.

When we approach the turn in the road, on the other side of the lake, where we had suggested they give the swimming a try, we hear them; shrieks of joyful sounds cutting through the woods, splashing water, and loud music. Religious, up-beat music blasting from the speakers in the vans.

The sight was worth a million dollars. There were the fifteen religious Jews having the time of their lives swimming, basking, splashing, jumping, dunking and diving. A couple had swum out to an orange, plastic, floating pier and were dancing on top of it. Holding each other’s arms and dancing the way you might see religious Jews dance at a simcha or a celebration.

Fifteen religious Jews jumping in the lake; it was such a great and refreshing vision to see them enjoying themselves freely and wholeheartedly, basking in some of God’s finest natural surroundings, far away from their native Brooklyn.

And that’s when it dawned on me why they may have been especially happy: With the Jewish day of morning just behind us; Tisha B’Av having ended a couple days before, and the Sabbath coming the next day, the young men were also using the spring fed lake as a mikvah, or a ritual bath. Getting ready for the holiness of the day of rest, and perhaps marking the possibilities born from new beginnings after a solemn fast day, which Tisha B’Av had been, they were indeed rejoicing.

Fifteen religious Jews jumping in a lake. I was lucky to meet them that day.

Two male friends jumping off dock into lake in mid air

 

 

My Day of Mourning

Starting tonight, I will observe the Jewish day of mourning called Tisha B’Av, or the ninth day of the month of Av, in my own way. I will appropriate the significance of it –– commemorating the many tragedies that have affected the Jewish people throughout history through fasting and prayers –– and I will shape it to make sense in my historical context.

I will light a memorial candle for ALL the victims in the current crisis in the Middle East. Just before sunset, I will eat a hard boiled egg dipped in ashes as a symbol for the mourner, then I will fast for 25 hours, and I will read from the traditional Book of Lamentations. I will continue my prayers for peace, although much more intently, because I will know in my heart there will be millions of Jews around the world who will be crying out at the same time as myself for an end to this suffering. To all suffering.

One way to help me achieve this spiritual time out will be to NOT open Facebook for the duration of Tisha B’Av. For whenever I do, I get tempted and find it impossible not to dive into the glittery, colorful ocean of graphic and verbal debates and accusations about who is at fault, who started, who is using too much force, or the wrong or unfair weapons or tactics. I get sucked in. Like a well meaning, peace seeking California dude surfer, I get sucked into a vortex of bad karma stuff that leaves me feeling like I am suffocating. Drowning. And I need to breathe to live. I need hope.

I will try to be yogic about it: to seek some kind of transcendence, if only momentary, for something that does not make any sense at all: human suffering as it is inevitably brought on in wars.

Where did all those great yoga sayings go, anyway?

 

candle_Candle_light_3009

Oh, the Meaty Delight!

Last night I had me some meaty delight. Or was it meaty guilt? I’m afraid it was a bit of both. I don’t eat a lot of red meat, but when I do, boy do I relish the mouthfuls. It almost puzzles me – even shocks me – as I masticate and “mmmmm” my way through the flesh of another creature, that I, who am normally so full of empathy for all living things, can, and seek to, enjoy eating meat as much as I do.

Let it just be said I “only” enjoy it once a week or less; does this make me less of an offender, your honor?

So, about last night. I cut into the best part of the prime rib we cooked for dinner on the BBQ; the tip part that has the most marbleization – that’s just fancy talk for fat – then found a suitably sized piece of roasted potato to go with it on my fork, and then, finally, a small chunk of caramelized garlic. I put this divine trio in my mouth and I didn’t even try to hold back my moan. I actually moaned.

I’m not the kind of gal who saves the best for last. In fact, I usually eat the best part first, with the idea that perhaps I will be satiated before the food on my plate is gone, and then, at least, if I should die of a heart attack mid-meal, I will have enjoyed the good stuff while I was able to.

I think this loosely translates to a theory of how one can choose to live life. My dad was big on this one. “Let’s enjoy each other while we have us,” he used to say, always acknowledging the relativity of it all.

Of course, I never seem to the heed the “satiated” feeling, that little voice in your head that says “you can and should stop eating now, because even though you don’t actually feel it yet, you are full,” so I end up eating everything on my plate anyway, and then some. Perhaps that’s where the guilt comes in.

Well, as I write these words a fisherman glides by in his canoe on the lake in front of my cabin, his fishing pole bobbing off to the side, the line gently and gracefully skimming the water’s surface.

Perhaps I should try catching me some fish for dinner, even though fish have feelings too.

Prime Rib

 

Chef: The Big Turn On – A Film Review

I admit it, I’m a not just a middle aged social media-hooker, but also a food-porn fan, so the new foodie flick and summer hit, Chef, totally made my day. If you have not yet partaken of this inviting orgasmic, I mean organic visual banquet, put down your spatula, run to the theater and prepare to have a visual feast bound to arouse your senses.

If you are a foodie – or even just dig good food in all its glorious varieties – this summer’s crowd pleaser will make you grin for more reasons than the charming story of a divorced workaholic father (Jon Favreau) re-connecting with his often disappointed young son (Emjay Anthony) who misses out on quality dad-times in the classic divorce-kid reality. The appealing, feel-good plot has top ranked L.A. chef Carl Casper getting two thumbs down by the food world’s evil incarnation of Siskel and Ebert (Oliver Platt), driving Casper to quit his job for the lack of creative freedom enforced by a conservative and controlling restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman). The down and out but eager to re-invent himself chef is gifted an old food truck by an eccentric, wealthy and curious acquaintance (Robert Downey Jr.), and chef Casper, a.k.a. El Jefe, reluctantly takes his son on a road trip from Miami. Joined by his lovable and dedicated sous-chef side-kick Tony (John Leguizamo), the trio drives the gloriously restored taco-truck back to L.A. via various cities known as foodie meccas, serving up greasy, sexy Cubano sandwiches, all while creating a Twitter-frenzy in such a visually clever way on the big screen that it risks tickling and baptizing even the most reluctant social media user.

The casting of sultry Latina diva Sofia Vergara as Casper’s ex-wife is a clever way to sneak in an extra dash of visually sizzling and caliente shapes and sounds, as her curves and outfits are sprinkled throughout the movie with as equal and natural ease as are the many alluring and groovy beats of Latin rhythms (yes, I bought the sound track and am playing it as I write these words). The understated and soothing presence of Scarlett Johansson as Casper’s colleague and casual love interest, Molly, reminds us that sometimes it’s not the spiciest and most colorful dishes, but rather the comfort food that hits the spot.

When writer/director/actor Jon Favreau says his film is “like singing from the heart” he is not only referring to the “mise en scène” of his own childhood experience of bonding with the old man on road trips, because everything that has to do with food is sung from a creative and caring foodie heart in this film. Adds Favreau: “It’s about treating food with reverence,” a sentiment most obvious in the many close ups involving food handling in runs to the farmers’ market, flipping sandwiches on the griddle, or in the slow twirling of the perfect pasta aglio olio served up in the early morning hours after work. From how the greasy cheese melts on the Cubanos to the slicing, dicing, stirring and of course tasting and slurping with requisite moaning, it all basically strikes just the right chords with anyone who’s into food. I’m really not imagining the suggestive links between cooking and erotica, because Favreau’s character actually knows how to find the grill’s slippery “hot spot” for optimal performance. Some critics rant that scenes of Favreau cooking should have been trimmed, but my take is: can I have them in slow-mo replay, please?

I particularly loved how the potentially ugly monster of social media — and the ignorance of its power by the not so old parent (younger than me!) — was cleverly incorporated as a lesson the munchkin could teach his dad. The film’s clever use of Twitter shows that, when used with some entrepreneurial savvy (even by amateurs and kids), it really can make a positive difference. “You’re trending, bro” sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) says to Casper– who is sending angry tweet responses to his critic into cyberspace without having a clue about how the thing really works. Oh boy is he trending.

Since I used to buy my lunch from a food truck throughout my entire, very long graduate school career on a campus in the boonies, I don’t feel like a novice in the setting; however, I will never be able to look at a food truck the same way after Chef. With its many intimate cooking scenes from inside the food truck pantry, involving meaningful conversations about life and love — such as when Casper says to his son: “I get to touch peoples’ lives with what I do, and I love it! And I wanna share this with you” — I now have a new appreciation for the stories behind each mobile cuisine and the folks inside, as we may find them lined up along boulevard stretches and on street corners.

As it turns out, the initially prickly food critic is not so bad after all; just like the sabra cactus of the Middle East, he is tough on the outside and soft on the inside. He eventually comes around and offers El Jefe a partnership deal so sweet he can’t refuse, and although the ending is a bit too fairy-tale sugary for this real life cynic, it all works because it’s the love of food that seems to bring on all this positive change in the characters’ lives. Just as Puerto Rican salsa king Pete Rodriguez reminds us with Chef’s groovy music score, making us walk away giddy from the experience bopping to the irresistible Latin beat: “I like it like that!”  — For this is the movie that makes you feel happy, hot and hungry, and with this tantalizing combo, it’s simply impossible to turn down seconds.

As Israeli chef Bino Gabso, a.k.a. Dr. Shakshuka has said about the fulfilling experience of serving up awesome food: “Beyond knowing how to cook, you have to know how to eat.” Like a great meal cooked up and served with love, Chef is likely to leave you feeling good, and a tad high on serotonin. Bon appétit!

Chef

Modern Day Don Giovanni: A Poem

Leaving Don Giovanni

 

91 in Turkey, 117 in Germany, 236 in France

Maid or lady, young, old

The list goes on

He had them all, and wanted more

 

Number 24, the summer of our youth

Tall, blond and from Norway

Like the nobleman’s conquests,

I, too, naïvely, gave my all

 

Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina

I get your pain and anger

A virility that seduces, he believes his love to be true

Alas, the one he loves is himself, not me nor you!

 

But all of me was not enough

Just more than he could handle

So off he went, or, just continued

Wanting more, wanting all.

 

Like his comical brother

His baritone voice boasts:

Non mi pento! Non mi pento!

Conscience has a price, you see

 

So, I take my leave

From the Don who had it all

Lest he die the scorching death

Of his pathetic comrade

 

Non mi pento…

As I walk out the door

Non mi pento

As I, too, want more.

 

Don_Giovanni_Playbill_Vienna_Premiere_1788 

 

Where’s the Junk?!?

Late last night as I was driving back to Connecticut from New York City on the Merritt Parkway, my favorite way back to “the country,” I began feeling droopy approaching New Haven, and I thought some good old junk food would hit the spot. At least I figured it would reek some havoc with my blood sugar and give it an unhealthy spike surprising my senses enough – before the guilt would set in – to keep me awake for the home stretch.

The fantasizing and planning phase of the service area stop was in and of itself perking me up; I was scheming about going straight for the good old candy and chips isle for some sweet and salty delights. And of course a Diet Coke. Note the Diet. I visualized my move as I would swiftly snag a bag of Munchos, those “light and crispy” artery cloggers that are so processed and salty they have probably been banned from most modern day snack venues, despite the fact that they are made from a vegetable. I think there was some low-carb potato in there at some point.

I pull in to the next service stop – and I should add that along the quaint Merritt Parkway, a historic limited-access “highway” known for its scenic layout, its uniquely styled signage, and architecturally elaborate overpasses along the route, the service stations have been recently renovated and now have bathrooms with a spa-like aura painted in subdued trendy colors and matching earthy mosaic tiles, automatic everything and soft background music – and I make a beeline for the snack section. Looking for my designated junk booty, my eyes give way to a worrisome scan of what appears to be a Whole Foods mini-mart. Where’s the junk?!? Granola this, yogurt that. Wrappers screaming protein power and gluten free delights. Squirrel food I say. I want my junk! And there, all the way in the back, on the hidden side of the rack; sad, forgotten and ignored like a bunch of reject kids on a dodgeball lineup at that awfully discriminatory and mean team selection moment in high school, there were my darlings.

I walked out gently and kindly holding a Twix, a bag of Muchos and a Diet Coke, as if I had rescued orphans that were in desperate need of love and affection. Poor things.

The rest of the drive home was a breeze, and as soon as I had killed my darlings, when the guilt was about to set in but I was still high on God knows what, I gladly brushed it and all the crumbs away and with another gulp of aspartame and caffeine instead reflected on how even junk has its rightful and just place in the world.

Junk-Food1

 

On Foundations in the Norwegian ‘Diaspora’

Hooray for May 17th! Tomorrow is Norway’s Constitution Day – a much anticipated day celebrated with pomp and circumstance in both Norway and most Norwegian ex-pat communities. Some of the latter mark the day in more or less formal ways than others, of course, and in my neck of the woods it has gotten to be quite relaxed. This year it will involve skinny dipping and martinis, gravlaks, Indian takeout, and for dessert, my friend’s irresistible Chat Noir cake, following her family’s secret recipe handed down from mother to daughter for hundreds of generations. Well, maybe not hundreds, but you catch my drift. Tradition.

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What impressed my boys the most about May 17th the year we lived in Norway, was that on this day, they learned that children are allowed to eat as much ice cream as they want. This is not a national dictum, and I’m pretty sure something my parents and their partying friends invented back in the 60s and 70s so we , the young’uns, would have our own experience of that era’s hedonistic values. At least for one day.

On a more serious note, since I did invoke the term “diaspora,” normally associated with the Jewish diaspora – although the term is also applied to the dispersion of any people form their homeland – the history of Jews in Norway has its own touchy significance in 2014. As this year marks the 200th anniversary of the creation of the constitution in 1814, it should not be forgotten that at that time, it also included a paragraph with a general ban against Jews (and Jesuits) entering the “kingdom” (you know, those dangerous undesirable folks), a ban which was lifted in 1851 with the determined effort of Norwegian poet Henrik Wergeland. (Incidentally, he died in 1845 before the ban was lifted, and so did not live to see the fruits of his labor). Of course, his views were considered quite controversial back then, and his literary style was variously denounced as subversive. Imagine that! 

To express gratitude for Wergeland’s efforts on behalf of the Jews, the Jewish community in Oslo have an annual wreath ceremony at his grave on May 17th.

My sons appreciate the foundations of their Norwegian heritage, such as I have transmitted it to them to best of my ability during my own “diaspora” for the past, yikes, 30 years. They speak the language, are citizens of Norway, will break out in rap in Norwegian, tote viking necklaces interlaced with their Stars of David, yearn to go back every year, to see family and their own friends, eat skolebrød (sticky buns), drink Solo, play in the pool at Frongerbadet, the outdoor municipal pool in Oslo where their mom challenged them to jump form the 10 meter high diving board, and just feel how good it is to belong in more place than one. And such a privileged place to boot. Most importantly, they have their own memories of every day life there, which will remain ingrained in their fibers throughout their lifetimes, and perhaps one day kindle in them the desire to pass it on to their children.

This morning when I again flipped over the gravlaks that has been curing in my fridge for the last 48 hours, in preparations for my culinary contribution to the laid back May 17th celebration, I could not help but crack a smile as I removed the two bricks on top of the fish, functioning as the requisite weight for optimal curing results. The bricks, you see, are from the foundation of my old house down the street where I raised my boys; the house that I moved from when their dad and I divorced. I smiled because, optimally, that’s what we do in life, we move on and take the good stuff with us, and leave the rest behind. And those two old bricks have come to represent just that: a piece of the foundation of not only my children’s life but also of my own identity and memory.

For it’s never really just one memory and one identity. The trick is perhaps to recognize and appreciate the multiple foundations that are the base for who we are becoming. And then celebrate.

Hooray!

“Séph-Arabe” – About Imagining an Alternate Bridge

Hamsa4Jews and Arabs. Right off the bat, you probably think about conflict, but it hasn’t always been that way. Did you know that less than 60 years ago, Islamic lands in North Africa and the Middle East was the home to almost 1 million Jews? Jews that for many generations shared the Arab majority culture with their neighbors. A Jewish baby would nurse from the same breast as an Arab baby.

Imagine Arab Jews. Jews that identify positively, even passionately, with this culture. Jews who refuse to see the two terms as mutually exclusive. For that would negate who they identify as.

Today there are 0 Jews left of Algeria’s 140,000 Jewish inhabitants before 1948. 1,100 left of Tunisia’s 105,000; 60 left of Iraq’s 135,000….3,200 left of Morocco’s 365,000 Jews. The last kosher butcher of Marrakech is an old man who just opens his store to have a place to sit during the day. He has almost no customers left.

Mind you some of these Jewish communities predated the Arab conquest in the 7th century C.E., as they had landed there after the destructions of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in years 586 B.C.E. (by the Babylonians) and 70 C.E. (by the Romans) respectively.

The modern Jewish exodus from Arab lands – since 1950’s – was not easy for the families involved. Nor was it easy for their Arab neighbors to be left with the vacuum that was created. Relationships were lost. Scars and traumas resulted. Problematic memories constructed.

Literature and art was created to express these experiences.

I write about this in my “Academic Stuff.”

For those of you with an interest in literature and Jewish cultures in general, and Jewish culture of the Arab world in particular, or if you would simply like to read an article that will doubtlessly give you something to think about, check out my “North Africa, France, and Israel: Sephardic Identities in the Work of Chochana Boukhobza” published here:

http://sephardichorizons.org/Volume3/Issue2/Identities.html

As I note in my article, Boukhobza has written many extraordinary novels in French, some prize-winning, and If you are a Francophone, you can order them from Amazon.fr. It’s pricy, but they do ship to the U.S, of course!

One of her books is published in English: The Third Day, available on Amazon.com.

You can read about it here:

And one is translated to English, (by yours truly) and is looking for a publisher: For the Love of the Father (or Pour l’Amour du Père) which I discuss in my article linked above.

So call your publisher friend today, who owes you a favor, and spread the word!

Yalla! (= “Let’s go!” in Arabic)

Don’t Mess With My People

This morning, with everyone in my community milling around getting ready for the first Passover seder, I’m going to my local JCC (Jewish Community Center) to work out in the first time in forever. Why? Because I want to make a statement: Don’t mess with my people!

Yesterday’s news of the horrific shootings at the Kansas City JCC and Jewish assisted living facility nearby, leaves us breathless and disgusted. But sadly, not surprised. Video showed the suspect – the biggest loser of them all – sitting in the back of a police patrol car and shouting, “Heil Hitler.” We’ve seen people like him before. We hear about their hate crimes almost daily still, 69 years after WWII ended and their cowardly brain-washer killed himself.

In all, the gunman shot at five people, none of whom he’s believed to have known. He killed three. A grandfather and his grandson. A woman. Turns out they were not all Jewish. 

When I pull into the JCC parking lot, I will see the boy, his grandfather and that woman in my minds eye. When I pant, sweat, and feel like croaking on the elliptical, I will go even faster in fury, unable to keep the murderer out of my mind. When I leave my community center, I will smile and wish the employes who work there a peaceful and meaningful holiday, because even if this tragedy did not happen here, we know in our hearts it might as well have.

We can only begin to imagine what Passover (and Easter) will be like for the families who have been affected by these devastating losses. The traditional passover meal question asked by the youngest child around the table, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” takes on a whole other meaning in light of such immediate tragedy.

Tonight when we talk about the meaning of freedom, I will make sure to remind my kids to use their freedom of speech to speak up against hatred and intolerance.

speak up

 

 

The Facebook Birthday Wish-Frenzy

I rarely step out of bed in the morning feeling grouchy, but today it’s happening. The Facebook birthday wish frenzy is getting ridiculous. I’m one known to chipperly get my kids up on dreary mornings, turn on music, light candles, make us breakfast and exclaim encouraging words. I look for the sunrise to bless and announce another day of opportunities. And that’s normal for during the week around here. But today that’s just ruined and so not happening. I’m feeling annoyed. That’s my status, if you should care.

It’s 7am, the sun is not shining despite the forecast, and I have just realized I came late to my mother’s Facebook birthday wish bash.

I hardly ever think of Facebook as a burden, or dumb, although I do occasionally say it is a potential downright waste of time. I admit this by now antiquated blue and white social networking website has become my default choice of down-time, rather than, say, TV for example. I’ve even been dubbed by some similarly aged friends who couldn’t be bothered as a total Facebooker-hooker with my frequent turning of tricks. But the ease and dare I say pressure of wishing everyone and their cousin (fine, mine, too) “Happy Birthday” on Facebook is getting to me.

FB-Notifications

Aside from reminding me I am a mormon for having forgotten it’s my mother’s birthday until the I see the 9 million other people having posted greetings before me on her timeline, (never mind the 6 hr time-lag; she’s in Spain and I’m in the US; I’m her daughter!), I am feeling the accumulated pressure of all the friends’ birthdays I chose to ignore by not clicking my way onto their timelines, helping them feel like the center of the universe for a few precious cyber space nano-seconds. Whatever that is.

The solution here is simple, and I know it: stop checking Facebook before I get out of bed in the morning (the horror!); and when I do go on at the two designated times during the day I will allot myself (to wean me from behaving like an addicted lab-rat running back and forth to the divinely but arbitrarily drug laden food dish 600 times an hour looking for “the” stimulus), simply notice all the reminders of birthday wishes, be happy for them and for all the posting friends, and then step away from the car, eh, I mean screen. How zen.

Just like I know I should floss daily, eat less, exercise more and drink water.

Only water.

Incidentally, as I type these last words, the sun is rising in the horizon and I’m thinking my mom’s feeling happy being remembered by people who care from all over the world on her birthday, Facebook and all.

And I haven’t even stepped out of bed yet.

Facebook Birthdays